What inspired you to make this documentary?
Laura: Our co-producer, Eden Wurmfeld, and I read an article about Sunset Hall on the front page of the New York Times in April, 1998. We became very excited to make a film about the remarkable residents at this retirement home for political progressives as a lens through which to look at the history of the left in America over the last century. But as we spent time there, we realized that many of the residents, suffering from dementia and Alzheimers, were unable to tell their stories cogently. So we began a search for another way to structure the film.
How did you find the subjects?
Caroline: Well, luckily in August 1999 Lucille Alpert (95) and Irja Lloyd (81) moved in–within about 2 weeks of each other. They clicked with one another immediately, because they recognized in each other intelligence, lucidity and vitality. There really was no one else among the other Sunset Hall residents for them to fully relate to. When we saw them together–the vibrant, wry way they argued, joked, and engaged with each other and the world–we knew these were our characters.
What made them so compelling that a documentary was necessary to tell the story?
Laura: We immediately saw that Irja and Lucille were a classic comic team. Irja is the “straight man;” she’s earnest and optimistic to Lucille’s dry wit. Lucille watches from the sidelines and makes hilarious, cutting cracks that send Irja into convulsions. But they’re also very much alike–perceptive, smart, aware and provocative–and they became each other’s lifelines at Sunset Hall.
Caroline: We became interested in the questions: What’s it like to be an old woman with physical ailments? What’s it like to be the most lucid residents at an old-age home–in this case an old-age home for political radicals? Is it possible to salvage community and engagement with the world when sequestered away in a retirement home?
Has this experience changed your ideas about what it’s like to grow old?
Caroline: Absolutely! We became such good friends with Lucille and Irja that we ceased to see them as “old ladies.” Rather, they simply became people we cared about, people we looked forward to spending time with, sharing ideas with, laughing with, critiquing the world with. Our goal with Sunset Story is for our audiences to have that same transformation–to begin to see the elderly simply as people.
Laura: We hope we have humanized our subjects to such a degree that they are 3-dimensional, complex, complicated characters, rather than presenting “cutesy” or “victimized” views of the elderly the media normally dishes out.
What is the thing that surprised you most?
Laura: One of our favorite moments in the film is when Lucille blurts out her belief that “most people are bi-sexual” or when she confesses she’s thinking about various charming men (Steve Martin, Gore Vidal) — at the height of her illness!
Caroline: Lucille was always so wonderfully open and cutting edge and absolutely unexpected—as was Irja.
Do you look forward to growing old now?
Caroline: I don’t fear it quite as much now. The more you spend time with the unknown, the more familiar it gets and it becomes less of a monolithic “thing” to avoid. I know that I want to be close to my family and loved ones of all ages–it’s so easy to get isolated from people when you get old.
Laura: Through Irja and Lucille, I saw the possibility of living a vital, engaged existence right up to the very end–even if there are struggles along the way. I often wonder—will I be the grumpy woman muttering to herself in the corner? Or will I be like Irja—optimistic, active, positive, fun, awake? And does anything we do now, while we’re young, determine who we will be when we get old?