There wasn’t any woman like Molly Ivins. A loud, stocky Texan with a verbal wit as barbarous as the deadly sword, Ivins shook up the political landscape with her common sense (and highly funny) lampooning of events in Washington. Ivins’ work is laid out in the wondrous documentary Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins. Ivins’ colorful life and mental acumen is fantastically documented and presented by director Janice Engel, creating an essential piece of work you have to watch. Engel took time during the film’s SXSW premiere to sit down to talk about feminism, humor, and Molly Ivins herself!
What compelled you to tell Molly’s story?
Janice Engel: My dear friend, James Beacon, who always wanted to make a film with me, told me I needed to go see a one-woman show called Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass World of Molly Ivins. It was with Kathleen Turner and it was the last week. He had gone to see it; he was blown away. He said, “I’m not gonna tell you anything, just go see it.” Both James and I did not know Molly Ivins. I knew who she was. I actually had seen her and I knew of her, maybe because I had heard her joke about George W. Bush, that she named him Shrub, the Little Bush. I went to the play and it was a laugh a minute. It was kinda brilliant, all based on her writing. I came home and I spent hours, till two or three in the morning, Googling her and watching her on C-SPAN clips. I called him [James] the next morning and I said, “I’m just knocked out. She’s brilliant and hilarious and oh my God.” I’d read she’d been compared to Mark Twain and I said I didn’t know who she is, really. He felt the same way and said nothing’s ever been done on her. It’s insane.
We reached out to Molly’s gatekeeper, her chief of stuff, Betsy Moon, who IMDB’d us and said, “Oh, they’re for real” and she put us in touch with Molly’s estate, which was the Texas Observer and the ACLU. While all that was going on James and I knew we were both from the East Coast. We needed a Texan and had a mutual friend who is Carlyle Vandervort, and she used to be in the film business and hadn’t been in it for awhile. I had been pulling her slowly back in. I’d asked her to come with me on the road to make a sizzle for another documentary I wanted to do. I had reopened that for her, so I said, “Let’s call Car.” James called her and basically pressed her. He said, “You got 48 hours to decide.” She called us back, literally, the next morning and said, “I’m in.” What was so amazing about Carlyle, and we discovered this because I was reading the only bio[graphy] that was out about Molly, was that she [Molly] and Carlyle grew up in the same neighborhood in River Oaks in Houston; they both went to the same private school; they’re both children of oil and gas privilege, and Carlyle’s an activist in herself a few decades later, an LGBT activist on the front lines, and she read Molly. She knew exactly who Molly was! We couldn’t have gotten into certain doors and got to talk to people. We needed our tried and true Texan!
What’s it been like bringing Molly’s story to the forefront in an era where people aren’t talking about her like they should be?
Well I’m talking to you! You are my linchpin, my dear. Get out the word! I teach in San Francisco at the Academy of Art University and I’ve shown our sizzle over the past – I’ve been on this for six-plus years. I would show them the sizzle and I’d say, “Too long, right?” They’d say, “No, who is she!” There’s a hunger for a voice like Molly’s because the younger generations are very gender fluid, it’s not just women. There’s a difference now. It’s much more fluid and, obviously on the coasts and in big cities, but I think there’s a hunger for what Molly has to say because she was equal opportunity. What she said is common sense. Speaking truth to power, sending it for those who don’t have it. She said, “I don’t care who someone’s screwin’. I care about who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwin’.” Hello! Where are we at right now? Populism has gotten such a bad name. No, populism is about inequity. When are the pitchforks raised? As the middle class shrinks and gets smaller it affects all of us and I don’t care what party you’re on. So Molly…I would say she’s more relevant today than she was even when she was elected because it’s happening now and it’s worse. So you are, for us, fantastic. We want to spread the word to younger generations, to millennials, get out there [and] raise hell.
It’s insane that with all the streaming platforms and studios out there that this hasn’t been bought yet.
From your lips to Molly’s ears! She’s listening. It’s coming, and what’s so great about this is it’s word of mouth. People are seeing it and they’re blown away. So the more people who see it, and we’re gonna be at other festivals, it’s coming. It is a word of mouth picture. It’s grassroots and Molly was grassroots. I keep saying, we kept thinking, at a certain point, “we have to get this out for the next election.” It’s on Molly’s time. She is driving this bus. We’re blessed to be on her ride, but she’s driving this bus and the timing couldn’t be more perfect right now.
I love how you contextualize Molly as a woman, especially that scene where one of the interview subjects says Molly didn’t think she was loveable. How did you find that?
This has been unfolding for many years, trying to figure out how to tell her story. The A story is Molly, the B story is Texas [and] within that it’s a massive amount of material. We culled and culled and culled; I culled and culled. We did a rough cut screening as late as – this was in August – and we had things to create because good storytelling you need conflict, otherwise you have a hagiography, a puff piece. Everybody would always say to us – this was one of the last things we dug into the transcripts and found, they’d ask us, “Well, she’s gay isn’t she?” First of all, who cares? But, no, she’s not. She had lovers and she had lots of affairs. Sarah Spites says – and I’m so happy she says this – “I don’t think that’s anybody’s business.” But, the fact of the matter is, I did ask way back [to] her friends about her love life.
Mo and I, the editor and I, dug back in and found this little nugget because we were told…Molly was very complex and she was an alcoholic, so she very rarely allowed you in because she could barely look at her own truth until she got sober. So we went digging, because we needed a few more nuggets, and we found, literally, in one or two days…because I’m very thematic in how I do things, we found them [these clips] and pieced together that bit and it was perfect. It was what people wanted. That interview with that guy who says, “I heard you like men who are heavy drinkers and womanizers.” That interview, if I showed you that whole interview, as a feminist and as a woman, you’d say, “Fuck you!” Molly Ivins, if you watch the whole thing, you know how she laughs, that Southern belle; “Oh, don’t be silly. I never said that. I like men who like whiskey!” She nails him and she did that through the whole thing because he was totally patriarchal and trying to get her. The one moment in that, you have to look really closely, is when he asks her about having children and you actually see the real Molly. You see it for a moment, she actually drops the joking; she gets very quiet and it’s a little window in.
What was it like going through all the research? How angry did you become in how these interviewers worked with her? Have we come far or not regarding how the media portrays strong-willed women like Molly?
I’ll tell you, I already was angry so I didn’t need to be made more. I’ve marched for ERA in 1976 in Washington. The dig was everyday was a great wonder of finding nuggets and seeing Molly, watching her skewer and do these things. In terms of where we are today I said it earlier, the door is ajar. It needs to be kicked off its hinges or it’s going to shut right back up. The 101 freshmen Congresswomen, man, yes! It’s a wave but we can’t stop, and it’s up to everyone. Jim Hightower says it’s up to us to do the heavy lifting. Democracy depends upon it. It’s “We the people.” Molly, that was her rallying cry. Your generation and the ones coming after you, you’re getting a bag of shit. We’re sorry, we baby boomers. I really blame, I’m gonna say, it’s patriarchal white men. Thank you, Ronald Reagan. There was a window where campaign finance reform was really…
Were there specific angles or threads you wanted to include in the story but just couldn’t?
There’s an expression we have in film, in the editing room, it’s called “kill your babies.” They have that in journalism. You have to leave things on the cutting room floor. There’s so much; are you kidding me? I have index cards on the board of Molly. I have a Molly funny string out that’s hours long. How many of her stories…she did a whole piece and you can read her column on it, but she was Twitter ready way back when; “I’m not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife.” Just that alone. She had so many stories; how gays clean up the town in Texas! She’d talk about “well, realtors you gotta get your gay people moving into these small towns to revitalize them because they’re gonna clean up your town.” Hilarious! Totally politically incorrect but it didn’t matter. Hilarious. There are so many things I left on the floor and there used to be DVDs [which] we could save for the extras. Where are we gonna put those? All those extras?
We’re finally talking about who gets to tell stories and how has your journey as a director progressed in this time period?
Isn’t it sad how behind the curve Hollywood is? How unprogressive they really are? The door is ajar, it needs to be kicked off its hinges and it’s up to us. It’s not gonna change unless we change it. Just because we have a few wins right now….and women have to help each other out. I’ve been in this business long enough and I worked under very powerful women. The way it’s been is they acted like men because it’s corporate-tocracy. You have to change the structure. Unless you topple the structure and rebuild it, and I mean rebuild from the bottom up, it’s not gonna change. The only way that’s gonna happen is if we’re organized and have big, loud mouths, take action and create our own stuff. There are plenty of people out there with money who would fund. It’s up to us, though. Nobody is going to do it for us.