SXSW 2019: Janice Engel talks Raise Hell

A still from Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins by Janice Engel, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Robert Bedell.

Janice Engel sat down with Solzy at the Movies during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival to discuss Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.

While I was hoping to schedule this interview when the film premiered at Sundance, scheduling didn’t work out.  I spoke with Janice Engel on the Tuesday following the Texas premiere.

What was it that drew you to tell Molly Ivins’ story?

Janice Engel, director of Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Janice Engel, director of Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Janice Engel.

Janice Engel:  What drew me to Molly’s story was Molly.  She was wildly funny.  She was absolutely brilliant.  I didn’t really know who she was until my producing partner, James Egan, told me to go see a play called Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, which I did.  Both James and I didn’t know really who she was.  I knew of her but not—I grew up on—I like to say—the east/left coast and/or as I say both left coasts.  I knew of her because I knew she had called George W. Bush “Shrub Bush.”  But I didn’t really know until I went to see the play, I didn’t.  When I got back home that night, I Googled her and I was blown away.  I called James the next morning. He said nothing’s ever been done and that was it.  We were off and running but not until we pulled into a Texan because she likes to call us carpetbaggers.  I’m from New York and James is from Baltimore.  He’s Catholic.  I’m Jewish.  What do we know about Texas?  Carlisle Vandervoort actually grew up in the same neighborhood as Molly—River Oaks—and went to the same private school, St. John’s, and grew up a child of oil and gas privilege and as well was an activist in her own right a couple of decades later than Molly.  Basically, we (James) pressed her against the wall and said you have 48 hours to decide.  She called us the next morning and said “I’m in.”  So we were off and running but it was because of Molly.  It was really because Molly.  When you watch her, how could you not love this woman?  How can you not have the reaction of—if I didn’t know about her and I’m a part of the New York cultural elite, it’s like I needed to be schooled and I thought I want to help people learn who Molly Ivins is.  They’ve compared it to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Ida Tarbell.  I thought we needed to add another woman to that and a current woman.

What was the most fascinating thing that you learned about Molly while working on the film?

Janice Engel:  People have asked me that question and for six plus years, I’ve been climbing a mountain called Molly.  I really dug in and kind of tried to imbibe who she was so completely.  The thing I think that most moved me about Molly Ivins was her level of courage and her level of personal courage.  All the accolades and how brilliant she was and what a satirist she was—that’s for the public to consume.  What I was most moved by was that here was a woman at the height of her powers—height of her career—diagnosed three times with breast cancer and basically was given her last diagnosis, actually that came right after, but within that framework, she was also a hardcore alcoholic as we point out in the film.  She had gone to what she would call drunk school.  She’d gone to drunk school from Betty Ford.  She’d gone to different places but to dry out for a little time and then she was back in her cycle.  She decided to get sober in the last 18 months of her life.  I was very moved by that because here’s a woman who can speak truth to power to anyone that was fearless—but when you have to face your own truth, that’s very hard.  The fact that she made that decision when she knew she was given a death sentence that—her third diagnosis came right on the heels of her getting sober.  I believe that you know she wanted to go out clear and eyes wide open and kind of deal with her own stuff.  I think that’s incredibly courageous because most people if given that kind of a read would have gone back to you know their addiction and said, “Damn, I’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory.”  That’s a lot of courage.  Anne Lamott, the novelist, said that she thought that Molly was the bravest person she ever knew because of that.  For another reason, Paul Krugman said she was the most courageous person he ever came across because of her ability to speak truth to power at a time when it was supremely unpopular.  The outbreak of the Iraq war and so many columns that she wrote in 2002 and 2003 were incredibly prescient because everything she wrote came true in the next three to five years—actually, we say three to current.  No—she was really amazing but she was very courageous when it was very unpatriotic to stand up against the war.

Is it even possible to do a documentary about Ivins without telling the gang pluck story?

Janice Engel:  No, I don’t think so.  No!  Come on!  It’s so good and it’s such a good story.  When I read about it initially in the Bill Minutaglio bio and then I basically saw the clips of her telling the story in a variety of places particularly Douglas Foster in the Berkeley interview and a woman on the verge on C-SPAN.  She says, “I used to send things—write things like that to keep the boys in the copy desk amused.”  I totally related to it because I’ve been a showrunner.  I’ve created TV series and stuff.  I had a show that was on plastic surgery and it was on for four plus years on a Discovery-related network and very popular.  My producers would give me stuff and I would rewrite certain things.  I used to write lines that were the same type of thing like they removed a 20 inch slab of torso and weighed it.  It weighed 22 pounds so the narration would be, “Which they are going to immediately ship to a small African village and it will keep everybody sustained for the next three months.”  I would do it for my executive producer.  Nobody higher up would ever see it.  She would piss in her pants with laughter and then she would write back notes.  She would write notes on a plastic surgeon who is doing something and she would write in her notes, “Simmer down, Class Barbie, Simmer down.”  So there is this understanding I think that goes on in workplaces.  Unfortunately with Molly, someone kicked it upstairs to Abe Rosenthal and she got busted. It’s a great story.

What’s something about Molly that you feel is missing from political journalism today?

Janice Engel:  The comics do what Molly does but they’re not the journalists.  I don’t think anybody can do what Molly does.  I also think that Molly was equal opportunity.  We’re so polarized right now.  If you look at Fox and you look at MSNBC, Fox to a greater degree is really propagandistic.  MSNBC also has that in them.  I think they’re more willing to talk because they’ve had so many defections from the other side defections. But there is this loop of this narrow focus that keeps repeating the same stuff over and over for their different audience.  There’s not this willingness to—there’s this entrenchment of black and white with no in-between.  The world lives in the gray.  The rest of us live in the gray.  I would hope we live in the gray where there’s varying degrees in that and that’s what Molly did.  Molly in her humor was very—she went after stupidity, she went after bad government, she went after lack of common sense—both sides of the aisle equal opportunity which was so great.  Who does that?  Who skewers everybody?  The comics but the comics have a writing staff.  They also have to have the investigative journalism to write about.  There’s a team.  Rachel Maddow talked with me about that.  If you look at Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins is I would say is like Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, for sure—the brilliance and wonkiness.  A slew of brilliant journalists and deep-dive journalists on The Washington Post and The New York Times, whoever they are, and then who I’ve mentioned crossed with Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, a little Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver on the side—all in one person.  Can you imagine that?  She maybe had a researcher or two doing some research but she wrote two columns a week.

Your answer kind of segues into my next question but is there a journalist today that reminds you the most of Molly Ivins?

Janice Engel:  Who today does what Molly does? I asked that of a lot of my interview subjects especially in the first two years of this project and it was at the height of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Nobody could come up with an answer.  I kept asking and then people ask me that question.  There is nobody today who does—there are columnists.  There’s Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd but they’re not Molly Ivins.  She was singular not only in her level of satire and her brilliance and her one liners but her in-depth analysis of the problem.  She could put it in her folksy little way of writing a story that reached a whole swath of people regardless if they were on the left or the right.  Everybody laughed at her.  They may have disagreed with her and she got people calling her up and telling her she was an idiot on C-SPAN and this and that.  She never blamed them.  Somebody called her up and said, “Are the American people so stupid they just don’t know what they’re doing.”  She goes, “I never blame the people.”  I think that no, there’s not.  I do think that Molly was a true—she called herself a progressive populist.

This is a film that premiered at Sundance.  What was the reception like and how honored were you to premiere the film on the mountain?

Janice Engel:  The reception was an outpouring of praise and love.  We were blown away—really blown away.  I was personally knocked out.  I’ll tell you what really blew me away was when I got the phone call because I thought it was a robo call.  When the guy said, “Hi, is Janice Engel there?”  I was with my editor working in my house.  He says, “It’s Harry Vaughn from the Sundance Film Festival.”  I wrote down—we have the piece of paper.  I said SUN PRO and I went running into the kitchen and I said, “Holy fuck!”  I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry I said fuck.” He said, “No, I love it.  Keep going.”  I put it on speaker and Monique Zavistovski—my fabulous editor that Carlisle, my producing partner, calls her the beast—and I jumped up and down like two little girls who had just won the gong show.  We were over the moon.  My golden retriever who’s 14 started howling.  My border collie started barking.  We were like little girls.  Getting up on the mountain—I’ll tell you the moment for me was when right before the film started at the premiere.  I couldn’t believe we were here.  This little engine that could.  We’re at Sundance.  I thought we’d get into SXSW.  That’s where I thought we’d premiere because it’s Molly stomping ground.  Sundance—I never expected.  It was like BOOM!  I got on that stage and I asked everybody, “This moment is never going to happen again.  I’m going to take your picture.”  I asked everybody on the count of three to yell “Raise hell!”  I just went, “Wow!” It was amazing.

The first SXSW screening took place yesterday at the Paramount—just steps away from the Texas State Capitol.  How much of an honor is it to bring the film to this festival?

Janice Engel:  The other one was the big wow factor.  This was the deep emotional gut-pulling like we’re bringing Molly home.  We are bringing Molly home not only to Texas but her family was there.  Her friends and colleagues—some of the people in that audience—you could feel it was palpable, that emotion.  They were so primed.  They were so hungry for Molly—for their friend, for the woman they loved so much.  People who had just read her, who had braved the line, stood in line and got in.  The outpouring of love for Molly in her home state—in her hometown—was so palpable yesterday.  I. actually cried and I haven’t cried in a while because I’ve seen it.  There are certain points in the film where I know that they used to really get me in my editing suite.  I had it yesterday.  It was because I was sitting with her people.  There were people there yesterday who hadn’t seen each other since her memorial. In a sense, I think what we did was an incredible catharsis for a lot of people in the audience.  It was great.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is currently awaiting distribution.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.