Yahoo! TV Q&A: Rory Kennedy on her new documentary about her mother, ‘Ethel’

Sarah D. Bunting
Fall TV

Rory Kennedy's documentary-film work as a director includes "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" and "Thank You Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House." She's also produced, among others, the Oscar-nominated short "Killing in the Name."

And she's the eleventh and last child of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy, born six months after her father was assassinated in 1968. In Kennedy's latest film, "Ethel," she interviews her mother and siblings about family stories, historical events, and the many times those things intersected.

The film premieres tonight (October 18th); Yahoo! TV spoke to Kennedy earlier this week about her research process, Hickory Hill pet shows, and the "culture" of her family.

You've said you were surprised, a little bit, that your mother agreed to do the film in the first place. Once she'd agreed, did you have any difficulties getting at specific topics or info with her?

You know, I feel like I asked her every question that I wanted to ask her, and there were no restrictions put on me, in terms of what I could ask and what I couldn't ask…have you seen the film? No.

Yes, I have.

Oh, you have — so you can see, in the film, what she's comfortable answering in a traditional manner, with words that are reflective, and what she's not. "How do you feel about that?" — she hates questions like that, which are pretty basic to documentary filmmaking, and she doesn't like to talk about her feelings, particularly, so she'll say, "That's a ridiculous question," and "Why do I have to answer that," and "All this introspection, I hate it!"

Yeah, I noted that one.

Right. And then obviously in some of the harder questions, about losses that she's felt, the loss of my father, and you know, "Let's move on; talk about something else" — but I think you see, both her response to it and her facial expression, the depth of feeling and emotion and sadness, and also how she manages to kind of forge ahead through difficult times, so she doesn't answer them in a traditional way, but it's very profound.

Along those same lines, the Ethel that you know versus the Ethel that you're trying to convey in the film: were you comfortable as you were going along that that was lining up with your original vision? Did you show footage to anyone else as you went along to ask, is this woman that we know and love coming through?

I didn't really, to my siblings, or to my mother along the way; I really waited to show them a locked picture, but in all of my films, there might be two or three of us who are in the edit room, who are really working on creating the film there — my husband [writer and documentary story editor] Mark [Bailey] plays a big role, and then the editor [Azin] Samari was obviously an integral part of that, and then HBO would see cuts and so they would give feedback along the way, and then there was a handful of other people that I showed it to towards the end, just to make sure that things were — it's hard, I think particularly with this film, for me to have any perspective. "This is so interesting, look at this home movie, and the horses, it's so cute" — I wanted to throw it all in there and I think it's all fascinating, but it's important to have a little bit of outside perspective.

Truthfully, with all my films I usually towards the end show it to a handful of people, just to get their reaction, and you know, you're in the edit room so much, and you're watching the same material over and over again, and so it's hard to tap into what the response is to fresh eyes, and it's important to add that perspective to any project, but for this one in particular it was important for me, because it was easy to lose perspective.

Sure. So how long was your first cut? Was it like six hours?

No, it was actually — I went pretty far along on this one before showing a cut to HBO, and I think it was about an hour and 40 minutes, it wasn't much longer, maybe two hours. So it was pretty far along, by the time they'd seen it, and it was pretty tight.

Is there one sequence or piece of footage that got cut that you wish you could have included?

My mother and father did a great trip to South Africa, where he gave a very famous speech called the "Ripple of Hope" speech, and that was a really important trip for him, and I think for the people of South Africa, so I was sad not to include that. There was one line we cut at the end about how, did she remember when my father announced for Senate, and she said, "No, I don't remember that, there are an awful lot of announcements in this family." So there were some cute moments like that that were hard to lose.

And she was very involved after my father died; a lot of the stuff is in the film in terms of their life together, and so there's less after he dies, but there's a lot of really wonderful stories and events that she partook in. She had these Hickory Hill pet shows that were really fun and wonderful, and these obstacle courses made by the Washington Redskins, and she had Art Buchwald as the kind of MC of the event, and everybody would bring their animals and it was terrific, and she would have these tennis tournaments that were really pretty famous at the time.

And then she's traveled extensively throughout the world, standing up to dictators, such a human rights activist, and all the work that she's done on those fronts, so I was sad not to be able to include more of that. But the film is almost a hundred minutes, and I wanted it to have an energy, and have people want more and not feel overwhelmed, so we had to kind of tighten it up. And I think the film really touches on very complex historical events in very superficial ways, quite frankly, because I'm trying to kinda get in and out of them … but then kind of get back to what was happening with the family at that time, which is really the core of the story, so it would be nice to have the opportunity to explore some of these events in greater depth.

Because the family and history are braided together, how did you balance including these incidents and events, like Bay of Pigs, like President Kennedy's murder — you do want the film to focus on your mother, and yet you obviously can't pretend that these things didn't happen and weren't important to her as a member of the family.

Well, they were hugely important to her, and so I would include them insofar as I could kind of relate them back to her story; I mean, we have the integration of the University of Alabama, but we didn't include the University of Mississippi, and it had a huge impact on her, and she played a role in that, but there was only so much that I could include in the film. As in every film or book, you know, you're making tens of thousands of decisions along the way of what to keep, what not to keep, what interview to use, who to interview, when to go to the personal, when to go more to the political or the historical events, and it was just — there wasn't a formula. You get in there and get a feel for, how much of this event do we need to say to get people to understand what was at stake. I would really cover an event insofar as I could communicate that, but without going into depth, and being sidetracked by being pulled into the complexity of any given event. That's not what the film was.

Did you feel any obligation, or were you given any notes about, you know, "You should include XYZ to draw in viewers," even if it wasn't necessarily —

No. You mean from my family?

From HBO, or on your own part, feeling like, "I should put more of an emphasis on my father to pull in viewers"? Was there any of that feeling?

No — no, no, absolutely not. Absolutely not. The thing is that my father's story helps to communicate what was at stake with my mother, and my mother and father had so much a partnership that his story is integral to her story, as her story is to his — really, her story can't be told without his story.

She went step-in-step with him, and that, that is her story, so it was impossible to tell her story without really exploring his as well. So, you know, it could be called "Bobby and Ethel," but it's very much from her perspective, so that's why I feel like this is Ethel's story — and you also can't tell it without the children, right, because they're a huge part of her, of who she is.

I wanted to ask a question about the research that you did before the film. Were you reading [Jean Stein's "American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy"], and other biographies of your father or your parents, and then deciding to do this film from your mother's perspective? Or was it the other way around, where you decided to do it and then started downloading?

Well, the project came to be because HBO's Sheila Nevins approached me and asked me to do it and I said no. And she asked me again and I said no, and then she asked me a third time and I said, you know what, I'll ask my mother and she'll say no. So then I asked my mother and she said yes, so -- and it was conceived of a project about my mother. And in part due to that, I was actually very interested in it, because I did feel like I'd been approaching my mother to do a book at the time, and she was very resistant, and I did feel like, she's got that good story, and she's such a character, and if I don't tell it, it's probably not going to be told, so I probably should tell it.

But it was always conceived of as a documentary about my mother, so once she agreed, then I did read a number of books about my parents; there's one about my mother I read called "The Other Mrs. Kennedy," which was a great book, but in any case it was good for biographical information; and "The Kennedy Women," and "The Last Campaign"; I reread Arthur Schlesinger's book about my father, "Robert F. Kennedy and His Times."

I also spoke to my siblings a bit, informally; I would run into them and they would tell me various stories or things, some of which then prompted me to ask questions, which just kind of happened naturally, and then the big thing is that I really went through the archival materials pretty deeply before doing any of the interviews. Which I usually do more step-in-step, with interviews and filming and doing archival, but in this instance I really pulled that in significantly before I did any of the interviews, which I think helped a lot, because I was able to see the footage and then ask my siblings to comment on it, or my mother to comment on it. The other thing is that it helped direct me towards making the film more historical, because what I found was that my mother was present in all the footage. She's just always there — often it's in the background and not in the foreground, but she was there in all these campaigns; she's there at the inauguration … she's there at the civil-rights movement, and the Cuban missile crisis, and she's present, and it really kind of made me want to understand what it was like to live through these events, and then what it was like from her perspective and the family's perspective.

The other thing that became clear is that the kids were always there on all these international trips, and really played a role, and then to be able to ask about specific footage…and you know, there's a scene in the film, my mother trying to speak Japanese when she's in Japan, and she just destroys the language, but I never would have seen that or known that had I not seen that footage. Or there's another scene in Poland when my brother Joe — my father gets a cramp signing [autographs], and Joe starts signing all the signatures, and he's on this car, and there's tens of thousands of people around, so then I could ask specifically, "What was that like?", and then you see the footage and they comment on it.

I think a lot of Americans think of Kennedys as icons, instead of people who, you know, laugh at things and pull pranks, and of course you know better intellectually, but then on some level it was a little surprising to see this much humor and well-timed gags in the film — like one of your brothers talking about your mother making, like, some Vaseline and banana [dish]?

Yeah. She denies that, by the way.

As well she should. Is that part of what you were hoping to show — this more human side of the historical?

Not really, because I don't have that outside perspective — my perspective is they're all human beings, my brothers and sisters, going through the world, and my mother, so part of it was just having…as a documentary filmmaker, you feel like, what is it that I can bring to the table in this film that's different than what's out there in the world; how can I push the material in a place that nobody's seen it before. I felt like the perspective that I have, the access that I have was obviously unique, and that I could both have my siblings be pretty comfortable and [in] the interviews be themselves, and get them to do the interviews, and then give people a sense of the culture, living within our family, what that's like.

"Ethel" has its HBO premiere Thursday October 18 at 9 PM ET. You can follow the film on Twitter and like it on Facebook. Below, Ethel Kennedy talks to NBC's Brian Williams.