Susan Sontag was one of the world’s greatest minds. She wrote and spoke prolifically, eloquently, and without, it seemed, reservation. She had opinions on mainstream topics and issues such as facing illness and photography, to the queer-focused like drag and camp. Despite her love of sharing her thoughts, Susan was not one to share her personal life, and she was not fully out about her queerness while she was alive. (She passed away in 2004 at the age of 71.)
It’s only been in the last decade that we’ve learned more about who Susan Sontag, the person, was, gleaning insight from her personal journals and memoirs written by those who knew her best, including her son and his former lover. It’s the people that knew her that truly make the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag an exciting film to watch. Several ex-girlfriends (including writer Harriet Sohmers Zwerling and choreographer Lucinda Childs) and friends are interviewed about Susan, speaking frankly about her love of of women, her attempts at fiction writing, and her fears of being alone. It’s a look at the Susan the public never knew, until now.
Out filmmaker Nancy Kates is behind the documentary, which premieres tonight on HBO after playing the festival circuit for the last year. We spoke with Nancy about Susan’s intellectual legacy and why she spent her life in the closet.
AfterEllen.com: Congrats on HBO picking up the film. Very exciting. Tell me a little about how they acquired it?
Nancy Kates: They turned the film down two or three times before they took it, so ultimately why they took it is a big mystery. But I think they thought it was kind of cool, if I’m allowed to say that. I just thought if HBO did take it, it would be great for Sontag. I don’t think the film we made was typical of a PBS documentary, though that would have been great too.
AE: Did you think about people who have no idea who she is and try to get them interested as well?
NK: That was the main thing we tried to deal with. There are maybe, what, 5,000 people that know all about her, but most people know nothing about her. So we’re trying to balance that all the time. I think we went much further towards the direction of people who haven’t heard of her. A lot of high school and college students will watch the film that haven’t heard of her. If you’re 16, 17 years old you might not know who Kant is. Do we include Kant in the film? Do we leave that in?
AE: I saw you have a viewing guide on the website—was that to educate people as well?
NK: Of course. The whole film is an educational project among other things. So we want people to learn things and see things they haven’t seen about her. I don’t know how many 17 year olds are going to watch this film, but I have shown this film to college freshman and they understand that what she did is what they’re doing right about now. And they’ll say, “Well, why don’t I know about her?” and I don’t want to say, “Well, it’s because you’re freshman,” but there is an age thing where people under 40 are less likely to be familiar with her.
AE: Hopefully that changes. I have seen in other interviews you are hoping that’s the case when they watch this—and also to think about themselves and their lives, too. But I’m mostly interested in the absence of Susan’s discussion of her sexuality, her own discussion of lesbianism. Do you feel that she missed an opportunity to share her thoughts on that with the world?
NK: Well I think that she wasn’t wanting to be open about her sexuality in her lifetime. It’s an interesting thing she’s having this interesting postulate existence, and there’s one scholar who is interviewed in the film who believes she came out through her papers, because there’s so much material at UCLA with her relationships with women. I think there’s a part of her that wanted it to be known but also a part of her that didn’t want to be put into a box.
AE: In reading her journals she talks a lot about her queerness but I feel like an entire book about her relationship with women would be so great. You’re saying they exist, just in papers?
NK: There’s a book that was published in 2012 about that that is an academic writing about Sontag. Not sure the name but it was in 2012 or 2011. But I don’t think there’s a single book about this issue. My goal in making this film was to not put this film in a box, or her in a box either. My fear is that it would be dismissed as a gay film about Susan Sontag and that people wouldn’t see the rest of it. Then, of course, there are people who only want to talk about that issue.
AE: Would you agree she succeeded in being seen for her thoughts and not her sexuality?
NK: I think she would be pissed off about the film because it does place her in that arena. I think the problem is that she actually lied about her sexuality. I mean its very complicated, she grew up in a time of great homophobia and that she wouldn’t be taken seriously as a great thinker. She was also dealing with being a woman, and just wanted to be seen as un-gendered. Then in the ’80s and ’90s she was still alive and people really wanted her to come out. They saw her as this unrecognized queer hero and she absolutely refused. So, I think what you said about her is probably true that she didn’t want to be pinned down that way and dismissed. One of the things that I’ve learned in making this film I would say, unfortunately women who are lesbians are not taken seriously as intellectuals. I’m in the position where I made this film about Susan Sontag so I have to be taken seriously. I think I started as being upset with her for not coming out but reached a place of greater compassion during this long process of making this film.
AE: I was surprised to see that she was on the cover of OUT magazine which I thought was strange because she didn’t talk about her own sexuality that way.
NK: She was kind of a fag hag and she was happy to be known as that. She wanted to celebrate gay culture. I do think that she wishes she could be un-gendered so no one would dismiss her but unfortunately we live in a culture that is sexist and homophobic, so in that sense I have compassion for her closest. I just wish she didn’t lie about it.
AE: I just mean how did [the women in the film] like [professor/writer/friend of Susan’s] Terry Castle perceive her outness? Were they cool with her lack of being out?
NK: Almost everyone that I spoke to on this issue, defended her closet. Terry was trying to be helpful and be a guide than taking positions about it. She said people were mad at her but Terry didn’t say that she was mad at her. Almost everyone else—Fran Lebowitz—they all defended her closet. But my job is not to have an opinion, but to tell a story
AE: I love that you interviewed her for the film. Can you talk about seeking out who you talked to for the film and how you planned it all?
NK: I interviewed Fran for a specific reason, which backfired. She wrote a parody of Notes on Camp called Notes on Trick. Notes on Camp was dedicated to Oscar Wilde, and Notes on Trick was dedicated to his boyfriend. It’s very clever, a smart piece of writing. It defended a lot of people because it was about power money dynamic because it was gay men, older gay men supporting young boyfriends. You can read it—it’s a classic. I thought it’d be a fun way to include that in the documentary. But it just got too complicated because it’s another piece of writing. But because she wrote this parody I thought she would be funny. Mostly she was very down on Sontag, but that’s why we sought her out.
AE: You found all these ex-girlfriends and other people who knew her and were close to her. How difficult was that for you?
NK: We really could have interviewed 150 people for this film, and some really famous people turned me down because schedules couldn’t mesh. But I did a lot of research. It’s just a process of networking and figuring things out.
AE: Was it disappointing that [Susan’s partner famed photographer] Annie Leibovitz didn’t want to be part of it?
NK: Yes, a bunch of people turned me down and it was disappointing but some not terribly surprising.
AE: It’s really such a strong film and feels like nothing is lacking. You use a lot of video interviews and clips of Susan—how did you find all the footage with interviews and other videos?
NK: We had several archival footage researches doing research for us. We scanned the globe and they were relentless with it. And even the photos, if we didn’t know where they came from, we had to do a lot of digging. We went through German, and Swiss, 130 different archives that we worked with. I would find things and then track them down but it was an enormous effort.
AE: Did you have to fund-raise on your own?
NK: Yes, we did five years of fundraising. I wrote grants, but did not do a Kickstarter campaign. We didn’t have enough people to run the Kickstarter campaign. We could still use some more money so I wish we could do one now—and maybe we will—but I think people have a Kickstarter exhaustion but we’d love the donations if they want that.
AE: I just think she’s a famous figure so I’m assuming that people would want to tune in and see about her life, so I’m surprised to hear that raising money was difficult.
NK: Documentaries are hard to raise money for in general. Biographies aren’t really what’s popular right now with funders, they want social issues films where there’s a call to action films. So gay marriage or water rights in Uganda, those films are easier to fund than biographies. Not just funding but for festivals, it’s one that doesn’t fit with other documentaries. It’s a biography, it’s artsy, and it’s about a queer person. So it doesn’t fit with the other films.
AE: You played a lot of LGBT film festivals. At some point did you make a decision want to be included in that cycle? I know some filmmakers are worried about becoming ghettoized? How did you feel about that and come to the decision to take the film to LGBT festivals?
NK: We we’ve been in the two of the most important documentary film festivals in the world. Sheffield’s in England and ITSA in Amsterdam. It’s the largest documentary film festival in the world. We’ve been in Jewish film festivals, in mainstream film festivals such as Tribeca where we opened, and in gay film festivals. So I feel like we’re really well-rounded. We’re being shown in all kinds of festivals. I just got an email that we’re being shown at an Asian Film Festival. My point is I don’t think the film has been ghettoized.
AE: Is there something different that you hope will come with getting the film on a premium cable network?
NK: That’s an interesting and weird question. I think filmmakers have an easier time with festivals because you’re face to face with the audience. But with broadcast, it’s going out there into the world. So, yeah, broadcast is little weird for me, but I just want lots of people to view it and I hope that it raises more public awareness about Sontag and starts people thinking or reading. Not necessarily even reading her, but something else.
Regarding Susan Sontag airs tonight on HBO.