In 1973, the Loud family became a phenomenon with the PBS series An American Family, a type of show which had never been seen on television before. They allowed filmmaker Craig Gilbert follow them for seven months in 1971, and when the series aired in ’73 it drew more than ten million viewers, sparking widespread controversy and harsh criticism of the family from the public.
Now HBO is bring the behind-the-scenes story of the groundbreaking 12-hour PBS documentary with their movie Cinema Verite starring Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud.
They spoke about this fascinating project at the TV Critics tour.
Do you remember watching any part of this series when it was on, and what your reaction was to it?
Diane Lane: I was eight! I do remember there was a lot of conjecture and conversation and sociological diatribes being bandied about at the time and people talking about Watergate in comparison to it and crises of authenticity, and I didn’t know what an anthropologist was, but everybody had something to say about it. I do recall that.
Tim Robbins: I remember it, but I was mostly interested in Peckinpah films at that point.
Any opinion on the fact that this was a reality show in a time when there were no reality shows, and now we have a film about it?
Diane: I think it is a comment on the zeitgeist that we live in, and I think it tackles the first domino that fell. This is my opinion, but these were the virgins thrown into the volcano. Did they jump? Were they pushed?
When I read Pat Loud’s book, she still wants to know why she did it herself, because if she could undo it she would have, but she can only be innocent once. That was what drew everybody’s amazement, shock and disdain, because you can’t get your innocence back, and America was angry.
Why are reality shows so successful?
Tim: Well, that’s a good question. Why do so many people want to see people at their weakest moments? It makes for good television when there’s a train wreck on reality shows, doesn’t it? Why are we all drawn towards that disaster?
If there’s a divorce or if there’s an argument on a reality show, or two friends are furious at each other, it tends to increase ratings.
If you had been able to meet with Pat Loud to prepare for the role, what kind of things would you have sought to learn from her?
Diane: She was a woman of great strength and grace, especially under the pressure that she was under, to an extent that I can’t fathom.
I will say that her book gave me everything that anybody could ever ask for in the sense of having a thorough examination of certainly hindsight from her point-of- view.
She did an interview that we all read in the Santa Barbara publication recently and Bill’s in his 90s, I believe, and she’s up there. They’re back together and fulfilled their firstborn’s deathbed’s wish that his parents would get back together. Lance Loud said, ‘Television ate my family.’
They actually succeeded in overcoming what we witness them go through in our film.
Was Pat manipulated to the point where maybe they wouldn’t have broken up at all if the filmmakers hadn’t been nudging or urging them?
Diane: Everybody has got their own opinions about that, and that’s what makes it dramatic. The family went on national television, The Dick Cavett Show, to stand up for themselves.
They were very much vilified as much as anyone would ever hope not to be for participating in this experiment. They thought they were sold a bill of goods for believing it was going to be educational television, but like the way of all technology it seems to go for the lowest common denominator.
How do you take 390-something hours of film and edit it down to 12 without an agenda? I felt for Craig Gilbert’s dilemma as well as every member of the family. You can’t help but have great compassion for the real people and what they went through.
Tim, you have mentioned that you saw the original series many times. What impression did you have after you saw so much of the Louds? Did you feel sorry from them that they had been in the middle of this?
Tim: I thought they were a very special family. I thought that to have five creative, excited children who were enthusiastic about living their lives and about the adventures in front of them, it’s pretty damn good parenting, and I thought they got an unfair shake from the press at the time.
Like Diane said, they were vilified as some kind of ignoramuses. When you really look at the 12 hours, you see that there’s something special about each one of those kids as there is about both Bill and Pat.
Diane: Do you remember when people used to write in to the actors in soap operas to say, ‘How could you cheat on her?’ Whatever was going on in the soap opera? This was even earlier.
There was no way for the psyche of America to process what they were seeing. They held the family accountable for the editing that was done. That’s kind of my best answer to your question.