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Assembling the Amazing Archival Material for ‘That Summer’

Göran Olsson's documentary uses long-long footage of Edith and Edie Beale 'to evoke memories in a contagious way.'

Before the landmark documentary from Albert and David Maysles, Grey Gardens, introduced the world to Edith and Edie Beale—the unforgettable mother-daughter living in a decaying dream world on Long Island—photographer Peter Beard chronicled life at their crumbling estate.

With That Summer, director Göran Olsson assembles Beard’s long-lost footage into a family portrait—including the quotable bon mots and impromptu musical numbers that would make Big and Little Edie beloved cultural icons.

This is what Jude Dry calls “the major selling point of That Summer:” “The witty zingers that made the world first fall in love with the Beales in Grey Gardens. While Big Edie was famous for her serenades, Little Edie always had the best one-liners: ‘The thing I’m always looking for. Either my pants or my make-up. Nobody wears pants nowadays,’ she quips. Here she is teasing Beard about his picky eating: ‘You might be more charming if you put on 3 ounces.’ Or speaking to spirits: ‘I made visual contact today. I pierced the veil.’

“Touring the overgrown grounds, Little Edie sinks into an armchair that has become one with the natural surroundings. ‘Nobody ever sat in it ever. Except me. So I call it ‘the disappointed chair.'” To read Dry’s full article, click here

“To me, this film is very much a love story,” Olsson says. “The original footage reflects Peter Beard’s and [Jackie Kennedy sister and Beales cousin] Lee Radziwill’s relationship and the love and respect they had for their friends, including Big and Little Edie Beale. I hope it also reflects our own love and respect for the characters and the time.”

“We looked for many, many years for the reels, looking in various storage spaces and searching high and low in the archives, and then one day a filmmaker’s dream came true,” recounts Beard. “We loved the Beales, and I had a sense of relief and disbelief when I heard the reels had been found. 

“The return of the reels came about when Al Maysles called the studio to ask permission to use footage he had for outtakes for a DVD, but we weren’t certain what he was talking about. It was only when the reels were sent to be digitized and the transfer house sent a DVD and the originals back to the studio that we saw the lost footage, all filmed before the painters and the carpenters got their hands on the house. Seeing our footage again was a dream.”

“The most unforgettable, amazing thing was getting in there—naturally the whole outside world had been padlocked out,” Beard explains. “Gaining entrance to this world of conscientious objectors: that was the mystery ticket—and it was the most thrilling and difficult part of our project: friends at the local deli, phone numbers, rumours, codes, knocking at the back door, eye-witness accounts, so many delicious details, the research, the planning, the other relatives … the strategizing was epic. And finally, with Lee Radziwill—we got in with the Edies’ permission and trust—the full inside visual! This was a whole world within a world.”

“Our method was very simple, using one camera and filming truth and reality,” Beard continues. “It was ‘them’ in their magical essence. The house was an old wreck and it needed to be filmed exactly as it was. Having a large crew would not have been conducive to the intimacy that was created by Lee’s personal connection to the family.

“It’s timeless in its details, absolutely fascinating, an un-ruined enchantment, a house falling apart, roaming raccoons, damsels in distress. They had been living in an empty, haunted house, locked inside for decades.

“Every minute was new, insanely funny, poignant, wild, unpredictable and unmatchable… Daily soap operas amongst themselves, the most original scripts, the most surprising true stories, the most paranoid gossip, remarkably historical tales—totally fun, inventive, serendipitous, and most importantly always hysterical.”

“This is not a film that tries to reveal something—this is a film that is made to evoke memories in a contagious way,” Olsson says. “Throughout the making of That Summer, we did everything possible to treat the material with the utmost respect and not transform it to something different from what it was intended to be. Aggressive or fast editing and intercutting of different film sources was never an option for us.

“We didn’t want to mix different material in an aggressive edit, and tried to design the film to keep the feeling of discovering a hidden gem. Also I think the audience appreciates doing some thinking of their own when they view a film.”

“If the deliciously grainy archival footage were the only thing That Summer had to offer, it would be enough,” Dry continues. “But by including Beard and Radziwill’s introspective voiceovers, Olsson creates a nostalgic meditation that touches on both cultural and historical memory. 

“Not only does the film breathe new life into an American family surrounded by tragic mythos, but it sheds light on a cinematic treasure that forever changed documentary filmmaking. A treasure we would not have without Radziwill, who is more acutely aware than most of memory’s import As she says in the movie—’Without memory, there is no life.'” To read the full article, click here.

Read more: That Summer: A Long-Lost Prequel to Grey Gardens Resurfaces

Read more: That Summer: Long-Lost Grey Gardens Prequel Dignifies the Beales With Nostalgic Affection