Contrary to the vagueness of the Hot Docs programming schedule, the secret at the heart of first-time director Steve Lickteig’s intense and emotional family docudrama Open Secret (making it’s world premiere at Hot Docs with a rush-only screening on Tuesday, May 3 at 9:30 p.m. at the Cumberland 3, and again on Thursday, May 5 at 11:00 a.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre), is not much of a spoiler. In fact, Lickteig is very open about this secret. The NPR correspondent and radio producer is more worried about how audiences will react to the deeply personal nature of the film.
“I’m always worried because personal films are always so divisive,” Lickteig said. “Some people are really going to like them and others are going to hate them. I think I was trying to walk a really fine line with the film.”
Lickteig, around the time he was graduating high school was informed that his parents weren’t who they appeared to be. The people he called mother and father were actually his grandparents, while his sister Joanie was actually his mother and his father was a womanizing holocaust survivor that he never met. It was a secret known to everyone in the small Kansas town he grew up in except for him. In a quest for answers and a sense of closure, Steve did the incredibly brave task of talking to everyone involved in the deception head on. Steve thinks that the Lickteig family will be better off in the long run as a result of it.
“I do believe that in the end this film will bring my family closer together. It puts a lot of stuff on the table that they never wanted to talk about. I always said to my editor that this was a family project that they never fully realized they were a part of.”
Steve called Criticize This! to talk about his experiences as a first time filmmaker dealing with such a thorny personal subject shortly before travelling to Hot Docs where he will be participating in a Q&A following both screenings. Once the movie is seen by the audience, sticking around for the Q&A will be a must.
Andrew Parker: You actually came from a radio background working with NPR and you make it known very early on that you aren’t a filmmaker. Could you talk a little bit about making that transition from radio to documentary filmmaking?
Steve Lickteig: They really share a lot of the same properties. What served me really well in the film was knowing how to interview people because that’s really a learned skill. I think a lot of people might think that they know how to do an interview and think it is just sort of a conversation. I mean it has the elements of a conversation, but it is a much more elevated form of that. I never really actually hosted a show. It was more field reporting or working as a producer and that’s a different kind of interviewing. I knew those skills would really help me to the heart of this story.
The other thing was, and I’ve been told this by filmmakers time and time again and I don’t know why I never took this to heart, but audio is just as important and sometimes more important than the visual look of the film and I was very particular as a radio producer with audio. I always used really great microphones and tape recorders. When I first started filming, I think I bought this $24 lavalier mic from Radio Shack and plugged it into this camera and thought it would be fine. How important is it going to be? I mean, it’s the picture that matters, right?
So the film opens with the very first interview I ever did for the film and it’s out of focus and I screwed up the audio. I realized that I probably could have gotten away with the picture being really soft focus instead of having the sound be all crackly. Luckily, it all got fixed, but that footage was so raw that we didn’t even decide to use it until really late in the edit because it really was such poor quality. So I learned very early on that I should have used really good microphones.
As far as the spirit of both disciplines, they are really all about listening and talking to people in a way where you gain their trust, and, I mean, this is my family and they knew me, but they still knew I was digging up stuff that was pretty deep and that they weren’t exactly comfortable talking about. Or at the very least, they weren’t willing to talk about it in an honest way. They kind of had their public story that they are willing to share, but to get to the real issues I had to dig deeper and deeper and I think radio really helped me with that a lot because of the intimacy of that medium because it really is just you and the subject and a microphone. Then the camera acts as sort of an intruder, but I think I was able to get past that. People always say it’s an interview and that you should just relax and be yourself and be as comfortable as you can, but you are never going to be as fully comfortable as you think you are going to be because you have a microphone in your face.
That’s a really long answer, but honestly no one has ever asked me that before. I hadn’t even really thought about it until just now.
AP: Has anyone in your family seen the film yet and if they have what has the reaction been like?
SL: Three of them have seen it. I’ll start with Dennis who is my brother and is one of the main characters in the film. He thought it was a very fair representation of the family and as an emotional representation it was spot on. I only had a brief email exchange with him, but he said it was fair and not manipulative which is very important and gratifying to hear.
Then my sister Patty, who is not in the film, watched it and she wrote me a very nice, long email just last night that she also thought it was very emotionally accurate and that it was very hard for her to hear me say the things I said about the Lickteigs in a couple of places where I talk about them being liars. She said she understands why I said that, but it was very hard for her to hear how early on in the film I kind of idolize my (biological) father, Henry, and I sort of treat the Lickteigs as if they were lesser than he was. She thought there was kind of a transformation at the end there, so that was less stinging for her.
Finally, Joanie watched it and… (Answer omitted due to spoilers. See the film at Hot Docs in person and after the film ask what she thought of it.)
AP: There seems to be a lot of stories coming out recently where people are finding out their parents just aren’t who they say they are. This has even happened to my own mother and in several families of people close to me. It is more common than people think and not a lot of people necessarily like to talk about it. It is brought up very well in the film that this has really been caused by a generation that preferred to mire itself in secrets that leads to people reacting in different ways when such a secret is uncovered or found out. You get into it a little bit in the film, but how dark did things get for you?
SL: I really went into a period of shock and it’s the kind of shock where you really don’t react. I found out from my two best friends and I really didn’t say anything about it to my parents for a good month and a half after that moment. I didn’t tell anybody. I just didn’t talk about it. Then I finally did have a confrontation with my parents about it and even at that moment they wouldn’t admit that it was true. I was 18 years old and it didn’t even come up again until I came home with that camera at age 36. We never talked about it.
I had a really tough time in college. I was definitely depressed and I even say in the film that I was a really happy-go-lucky kid in high school. It sounds funny, but I had a really great high school experience. I was really having a lot of fun and I was really active in a lot of stuff, but then I sort of slipped into this morose, cynical, dark place and I just couldn’t get out of it. I was doing really poorly in school. I had no drive to really accomplish anything and I didn’t like going home. I mean, it’s such a rough time to find something like that out because it is such a transitional period.
It never got to the point where I ever wanted to kill myself or I was heavy into drugs. I was definitely drinking. I was getting drunk a lot, not getting out of bed in the morning. I was losing a lot of jobs. I was flunking out of school and having to find a way back in.
Then in my 30s, I really started to grow out of it and the film really hard to do, though, was not to make it a therapy film, but the process was very helpful. It gave me a lot of clarity, but I wanted to keep a lot of that out as much as possible.
AP: Do you have anything that you could say to someone that finds themselves in a similar situation where their family is keeping something like this from them?
SL: Well, you said it when you said that this is a lot more common that people probably think it is or want to admit that it is. I actually have a Facebook group for the film and on the film’s website I have a “share your story” section. There are even several celebrities whom this has happened to. Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton, Bobby Darin all have the same story. Jack found out while doing press for Chinatown and he really didn’t deal with it in any way. Clapton found out when he was 11 or 12, which is probably the best time to find out something like that. And Bobby Darin didn’t handle it well at all. Apparently he had a breakdown following that. Then now, people keep writing in to this Facebook page one after another and they are all similar in that some way some sort of secret was kept. Then I read the review you gave to my film and saw that you compared it to the other film at the festival about Bob Forrest and then I googled and found a Spin magazine article and it was just incredible that everyone seems to be talking about the same thing.
There are two roads on this, and I have thought about this a lot, actually. As the person who the secret is kept from, you have every right to ask questions. It should be done respectfully. It’s not about confrontation with the people keeping it. My parents never kept this secret out of any sort of malicious intent or were trying to outwardly hurt me. They were trying to do what they thought was right and what happened was that the intent spiraled out of control and they just didn’t say anything. That’s when it started to be a problem. It took me a long time to work up the courage to ask these questions because I wasn’t sure what doors I was going to open and I didn’t know how everyone was going to react.
I just had a son two months ago and I vowed that I will never keep a secret about who he is or who his family is. Anything that would affect how he sees himself or how he sees the world, I’m not going to keep from him. I can’t wait for him to be old enough to watch this film and understand what happened to his dad. It’s gotta be a two way street. Just because you had a secret kept from you doesn’t mean you don’t have a say in the matter. Once the secret is revealed to you, even if it wasn’t revealed to you by your own family, you owe it to yourself and to the family to ask questions.
Open Secret plays at Hot Docs Tuesday, May 3 at 9:30 p.m. at the Cumberland 3 and again on Thursday, May 5 at 11:00 a.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre. For more information, visit hotdocs.ca.
Top image: The Lickteig Family, Christmas 1979. Courtesy Hot Docs.