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At 85, Judy Blume is having one of the best years of her long, storied career. The Prime Video documentary Judy Blume Forever and a charming adaptation of her most famous novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, debuted one week apart in April. A flurry of corresponding media attention reaffirmed Blume’s status as America’s preeminent writer of realistic young adult fiction. And in July, Judy Blume Forever earned two Emmy nominations, one for outstanding documentary or nonfiction special and another for its direction.
Those newly minted Emmy-nominated directors, Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, came to the project from different vantages: The former was a longtime Blume devotee, whereas the latter had never read her work. Longtime friends who collaborated on The New Yorker cartoonist doc Very Semi-Serious, Pardo and Wolchok made a film that honors a beacon of free speech at a time when book bans are censoring material in schools and libraries nationwide. In the wake of their awards attention, THR spoke to the pair about what it took to persuade Blume to open herself up to them.
What have your interactions with Judy been like since the movie came out?
LEAH WOLCHOK Judy has always known how much her fans have gravitated toward her characters and her stories, but she’s realizing how much her own personal story has really moved people. She’s talked to us a little bit about what people say when they come into the bookstore (Books & Books in Key West, Florida) after they’ve seen the documentary, because she’s had fans come greet her at the bookstore for years. She opened the bookstore in 2016, but they were always coming in as fans of her stories. Now they know a little bit more about who she was growing up, who she was in her first marriage, why she became a writer and the struggle she went through, and people really feel even more emotionally connected to her as a person.
Leah, since you weren’t as familiar with Judy Blume, what was your reaction to Davina’s idea to make a documentary about her?
WOLCHOK I had been supporting Davina from afar for the whole time that she had been reaching out to Judy and corresponding. They had this little long-distance love affair via email for a year and a half. Davina and I met in film school in 2003, and we support each other through all phases of the documentary filmmaking process. I remember Davina talking about this from the very beginning. I was at my parents’ house and went into the closet and found a copy of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, and I was like, “Wow, wait, we had the book!” I don’t think I’d ever read it. Inside the front cover was a stamp that my mom had put with my brothers’ names on it. She had sent it to camp with them, and also my best friend’s brother and sister had signed their names in the book. That book had been passed down and was sitting in my parents’ closet for almost 40 years. How did I not have this deep connection to Judy Blume’s work that so many other women of my generation do? I felt a little bit left out of a club. By the time I was a tween, Judy’s books were really being banned. They were being talked about as taboo and as inappropriate, and I think I internalized a lot of that. It wasn’t something that my friends were talking about. We were passing around V.C. Andrews books, which you’re probably too young to remember.
Flowers in the Attic?
WOLCHOK Exactly. That was the book that in fifth grade everyone was reading, and it was seen as somehow OK to read that Gothic horror story, which has a lot of really challenging topics, but not OK to read about a girl who was discovering her own special place or a girl who was questioning religion or a girl who was wondering about her parents’ marriage or wondering when she was going to grow boobs or get her period.
What was Judy’s response to the first email you sent her?
DAVINA PARDO The first response, which maybe came a few weeks after I wrote her, was very warm. It was also a little hesitant. She said, “Thank you so much for your email. I’m tempted, but I have a really full life. And to be totally frank” — in the way that Judy Blume always is — “I don’t know how I feel about doing a documentary. Maybe.” So the door was ajar.
And what was the moment that fully opened the door?
PARDO We went back and forth for quite a while. Toward the end, we started talking a lot about her readers, the kids who had written to her and the fact that she had saved all those letters for so many years, even though she claims to be a person who throws everything out. I went to the Yale library to check out what was there. You could spend weeks and weeks there. Once I got a taste of it and learned that Judy was still in touch with some of the letter writers, it was really clear that that was an important part of the story. And then bringing on Imagine Documentaries was huge. That way, it wouldn’t be me as an independent filmmaker slowly raising money over many years, which is how I’ve often worked in the past.
What was it like to exist in Judy’s world?
WOLCHOK We were in lockdown. Immersing myself in Judy’s world was such a welcome escape from all the stress and anxiety that the whole world was experiencing. It allowed me to think about my mom’s life and my mother-in-law’s life. My kids, at the time, were 8 and 11, and they were stuck at home. My 11-year-old was feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, and diving into these characters’ lives gave me a sense of freedom and possibility.
What’s it like to be invited into Judy’s home? What kind of snacks does she serve?
PARDO Her apartment in Key West is very pristine and white. I remember just being really scared that we are going to scratch a white wall, coming in with a crew. We brought our own snacks, but something she loves to do when visitors come is to take you out for a meal on the beach at her favorite restaurant called Salute! On the Beach. She always orders key lime pie with a ton of whipped cream.
Were you aware of the robustness of Judy’s fan correspondence before you started working on the film?
PARDO Not before I started the research. She gave the archive to Yale, so there were some articles about it. There were dozens and dozens and dozens of boxes organized in many cases by theme — everything from divorce to “my annoying sibling” to grief and loss and eating disorders. Looking at those folder names, you could see how much depth and breadth was there. But I didn’t know at the time that Judy still had these long-term relationships. It’s important to say, too, that you can’t just walk into a library there and pull letters off the shelf. The privacy of the letter writers has been really important to Judy and her husband, George, in transferring the letters to Yale because she still has a relationship with some of them. When she was ready, she reached out to a few on our behalf and said: “They’re making a documentary about me. They would love to talk to you. Do you feel comfortable doing that?”
What was it like to see the two letter writers who appear in the film, both now adults, read their old letters from adolescence?
WOLCHOK We had months of going back and forth with them before we ever brought them in to interview. We asked about specific passages that we would like them to read. We talked a lot about what it would be like for them to go back into that space. We worked with a therapist to make sure that we were being sensitive to the trauma that might come up in the interviews. They wrote the letters as kids, sealed them in an envelope, put a stamp on them and put them in the mail, not thinking they would ever see them again. We were reintroducing them to their childhood selves and wanted to make sure they felt comfortable every step of the way. It was really powerful to be a witness to that, to be a listener, which is always the greatest honor as a filmmaker. That’s something Karen says in the film, that Judy honored her through responding to her letters throughout the years. Judy had actually met them both in person when they were teenagers. She really was there for them in the most profound way.
Did Judy give you a sense of why she picked those two people in particular?
PARDO Those are two whom she’s really stayed in close contact with. I think she recognized the power of their stories and the strength of their writing. Even as young kids, they were such articulate writers.
When you were in production, was book banning already the hot-button topic it’s become across America?
PARDO It was simmering, but it hadn’t boiled up. Because of Judy’s experience, we were paying attention to it and looking at what kinds of books are being banned today. We were learning that most banned books are about queer and transgender characters, about Black and brown characters, and by authors with those identities. From the beginning, we knew that it was going to be really important to talk to the contemporary authors who experienced what Judy was experiencing. It’s a sad, disturbing serendipity that it has blown up in the way that it has. Judy has been really vocal in recent months about it, and we’re grateful that the film can have a small part in that conversation. As Judy says in the film, “A book can’t harm a child.” It’s been maddening to be working on this alongside this growth of banning all over the country.
What did you think of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the movie?
PARDO I saw it twice: once with Judy at a Lionsgate screening and once with my kids and my in-laws on the Upper West Side. It was a packed house. Maybe this is watching it as an adult versus experiencing the book as a kid, but for me, Margaret’s mom, Barbara, is much more filled out as a character. They did such a beautiful job with making that character more nuanced. Rachel McAdams makes me cry. And these two films coming out at the same time has been really great for all of us.
WOLCHOK (Margaret director) Kelly Fremon Craig was brilliant in the way she realized that the women who read Margaret as girls are now middle-aged moms who are going to connect with the mom. Davina and I watched (her debut film) The Edge of Seventeen at the very beginning of working on this documentary together, and we both loved that movie. It is so well directed. I see Kelly in that movie, and there are pieces of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in it.
PARDO When I saw Margaret the second time and Judy’s name came onscreen in the credits at the end, the audience cheered. I’m so grateful that we got to have a small part in sharing her story and legacy.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.