Matt Riddlehoover spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone last week about SXSW Film Festival selection My Darling Vivian.
The film was set to hold its premiere during SXSW in March 2020. Unfortunately, the festival was cancelled due to the coronavirus. In light of this, today kicks off the start of Prime Video presents the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection. My Darling Vivian is one of seven feature films to be included among the 39 films, shorts, and episodic titles.
My Darling Vivian is one of seven SXSW feature films out of 39 overall titles to take part in Prime Video presents the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection. Can you talk about the decision-making process in choosing to take part?
Matt Riddlehoover: It’s something we debated for a while because these are just really unusual times and something like this was never part of our plan or journey. We had a festival schedule for spring and summer. But obviously, that’s not happening. The decision to go with Prime Video presents the SXSW Film Festival collection came from a place of realizing that this would be a great platform for Vivian’s story to reach the widest possible US audience right now that I don’t think we would have had had we just premiered at SXSW and then played say Cleveland, Sarasota, or North Carolina. In an unusual, strange, unique way, it kind of gives her story an opportunity to reach a wider audience. That’s what was very attractive. It’s great to see SXSW strategizing and reimagining how they can keep the festival going right now.
I know what you mean about unusual times and all that because I had all these reviews scheduled going into the press conference in March. And then it’s like what now? Do I run these or do I place them on hold.
Matt Riddlehoover: Yeah.
Speaking of—the world has changed so much since the press conference announcing the SXSW cancellation in May. As a filmmaker, what was going through your mind prior to then as major companies were pulling out left and right?
Matt Riddlehoover: That week—gosh, it’s crazy to think how unaware we all were at that time what kind of situation was right ahead of us. When companies and other studios were pulling films, it just felt at the time a little like mass hysteria but then it quickly became evident that this was so necessary. This was the only way was to not do this. Personally, it was just a very strange emotional roller coaster. There’s the excitement of getting ready to go and launch the film and we’ve got the schedule packed and all of these things to do. And then it’s not happening. And then it’s like why or what’s next and what are other festivals going to do and what are the businesses going to do and what’s happening and then all of a sudden, we’re all trapped inside. I don’t even know how to give a tidy answer for this because it’s just been such a whirlwind. At the time, it just felt like what is happening and what is about to happen.
When I watched the film in late February—which now feels like forever ago—I found that the film offered a completely different look at Vivian than what we saw in Walk the Line. Given that you married into the Cash family, when did you decide to make the film?
Matt Riddlehoover: For years, my mother-in-law, Kathy, who’s in the film, had told me stories about Vivian and the thing is I didn’t grow up with country music. I knew a little about Johnny Cash and what I thought I knew most was from the film Walk the Line. It became clear when Kathy told me certain stories and hearing about what happened on the house on the hill in Casitas Springs—it’s just like, Where’s this narrative? That was nowhere to be found in Walk the Line. I’ve never heard anything like this. I mean, I feel like stuff like this should be in history books, honestly. That was just kind of my opinion. It was never something I thought that I was going to do because for a decade or so I made LGBT romantic comedies—narrative films. I thought about moving into documentaries simply because I was just a little burnt out and didn’t really have any more ideas. Dustin and I approached a mutual friend, who is very colorful and has lived quite the life herself, about making a documentary about her. She wouldn’t have anything to do with it and immediately changed the subject and said, “You should make one about Vivian.” We sat with it for a couple weeks and really the only way that I would feel comfortable doing it—because it just seemed like such a huge responsibility to say, Hey, everything you’ve been told before is either an abridged version of the truth or flat out myth. The only way that I thought we can really do this is to have Kathy and her sisters all on board. We were lucky enough to get all four of them. That’s how it happened.
I guess it probably helps having that trust with being in the family.
Matt Riddlehoover: Oh, sure. Yeah, absolutely. I think Dustin and I have talked about it several times over the years but I don’t know that they would have been as candid with anyone else.
One of the things I appreciated was how you righted some of the wrongs from the tribute concert let alone Walk the Line.
Matt Riddlehoover: She lived quite the life and weathered quite the storm and came out of it but it just seemed like one thing right after the next. In the process of doing this, I read her book twice. You mentioned the memorial tribute—that’s how her book opens. Towards the end of the process, I actually went back and revisited that section and expanded it a little bit because I just felt like—from her book, it seemed like certain things affected her in a way that maybe she didn’t talk about so it didn’t come out in interviews. Moments like that, I tried to accentuate just for her.
Were there any major discoveries in the process of making the film?
Matt Riddlehoover: Sure. The entire thing for me just felt like one long, big investigative journalism piece. But for Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara, I think seeing the entire thing stitched together with the different perspectives coming from their siblings with different memories and different recollections and points of view, I think there were some epiphanies for sure. For me, what I started with was an outline—how I wanted it to go, interviewed all four of them separately, cut it together as best I could, and then started illustrating. Through illustrating is when I started finding puzzle pieces I had never anticipated finding—certain things like a letter John is responding to talking about Vivian’s inferiority complex, just moments like that where a light bulb goes off and it’s like, Oh, My G-d, okay. That’s why this or that’s why she reacted to this the way she did. It was a wonderful experience. It was an honor and a gift, really, to be able to give her voice back.
How long was the initial cut?
Matt Riddlehoover: I always wanted it to be 90 minutes because I didn’t know how long an audience would want to sit for the story especially since she’s not a public figure per se. That’s just me. That’s a caution I went into it with. I think some versions were an hour and 40 minutes and some versions were an hour and 20 minutes but it ended up being right at an hour and a half.
Are you still hoping to one day have that red carpet premiere?
Matt Riddlehoover: Yeah. I just want to be able to see it with an audience—sit in a room with a group of people. I think that’s what we all miss most about the physical premiere at SXSW. I think that’s what we all look forward to at the end of a long road of making a movie is being able to just sit back in the theater and experience it with everyone else. Yeah, absolutely.
Over here—just trying to write about films that I watch. I mean, both of those right now are so challenging. It’s like I keep turning back to the classics for comfort food.
Matt Riddlehoover: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I feel you. Nostalgic TV is what’s going on over here.
What do you hope people take away from viewing the film?
Matt Riddlehoover: That’s a good one, Danielle. I hope people go into it with an open mind and leave with one. I just hope that that people enjoy the experience of putting themselves in Vivian’s shoes and by extension Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara’s for 90 minutes. My whole reason for doing this was wanting to just shed a light on the truth and I hope that it’s easily digestible.
What are you doing to avoid going stir crazy?
Matt Riddlehoover: A lot of indoor walks (laughs) from one end of the house to the other. That seems to be a big one. Zoom calls with friends. Every other day picking something new to binge watch and escape in.