Interview with Nancy Kates director of Regarding Susan Sontag Documentary
Zora Burden: What inspired and motivated you to make the Regarding Susan Sontag documentary?
Nancy Kates: I was saddened by Sontag’s death at the end of 2004. This was about 6 months after my father died, so I was also partly thinking about him. I felt like an important voice had gone out of the world, and that we were going to need her in the future. Then I decided to make a film about her; the whole project was a little bit elegiac.
ZB: What did Susan mean to you personally?
NK: That’s a hard question to answer. When I was in college, it was kind of the height of her fame. I didn’t really know much about her but I looked up to her as a figure… a smart woman who was Jewish. I didn’t actually know she was gay (or if I were gay) but there was some kind of connection I felt which a lot of young women felt at that time (the early 80s). In some ways the film is me as a middle-aged person looking back on the person I was when I was twenty. It was very exciting to discover people like Susan Sontag because it was new to me that there were these women who were smart and doing great things in the arts… and writing. A lot of the people we read at school were men; there weren’t that many women role models for artists-intellectuals. I think there are more now. Education was probably a little bit behind; while there are plenty of women artists, they weren’t necessarily being discussed or promoted in educational circles. Even today, probably people learn more about male artists and thinkers.
ZB: When you were first introduced to Susan Sontag, was this through a class? Was it on an educational level, or more casual?
NK: It was casual. If you were a smart young woman at that time, you probably had some exposure to her, but I don’t remember anyone telling me, “You should read Susan Sontag.” I was a voracious reader, so maybe I learned about her in the New Yorker? I was in college from 1980–1984; when the Susan Sontag Reader came out (1982) I immediately bought a copy—she was that iconic. I still have the book, but it managed to break into two pieces during the making of the film—we had to tape it back together! [laughs]
ZB: Now that she’s passed away, do you think her work is more part of the academic curriculum?
NK: Yes. People will often read On Photography in class but she wasn’t really writing for an academic audience. At times she had disdain for intellectuals who worked in the academy; I think people were intimidated by her. Sometimes she taught in “Women’s Studies” and certainly Art or Photography departments. She was this odd figure that was more in the popular media than in academia. She is complicated because she has such a wide range of interests. (Maybe she isn’t taught more because she’s so complicated.) I think the film will be a real introduction to her. Men and women seem to have a different response to the movie; I think men respect Susan Sontag, but don’t see her as this heroic figure or model for their own lives as women do—she’s heroic if you’re a woman, and an outlier figure if you’re a man. Sontag wanted to be outside of being limited to being known as a woman. She has often been referred to as “the smartest woman in America” or “the smartest woman intellectual in America” but she thought that was a way of putting her down. I’m happy to be known as a female artist myself, though!
ZB: I do think it’s important to put an emphasis on female accomplishments, because there aren’t enough role models out there--
NK: One thing I was aware of in making the film is that Sontag had been in the closet. But she was in the closet because she felt she would be dismissed if she were known to be gay or queer. (I mean she wasn’t entirely lesbian; she was bisexual.) And Susan Sontag was too heavy a hitter to dismiss. In general, we don’t take lesbians in America very seriously. I mean, there’s Judith Butler, but there aren’t a ton of others, and that’s really sad. One’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with one’s intelligence. But certain people make ridiculous assumptions.
ZB: Being bisexual, it’s easier to identify with both masculine and feminine qualities in oneself and others. Do you think she identified more with her male peers than female, even with a lack of female peers?
NK: This is a very tricky area. I don’t want to speak for Susan Sontag. She certainly didn’t think of herself as second to anyone… and didn’t want to be dismissed as secondary because she was female. A lot of her heroes were male writers, but not all of them. She loved all sorts of writers, from Tolstoy to Shakespeare to Henry James. To answer this question, I would just defer people to read her work.
ZB: When you approached the film, did you want to focus more on her personal life or her work?
NK: Some people think we focused too much on her personal life, but there’s tons of her work in the movie, if you look at the running time of the film.
ZB: How was the film funded when initially getting it off the ground?
NK: I wrote a lot of grant applications! We had some private funders, but mostly got grant money from the National Endowments of the Humanities, National Endowments of the Arts, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund—you can look at our list of funders online. It’s hard to raise money for documentaries, but we were successful partly because HBO got involved. It took a long time to raise the money.
ZB: How do you feel Susan Sontag would best want to be defined or remembered? As a social analyst and critic, a controversial journalist, a human rights advocate, someone whose investigative work inspires discussion and critical thinking?
NK: Well, that’s the kind of question I’d want you to ask yourself after you’ve seen the film! If we were doing a Question & Answer after the film and you asked that question from the audience, I’d say, “Well, what do you think?” She wanted to be remembered as a great writer. I think the tragedy is that she wasn’t a great writer, but she was an interesting writer.
ZB: Did you view Susan differently after talking to her family, peers, and conducting more research for the film?
NK: Well, you go through different stages as a biographer. I initially really looked up to her. Then I got really tired of her. Then I got completely fed up with her, and at one time I didn’t think much of her. Then I finally became compassionate about her, because she was a troubled human being like the rest of us. She didn’t want to be perceived that way… but that’s the truth: we all need to treat each other with compassion. I think she was narcissistically wounded. She could be really nasty to people because she wanted all this attention and acclaim, and was afraid of being perceived as “weak.” I think I got frustrated by her decision to stay in the closet—which is understandable because she was so afraid… she felt like she had too much to lose. But I try to keep my opinions out of the films that I make; that’s not what they’re about.
ZB: Do you think that Susan ever felt that her beauty / attractiveness conflicted with her desire to be respected as an intellectual? How did she combine her sexuality with being so cerebral?
NK: I think she enjoyed the attention she got for her looks. It’s unusual for someone who is as smart as she was, to be as good-looking as she was. I think she enjoyed messing with people’s minds by being both… but I don’t think she saw a conflict. I think she just wanted to make sure nobody treated her like a bimbo, because she certainly wasn’t one. That may have contributed to her being so fierce.
ZB: While making the film, did you learn more about her creative process? Did she thrive in chaos, or was she one of those writers who prefer solitude?
NK: Well, I think it varied over time. She did write by herself, but a lot of people helped her edit her work. There were times when she worked collaboratively, but she would be the only person who got credit for that collaboration. She said she would write essays on the typewriter, but could only write fiction longhand. She could write fiction sitting up in bed, which she couldn’t do for an essay… there was something more sexy about fiction that she could write in a more lounge-y kind of situation.
ZB: How do you feel she understood the world best: as an observer, or through engaging—like in debate or being on the front line?
NK: I don’t think she would like that question! She would say she does it all--that is part of being a full human being.
ZB: Which partners do you feel inspired her the most? Who really encouraged her to flourish as an artist or writer?
NK: She went through different periods; she was kind of quixotic. As a child she wrote about dance. When she was with Nicole Stephane she made films. She pursued different things at different times in her life. She had incredible enthusiasm for all the things that she did.
ZB: In this Age of the Internet and Disinformation, how did she feel about communication and dialogue through technology?
NK: She did eventually use email, but I can’t speak for her on that.
ZB: Was it emotionally difficult to speak to her family?
NK: Well, the only family member I spoke to was her sister, who had not been interviewed very often and certainly not on camera. I think it was actually kind of healing for her as well.
ZB: Was there any feedback from audiences that you’d like to mention?
NK: I think people really appreciated the way the film looked—the artistry of the film that I worked really hard to create. It’s not like other documentaries. We tried to make it compelling—something she deserved as someone who was obsessed with beauty.
ZB: I’ve seen the film and it is really gorgeous, very powerful and intimate. You can tell how much care you put into the film. There is an equal focus on the aesthetic as well as the informative. [end]