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Interview with BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY director Alexandra Dean

January 18, 2018

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Everyone is more than they appear to be, but too often we limit our perceptions and expectations of people based solely on their appearance. That becomes quite clear while watching the fascinating documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” from director Alexandra Dean, which looks at the life of actress Hedy Lamarr, who was declared “the most beautiful woman in the world” back in the 30s and 40s. The Austrian-born actress was known for captivating audiences with her beauty on the big screen, yet few people knew of her passion for inventing. When she wasn’t in front of the camera, Lamarr was busy working away in her lab, eventually creating a radio system that is now considered the basis for GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. Clearly, Lamarr was more than eye candy, yet she never truly received the recognition she deserved.

Dean’s documentary is enlightening, but like its title, it’s also a bombshell of a film, revealing mind-blowing information about the complex life of a woman who was misunderstood and could never seem to shake her iconic image. Dean touches on many aspects of Lamarr’s life such as how she came to America, her six marriages and, in her later reclusive years, her shoplifting charge and plastic surgeries. But the primary focus is the method of frequency hopping Lamarr co-created with composer George Antheil, something she patented yet never received due credit for and would eventually be used in the military.

Lamarr may have died in 2000 at age 85, but she is very much alive and present in “Bombshell”, thanks to Dean’s inclusion of video footage and especially the use of Lamarr’s own voice. The actress, who was the inspiration for Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman, was recorded on cassette tape by journalist Fleming Meeks, during a phone interview for a 1990 Forbes article. These recordings are used effectively in the film as we hear her voice share her point of view on her life. In another part of the film, actress Diane Kruger can be heard reading letters written by Lamarr. Both of these methods give the documentary an added presence of Dean’s subject.

Whether or not you’re aware of who Hedy Lamarr is “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” will intrigue and fascinate you, opening your eyes to not only who she is, but also what she did. Recently, I had a chance to talk with Alexandra Dean over the phone about her film, what led her to do a documentary on Lamarr and what the process was like making the film.

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: With the film’s title and subject matter, many viewers will think they know what they’re in store for, but they’re likely to be quite surprised as I was – could the same be said for you, as you embarked on this project?

ALEXANDRA DEAN: Was I surprised? Oh my God, I was so surprised! I knew she was going to be something new. Her story is about a person who should’ve been born today, but she was born in 1914. At the same time, so much more was packed in there than I ever imagined.

DJF: What brought you to making a documentary about Lamarr? How did this come about?

AD: Well, I was starting a new documentary film company with my brother and we had this desire to do something a little bit different, from a different angle. And one of the things I was really looking for was definitely a strong female story, a story about some woman’s incredible life. And I had been doing this series called “Innovators” at Bloomberg Television and it was really an opportunity to do a deep dive to what was happening to the inventors in our country today. I spoke with a lot of female inventors and they said to me that they dealt with this problem all the time – that people close their eyes and they think “inventor” and they think of Thomas Edison or a certain type of person. They found it hard for people to take them seriously often as a result and that can be a problem with funding, as well as just reception of their work. And that really stayed with me and I thought to myself, “Can it be that our world was really created by one kind of person?” It just didn’t seem right. Are we overlooking so many people that create and shape our world?

And really, that was a “Hidden Figures” question, but “Hidden Figures” wasn’t out yet and I didn’t know that. And I think we’re starting to fill out those “Hidden Figures” now, but Hedy was the first one that I discovered and I discovered it because Katherine Drew, one of our producers, gave me a copy of Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes and I read it in 2014 and I was like, “Bingo! There is the story!”

DJF: Was it at that point that you realized there could be a documentary out of this or did that come a little bit later, once you got into it?

AD: When I began thinking about this as a doc, the real problem was that I knew she never really told her story, that a lot of what I was reading was pieced together from third-party sources. And nobody had ever gotten her on the record, saying that she did or that she did indeed invent all this stuff and didn’t steal it from her husband, who was a munitions manufacturer. And then there were all these theories about how could Hedy Lamarr possibly have done this as a result of not having that primary source where she explains it all. And so I was really enthusiastic about doing this story anyway and I was going out and getting the funding anyway, but six months in I was really starting to feel like a bit of a fraud, because I didn’t have the voice of this woman and I wanted it to be a story where she finally took the stage and told her story in her own words.

So, we started really going through this list of people – anybody who could possibly have something like those tapes. And just methodically going down that list and calling them all and contacting them and bothering them. And finally we found Fleming Meeks, who did still have the tapes and when I called him, he called back and said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me.” Which was just wild.

DJF: That right there is just amazing to me. It’s like digging and finding a treasure.

AD: Yes! It was like a treasure hunt and it was like, you go out there on the sand with your little spade and you think, “Maybe we’ll hit gold” (laughs) and most likely we’ll just have some fun and go home. But then we found the actual pirate’s treasure chest and that’s what it felt like.

 

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DJF: That’s crazy. How long did that process take? You know, interviewing him (Fleming Meeks) and figuring out whether or not the audio was good from those little cassette tapes…

AD: Yeah, that took about three months. The little cassette tapes were not in great condition and we were afraid to even play them at first because audio on cassette tapes that old just falls off it turns out. You have to take it and have it go through this process which is called “baking” the tape – which is exactly what it sound like, you bake the sound back onto the tape. So that it doesn’t fall off and then you see what kind of quality you have.

DJF: Wow. Had you ever done that before or was that something that was a totally new process for you?

AD: It was totally new for me and I did some stupid things at first. I did what anyone else would and just slammed the tape in like anyone would and tried to play it and luckily there were people around me who knew that was a terrible idea. (laughs)

DJF: There’s so many things that surprised me in this film, but in many ways Hedy Lamarr is like so many of us, we’re all complex people and she’s complex and there’s so much to cover here – what was the bigger challenge for you, determining what to edit out or who to include in the documentary?

AD: Hmmm…it was a challenge of who to edit out, because we had this great big mega version of it at one point. There were – you know, I wish this was a story that had been easier to tell with two or three amazing dramatic voices, but really, people did not have a great sense of who Hedy Lamarr was when she died, because she became such a recluse. And we really did piece it together from scraps and when you do that you don’t know who you can rely on most to tell the story. It sort of comes into focus later. And then there’s this great process of streamlining and weeding out and I have this new lesson that I really learned from doing this with an editor named Penelope Falk, who also did the incredible movie “Step” last year.

She’s just fantastically talented and she came in later when we were finishing up the edit and taught me this lesson of…if you’re trying to let the story flow through, in that kind of rushing beautiful way that you want your narrative to go, you really need to identify the boulders in that storytelling and just roll them out of the way, even if they’re the things you love the most. If they’re stopping the water from flowing downhill, you just need to roll them out. And we had this wonderful time doing that together, painful and wonderful, figuring out what the boulders were and rolling them out and then, sure enough, there was this great energy that rushed through the narrative.

DJF: And what’s funny is sometimes you can’t see those boulders because you’re so close to it and I’m sure having her there with you helped. 

AD: It did immensely. In fact, sometimes she’d tell me stuff and I’d gnash my teeth and pull out my hair and then I’d have to admit, “She was right”. (laughs)

DJF: Even though you’re directed the film, it’s such a collaborative process. 

AD: It is and that’s the beauty of what we do. It is so collaborative and, you know, sometimes that’s difficult too, but it’s really – at the end of the day, I think it’s much more rewarding to do something with other people, where you feel like it’s a shared achievement.

 

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DJF: For sure. The film also touches on perceptions of celebrity and how society, back then and sadly even today, cannot fathom viewing entertainers in any other way, especially when they voice their views on politics. Was that maddening or saddening that that was going to be part of the documentary? I’m sure it wasn’t too surprising, but still…

AD: You know, I think it’s more common honestly for entertainers, because it turns out one of the Marz brothers was an inventor, I wanna say it was Groucho. And everyone kind of accepted it and all of his patents were well received and it wasn’t a big thing. He was a guy and he was smart and he was funny and inventive. It didn’t even hit anyone’s radar. So, I think there’s a real part of this that you have to realize it’s not just the fact that she was an entertainer, but because she was a woman. An entertainer and very beautiful, but a woman. And I think that that persists to this day. And it wasn’t just men who saw Hedy in that light and she could never escape that box of just being beautiful, it was also women and that persists to this day.

DJF: It must be how we perceive icons or how legacy carries on that we just can’t let go of images or symbols.

AD:  Yes and I think it’s actually how our brain is wired. I think it’s that primitive. By looking at this, we’re actually trying to unwire something that’s deeply wired. And I respect that and I think, if we’re all honest with ourselves, we’ll see it in all of our own minds. I certainly saw my own prejudices come up when I approached this story, “That woman, that Catwoman is based on, she’s the one who came up with frequency hopping? Really?” You know, at first, your brain does that and then you kind of work around that, put that prejudice aside and realize “of yeah yeah, she did do it” – and it’s just really good to recognize that it’s there, deeply wired in your mind.

DJF: So, you were not hooked right away.

AD: I was skeptical. I have a training as an investigative journalist and you’re supposed to sniff out anything that smells too good to be true, in terms of storytelling. So, I had healthy skepticism. I was aware that there were some really big gaps in what we knew at the time I began reporting this. And there were a lot of scientists saying to me, “Listen, it’s really much more likely that she took this invention from Germany, where she was sitting around with all these great inventors of military weapons. You telling me that she didn’t just get it from one of those brilliant minds? Put it in her shoe and bring it over to the U.S.?” And that’s where that idea that she was a spy came from, which is still very pervasive, came from.

DJF: Was there a point in making this documentary where you realized, “Okay, this is what we’re gonna focus on and this is how we’re gonna do it”?

AD: It was when I found those tapes. I had already made a version of the doc, but I was not happy with it. And the version was really built around these letters that she wrote when she was young, that we translated from German. And we still have some of those in the doc, but it was not really illuminating her whole life. And when we found the tapes, I really decided to throw out what we were doing and follow what she was saying in the tapes, follow that narrative. And that did, for me, it made the thing take off.

DJF: I’m glad you brought up those letters, because I thought the idea to include actress Diane Kruger to read those letters was brilliant. How did she get involved?

AD: Well, I just knew that she loved Hedy’s story. And that she has the backing of the Sloan Foundation, the way that we did. She had been developing a script about Hedy through the Sloan Foundation and we had also got a grant to start this doc. So, we reached out through them. And actually, I have to give a shout out to Sloan here, because if there weren’t organizations out there like that, who really care about taking stories about women and science to the public, none of these things would get made. You wouldn’t have “The Theory of Everything”, that was Sloan. You know, all of these brilliant science stories exist because of a place like the Sloan Foundation.

 

I TAKE THIS WOMAN, Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, 1940

 

DJF: I’m assuming you’re aware that the title “Bombshell”, in relation to what is revealed in the film, definitely relates to the double-meaning of the word?

AD: Yes, it’s a triple meaning to me.

DJF: Okay. Talk about that. 

AD: Well, obviously the word “bombshell” immediately makes you think of a beautiful and sexy actress. And to some extent, Hedy played to that in some aspects, but that’s the least important definition to me. The hidden story that we’re about to reveal to you, is that she created this bombshell, this torpedo that was remote controlled that was her great contribution to the war effort, even though she wasn’t getting any credit for it. So, she created a bombshell. And the final reason for calling it “Bombshell” is that’s what I kept calling the story. We would walk around and say, “This is a bombshell! This is nuts!” So, the word “bombshell” was just hanging around in the office and it was the one that seemed obvious to me.

DJF: That totally makes sense. When I looked up the definition of the word “bombshell”, obviously there’s “very attractive woman” and then the other definition is “overwhelming surprise or disappointment”. The surprise here is obvious, but the disappointment in the fact that Lamarr was never able to fully receive the rewards of her work. 

AD: Exactly. Yeah, it’s deeply disappointed. It’s also deeply disappointing for any woman watching this from the angle of – you know, this is somebody who was born with all the gifts that we all dream of. Incredible beauty. Incredible mind. And also the bravery to use them and to deploy here gifts to escape a terrible situation like the Nazis. And if she couldn’t prevail and really figure out how to navigate the world – in a way that was successful for her at the end of her life in a way that she was recognized – what does that mean for so many other women?

DJF: Great question. Finally, how did you come across that powerful poem she read that you included at the very end of the film and when did you realize that would be the perfect way to close the documentary?

AD: Oh, well Hedy kept calling her children, she kept calling Anthony, her son and  leaving this poem on his answering machine. It was actually in context that she wanted him to include it in a book of photography he was working on. But, he clearly was so moved by it and she was trying so hard to tell him something, by recording this again and again on his answering machine, that it became very clear to me after researching that this was her last message that she wanted to live. And it was of the wisdom that she received at the end of her life. And I found that incredibly hopeful and uplifting after covering this downfall of hers that went on for so long. But at the end of her life, what really resonated for her was one where she told the world, “I wanted to do it anyway. I did feel kicked in the teeth. I felt unrecognized for my incredible contribution to this world.” In the end, for her, I think it was in the doing it, in the contributing something in the world that would make a difference. That made it all worth it and that’s what that poem is all about. So, for me there was no question once I heard it on Anthony’s answering machine that, there’s no question that that’s how I wanted to end the film.

DJF: Fantastic. Well, Alex I really appreciate your time today.

AD: Oh, it was a great pleasure. Thank you for including me.

 

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“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” will open on January 19th (thru January 25th) at the Music Box Theatre here in Chicago. For tickets, click here

 

 

 

 

 

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