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A Conversation with Penny Lane (CONFESSIONS OF A GOOD SAMARITAN)

Director Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) is out with a new documentary, Confessions of a Good Samaritan, which just had its world premiere at SXSW 2023 (where I reviewed it). It tells the story of how Lane decided to become an altruistic kidney donor to help a complete stranger. Not only do we learn all about her reasons for doing so and about others like her, but we also cover the history of transplant surgery and more. It’s a lovely meditation on human behavior and innovation. I spoke with Lane at the festival, and here is a transcription of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: At what point in the process of choosing to donate a kidney did you decide to make a film about this?

Penny Lane: We didn’t start filming until the week before my surgery.

HtN: Wow.

PL: And I was like, “Let’s sit me down. We’ll do an auto-interview for a few hours.” And then a few days later, we had surgery, we got permission to film there, and we were like, “Maybe this is short. We don’t know.” I didn’t really know if there was a film, but I did think that since you do this only once, you would feel pretty dumb if you wished you’d done it later. “Let’s film and see.” So it really wasn’t until after surgery, maybe a month after that, when I watched the footage back that I was like, “This is already really interesting.” I already felt like a different person from the person that I had been a month before. So I was like, “I think there must be some sense that something will change in me.” And I was feeling so confused and depressed after surgery, too. So I was trying to figure it all out.

HtN: And kudos to you for not holding back on showing yourself being so vulnerable. Because that is a big part of the film.

PL: Yeah.

HtN: So when you say you started filming just a week before the surgery, you mean that talking-head interview of you?

PL: Yes. Three days before. I was like, “Ah.” And you see it. And I think it was really smart to do it that way because I was really at the height of terror and fear and just panicking and feeling I had made a mistake. I literally was like, “This must be a mistake. This can’t be happening. Is this really happening?” And looking back, that’s why I was saying even a month later, “That poor girl. She’s just like in a state. That poor thing.” I was so scared.

HtN: Between that and then the next self-interview, 18 months go by. Was that purely because of COVID or were there some other reasons to wait 18 months?

PL: I think we were just making the film and I was processing the experience. This isn’t really an autobiographical film, per se. It’s not a memoir. I think of it more as a personal essay where I’m there to guide you through this train in a sense. So it’s not ultimately about me, really. It’s about this larger topic. But still, once I committed to me being the protagonist, a protagonist has to have an arc. And what’s the arc of this character? I mean, a month after surgery, I had no idea. I was still in it. I was still experiencing it. So it wasn’t until 18 months later that I felt that there was enough distance between then and now for me to articulate something of a takeaway. But it’s hard because even now I think, “No, wait, I have more to say.”

HtN: Right. But at some point, as with all filmmakers, you have to say stop.

PL: I felt like it was enough to say, “I think I can get to a conclusion from here.”

HtN: So you say in the film that you really hate being on camera. Did the experience of putting yourself on camera like this change the way you feel about the filmmaking process, in terms of your subjects’ point of view?


PL: It certainly gave me more empathy for them. I mean, I always had empathy, so I hesitate to say, “Oh, I never thought about how awkward it must be to be filmed.” Of course I did.

HtN: Well, you do have a very large amygdala, as we learn in the movie.

PL: (laughs) Yeah, it turns out I’m very empathetic, I guess. I really don’t feel like I am, but I’m like, “Maybe I guess there’s some evidence that suggests I must be.” But yeah, I do think it gave me some more empathy. I think what it really did, though, was make me think so much more carefully and just deeply about the idea of what character development is and what it means to film a real person. Here you have a human being with all this complexity, a whole life story, a million ways you could go with presenting this character on camera. And really the process of crafting myself into a persona and realizing just how weird that is … why this and not that? Why this and not that over and over again? I think when I’m directing another person’s performance, I feel so much clearer.

When I was doing the Kenny G film, I knew which aspects of his character were the ones I was focusing on. That I did not know for Penny. I was like, “Is this relevant?” So I do think it made me think more about character development and what that really is and what kinds of choices you’re making, not just in terms of which interview bites to use, but how are you lighting this interview? I put myself into this dark room, but I put the other donors in this very white, angelic room. Those are the kinds of choices that I started to think really a lot more about.

HtN: That’s really interesting. And by the way, I love the Kenny G film.

PL: Thanks!

HtN: Even though I really don’t like Kenny G’s music.

PL: (laughs) Luckily not required of you.

HtN: (laughs) No. And I liked him in the film.

PL: He’s pretty likable.

HtN: It made me wish I appreciated his music. It was like “I so want to support you.” Then again, he doesn’t need my support. He’s the most popular instrumentalist in the world!

PL: He’s doing great.

HtN: Yeah. He’s doing great. Now, did you have somebody helping direct you other than just someone telling you that you needed to put a Q-tip in your nose?

PL: Yeah, so that’s the other ironic thing with this project, because of all my six feature films, it’s the most personal: there I am. But because of that, actually, it’s the most collaborative because I had the least perspective on it, frankly. And I just needed my cinematographer to direct me. I have also a whole new respect for actors who can direct a movie they’re in. I’m completely confused. I’m like, “How do you do that?” And that’s why I have that little moment in the beginning of the film where I’m like, “I don’t know where my hands are.” I literally was like, “How do I know what to do?” I need to look in the monitor, but I’m not looking in the monitor because I’m on camera. I was like, “Ah!” Anyway, so I needed my editor to tell me when I was being charming and when I was being annoying.

And I was like, “I just trust you completely. Don’t make me look like an asshole.” (laughs) And it actually was really funny because in the earliest cuts, I was really pushing hard on, “Let’s make me really unlikable. Let’s make it a thing where you hate her at first and then you get to like her later.” (laughs) And that did not work at all. At the earliest test screenings, all the people were like, “Yeah, we don’t really like you very much in it. We know you in real life and you’re much nicer than this.” Because I was trying to play with this person who was very morally righteous. And there is an element of that and it’s still there. That becomes questioned later, but I wanted that to be more. And then I was just like, “Why are you making yourself so?” I think I was so worried people would think I was patting myself on the back that early on I was pushing too hard in the opposite direction.

HtN: Well, I don’t find you unlikable at all, quite the opposite, but you are wrestling with this notion of moral self-righteousness. But it’s the wrestling that makes you not be unlikable.

PL: Yeah. It’s less accusatory and more “I am the one who’s really subjecting myself to this inquisition.”

HtN: Exactly.

PL: And that was the other reason it had to be me, because if I was going to make a feature film about altruistic kidney donation, I knew I had to interrogate the donor. That was my mission: interrogate, really deeply interrogate to a brutal extent. And I just never would’ve done that to someone else, especially not some nice person who’s just doing a nice thing. Why would you then be like, “No, but why? Are you sure it’s not just because you’re lonely? Are you sure it’s not just because you’re mentally ill in some way? Are you sure it’s not …”

HtN: All the questions that the people in the hospital were asking of you.

PL: Yeah. I never would’ve put any other donor through that. Ever. So it had to be me. I was the only person that I could be that almost cruelly interrogating of. It had to be me. But I’m hard on myself, anyway, so that was easy. It’s playing to my strengths. (laughs)

HtN: Speaking of people who are on camera, I really like these three folks in particular: Abigail Marsh, Keith Melancon, and Jacob Appel.

PL: Yeah. They were great.

HtN: They were.

PL: Great cast! (laughs)

HtN: They really are. So, how did you find them?

PL: With Abby, it was easy because literally I was making a film about the psychological mystery of altruism, in particular the psychological mystery of altruistic kidney donation. And who knew that there was a person who had devoted the last 10 years of her life to that question from a really rigorous scientific point of view? So that was a no-brainer: Abby was in, Abby was in from the beginning. Probably the second shoot we did was with Abby. We filmed with her a bunch more because she was so great on camera, too; she just kept giving, and I kept going back for more.

Our Christopher Llewellyn Reed and filmmaker Penny Lane

Jacob, I picked because he was so funny and so weird. And there are a lot of bioethicists who are happy to talk about organ donation, but none of them are as funny as Jacob. So that was easy for me, too.

Melancon took a while to find, though, because transplant surgeons are very busy saving lives, and what they like to do is operate. They’re not super into being on camera, mostly. Some of them said, “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.” But what they meant was 20 minutes and to send the questions in advance. And I was like, “No, I need a couple days with you.” And so I actually had a hard time, initially, finding a transplant surgeon who I thought would be charismatic and be down to do this process with me. And when I found Dr. Melancon, I was just like, “I hit the gold mine,” because he’s such a movie star and he loves being on camera. It is such a rare quality in a transplant surgeon. And his enthusiasm and his passion for it is so infectious.

HtN: And his knowledge of the history.

PL: Yes, totally. And I didn’t want a million talking heads. I don’t like those movies where it’s a thousand people who show up for five seconds each, and you don’t even know who they are. Most of them are journalists, which always feels really cheap. It’s like, cool, you got to watch journalists tell you their stories. Anyway, I had these four other donors I wanted in the film and so I also knew I didn’t have a lot of space for a hundred talking heads, so I needed to cast really well so that each of those people could cover multiple topics. And so Keith Melancon had to also do the history piece.

HtN: Right. Also, as a film critic, when I’m watching a documentary with a thousand talking heads, I start to get anxious as I’m noting down who everyone is. Are these people important to my understanding of the story? Do I need to remember who they are?

PL: Yeah. It drives me nuts.

HtN: So, in the film, you flirt with this sort of screenlife aesthetic, which I thought was interesting. What made you choose to do it that way?

PL: That was a pandemic thing. I really was just at home alone for a large portion of making the film. And it just was the head space that I was in was, like, “This is how I interact with the world now.” And I’m pulling up these clips and I’m researching and I’m following all my internet rabbit trails. And it started to feel like it represented my life in a really real way. But also, I needed to find a frame to bring all these different things together.

And I think once I brought in the diaries…because those are my real diaries, and I do type them and keep them in text files on my computer, so I reenacted typing them. But those were my diaries. And so once I realized I wanted to use those, because as I told you, we hadn’t filmed anything before surgery, pretty much, I had to do something to bring in some sense of the earlier times. And once the diaries came in, I was like, “Okay, let’s figure out how to get a screenlife thing going on, because that’ll give it a frame to put everything inside of.”

HtN: That makes sense.

PL: And it’s also very intimate, watching someone type. If you’ve ever been in a Google Doc and you’re watching someone else type, you feel you’re invading their privacy. So I was like, “There’s a kind of vulnerability to watching someone type that I thought would lend well to the persona that I created of this very lonely person.” I’m not quite that lonely in real life. I mean, we could have filmed me hanging out with friends, right? But we didn’t and I do feel lonely and isolated in my heart, so it’s not like I made that up, but we leaned into it to push it further.

HtN: Interesting. So, I always really appreciate the music in your films.

PL: Thank you!

HtN: And re-screening Hail Satan? for students recently, I was reminded of just how much I often like the music in your films because of that ending song, “Satan Never Sleeps.”

PL: Yeah. It’s a good one.

HtN: And you have great music here, too. What is your process for choosing music or getting some, if its scored?

PL: Usually it starts with a Spotify playlist that I add to over years. And it’s just like this- that … it’s usually a thousand things. And then I start listening to that music all the time, and I ask my editors to use some of it as temp score. It’s always really eclectic and never anywhere near what it ends up being. But through that process for this film, I found the theremin and I was like, “Oooh, the theremin.” And it was like, this is the sound. It’s a little funny. It’s a little mid-century sci-fi, so it felt like it fit the transplant-history stuff. And also it has a human-voice feeling, but it’s not. So, I wanted voice and theremin, and then, again through Spotify, found Carolina Eyck, who is the world’s greatest theremin player and also a beautiful vocalist.

And probably at some point half the temp score was just her music. And then I was like, “Let’s reach out to her in Germany and see if she wants to score. She’s never done it before. She might be bad at it, but let’s try it. Maybe we’ll just license these songs from her, or maybe this will be a great experiment.” And she turned out to be the most fucking incredible film composer. She just nailed it every time. And so we ended up licensing, I don’t know, a handful of songs from her, but then she built an original score for me, and I just love it. I’ve never loved a score more that I’ve worked on, even though I’ve had really good scores. Thank you for saying that. I just think this is next level. I’ve never heard a documentary score like this before. It’s really psychedelic. It’s really strange and cool.

HtN: Indeed. It suited the story well. Congrats on the film. I loved it.

PL: Thank you!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2023 SXSW Film Festival; Penny Lane; Confessions of a Good Samaritan documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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