Exclusive Interview: Zackary Drucker on co-directing HBO’s Elizabeth Carmichael docu-series The Lady and the Dale “I identify as a queer heretic & a freak, I’ve never wanted to pander to respectable society & Liz embodies that too”

Multimedia artist Zackary Drucker has performed and exhibited her work internationally at museums, galleries, and film festivals including the Whitney Biennial 2014, MoMA PS1, Hammer Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, MCA San Diego, and SF MoMA. She is the Emmy-nominated producer of the docu-series This Is Me, which explores personal stories of trans experience, and was a producer on the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Transparent. Most recently she co-directed and executive produced the four-part docu-series The Lady and the Dale which premieres this Sunday January 31st on HBO and streams on HBO Max. The richly detailed, fast-paced, and riveting series examines the fascinating life of trans entrepreneur Elizabeth Carmichael and how she was treated by the media and law enforcement as her business practices came under increasing scrutiny when in the thick of the 1970s energy crisis she promoted a low-cost futuristic looking fuel-efficient three-wheeled automobile, The Dale. Read our ★★★★ review of the series.

Ahead of the launch of The Lady and the Dale, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Zackary Drucker about why she wanted to be involved in telling Liz Carmichael’s story, what led to the use of innovative animation for certain sequences, how she worked with her co-director Nick Cammalleri on shaping the series during Covid, her personal take on Liz, and how John Waters has influenced her creatively.

Zackary Drucker. Courtesy of Zackary Drucker.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the series, I’ve actually already watched the fourth episode twice because there’s so much in there. I love the sequence contextualising Liz in the history of trans representation, which we’ll get on to.

Zackary Drucker: “Thank you so much. Yeah, for me, it’s all in that last episode, it’s like the thesis of the whole series.”

How aware were you of Liz Carmichael and her story before you became involved in the series?

Zackary Drucker: “I was completely unaware of Liz’s story before the project landed on my lap. Jay Duplass called and said, ‘We’ve just pitched this to HBO and it seems like it’s going to be a green light, you have to be involved. I remember driving up to the Duplass production office to meet with the producers, watching the sizzle reel that they’d sent me on my phone and at that point I knew nothing about Liz. I can remember thinking, why this story when there are so many incredible stories out there of gender expansive people through time? So I was a little skeptical at first and I think that actually worked out because by the end of it I’d had this complete circle experience and a really deeply understood why Liz’s story is an example of how trans and non-binary people have been treated in the media and by the public.”

Elizabeth Carmichael posing next to Dale automobile. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.

What stage was the project at when you came on board as co-director and how did you help to shape the series, which culminates in that historical contextualisation of Liz’s story as a trans person?

“Nick Cammalleri my co-director had gathered this incredible archive on Liz; hundreds of articles, FBI documents, and a network of people who knew her or who’d had some stake in apprehending her. We worked together interviewing everybody and then it was ultimately shaped during Covid. The first episode was really unprecedented, I don’t think anybody knew how to tell Liz’s backstory and we had to create that all through animation because there was no source material, we only have one photograph of Liz in her early years. So I think in some ways the second and third episodes where there was enough archival material were a little more straightforward, whereas the first and last episodes were completely shaped in essentially a writers’ room, with us diving deep into the material, reading all the transcripts, reading all the articles and figuring out how we could bring some of these things to life. Animation turned out to be the kind of expansive medium that would provide these opportunities for narrative devices.”

Elizabeth Carmichael with her family. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.

“In terms of the last episode, for me the thing that was hard is when we did the interviews there was a lot of negativity around trans people, around Liz as a trans person, and it actually came from many different directions. It wasn’t appropriate to include most of that in the series, we just kind of strategically let the transphobia by certain people rear its head at certain moments. My personal journey of being in those rooms and listening to people’s unfiltered views on trans identities was difficult. I had never heard some of the things that people said before. It was really not a circumstance in which I would ever consciously put myself in. There was one subject who figured out that I was trans, but I think by and large nobody else did. They were all older so it was easy to kind of slip under the radar. I had to really wrestle with that when we were putting this series together and I was like, so many people who are in this documentary have a lot to learn and I wanted everybody to learn something, to really shatter the paradigm. From the outset of the fourth episode it was like, we’re gonna own this narrative, trans people are going to call this out immediately. I mean the first moment in the fourth episode is so astounding, that Pete Noyes is telling this story 45 years later with no consciousness that it was wrong.”

Zackary Drucker. Photograph by Collier Schorr.

And that it’s a different person, he’s confused another trans woman, tennis player Renée Richards, whom reporter Dick Carlson also outed with Liz Carmichael. That false start with you interjecting and gently and very politely correcting him is a really interesting way of beginning the episode because he’s got it so wrong.

“It was at that moment when we starting putting it together and reliased that Carlson went on to out Renée Richards, which became a cultural moment that everybody remembers. We hadn’t put it together before that point that Dick Carlson was the same man. You can read all of Renée Richards’ accounts of what happened, it’s all there, but nobody had ever put it together before. I think the last episode is very much a trans-centering, it’s a way of looking at Liz in the larger trajectory of trans people through time in order to understand that no matter what she had done, there was always going to be this conflation of fraud. Her existence in and of itself made her liable to be accused of being an evil deceiver or make believer, that notion had been created over centuries and when you think in the scope of that you realize that this wouldn’t have gone any other way for her.”

Did you know going into this that the news reporter Dick Carlson was Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s father?

“Yeah, we knew that already and then the Father’s Day footage of Tucker on Fox News was a gift, it was perfect. We also watched every Tucker Carlson clip in which he attacked trans rights. So we knew that from the outset, but we didn’t initially know how to reveal it, but it all came together.”

Zackary Drucker. Photograph by Collier Schorr.

I guess it’s kind of obvious, particularly given how Liz’s story was handled by the media at the time, that producers Jay and Mark Duplass would have felt that it was important to have a trans woman as part of telling this story but even today this documentary series might have been made without the input of trans folks. Could you talk about the importance of your voice, among others, being included in this telling?

“Oh my God, of course, I mean I feel like I’m a representative of the trans creatives behind the scenes. One of our editors on that last episode is a non-binary person who worked with me on Transparent. Having Sandy Stone in the documentary was an incredible gift, her willingness to appear on camera, she is such an oracle in so many ways, as well as Mia Yamamoto and Susan Stryker. There was a lot of diversity behind the scenes, much more so than on camera, at all levels of our remote online post and editorial community. It changes everything honestly, it’s so interesting because I think there are fundamental differences and ways of being. I was struck by a review of the series in The Daily Beast, the reporter really dismissed the last episode as putting rose colored glasses on, which I don’t think we do at all. I think that we give everybody a fair shake, whether we personally agree with them or not, I think it has integrity as an accurate telling of the story. It was so oblivious, there was no recognition or consciousness about his own investment in probably identifying with the male journalist. I just have this feeling of being like, oh my God, now these men are still going to go out there and review this series about Liz. It’s frustrating because it really dismissed the whole series and missed the point that there’s this guy who has framed the narrative the whole time.”

Elizabeth Carmichael posing next to Dale automobile. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.

Historian Susan Stryker says in the last episode that there is “a lot of desire on the part of trans people to have very positive representation because of such bad representation in the past” and you touched on this briefly at the beginning, but did that aspect cause you to have any reservations about sharing Liz’s story?

“To me it’s so exciting because I think Liz represents somewhat of a shift in telling stories that are not solely affirmational. We can only be full humans if we’re able to make mistakes and make bad decisions. You can’t just tell these positive stories about people. There’s no complexity or layering. Not to oversimplify, I mean I’m speaking in broad strokes here, but I hope that this represents an era when there will be a more robust treatment of trans stories that transcend the kind of first phase of correcting a history of misrepresentation. When you look at independent gay cinema from the early 70s it was similar, it was very affirmational, it was very much two men holding hands walking on the beach. There was this brief period when gay and lesbian filmmakers were consciously trying to correct all of the ways in which they had been maligned, and I feel like the past several years we’ve been laying the groundwork for more complex stories about trans people. It excites me. I have a personal penchant for outsiders. I identify as a queer heretic and a freak, I’ve never wanted to pander to respectable society and Liz embodies that too, I think that was a part of her rejection of normative culture.”

Did you find yourself admiring her to some degree and seeing her as kind of a trailblazer?

“Over a year and a half of making the series you can have every feeling and every opinion about a person.”

I think the good thing about this series is that it allows us as viewers to have that experience over the four episodes.

“Do you think so? It did for us.”

Elizabeth Carmichael. Photograph by Colin Dangaard/Courtesy HBO.

Yeah, definitely. It’s a complex, fully rounded telling of a flawed woman. I respected that she represented herself in court and that she was able to use her name and how resilient she was, and she must have been charismatic.

“Totally. I mean, down to Gerry Banks the district attorney who escorted her from Miami when they extradited her; he spent a few hours with her on the plane and he just was so charmed by her. So I think she had that kind of infectious confidence, she instilled confidence in other people, she was genuinely able to connect and of course she used that to her advantage to all sorts of different ends. My mother was a journalist and she was part of our feedback group while we were making the series and I would say that she took on a more cynical view of Liz and there were certain cultural figures of today that reminded her of Liz. It’s so helpful to have other perspectives and to be able to see through other people’s eyes.”

Watching the series I couldn’t help but think that this would make a really good movie or dramatic TV series. Do you have any ideas of who you might cast to play Liz?

“I have not thought about that, but I would love to see a six foot two actor, Liz’s type. I think it would be a fabulous opportunity for an up and coming actor who might not get equivalent roles as an ingenue. I just think that we are such an incredibly diverse community and Liz represents a late transitioning person who came from a straight world, not a queer world, and it’s certainly an unprecedented story and it lends itself well to any number of different things, but I feel like we did a great job with this four part series.”

Actor Divine and filmmaker John Waters on February 14, 1975 in New York City. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s made an impact on you a resonated with you over the years?

“New Queer Cinema and John Waters films for sure. I would say that John Waters informed my strategy of filmmaking in a lot of ways, the idea that you can create with your friends in a really scrappy DIY kind of way. And in the Covid era, having put this show together remotely with people, it was very much all hands on deck, it was a very organic confluence. It was like, ‘How do we do this? How do we create art in our home offices? How do we finish this project on time? And we did. I think it just required creating something that had never existed before.”

By James Kleinmann

The Lady and the Dale debuts with two back-to-back episodes this Sunday January 31st 9-11pm ET/PT, with new episodes airing subsequent Sundays at 9pm ET/PT. The series will premiere on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max.

For more on Zackary Drucker head to her official website. Follow her on Twitter @ZackaryDrucker and Instagram @ZackaryDrucker.

The Lady and the Dale: Official Trailer | HBO.
The Lady and the Dale. Official Poster. HBO.

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