Lance Oppenheim is a certainly documentary director to watch. His films have featured at festivals across the world (including Sundance, Rotterdam, Tribeca and True/False) and have been screened at the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian.
He was a 2019 Sundance Ignite Fellow, was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2019 and is the youngest contributor to The New York Times Op-Docs. He also featured on Variety's Power of Young Hollywood list in 2020. The words "ridiculously" and "talented" spring to mind...
I was lucky enough to talk to Lance Oppenheim about his first documentary feature, Some Kind Of Heaven.
What inspired you to make a film about The Villages?
I am from Florida and I grew up knowing about The Villages - it is a place that feels part of Florida’s mythology.
During the recession, every newspaper in the area was looking for a story that could brighten the day and make people laugh. The Villages was almost treated like the punchline of a joke - with rumours that it had the highest rate of STDs in the state. This was actually false, but people were obsessed with stories about the more hedonistic pursuits of the people who lived in The Villages.
When I went to college, I left Florida. It was only when I finished another film - The Happiest Man In The World about a man who lived on a cruise ship for 20 years - that I started to think about making a film about The Villages.
I read an article about how The Villages had become not just the largest retirement community in the country, but one of the fastest growing cities in America. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind that 130,000 people were living in this kind of Truman Show-like reality - intentionally leaving their families and friends behind to go back to a place that reminded them of their youth.
I wanted to examine this phenomenon, this Peter Pan syndrome.
Did your ambition for your documentary change after you began filming?
As I spent more time at The Villages, the film and my aims changed. However, my interest in this Peter Pan syndrome remained the same.
I was so much younger than everyone living there and something fascinating and magical happened. I was almost the age that every single person at The Villages was trying to return back to - a senior at college.
I understood them as I didn’t want to leave college either. I was going through my own Peter Pan syndrome. That vantage point allowed me to look at every single person who lived in that community not as an older person but as a person.
In The Villages, I was able to do the things that I would do in college but with an older demographic. I wanted to make sure that the film had that spirit - it wasn’t a movie about older people it was a movie about people.
What made you focus on Anne, Reggie, Barbara and Dennis’s more unsettling stories?
I knew from spending time in The Villages without a camera - just living there for six weeks - that I would get to see what the world was really like.
If you spend your life in The Villages obsessed with the ticking clock - counting down every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month - your time needs to be special. It needs to be fun and it needs to feel like you are having the best time of your life.
If you are not, then it can really be a nightmare. I saw that experience with a lot of people in The Villages.
I didn’t want to make a simple, binary documentary about The Villages - is it a good place or is it a bad place? I wanted to explore this existential condition and how the dream can become a nightmare. More than anything, when I met each of the four subjects that feature in the film I knew that there was something naturally special about each of them.
How did you find Anne, Reggie, Barbara and Dennis?
It definitely took time. It took a while to realise what movie we were making. Over time and especially after I brought on our editor, Daniel Garber (who I consider to be a co-author of the film), I realised that the movie was about relationships and that we were looking at The Villages from a vantage point of a married couple, a bachelor and a widow.
Daniel really instilled and informed what the film was and what it should be. Once I started working with him, the last shoots of the film were just entirely what you see in the documentary - focused on these four people.
There was something so beautiful and quite special in how each subject was so giving, open, vulnerable and, to some degree, performative. They understood the film we were trying to make and we could collaborate. Those were the things that really drew me to each of them.
I did follow a lot of other folk. I actually released a The New York Times Op Doc with some of the subjects who didn’t make it into this version of the movie.
How did you establish intimacy with Some Kind Of Heaven’s subjects?
We spent a lot of time with everyone well before we started shooting. There were many nights when we would film something and then put away the camera and have dinner with everyone. We would partake in a meditation that Reggie would lead, go to the pool and have a beer with Dennis or watch a movie with Barbara.
Each person that I follow in the movie I still talk to once every other week - we really did become like family in a way.
How did you craft Some Kind Of Heaven’s wonderful tone?
It was a journey. Daniel’s work on the movie was breathtaking. He knew how to transform the material - to use his skills as an editor who works in both fiction and documentary - and create something that was more of a cinematic experience. We would play with the structure of our subject’s stories and the treatment of a sequence. We would shoot something in so many different ways. Usually the one that was the simplest way was the right way.
It was a journey narratively to figure out how the film would play and also understand the focus of the film. Something that we were constantly working on was the film’s tone. It has a very specific tone.
The film combines surreal moments, humorous moments and deeply poignant moments. Was that balance hard to achieve?
What was really important to me and to Daniel was that we both understood that the easiest thing you can do in a documentary is make someone look foolish. This was something that we really wanted to avoid.
By the same token, we wanted to make audiences aware of the film’s specific point of view. When you first see it, you don’t really know where things are going. We knew that there was that tension built into the material and that was something we didn’t want to lose.
Then it was just a matter of paying attention. We wanted to make this feel much more experiential as opposed to simply dispensing information. We wanted to bear witness to these really special, strange, amazing, beautiful and surreal stories and give them their due.
The documentary is also visually stunning.
David Bolen was our cinematographer. He is one of my best friends and I also credit him as a co-author of Some Kind Of Heaven. The film would be nothing without him.
We knew that this was not going to be a fly on the wall, observational documentary. No matter how you make a documentary, no matter what the aesthetics are, capturing moments like a fly on the wall doesn’t make a film more authentic or real. From the moment that you bring a camera into any setting, there is a perversion of reality.
I wanted to focus on the aesthetics and mirror how manicured and set designed the place really feels. You feel those reality distortion effects when you step inside The Villages. I wanted to capture that feeling of being untethered and in a different kind of world.
What was it like to film your documentary in The Villages?
In all my films, I do a really long interview at the start of the shoot - a three and a half hour interview. I then make notes about what things seem interesting to capture on film and I work with my subjects to figure out how we can bring those things to life on screen.
We shot this movie entirely on a tripod and there were certainly “performative” moments. We embraced the artifice of the place to get to something more truthful. The way we worked with our subjects forced me to be much more honest.
I couldn’t steal a moment and then play with it in the edit. Every time we were going to film something, we had to explain how we were going to shoot it, why we were shooting it and how it was likely to be used in the edit. In a way it was much more of a collaborative experience.
How would you describe your directing style in this film?
There is an element of direction in Some Kind Of Heaven but we would never direct anyone to do something they wouldn’t normally do. There was also an element of coaching to get our subjects to be comfortable with the camera - almost as if they were performers or character actors playing versions of themselves.
I wouldn’t consider this to be a hybrid movie or anything that isn’t true - I see this as a documentary through and through. I think we should continue to expand how we think about documentaries. The idea that truthful and cinematic are mutually exclusive is crazy to me - they live in the same world.
The thing that drives me nuts is seeing a film that attempts to paper over any constructed or composed moments. It can make me feel cheated. It makes me distrust and disbelieve what I am seeing.
In my film, I am telling you that you should feel the tension between what you are seeing and questions you might have about how we have captured that moment. It shouldn’t take you out of the story, but it is something that you should be aware of while you are watching. I feel that this is true to the spirit of the setting, which is a truly head-spinning, reality distorting world.
What do you hope that your audiences will take away from your film?
Going into the film, I thought that you get to a certain age and key problems in life stop popping up as much. I thought, by the time you get into your 80s, issues around your identity, the rules you live your life by and your desires are no longer as concerning. That was completely incorrect.
This may not be news to anyone who has reached that age, but it was certainly interesting to me that you can grow older but you may not necessarily grow wiser. In some ways I see this movie as a coming of age story, even though the subjects are veering towards the end of their lives.
I think there is something really beautiful in that concept - it doesn’t matter how old you get, you can still be as much of a hot mess at age 82 as when you are 20. Some people may see that as a terrifying prospect - almost out of a horror movie - but I find it really uplifting.
There is something really amazing about seeing four subjects who are all still becoming. They are all searching to better their lives and grow as people.
It all goes back to what I wanted to do when I started to make the film. I wanted to show audiences - especially younger people - a portrait of growing older that isn’t like anything we have seen before. I wanted to show younger audiences that no matter how old you get, you are still essentially the same person.
The questions that are on Dennis’s mind - comfort or freedom - those questions are in all of us, in all the ages and stages of our lives. There is something very unifying and beautiful here - especially when there can be this “othering” effect with regards to older people.
A lot of the attraction of retirement communities like The Villages is that many older people feel that society no longer really wants anything to do with them. In part, my ambition was to make something that didn’t feel too preachy but would show audiences that we all are on the same train to the end and it is all about how you approach life and how you constantly search and strive to better yourself. This was my intent in making this film.
I would like to thank Lance for being so generous with his time. Some Kind Of Heaven is an absolute gem. Click here for my review.