Mickey Lemle: Telling Moving Stories About Human Transformation
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Jul 2, 2016
July 2, 2016 Mickey Lemle: Telling Moving Stories About Human Transformation
Pavi Mehta: Last night, in preparation for this call, I was doing some reading and I came across an article that Mickey had written for Parabola magazine, I think in early 2003 or 2002 and the title of it was on truth in filmmaking. In the opening sentences, he said, "all movies are an illusion. We think we are seeing motion but in fact, we are seeing twenty-four still pictures every second. Half the time the screen is actually black. Yet, movies seem so real, and some have the potential to reveal great truth." It's a wonderful article, but what it set in motion for me is this idea that we all carry our own myths about our reality. We say this happens and then that happens, and we are taking about our own lives - this happened and then that happened to me and then that was what led to this. We have this narrative but in reality half the time the screen is actually black and we're superimposing our own narrative of motion on it and it's a sobering truth, it gives you a bit of a pause and it's also an energizing one.
I think the best filmmakers understand this intuitively, that we are all mythmakers in our own fashion and some of the most predominant myths available in our culture today are cheap myths, it's all dazzle, no substance, fame will give you happiness, money will give you happiness. You name it, there are a whole series of these myths that we carry, and they take us farther away from ourselves, and our greatest potentials. The best storytellers among us have always thought instead to tell the kinds of myths that walk us home. They use the illusions of light, sound, and moving images to reveal glimpses of what's at the core of all of this, this magnificent, beleaguered existence we have on a little blue planet that's turning through space.
Whenyou consider the films that Mickey has made over four decades, you approach an understanding of who he is and what he stands for. On one level he is a critically acclaimed, multi-award winning filmmaker, he was named one of the forty artists who shake the world. He is the founder of Lemle Pictures, whose mission is to tell moving stories about human transformation and that mission has meant that Mickey has spent his working life traveling in the company of good people, even great people. The lens of his camera has really always been turned in the direction of the transcendent. He has made films about mortals who have seen the earth from outer space and walked the surface of the moon. He's made a film about the man who went from being a Harvard professor named Richard Alpert to Ram Dass, the beloved spiritual teacher, who defined a generation with his ground breaking book, Be Here Now. He's documented -- through two, extraordinary films, separated by almost a quarter of a century -- the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their friendship spans decades. He is the son of Edna Lemle, a Renaissance woman who founded International Gratitude Day. He is the proud father if Aaron Lemle, a young television producer in Philadelphia. Mickey has served on the board of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, The 52nd Street Project and the Rubin Museum in New York. And, thirteen years ago, on a day he may not even recall, he sat down with a very nervous, first time filmmaker, to view the first cut of a documentary she was working on -- and that filmmaker was me. The kindness, enthusiasm and the candid insight that Mickey offered taught me a great deal, not just about the art of filmmaking, but what the lit candle of generosity can do. He helped set something glowing in my understanding of storytelling and how it is a doorway, it can be a portal, into helping people see themselves, each other and our place in this world more clearly. It is such an honor to have him here with us, today! Thank you so much, Mickey, for being with us.
Mickey Lemle: Thank you for that introduction, that's the nicest one I've ever heard.
Pavi: (Laughter) Well, we're off to a good start. I want to jump right in because there is so much to talk about. You have these many decades of storytelling behind you; I'd like to rewind a little bit and kind of look at the foundation of all of it. Is there a moment you can remember, or a series of moments or events in your childhood or young adulthood when you knew you were meant to be a storyteller, when you felt the pull of your calling?
Mickey: You know, I never really thought of it, but I think when I was in about fifth grade, I wrote this epic story, that I would go down every day after lunch and read to the third graders in my school. It went on for weeks, and I never really thought of it as being a storyteller, but I was the only one in the school that did that. I guess I've always told stories, I've always loved stories and more, and more now I think it's really all just a story, everything is just a story we tell ourselves. I think that everybody believes that the voice that they hear in their heads is the truth and they hear it over and over. I heard a statistic, I don't know how they prove this, that like 90% of the thoughts that you have today, you had yesterday. So we just keep telling our self the same story over and over again and I really wonder if there is an ultimate truth, or if all truth is subjective. That really what all of us are doing is just going around telling ourselves the same story. You can take anything, from what the major religions tell us, or I'm an alcoholic, I do good work -- whatever, however you're self-defined -- it's really just a story.
Pavi: We're starting out with a heavy truth here (laughter). On that theme, what was the story that led you to filmmaking?
Mickey: Well, I started filmmaking when I was halfway through college. I was majoring in American civilization, doing a lot of history, literature, and stuff. The summer between my sophomore and junior years, I just decided I really wanted to learn how to make movies; I just had this incredible urge. All through high school I had written, I had done theatre, I had done a lot of photography, but I never took that seriously. What was serious was English, math, history and whatever the serious subjects were, but I always loved doing this other stuff. Anyway, so that summer the production classes at NYU and Columbia were filled. But Columbia had a course in film writing so I took the course, I wrote a couple of movies and at the end I borrowed a friends camera and went out and shot this movie of old people in Central Park.
When I went back to school in the fall, this wonderful Irish man was setting up a film program, there was a film appreciation class and then a film production class. The production class was restricted to seniors and graduate students in the theatre department. So this didn't stop me, I went to his office, knocked on the door, I had my film under my arm and I said "I understand you are setting up a production class and I would like to be in it." To which he said, "Well, you understand it is restricted to seniors and graduate students in the theatre department." I said, "Well, I'd heard that bit I've already made a movie," and he said, "Well, we must see it." So I took the film from under my arm, gave it to him - these were the old days before cassettes - he had to take a projector out of the closet, we pulled down the blinds, he threaded it up and we watched my movie on the wall of his office. At the end of it he said "okay, you're in the course." I said, "Is it because of the quality of the film that I just showed you?" And he said, "Well, yeah, but more important, you have the one skill that's essential to any filmmaker, which is you can talk your way into places." In fact, it really is as valuable a skill as any other, because very often you have to convince people to do things they might not want to do, or to be in your movie, or for people to work harder -- they might settle at a certain point and you think it could be better so you have to convince them to keep working at it. And then also, sometimes when people are pointing guns at you, to talk your way out of places, it's a useful skill.
Pavi: (Laughter) It's a useful skill. So from there, did you study it formally?
Mickey: Well, no, this wonderful Irish man, Dave Hardy, who sadly died soon after we met, his idea was the only way to learn to how to make movies is to make movies. You can't read about it, you can't be told about it, you just have to do it. The first few weeks he gave us a roll of film and said “Make a movie.” He had this golden tongue; he would fly business class where ever went, even if it was just the shuttle between Boston and New York. And usually by the time the plane had landed, he would have sold a movie to the person sitting next to him. At that time, the sort of rule of thumb for, let's say, an industrial type movie, would be about a $1,000 a minute. So, for instance, he was sitting next to the headmaster for a boarding school in New Hampshire and he said, "Don't you think a promo film about your school would be useful?" and he said "Yeah, it would, but it costs about $20,000" and he said "Well, if you just give us the money for the film stock and processing, I can do it for $3,000." So, we were the labor. By the time I graduated from college, I had stuff on NBC, CBS and PBS and these professional quality movies for the Civil Rights Commission in Washington, the City of Philadelphia, and all sorts of movies.
Pavi: Thinking back, to that time, was it articulate in your head what was the draw of the medium to you?
Mickey: I think it's just magic, you know, it’s just magic. I was just fascinated by all of the technical aspects of it, of creating these perfect moments. So much of life is sloppy, and if I can make a beautiful minute in a movie, that's just perfect, I feel like I've mad the world better. Then if you can put ninety of those together -- that's what I strive for, that each moment is a perfect moment. I go through life and very often I wish I had a fast forward button when some people are talking to me and as an editor it's like, yeah, you could leave that part of the story out. It's hard to do with another, living, breathing human being - they get all sensitive when you try to do it. In film, you can do it; you can look at something over and over and over again, and it allows you to find deeper truths also, taking time with stuff that you've shot, for instance.
I treat the editing process like a meditation and so I empty, and just watch the material as if it's for the first time, even if I've seen it a thousand times. I try to put myself in the place of the audience that's going to be seeing it for the first time. When I talk to young film students I always tell them, whether they it or not, I tell them what I consider to be the most important thing I can tell them, and that is that they have to be willing to let go of their preconceived ideas. They don't have to do it. They just have to be willing to do it. Because in every stage in the process of making a film you're confronted by that.
When I start a film, you have to start with some idea, you can't just say, “Gee, I think I'll go make a film about life” -- where would you point the camera, right? -- it's everywhere. You have to narrow it down a little bit. So, you have an idea, and then what I do is I go out and I research it and spend as much time as I can, and talk to as many different people -- the experts, and the artists, and the nuts -- just try to get a sense of the field that I'm entering into. What I find is, that I find the deeper levels of the story than my preconceived idea. I kind of structure it, I have this process where I put scenes down on 4x6 cards, I have a very big foam core in my office and I put up the cards. Then I start to find the structure for how I'm going to tell the story, so I have an idea of what the structure of the movie is going to be.
When I go out to film, I have to be willing to let go of those ideas because it's real life and it changes. Sometimes people who've said one thing a month before when I pre-interviewed them, they say, “Nah, I wouldn't say a thing like that,” and I have to ask questions that will lead them to give certain answers, but they might say something very different. Instead of throwing it out as being an error in the system, you have to be willing to see what they are really telling you, or what the story has evolved into, what's really going on, as opposed to what you thought was going to go on. So the editing process is allowing for deeper and deeper levels of the story to come forth and emerge from the material that I filmed.
I sometimes liken it to an Inuit or Eskimo carver, who will pick up a piece of bone and just start carving and not with a preconceived idea of what it's going to be. He or she might reveal a walrus or a polar bear and they feel like that was already in the bone and they're just revealing it. I feel that sometimes when I'm editing, that I'm not imposing my will on it, I'm just trying to allow the truth to emerge. I believe, without sounding too pretentious, that you can get to deeper and deeper levels of truth about what's really going on. I believe that we all have like an honest witness in us, that kind of vibrates when somebody is telling you the truth of their being, and so that's the goal.
I'll just say, for those people out there who are listening and maybe not filmmakers, this idea of letting go of your preconceived idea, and allowing whatever is -- to see what really is -- it works in interpersonal relationships. To the extent that you have an idea of who your partner is supposed to be to make you happy, you're going to create violence in your relationship because that person might not be that person. So the question is, are you going to try and force them to be somebody they're not to make you happy, which I can tell you from experience of several marriages doesn't really work, or just allow that person to be exactly who they are and appreciate them for that.
Pavi: That's a beautiful, and rich, kind of practice that goes, as you were saying, far beyond film making. I think about how, just as we are all storytellers in our own fashion, we are all editing in our own ways. We're a selfie-taking, Facebook posting -- we're a very sharing culture of our stories -- and yet the kind of editing you are talking about is very different than editing for a presentation or for effect. Editing for truth, editing for meaning, editing for something essential to emerge is such a gift. One of the things I think about with filmmaking, a word that surfaces, is just perspective. It's such an important word in art. I think about the way we live our lives and the way we act in the world is really anchored in what perspective we're choosing, either consciously or unconsciously.
That brings me to one of your early films, The Other Side of the Moon, where you talk to people who have had the physical experience of an extraordinary perspective -- looking down at Earth from outer space. Could you talk a little bit about what led you to that project and maybe some of the insights that came from it for you? Mickey: Well, it's poignant, because just this past week Edgar Mitchell died; he was on Apollo 14 and he was, in some ways, one of the inspirations for the movie. I had met him in 1972 when I was researching a film on psychic phenomenon and my path led to him. He had just set-up something called the Institute of Noetic Sciences, it was then in Palo Alto and I went and met him. In 1972, you have to understand, hair was identity and so I had really long hair, big sideburns and I'm talking to this guy who looked like he had total military bearing. He was a military pilot, had been at MIT, and was totally straight with short-cropped hair and this is at the height of the Vietnam War, so this was relevant. We were chatting and he was talking about psychokinesis, precognition, ESP and clairvoyance and I'm listening to the words and looking at the image and something didn't connect. I said, "Excuse me sir, what happened to you when you were up there?" (Laughter) He said, "Mickey, it's impossible to come from around the backside of the Moon and see the Earth floating out there in this sea of vast vacuum and not have it profoundly affect you.” So, that got planted.
Then, a few years later, I was in a workshop with Joseph Campbell, a month long workshop at Esalen. He had just come from being on a panel with one of the astronauts from Apollo 9, named Rusty Schweickart, who had had this amazing experience. Because the time in space was so precious and they had so many missions and things to accomplish that each mission had to accomplish a whole checklist of things in order for the next mission to do what it did until finally Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. So Rusty was on Apollo 9, and his mission at this point was to test the backpack equipment that the astronauts were going to use on the Moon. He was outside the spacecraft, it was in Earth orbit, and Dave Scott, who was also on the mission, his job was to take pictures of Rusty doing the things he was doing. The camera jammed, and the film got stuck and Dave said, "Look, I can't fix it with my gloves on, I have to go back inside the capsule." Jim McDivitt, who was the commander said, "Okay, Dave come back in, fix the camera. Rusty, you just hang out."
So, here he is, floating over the surface of the Earth, at 17,000 mph, just with nothing to do. He said this was a really rare experience, that nobody had ever had this before, no human being had ever had this experience. I said, "What did you do?" He said, "Well, I decided to empty my mind of any conscious thought and see what came in." He said the first thought that came in, as he was looking down, was just how beautiful the Earth was as it was passing below. And he said "What are we doing down there?" Then he said, "I let that thought go and the next thought that came in was what are we doing up here?" He said, "Then I let that thought go." The next thought that came in was "What is this thing call me?" And then he just felt his mind explode into the Universe, and the next thing he remembers was Dave Scott pulling on his uniform saying "Rusty....We have to go back in now..." and he said it took all of his athletic, military and pilot training to go back in, he said he didn't want to, all he wanted to do was stay out there forever.
So then, when they came back down, he did what any of the astronauts who had any kind of transformative experience did -- they repressed it. Because once they had been in space, all they wanted to do was go back into space. If they started talking about God and the intelligence in the Universe and, you know, this overwhelming feeling of Consciousness, they would have been probably sent to some rehabilitation farm in Connecticut where they send the old CIA agents or whatever, but they would not have gone back into space. So he repressed it until all of a sudden one day, when he was on this panel with Joe, he started talking about it, about these experiences.
I had heard those two, and my assumption going into the film, was that everybody must have had a similar experience. I mean, they were shot faster than a rifle bullet up into space, they orbited the Earth a couple of times, used the gravitational force of the Earth to whip them - like we used to play as kids when the last person in the line got whipped out -- toward the Moon, again faster than a rifle bullet and go 250,000 miles across space and orbit the Moon. Then the lunar landing module would separate from the command module; it would go down, land on the Moon, two guys would spend a few days collecting rocks and stuff. Then they would get back in the capsule, the lunar landing module, and hope to God that the small, pyrotechnical device that was supposed to blast them off the surface of the Moon would work, you know, because if it didn't there was no getting them...there was no getting them. They would just wait until their oxygen ran out.
And meanwhile, the guys in the command module, are just orbiting, waiting for them to blast off, then they would hook-up in space, use the gravitational force of the Moon to whip them back toward Earth and take a couple two-three days to get back. Meanwhile, as Mitchell said, they had to do what they called "barbecuing" because on the Sun-side of the capsule, it was hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit and on the shadow side, it was minus hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit. So, they would slowly rotate the capsule on their way home, and on their way to the Moon. All their jobs were done, Mitchell said he just sat by the window. At one point, the Earth goes by, and then the Moon goes by, and then the Sun goes by and he said “It was hard not to feel like you were in the center of the Universe.” Anyway, all of the machinery and all of that stuff was built by the lowest bidder in a government contract. So, if that doesn't give you a sense of God, yeah know? (Laughter)
So my assumption was that everybody who went to the Moon would have had a deeply transformative, spiritual experience. And again, I had to be willing to let go of my preconceived idea, because when I started talking to these guys, half of them said, "Nah, it didn't affect me at all. We trained for so long, we knew what to expect. We went up there, we did our jobs, and we came back." So then, the question came up for me, "why not?” Why didn't they have some profound experience? I was talking to Edgar Mitchell one night after we were filming, we were just relaxing and I said, "And how is it that guys like you, and Rusty and a few others, had these deeply, profound cosmic conscious experiences where you re-visioned the entire Universe and half the guys said it didn't affect them at all?" He said, "Mickey, it's like bouncing a ball off a wall. If you weren't open to the experience, you didn't have it."
You know, I think it's metaphoric for the potentiality of each of us. If a dozen people go and see the Grand Canyon, some people have deeply moving, consciousness-altering experiences and other people look and go "Oh yeah, it's nice, where we gonna have lunch?" It's what you’re open to. If you're not open to the experience, if you don't think it's a possibility or a value in your life, you're not going to have it.
Pavi: Again, it does just kind of stop you in your tracks, and things like what am I being closed to? And what am I being open to? Some of it is at such unconscious levels, and I think about one of your other films, Fierce Grace, on Ram Dass, whose story...he was obviously open in a very real way... (laughter)
Mickey: (Laugher) Yes, he was.
Pavi: ...to the forces, and you know, from the outer appearance his trajectory could have been different. He could have stayed a scientist all his life, and just a scientist or a researcher. I think what is a similar thread in all your work, whether you're talking to the astronauts, or to Ram Dass or to the Dalai Lama, is that there is this element, it seems like you're putting a little wedge in people's consciousness. There's an opening that your films create and the stories you create and the people who are in them, so much of their work is about that. I want to talk about the role of, in your work, like how you see the role of grace or faith. But before that, I want to cover the story of how you came to make the film, Fierce Grace. Because I believe you met Ram Dass first in 1970?
Mickey: In the early '70's, yeah. I was on Martha's Vineyard and a friend of mine said "Hey, you gotta come hear this guy give a talk in the local church." And I said, "Well, who is it?" He said, "His name is Ram Dass." I said, "Oh, is he Indian?" He said, "No, he's Jewish." (Laughter) Right, I'm going to go to a church and listen to a white, Jewish guy with an Indian name give a talk...I don't think so. He said, "No, no, no, you really, you really have to come hear him." I said, "Well, okay." And I sat in the back row, on the aisle, so that after fifteen minutes I could sneak out and tell my friend, "well I tried." Four and a half hours later I was still totally transfixed. I mean my mind never wandered for four and a half hours -- to the past, or the future or other things I could be doing. I mean this was one of the great story tellers I have ever experienced in my life. He had the ability to go from the very human, his own human failure on the spiritual path, to these metaphysical concepts which I'd read about in college but never quite got. All of a sudden, when it was wrapped in his story, I got it, or started to get it, or felt like I was understanding it.
I decided that anytime he was giving a talk in a city I was in, I would go hear him. Then I did some workshops with him and over the years, we started to get to know each other. At one point he was trying to put together a slide tape and half a dozen different friends of his said "You gotta talk to Mickey, you gotta talk to Mickey, you gotta..." so he finally called me and I looked at his slide tape and it was quite nice, but I said structurally what you need to do is take the beginning and put it at the end and take the end and put it at the middle (laughter). Because really, film is all about structure. It's like if you walk into a room, if most of the listeners I assume, walk into a room, they notice the surface, they notice the materials that the walls and the floors and the ceilings are made out of and the decorations around the room and so forth. And that's fine, but like, my brother's an architect, and when he walks into a room, he's looking into the walls and seeing how structurally the ceiling is being held up and where the pipes are to go to the second floor bathroom, and all that sort of thing. It's the same for a film. When most people look at a movie, they're seeing the surface of the story, but for a filmmaker you're also seeing the structure of the story-telling because you have to give the audience information and then more information and then more information so that when a certain moment happens they'll laugh or cry. You also have to hold their interest and attention, and that's all done in the structure of the story-telling.
That's what the editing process in a documentary is all about -- finding that structure that's going to hold the interest and attention of the audience and then reveal to them the whatever the deeper truths are that you are trying to communicate about. In a narrative film, it's done in the script; the structure of the story telling is in the script. Pavi: With Ram Dass's film, you were saying put the beginning at the end... Mickey: Right, so he was very taken aback by it, but then he tried it and saw that it actually worked, and then we became friends after that.
When I finished Compassion in Exile, the first movie I made about the Dalai Lama, twenty-five years ago, right after I finished it I was invited to show it a big international, conference in Prague and he was one of the speakers. He sat in the front row, watched the movie, came up after, and said "I love your movie, I want you to bring it to my next retreat, show it and talk about it." I said, "I would be happy to do that, but you're next." He said, "No, no, no, I'm not ready, I'm not ready." Then, a few years after that, I'd made a movie about this wonderful South African explorer, philosopher named, Sir Laurens van der Post. It happened that we were at a conference together in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon in Brazil. Ram Dass sat in the front row, he saw the movie, and afterwards he came up to me and said, "Hey, I need a copy of the movie, I've gotta show it to these people, I want you to show it at my next workshop." And I said, "Okay, Baba, but you're next." (Laughter) He said, "No, no, no, I'm not ready, I'm not ready." Then he wrote me a letter and he said, "Someday, somebody will make a movie about me, and it should be you, but I'm just not ready."
I had it in my mind exactly how I wanted to structure the film, what stories of his I wanted to tell, how I was going to hang it all together, and then he had this massive stroke and he almost died. For the first two months after the stroke, he was in the hospital with tubes going in and out, he couldn't swallow and he couldn't speak. His doctor said "he's either going to be a vegetable like this, or he's going to die."
Just little by little, through incredible will, he got out of the hospital. He started speaking; he had speech therapy, walking therapy, aqua therapy and all these things. Right after he got out of the hospital, I went to visit him where he was living in Marin. We just hung out for the afternoon, chatted and at the end of the afternoon I said, "Maybe it's time we did our movie." He looked at me and said, "Okay." I didn't want to be accused of taking advantage of him, so when I got back to New York, I wrote him a letter and I said, “I think this is what we agreed to -- do you still want to do this?" He said, "Yeah." But then, I had to let go of this movie that I'd been carrying around in my head for eight years, because it took him 15 or 20 minutes to tell a story that he used to tell in three or two minutes. That afternoon on his porch, he pointed to himself with his left hand, which still worked -- his right side is totally paralyzed -- and he said, "You know, this isn't who I thought I was going to be, because my vision of myself old never had a stroke in it. If I think about who I was supposed to be, or who I used to be, it just brings up suffering. But if I just rest in awareness, I'm in bliss."
So, it kind of mirrored the artistic challenge that I had, which was to let go of this movie that I'd been carrying around in my head for eight years and see what was right in front of me and make a whole different movie. Pavi: Again, there are so many echoing themes here... just that openness, that idea of emptying of preconceived notions and allowing what is to be, and unfold and have that be the story, is such a gift. Fierce Grace, for those of you who haven't seen it, it's a jewel of a film. As a filmmaker, I imagine that it came with its own set of new challenges, working with the conditions and constraints of Ram Dass's physical condition. Like you said, he is such an articulate man that you don't get sound bites. Working with that new rhythm, making it as much a part of the texture and the gift of the film, is something that Fierce Grace does.
Ram Dass talks a lot about grace. I was wondering how you relate to that word, what it means to you in your own life and in your work? Mickey: Well, he is an amazing human being, there's nobody like him. The fact that he got to a place where he saw his stroke as grace, “fierce grace” as he calls it, is quite amazing. My uncle had this same stroke -- he was paralyzed on his right side, had speech aphasia -- but he woke up in hell every morning because he thought "This is not who I was supposed to be, there's an error in the system...this is an error." The average life expectancy of somebody with a stroke like that, I believe, is like three to five years. Ram Dass has had it now for almost 20 years and he's thriving. I was just with him last week -- he lives in Maui now -- my new film about the Dalai Lama was invited to the Maui Film Festival, so I stayed with Ram Dass and he came to the screening. He has a workshop that he does every December, and has for years, in Maui. They opened up the workshop and within two days 300 places were taken, it was sold out. 300 hundred people were there last year. So he holds the stage, he can still touch people deeply, even though it's not the way he did it before the stroke.
He sees the stroke as grace, because it allowed him to see all kinds of... as he says at the end of the movie... he said, "I was clumping along, thinking I knew what life was about and then, all of a sudden, the stroke happened and it's this whole, new existence." And he's become, you know, well anyway... I see Ram Dass's journey... he had different phases. He was a psychologist, had a doctorate from Stanford, got a job at Harvard teaching psychology. Then they moved Timothy Leary into the office next to his and he started doing all the initial research into psychedelics. He became the first professor in the century at Harvard to get fired. Met his Guru, named Neem Karoli Baba, who transformed his life -- he became Ram Dass -- which means "servant of God," and wrote the book, Be Here Now, as you said in the introduction. It's still in print - it's in its 44th printing or something - and he's touched millions and millions of people, opening up in them a sense of their own spirit. But it's not like a cult where he says, "wear my picture, be like me and do the practices I do and dress like me." He just opens up people's inner life or spirit to themselves and then it's up to them to find the form that's most comfortable. There's Hassidic Jews who feel like their spiritual journey was started by reading Be Here Now, there's Buddhist monks in Thailand, Catholic monks, who all feel like Be Here Now opened up their lives to their spirit and then they found the form that was most comfortable.
Pavi: And for you, what is that form?
Mickey:Well, I am what Ram Dass calls a "sloppy eclectic." (Laughter) If the living spirit is vibrating, then I'm all for it. It it's dogmatic, rote and a belief system that's being propagated by people who don't experience it themselves, but are just reporting about what other people once did or didn't do, I have no tolerance for it.
Pavi: So how did a "sloppy eclectic" come to make the best, and probably the most comprehensive, films on the Dalai Lama that the world will ever have?
Mickey:Well, thank you for saying that. You know, he is the real thing, he's the real deal. When I first met him, I was just struck by how funny he was. He was not at all what I expected. It was at a big conference in Davos, Switzerland, and at the end this woman asked each of the speakers, "What do you think is going to happen in the world 50 years from now?" And, all of the speakers, standing at a podium addressing 800 people, answered her. They said, "Well, we'll probably have more of this, and we'll have less of that." And they answered. And after His Holiness talked, she asked him the question and he thought about it very deeply, then looked at her and said, "Madam, I don't have any idea" and he just cracked up. He said, "I don't know what kind of tea I'll be having for dinner tonight -- how am I supposed to know what's going to happen in the world 50 years from now? And I thought to myself, okay so when was the last time I heard a political or religious leader publicly acknowledge that they didn't know something? I couldn't think of a single example, and he does it all the time. You ask him a question and he says, "I don't know." He always surprises me with how funny he is.
Pavi: We actually have a clip from The Last Dalai Lama? that we wanted to play the audio for, that kind of beautifully illustrates what you just said and I think our listeners will benefit from it.
Audio sound track starts Mickey: One of the benefits of having this long relationship with His Holiness, is that I'm comfortable asking him questions that are quite sensitive. Like questions about his own death. His Holiness: At the end, [inaudible], as my last breathing, is my mind clear, I'm quite sure, I will remember while I am dying, remember about [inaudible] sentient being. So that I am quite sure, I can practice the movement of my last breathing. If some accident happen, or airplane go down in the sea, then I don't know (laughter). Audio sound track ends
Pavi: (Laughing) I love that, I love that! Can you share a little bit about that moment?
Mickey: Well, you know, bless his heart, I was told by Tibetan friends that it's really rude to bring up the Dalai Lama's death to him personally. I've been told that by several of my Tibetan friends. But, it's part of what the movie is about, is how the world's most conscious person is facing aging and death. He turns 81 in a couple of days, on the 6th of July. So I had to ask him about it. I prefaced it by saying, "Your Holiness, my Tibetan friends tell me that it's really rude of me to bring up to your own death to you personally. But since I'm an ignorant Westerner and your the world's most compassionate person, I thought I would do it anyway." (Laughter) He just laughed, and then I asked the question in the clip you played. And that was his answer. It was so unexpected and just so funny, that how can you not love the guy? Pavi: What was the difference for you in making the two films?
Mickey: Well, there's a 25 year gap. I got to know him very well making the first movie and I've had the honor of being the chairman of the board of a foundation that was founded under his auspices, called The Tibet Fund. I serve as the chairman of the board and have for 20 years. So I pretty much see him every year, in some form or other. I feel I'm more comfortable, in a way, with him -- he's more comfortable with me. I've certainly changed over 25 years, in my thinking, concerns have changed, as have his. So, it was a process of exploring, "how so," and also I feel now there's an urgency to what he communicates, he really wants to communicant about certain ideas and concepts and put them out in the world and have an effect. I think that's all through the movie.
Pavi: Are there certain moments that you can remember from filming The Last Dalai Lama?or Compassion in Exile that electrified you, or just "this is why I'm doing this?"
Mickey: There's a wonderful moment in the new movie called, The Last Dalai Lama? with a question mark. I had asked him in 1991, when we filmed, "Do you hate the Chinese?" And he said, "No. Sometimes I lose patience with them, but no hatred feelings. And in fact I do this practice every day called 'exchange' or 'take and give.’ I take, in my imagination, I take their ignorance and their anger and their violence into myself and return to them love and compassion." So, I got to, 25 years later, ask him a follow up question. He's sitting there and I ask, "Your Holiness, 25 years ago I asked you about whether you hated the Chinese, and you said 'no' and then you explained this practice. So you've been doing this practice of 'exchange, take and give' for decades now -- has it done any good?" I said, "Who's it for?" Without missing a beat he said, "Oh, I do it for myself. It's not going to solve the problem, but it keeps my mind calm, and that can be very important."
One of the major themes of the new movie, and we look at it from his work with cutting edge neuroscientists, educators and others, psychologists, is this idea that it is possible, that the Tibetans for millennia, have had the technology for overcoming negative, afflictive emotions. By that I mean anger, jealousy, greed, ignorance and it's possible to overcome them in yourself. And instead, increase your capacity for happiness and compassion, and that's the way to do it. Ultimately, that's the only way we are going to have peace in the world, if enough people do this. So a lot of the movie is about that; how the cutting edge scientists and neuroscientists are working with this material and the effects of it. That's part of what he was saying about hating the Chinese, but then he went on to say, even altruism, you do altruism for yourself. You do love and forgiveness for yourself, it's not for the other person, it's for you so that your mind is calm, because you need a calm mind to make good choices. If you're being driven by greed and anger and hatred and fear, you're going to make bad choices.
Pavi: Wow... we're going to segue into the Q & A session soon, but I'm tempted to ask one more question before that, which is, I was just wondering -- working to tell the story of the Dalai Lama, or whether it's Ram Dass, or Sir Laurens van der Post -- these are incredible figures. You show the Dalai Lama laughing, your bring humor, you bring a certain humanity into your portrayals of these people. But at the same time, just what you shared about the story of his practice of forgiveness, his practice of embracing his own moment of death... as a filmmaker how do you keep perspective without feeling dwarfed by these figures -- you don't want to put them on a pedestal, at the same time you want to reveal the extraordinariness they embody. How do you find your footing within that dynamic?
Mickey: Well, I go back to the first talk I heard Ram Dass give in this church in Martha's Vineyard in the early '70's. The subject of his talk was we are both human and divine simultaneously and that the art form is to hold both. If you go too far into just being human, as the Tibetans tell us, if you take on an incarnation you are going to suffer; you're going to get sick, people around you are going to die, you're going to hold on to your tech stocks too long -- all of these things will make you suffer. But if you go too far into being divine, you run the risk of forgetting your zip code, and that can become problematic. The art form is to hold the tension between the two -- that we're both human and divine simultaneously.
The problem that I have with a lot of so called "spiritual teachers" and I put that in quotes, is that they promote their divinity and deny their humanity. I was asked after I did the first Dalai Lama movie, a lot of so called "spiritual people," or their handlers, called me and said, "We'd like you to consider making a movie about our guru, or our teacher, or whatever." And I'd say, "Well, it's not a spigot that I can turn on or off. I have to meet them, and see how I which is promoting their divinity and denying their humanity -- I was out of there. Because it's really dangerous, it's really dangerous to have a teacher that denies their humanity. So I need to have both in anybody that I want to spend time with or believe their teachings. It's too easy if you take an abstract idea that so many "spiritual teachers" will spout, and it sounds great and your mind vibrates and you go, "Oh God, that's fabulous! I want to write that down and think about it first thing every morning, and oh, I'm going to get my friend who does calligraphy to do it really beautifully and I'm gonna put it on my refrigerator so that I start every day thinking this really beautiful thought." So you do that, and you put it on the refrigerator and the first morning you go, "Oh God, that's how I want to structure my day and my life." And the next morning you think, "Where's the milk, I need it for my coffee." Because it doesn't have the kind of weight that means something to you.
So when I'm interviewing these great beings, with fabulous things to say and they say something that's just amazing about all of humanity, or something -- I'm not fooled -- and the follow up question is, "And when did that occur in your life? When did that happen to you? When did you realize that?" And then I root it in their experience, because the thing that we really all have in common is our common human experience. When somebody is telling you about their experience, in an honest way, it resonates with your experience. An abstract idea is very seductive, but it doesn't have the grounding that makes is useful for you, in your own life.
Pavi: That's powerful -- I like that. I like that approach of waiting for that ring of truth in your own heart, before you decide to move forward, or not, with a particular project or person.
Mickey: Well, you started your description earlier by talking about myths and I had the very good fortune of spending a lot of time with Joseph Campbell, toward the end of his life and he was the foremost authority on myths, of anybody I've ever met or read. He said that myths really come from the organs of the body that you can't make up a myth because it wouldn't ring true. The myths that last are the ones that come out of human experience, the human life cycle. They come out of that, and that's why they last, that's why they resonate. That's why you can relate to them thousands of years later, because they do touch this truth that has to do with all of our human journey.
Pavi: I'd never heard that -- that myths originate in the organs, I like that. They're tied to our human frame, but they do come from the depths of our being. And that concept, too, of the true myth, is a hard thing to wrap your mind around. I think it's similar to the kind of work you are trying to do, in some sense, with your filmmaking, is tell true myths.
Amit: I have a question for you. Just listening to you throughout the call, I really do feel like you are truly a filmmaker, because I've noticed that through a lot of the conversation you put the lens on the stories of others. And I was hoping we could also focus that back to you for a minute. You've talked about how depending on what you remain open to is how you will experience your life. It's apparent in some of the work, whether it's on the Dalai Lama or Ram Dass, that there's this attraction to this idea of spirituality or consciousness, and it's something that you remain deeply open to. I'm curious, what helped you shape that lens, for you personally, so much so that it's now translated over to some of your work. Whether a set of experiences when you were young, or was it this engaging four and a half hour talk by Ram Dass in the church -- what was it for you?
Mickey: Well, that's a good question. I go back to what Edgar Mitchell said, which was, "If you're not open to it, you don't have it, it doesn't happen." So, if I hadn't been open to it, in some form or another, to what Ram Dass was saying 40 years ago, I wouldn't have experienced it. I would have thought it was boring and I would have left and gotten ice cream.
I look at all of my movies not as individual works, but as a body of work. It's an external manifestation of my internal spiritual journey through my life. I can see how my world view shifted by with spending time with each of these great beings. And in certain interesting ways, they're not the same. For instance, the Dalai Lama says if you ask him what's the meaning of life, he says happiness; the meaning of life is to be happy. But not happiness by getting more stuff, or acquiring things, but by serving others so that they can be happy.
Laurens van der Post, who led commando units in World War II in Java, was thrown in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and turned the whole thing into a university, said, no, happiness comes and goes. That really the purpose of life is meaning. That if your life has meaning, then you feel like you belong.
And Ram Dass would say the meaning of life, the purpose of life is to get as close as possible to God.
I was with Joseph Campbell one day, we were at at his men's club, the Century Club in New York and we were going to have lunch. He said, "Before we go to have lunch, would you like to have a drink?" And I said, "Sure." We go up to the bar, it's noon, and it's big, overstuffed leather chairs and the bartender saw Joe come in -- Joe never even nodded to him -- but he brings this glass of a double shot of Clem Levitt single malt scotch. And Joe says to me, "Do you like single malt scotch?" And I said, "Well, yeah, it's actually my drink of choice." And he said, "Would you like one neat or ruined?" And I said, "Neat." So he motioned to the bartender, who brought me a double Clem Levitt. I hadn't eaten breakfast that day; I had run, jogged... and I do like single malt scotch but I've never had it during the day, and especially at noon, on an empty stomach. (Laughter) I'm sitting there, you know, in this incredible, beautiful, single malt fog, talking to Joe...when you talk to Joe the conversation was so wide-ranging, it just went everywhere… it was just fascinating.
At one point I remember him saying to me, through this fog, "Well, you do know what the meaning of life is?" (Laughter) And I said to myself, "Mickey, pay attention! One of the great minds on the planet is about to tell you what the meaning of life is, and you really need to remember!" He said the meaning of life is whatever you define it to be.
It reminded me of when I was going to get married to my future ex-wife, and we went to see this Rabbi who was going to perform the ceremony. He said, "You know, all that getting married is, is standing up in front of your friends and family and saying 'this is a special relationship' and by saying it, it becomes so." And he said, "One of the great inventions that the Jews had was the Sabbath. That by saying 'this day is special' it became so -- just by saying it, it became so."
That's what Joe was also saying to me about the meaning of each of our lives. It's whatever we define it to be. If you define the meaning of your life to be about acquiring material stuff, then that's what it will be. If it's about serving others, in whatever form it is, that's what it will be. If it's about creating something new, that has never been seen before, in order to help others to understand their own lives better, that's what it will be. And if it's nothing, if you never define it, then the winds of change and tides are just going to bump you down through your life, and it won't be defined.
Amit: Sothen,(inaudible) I have to ask, how have you defined it, and has it come so?
Mickey: My own life?
Amit: Hmm hmm.
Mickey: Well, there's a quote from a wonderful French filmmaker, he said, "Make visible that which without you, might never be seen." I think that, for whatever the combination of my experiences and propensities and talents, I've tried to create entertaining work that is interesting to watch, hold your interest and attention and potentially can move people's hearts and minds to experience their own lives in a way that could be enriching for them. But, at the core, it's just telling great stories.
Amit: And that, you do well -- thank you.
Carol Ruth Silver: Hi, my name is Carol Ruth Silver, and I'm in San Francisco, California. I have a question about the Ram Dass film, Fierce Grace. Have you had any success in using that as a therapy for people who have suffered strokes? To encourage them to try and recover in the same way that Ram Dass did? That's my question.
Mickey: Well, thank you for that. I have not personally done it, I know that various organizations that deal with stroke have used the film in various ways. A lot of people have called me over the years and said, "Oh this friend of mine just had a stroke, how can I get them a copy" and I know that's been widely done. But in a way, the stroke is metaphoric for the winds of change coming through your life, uninvited, unexpected. So I've had lots of calls -- there's a part in the movie where this couple talk about the murder of their 13 year old daughter, and Ram Dass writes them this exquisite letter and I've had hundreds, if not thousands, of requests for that letter. Over the years people, when they find out that I've made the movie, they've said, "Oh my beautiful, 18 year old daughter died last winter in a car accident, and it was only watching your movie over and over every day that got me through." And so, as much as I feel their pain, I'm glad that I was able to do something that could help them with that.
Barbara: (Wrote in from the UK) How do you attract financing for your films?
Mickey: (Laughter) The million dollar question, as it were. You know, it takes a lot of time, a lot more time than anybody ever wants, but I'm a firm believer that it's easier to raise money for a project that's moving than one that's a dead stop. So I try to raise enough money to at least start shooting whatever it is, and then cut together a five or ten minute promo and use that to raise the rest of the money. And raise it as I go -- there are some desperate months in there when I'm not sure how I'm going to pay people -- a lot of my work is fundraising. Half the time it's raising money and half the time it's making movies. It's just the reality.
Amit: How is it you come to choose the topics of your films, your documentaries, or even some of the projects you take on in television?
Mickey: I have to feel a draw, from my gut, I have to be curious about it. It's like, I want to know more about this. So when I heard the Dalai Lama say that he didn't hate the Chinese, I thought, how does he do that? How can he do that with the Chinese and I can't do it with my brother and sister? (Laughter) It comes from curiosity, and that's what drives me through each of the projects. I want to learn more about it, I want to find out more about it.
There are filmmakers who know what they feel about a subject before they even start the movie. I'm not going to mention names, but some of them are very well known documentarians, who make a move about gun control or health, the American health system -- they know how they feel about it so it becomes a political statement of a point of view. By being such, anybody in the movie is either supporting that point of view or refuting it and then they're ridiculed. Everybody in the movie is being exploited toward that end, but I don't see it that way. I'm not making a movie about something I know, I'm making a movie about something I want to know about. The process of making the movie is also the process of discovery. And so it has a kind of vitality to it, that I think if you know what you feel about a subject at the start, it won't have that dynamic vitality.
Amit: As you've gone through these films, what have you discovered about yourself?
Mickey: Well, I'm pretty funny (laughter) and I appreciate that! I can see my world view change with each of the films that I've made, in very profound ways. I'm just blessed to have had the experience of being with some of these great, great beings that have informed, not only me, but millions of people around the world and opened up to them a sense of their own, inner lives. I think that they are all, in some way, what I call threshold beings, that they open up for people, their own inner lives.
One of the things that all of the traditions tell us is that real happiness is inside of you, there's nothing outside of you that will make you happy. It's not a new car, a new boyfriend, a new girlfriend, a new house, a new job, a new position -- you think, yeah the new job's great but if I had a promotion I'd have more money and whatever. Or, all this money's great but if I had just another hundred million I could get the bigger plane. There's nothing outside that's going to make you happy and so to anybody who can open up your inner life to you and you can focus on that, and not external things, I think those are the great teachers.
Pavi: I want to jump in quickly here and just say, Mickey, that one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I've seen from you is the eulogy that you wrote for your mother, who from everything I have read about her, was just an incredible Renaissance woman. She danced with Martha Graham, she ran art shows in Paris, she was a poet, she was interested in sailing, and international politics. She founded International Gratitude Day, which to me is, what a legacy to leave to the world.
And at the same time, you talk so beautifully in your piece about how it wasn't necessarily the easiest of relationships, especially in the early part of it -- that she was a force of nature and that came with its own (inaudible). And yet, the end of her life there was such a transformation and a sweetness in your relationship and the way you showed up for her in that phase and the way you did that piece together. I was wondering if you see any connections between how the work that you do is kind of priming you for your own life… in the stories, like somewhere in that thread of your relationship with your mother is the story of your friendship with Ram Dass, with the Dalai Lama, with these incredible insights that have been gleaned along the way.
Mickey: Well, I just feel incredibly lucky, you know, lucky me, that I've gotten to spend time with some of these great, great beings. There were a finite number of times that I spent with the Dalai Lama to film this last movie, his time is very precious. But then, it's not just being with him in person and asking him whatever I wanted, about whatever I wanted. It's going back and sitting in an editing machine for a year and going over the stuff he talks about, over and over and over and meditating on it -- and aging and death and service, compassion and anger, dealing with negative emotions. These are the things that wake me up at three in the morning and that I worry about, that I'm concerned about. And here I get to spend... my job is meditating on these things. I thought to myself, how many people can say that? That their work is the stuff that they are most deeply concerned about, in their deepest self. How many people get to do that? And I get to. So I feel incredibly blessed and incredibly lucky, that this is what I do.
Pavi: And lucky us to get to hear about it!
Mickey: Well, thank you for creating this forum, and for doing what you do. I think it's lovely.
Pavi: What, in terms of that "meaning of life" question, if you were talking to the generations that are up and coming -- what direction would you point them in?
Mickey: I would say, look into your hearts and what's most important for you to do, with the time you have here. What's going to ultimately be the most fulfilling for you, as the person you are, given the personality you have and make a contribution to make the world better.
Amit: It's interesting, earlier in the call you said, "90% of our thoughts and ideas from yesterday, carry over today." I just hope that -- I wanted you to know that, the new 10% that you filled in today I hope that remains as part of my continual 90% going forward. (Laughter)
Mickey: (Laughter) Let me know.
Pavi: We'll be playing reruns of this call every day... (Laughter)
Amit: Thank you very much, Mickey! We really, really appreciate you spending time with us today. I can't wait to listen to this call over and over again, literally. There were so many beautiful things, and moments, that you shared and we're really appreciative of it.
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