“I didn’t decide to become a playwright,” Irene once said. “It decided itself. When something happens by accident, I trust it.”
Just as Irene didn’t set out to become a playwright, I never set out to become a filmmaker. No, that day on Brighton Beach in 2003 was a glorious accident. Irene’s response to the camera and my response to filming her was a beautiful surprise for us both. Initially the film was our way to keep the creative process alive in each of us, and the process—at least at the time—was very much the product.
Today I am able to see clearly the reason I stayed committed to the project years after I stopped filming (due to Irene’s advancing dementia). The reason I kept working with the tapes, combing through hundreds of hours of footage, was because there was a story I had to tell. Eventually I met an editor—Melissa Neidich—who cared as deeply for the material as I did, and what we unearthed was a story about the power of friendship and creativity, and what it means to remain an artist through all the vicissitudes of one’s life.
That is the heart of the story I’m telling, but I am also making this film because it confronts a prevailing attitude about aging and Alzheimer’s disease that I feel passionate about challenging and that I believe needs to change. In our society today there’s a pervasive view that people lose their value as they lose their short-term memories, which confines multitudes of elders to a life of invisibility and isolation while they are still capable of meaningful relationship. The Rest I Make Up counters that assumption by inviting us to live for a while with an irrepressibly vital and generative playwright who—even in the face of eroding memory, even as she no longer formally writes and teaches—is experiencing a remarkably creative period of her life.
The film’s title, The Rest I Make Up, is taken from lyrics to one of Irene’s songs in Promenade: “I know everything. Half of it I really know. The rest I make up.” It is a testament to the way life can creatively increase even as it is cognitively disappearing, and to the way a teacher can continue to lead a student even as the student begins to lead the teacher. Over the past fifty years, there have been thousands of artists and writers who have worked with Irene or taken her legendary workshops. And each of them has an Irene story to tell. The Rest I Make Up is mine.
Photo by Michael Smith