Mom, Stop Picking on "My Nose"
(from brinkzine.com 5/14/07)
- Gayle Kirschenbaum and Chelsea
Gayle Kirschenbaum’s business card has a photo of herself when she was about five years old. A big, happy smile, pigtails, cute as a button. If any five-year-old boy saw that photo he would have been smart to put in his request for marriage the year they became legal. But alas, no smart lads signed her marriage card, decades have passed, and Gayle’s ring finger is, unbelievably, bare. She has had a tremendously successful career producing/directing/writing commercials, television documentaries (even snagging an Emmy), and movies, but she’s still searching for the man who will sweep her off her feet. In fact, her last two short films, the wildly popular “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary,” in which she costars with her remarkable unmarried shih Tzu Chelsea, and, now the shorter but equally clever and quirky “My Nose,” about how her critical mother has pushed her to having a nose job her entire life, deal with her eternal quest. The first chance many New Yorkers will have to see “My Nose” is this Thursday at 7 pm at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater (212 591-0434) at 155 E. 3rd, near Avenue A. It is the opening short of a powerhouse lineup—it is followed by “Out of the Box,” Slamdance-winner “Unsettled,” “Broken Mirrors,” and “The Tribe”—presented by the 14th Street Y under the umbrella title “Oydentity.” This series of short films “exploring Jewish perspectives on Selfhood and Community” will be followed by a beer and pizza reception. In anticipation of that evening and upcoming local screenings of “My Nose,” I interviewed Gayle Kirschenbaum about her impressive bicoastal career, her often-difficult but loving relationship with her mother, Chelsea, her search for a man, and her splendid new film.
Danny Peary: At the beginning of “My Nose,” we see film of you as a young girl. You were pretty but since you already were being harassed by your mother about your nose, were you an insecure girl or confident kid who was a prime candidate to eventually go into show business?
Gayle Kirschenbaum: Before my mother started on my nose, I think I was about 5 years old when they took me to see the movie “Gigi.” I fell in love with it and from then on I wanted to be a movie star and told them they had to call me Gigi or I wouldn’t answer.
My relationship with my mother was difficult early on. You might say we didn’t see eye to eye on things such as being forced to wear clothing that made me break out in rashes. I did not like being controlled and as I developed and she became critical of my looks and various physical attributes, it got worse. I wouldn’t say it was a confidence boost. In fact, I was flat-chested for quite a while, and my mother wanted me to have silicon implants when I was fairly young. She used to take foam rubber and stuff my bathing suit top with it. One day I was taking a scuba diving lesson in a swimming pool and the foam rubber popped out. I was SO humiliated. It’s a funny story to tell today, but you can imagine how I felt then. I was so shy about my body that when I was in the locker room in high school I’d figure out a way to get into my gym suit without exposing my body. I did leave for college quite young, barely 17, and I blossomed and got over all of those physical insecurities. I was much sought after by boys even in high school, but I came into my own being 200 miles away from home.
DP: You eventually went into graphic design, but in addition to your art, did you write as as a kid?
GK: As a little girl, I drew a lot, but I also would go into my room and write in a journal. Sometimes I wrote poetry.
DP: Were your goals for yourself as a girl, and into your early twenties, different from what your mother (and perhaps father) wanted for you?
GK: Yes, absolutely. The first five years of my life I grew up in Queens and then we moved to Long Island. An upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood. I remember my mother telling me over and over again I was going to be a teacher. Being an art teacher was fine with her because I had an inclination for art. Teaching was the perfect career for a woman. You can get married and have babies and then go back to it. I never wanted to be a teacher and when it came time to go to college, and I was told I had to go to a State school, I picked the university that didn’t have an education department.
DP: Have you always been looking for the perfect husband?
GK: I don’t think I’d say always. I have been lucky and have had great relationships in my life, which for a number of reasons have not lasted. And what is the perfect husband? Different for everyone, right?
DP: When you embarked on a career in graphic design in advertising and promotion in New York City and began to win awards for your multimedia shows, did you figure that would be your life-long career?
GK: No, I never did. I was not fulfilled and just fell into it. You know how that happens. It paid well and I was good at it, but I knew I had a need to tell stories, my own stories, express my point of view. I wanted to move people emotionally.
DP: When you formed Kirschenbaum Productions, was your intention to make commercials?
GK: Yes, at that point, I set up the company because I was handling TV commercial directors and I needed a production company based in N.Y. to produce the commercials there.
DP: At this point in your career, was making money your main ambition, or did you feel unfulfilled because of your personal politics?
GK: My main ambition was to make money. I was hoping to have time to go back to school for another degree, either in film or marketing. But I worked day and night and I did not have time to go back to school. I actually did design work on the side and enjoyed it. It was a break from repping and sales and Executive-Producing work, and more creatively fulfilling.
DP: Did you make a conscious decision to break away from commercials and make documentaries?
GK: Yes. I had started my own business in commercials by repping directors and was pretty good at it. In fact, they wrote up a story about me in Backstage. Directors or producers would hear me do “phone” in the reception area of advertising agencies and would solicit me to work for them. There was a lot of money in advertising, yet I did not increase my standard of living because I knew I was just in it temporarily. I was a frustrated writer/director. When we were awarded the Red Man chewing tobacco commercial and it was for a lot of money, “60 Minutes” did a special on lip and tongue cancer in kids and I knew I couldn’t do the commercial. My director agreed. That was the turning point. I just couldn’t produce commercials anymore for the money. About this time, I bumped into an old college sweetheart. He had moved to LA, started an ad agency for movies, and made his first two films. (Oh, by then, he had married and had his first child.). He suggested I move to L.A. and he would enroll me in a directing class with him. I tossed and turned and decided to close my office and pack my bags and move to L.A. and start my life over with a new career.
DP: I am struck by the diversity of the documentaries you made, some of which were more personal than others.
GK: The personal documentaries came later, after I left L.A. and returned to N.Y. When I got to L.A. I took the directing class and took to working with actors very naturally. Someone asked me if I wanted to direct a docudrama on homeless women and children and I thought, “YES, now I will do something that will help people!” I did it and loved making it. And then using my promotional personality, I kept calling an executive producer at KCET, the PBS affiliate in L.A. until he finally agreed to meet me. He was in charge of Arts & Culture programming, and I went in and had nothing to show him that was relevant. He was completely distracted the entire meeting because people kept coming in and asking him questions. Meanwhile, I was sitting in front of his wall of Emmys. The meeting was over and I felt like, how the hell will I get in there? I came up with an idea for a piece but because I couldn’t get back on the lot, I left it at the guard house. And he called me and told me he liked it, but wanted me to do a different subject. He asked me if I minded if a researcher called me with a story. I said, “No!,” and that’s what happened. A researcher called me and I was given my first documentary to make. It was only a five-minute piece and I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never studied film or worked in docs but I treated it as if it were advertising. I went to my location and shot pictures and story-boarded it. I pre-interviewed the people and then shot it with the crew. I won an Emmy for it. You might say it was beginner’s luck. But I tell everyone all your skills are transferable and I was very visual and transferred my skills in that area and from the multi-media shows I’d produced, which were actually slide shows.
DP: What was it like to produce an hour of “America’s Most Wanted?”
GK: I produced segments for the show then and in fact, have even done some work for them recently, as well. It’s all very interesting and sometimes emotionally draining. When I sit and interview the parents of the victim and then the parents of the perpetrator, my heart goes out to them. They would all be friends and I think how senseless this crime was. I did some stories for the show that were unusual, like the one on CCI, Canine Companion for Independence, in which inmates train dogs to be companions for the disabled. Then I did a feature on the L.A. Swat team—Los Angeles is where SWAT was born--and I hung out with them for a few months. It’s a great show and they do incredible work. Good people!
DP: Could you have continued making television documentaries forever?
GK: I don’t think so. My voice is so strong and my desire to tell my own stories was aching to come out.
DP: Why did you return to New York and change your life again?
GK: I never really felt L.A. was home. I couldn’t get comfortable there. It’s a bit of a one-beat town, an industry town, and I missed N.Y. I’m a New Yorker and love the city. It’s a place where we all get along, thank you Rodney King. I lived in L. A. during the riots, earthquake, and fires. And returned to New York some months before 9/11. It was amazing to see how New Yorkers handled this catastrophe and I was so happy to be here and be so close and be able to get involved and help out.
DP: Had you had dogs before Chelsea, the star of “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary?”
GK: I only had a dog as a child. Chelsea is my only dog as an adult. One day, I went to visit my brother who had at the time a new wife and new baby and several dogs. Chelsea was the newest dog and he just didn’t like her. He didn’t want her and she touched me the minute we looked at each other. I was only there one night and I tossed and turned and wondered how I could manage with a dog considering I was traveling a lot for my work--but before I knew it I was out the door the next day with her.
DP: What gave you the idea to make “A Dog’s Life?”
GK: I was taking Chelsea everywhere with me, hidden in a bag, and funny things would happen. I had an idea for a TV show and thought I’d make a trailer. I had a camera built for her and we hit the streets of N.Y. and before I knew we were getting lots of press and then realized I had better cut a movie together. After two-page front-cover features in the New York Times, I found myself on NBC’s “Today” show with Al Roker asking what am I going to do with fifty hours of footage. I knew it was time to lock myself up in a room and figure out what the story was I was going to edit together.
DK: Was the doggie-cam an idea you had before filming started?
GK: Yes. I thought how couldn’t make a film about Chelsea’s life and mine and not include her point of view. Besides, she was insistent.
DP: Not too many people walk their dogs around Times Square—what was that experience like?
GK: Great. Times Square was filled with tourists and it was very exciting, bright lights everywhere. Needless to say, a woman with her dog wearing a camera and a crew following her around is an attention getter, especially with tourists. We weren’t the naked cowboy or cowgirl but we were definitely an attraction.
DP: Did you make the film partly because you were looking for a husband and Chelsea could help you meet guys?
GK: Chelsea and I would say any dog is an ice breaker. But I didn’t really think this is how I will meet my husband.
DP: How did you get Albert Maysles involved with your film?
GK: It was the idea of the person who was shooting then. His friend worked for Albert and that’s how we got access to him, but then I learned that Albert is so open to meeting people that I really didn’t need a connection. He is an incredible human being.
DP: Had you been in front of the camera much before this film?
GK: No, but I wasn’t at all camera shy. I feel very comfortable in front of the camera. I love an audience.
DP: How did “A Dog’s Life” become a totally different film after 9/11?
GK: We were making a funny film about a single woman looking for love with her dog, and then 9/11 happened. How could I not include it? It changed our lives and most people’s lives forever. And it changed the content of the movie and direction of the movie. I think it made it more poignant with a lesson learned. There is a greater range of emotion. People tell me they both laugh and cry at the film. I’ve seen that reaction.
DP: Did you have a script or storyboard?
GK: No, not at all. I was left looking at 80 hours of footage and trying to figure out what the movie was about. It came together in the edit bay.
DP: Was making “A Dog’s Life” different from anything you’d done before it? Was it the kind of thing you wanted to keep doing?
GK: Yes, to both questions. I wanted then and still want to make a TV series inspired by the film called “Dog’s Eye View.” I have a trailer for it.
DP: Talk about the patients Chelsea visited in the film.
GK: Chelsea and I befriend one patient in particular named John. We follow this patient in the film and I don’t want to give away the ending of the movie but let me just say it’s very moving. We volunteered in hospice where people are near death. This came about because we were volunteering in St Vincent’s hospital and Chelsea took a dying elderly woman out of a coma. Her daughter talks about this in the movie. It was a touched-by-a-miracle story. Chelsea barked at her and the woman woke up, finished her business with her daughter, and then died peacefully. I was told Chelsea gave this woman permission to die. She got her up and she was able to have resolution with her daughter and then say good-bye. That’s when I realized we needed to find a population where people were near death and that’s when I found Cabrini hospice.
DP: Did Chelsea remain a therapy dog after you stopped filming?
GK: Yes, we still volunteer at Cabrini, although we don’t get there as much as I’d like to. It’s so rewarding.
DP: Were you surprised by all the attention “A Dog’s Life” got?
GK: Somewhat. But I know people are crazy about dogs.
DP: What was it like to make appearances with Chelsea on behalf of the film?
GK: Great. She is a publicity hound. We both love the attention.
DP: I would think Chelsea could be the star of a series of children’s books—have you ever thought of publishing books about Chelsea?
GK: I did develop a couple of books but they were geared more toward young adults.
DP: Does “A Dog’s Life” still have a life?
GK: Yes, we still get orders for the DVD, fan mail and requests for screenings. Sometimes I think I produced “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for dog lovers. Many people have seen it more than once. I guess it’s the quirkiness that appeals to them.
DP: On the DVD, there is the version that played on HBO and the stronger and “more complete” “Director’s Cut.” Why wasn’t the longer version run?
GK: HBO was interested in it as a short and seeing if it had a chance for an Academy Award, hence it being cut to below 40 minutes to qualify. To see both versions, you can get the DVD on my site, www.dogamentary.com or at Netflix, or find it at other places, including libraries.
DP: When making “A Dog’s Life,” were you already thinking you wanted to make more films with yourself in front of the camera?
GK: I was being encouraged by others and it just felt right. One of my assistants called me a “personality.” I love making people laugh and am really comfortable talking to all kinds of people, friends as well as strangers on the street. I have a knack for getting people to open up.
DP: When did you decide that “My Nose” would be your next picture?
GK: It was more or less a spur of the moment decision that I made because of my mother pushing me to get a nose job. She has been so relentlessness I thought that if I got people to tell my mother there was nothing wrong with my nose, she’d get off my back.
DP: Were you at all self-conscious making a movie that would make viewers scrutinize your nose?
GK: Not at all. I’m pretty open. I love being in front of the camera and just being me. I think I am a person who many people can relate to.
DP: Did you think the audience for this film would be the same as for “A Dog’s Life?”
GK: Not necessarily but I imagined there was overlap. “A Dog’s Life” pulls in an audience who loves dogs and I believe “My Nose” might have a broader audience because everyone has a nose and mother.
DP: Did you plan on making a short or a feature?
GK: I planned on making a feature. This 13-minute short was really cut together as a promo, but many people loved it and it started getting recommended to festivals as a short--and I thought, why not? If I eventually expand it into a feature it will go deep into mother-daughter relationships, mine in particular. I will interview other mothers and daughters with similar issues; touch on the history of nose jobs; and present some well-known personalities with prominent noses. The thrust will be how to deal with a mother who is critical of her daughter.
DP: Do you look at other people’s noses? First thing?
GK: Depends on the nose. I do not notice their noses first thing.
DP: You speak to several doctors in the movie, as you tag along with your mother. Was it hard clearing it with them that you’d have a camera?
GK: Not at all. Many doctors want the attention, too.
DP: Your mother’s plastic surgeon tells you that you’re beautiful but will look more beautiful if you have a nose job. Were you thinking why anyone would feel the need to “enhance” existing beauty?
GK: I wasn’t surprised at all that he said that. I think it’s a personal issue. If someone has an issue with their body or a body part and it affects their self-esteem, then why not go ahead and change it? I now receive emails from women who tell me their stories and one that touched me deeply was from a woman who was born with a large nose and was made fun of for years. She eventually had a nose job and her life changed for the better. Bravo! On a different note, a mother’s excessive criticism about a nose or anything else can negatively impact their relationship and the daughters’ self-esteem. (In fact I am putting together a book of stories of women over forty-five who have been adversely affected by their critical mothers.)
DP: How did you react when that doctor showed you what you’d look like without a bump on your nose and your nose lifted?
GK: It was somewhat interesting. But you have to remember it’s just a computer drawing that anyone could do. That doesn’t mean I’d end up looking like that and the doctor said that more than once to me. He didn’t want to make a promise he couldn’t deliver. My biggest concern was not shaving the bump down but how much the doctor would lift the bottom. I am petrified that they would lift it too high because I despise that look.
DP: If you broke your nose, would you use that as an opportunity to have a nose job? GK: Good question. It depends on the situation. I was due to have sinus surgery and didn’t plan on having a nose job then but was weakened by someone else who encouraged me to do it. So I started interviewing plastic surgeons. As soon as they said they needed to lift the bottom I was out the door. I cancelled the sinus surgery and the plastic surgery. By the way, one of the three plastic surgeons I visited in the film says you should never do sinus surgery at the same time you do rhinoplasty because you are opening up yourself to infection. The other two disagreed, but he did plant a seed of concern in me.
DP: You get insulted a few times in the short. Were you hurt?
GK: I did? By whom? My mom? I am so used to her that many times I don’t even notice her comments or insults.
DP: You say you set out to explore how your nose has affected your relationship with your mother and others. What did you discover?
GK: I discovered that my nose has not affected my relationship with others and in fact, many people like my nose and can’t understand why my mother insists I have a nose job. Regarding my mother, it has been a source of conflict but I no longer let it bother me and am pretty amused by her obsession. I love her a lot and actually have grown to love her more with time. Since my father died last year, my mother and I have grown amazingly close. She has a great spirit and is quite open minded about many things. How many people can talk to their mother about sex, particularly a mother in her eighties? How many people have moms that age who can take a computer apart and put it back together? So, she’s got a few obsessions. Who doesn’t? One of hers is about looks. She has a very high threshold for pain especially when it comes to beauty. She’s had her eye make-up tattooed on more than once while in her eighties. That’s one of the new things she is on my case to do. She now claims my eyes are fading. I find this all very funny and we can laugh about it, which I think is the most important thing in life to do.
DP: Well, I laughed seeing your profile next to the profile of the Indian’s on the Buffalo nickel, because your mother thought your noses were similar!
GK: My mother has been saying for years that my nose looks like the Indian’s on the Buffalo nickel. What do you think? Any similarities? I think she has a point but it’s so funny because that coin is long gone and many young people have no idea what she is referring to.
DP: I also laughed when your neighbor’s daughter sings the song she wrote about your nose: “like a unicorn’s horn, but shorter.”
GK: She is quite creative and I was grateful she was inspired by my nose to write her song. She gets a big laugh from audiences and I am charmed by her.
DP: I think it’s odd that your mother always has thought that you needed a nose job not only to be married but also to be successful. But hasn’t your successful career taught her that she’s wrong?
GK: No, she judges success by financial wealth. It’s not that she is not proud of me and my accomplishments but she would love to see me happily married and living a plush life. And she believes that I’d have greater opportunities both in my professional and private life if I had a nose job. She is convinced that I would attract more people and people who are a better fit for me.
DP: Have you come to any conclusions during the making of your film about whether: there are “nose guys”; whether an imperfect nose hinders sexual activity; and whether anyone really cares about noses?
GK: I suppose it depends on the individual. In the film, my friend’s husband says he doesn’t like large noses, so he wouldn’t have been attracted to me, as he admits. I’m sure there is a person for everyone. Obviously, if someone has a thing for small noses, it’s highly unlikely he will be drawn to me. To tell you the truth, I don’t believe my nose has done much to hinder my sexual activity. There are plenty of men out there whom I have found attractive and vice versa. And I believe my husband is out there. He has a lousy sense of direction and just hasn’t found me yet.
DP: Did you expect to get a nose job during the making of the film?
GK: I was open to what might happen. But I didn’t set out shooting the film with any great anticipation or desire to get a nose job. As I said, it was more of a desire to make a film with testimonies to my mother about how my nose is just fine so she would stop nagging me about it. If I showed her how many people liked my nose she might get the drift and move on.
DP: So has your mother backed off or does she still expect that she’ll eventually convince you to get a nose job?
GK: She still has hope. She hasn’t given up yet, but she’s okay with my decision not to. I know it would make her very happy if I did it, but I can’t do it for that reason alone, can I? I don’t have to prove to my mother that I can find a wonderful man despite my nose.
DP: In your quest for a husband, a theme in both “A Dog’s Life” and “My Nose,” do you still post your picture on dating Web sites?
GK: I have done it in the past. I keep it active for a while and then I take it down because I am either dating someone or I don’t have the time to focus on it.
DP: Do you show yourself in profile?
GK: No, should I? I don’t think it’s my best angle. I know the best angle to shoot me and I usually stick with the best pictures. Do you think I am not showing it all?
DP: Do you expect to keep making these personal movies starring yourself?
GK: If I come up with an idea that ends up being another personal film, absolutely. I have been encouraged to keep going and the audiences seem to react favorably.
DP: Do you have other ideas for movies or anything else?
GK: Many. I already mentioned the book about women with critical mothers, and there are other projects. I have been encouraged to do a One-Woman Show. I have started and stopped writing one several times. In time, I believe I will make a commitment to do it. My only fear is my lousy memory. How will I remember my lines? I also have written a high-concept romantic comedy. It’s quite commercial and cutting edge. It was a winner of the AIVF Screenwriters Mentorship program and currently is in development.
I don’t have any desire to be in it, but I’m sure I will put myself in some character. I am not an actress. I just play me. In addition, I have in development a TV pilot.
DP: Has “My Nose” been shown anywhere, and when can New Yorkers see it?
GK: I just got back from Toronto where it was screened and I did some press. It will play in N.Y. May 17th at the Pioneer Cinema, July 25th at the Holocaust Museum, and elsewhere at later dates. To track the screenings and see updates, people should visit my website: http://www.kirschenbaumprodcutions.com/ and go to “My Nose.” (There’s also a link to http://www.dogamentary.com/, a fun site with information about “A Dog’s Life:: A Dogamentary.” Also: http://www.myspace.com/gaylekirschenbaum will list screenings of “My Nose.”