Other Side of the Camera: Jill Eikenberry & Michael Tucker

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We asked BroadwayWorld.com's Eugene Lovendusky, who's based in San Francisco, former stomping grounds of actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, to talk with them about some upcoming excitement with their new film (as producers) and other things going on in their busy lives.

Jill Eikenberry and husband, Michael Tucker, have had their share of experience on-stage and screen, most recognized as the multiple award-winning stars of TV's "L.A. Law."  But as of late, they have embarked on a new chapter in their life...

Together they have produced an already-acclaimed new documentary Emile Norman: By His Own Design about the extraordinary life of one man, his partner, and his art.  The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary, sponsored by HBO, at the 9th Annual Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in April and will play at the NewFest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in New York this Friday, June 8.

The documentary, directed by Will Parrinello, introduces "the genius of a brilliant artist, a hidden treasure in the pantheon of openly gay artists. From his humble beginnings on a ranch in the San Gabriel Valley, Emile Norman quickly progressed into designing window displays for department stores and creating headdresses for movie musicals," states press notes, "Along the way, he met Brooks Clement, his repairman, and fell passionately in love. They shared their lives for 30 years thereafter, living together as an openly gay couple in the 1940's and 50's in the picturesque town of Big Sur."

In anticipation of Friday's Film Festival, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker took a moment to chat with me and share a little more about their new film...

Eugene Lovendusky: Thank you taking time out of your evening to speak with BroadwayWorld.com! Your documentary, Emile Norman: By His Own Design is set to play this Friday at the NewFest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival… what do you hope audiences will experience?

Michael Tucker: I think there are a number of things it can give.  I think it gives a wonderful sense of history because the film really tracks a gay man in a gay relationship from 1919 to the present day.  It tracks through what it was like to be a gay man in a relationship in all of these different eras.  But the reason we made the film is that Emile Norman was so incredibly inspiring artist to us.  I think people in the gay and straight worlds can get a sense of what it means to be an artist.

Jill Eikenberry: The title of the film is Emile Norman: By His Own Design that doesn't just mean his art; it means his life. He really designed his life from the very beginning.  He was born on a ranch to a family that was not sympathetic to the fact that he was an artist or that he was gay.  But he created his own life, he created his world, he found a partner, and he ended up in Big Sur and lives an extraordinary life… great freedom and creativity, and parties, and fun, and from a time when it wasn't safe to be gay in this country.  He had painted everywhere.  I think anyone who is a creative person will be inspired by that.

Eugene: That's excellent! If you were to sum up this very inspiring and unique man, what would you say?

Jill: He inspires by example.  Every time we went up the mountain to visit him – where he still works at age 89 – lives are changed by it.  You give yourself permission to be the person you want to be, the artist you want to be, no matter what your circumstances! That's what inspired us to make this movie.

Michael: I would say he inspired us to live the life that we want to… If you want to get a little hint of it, go to the top of Nob Hill to the Masonic Auditorium, look inside and there's a 4-story glass window mosaic.

Eugene: I was reading about that, I'm interested in going up there on a free weekend.

Michael: Just go take a look at it, it'll knock you out.

Eugene: How did you meet Emile Norman?

Michael: We bought land from him in Big Sur and we were neighbors for years.  When we sold our house, we decided to make the movie.  The world has got to know about this guy! From the start, he was reticent about it, not interested.  He said: "My art speaks for itself."  Which indeed it does.  But there's something about the man that's inspiring, beyond the art.

Eugene: What a wonderful compliment and gift to him.  Has he seen the film?

Michael: He was at the world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Eugene: And how did he like it?

Michael: Oh he loved it! He was nervous about it.  I guess anyone would be nervous to give your life over to someone to make a film about it.  But he got a standing ovation at the festival and he felt great about it.

Jill: There was an entry in his diary the first time he saw it with a small group of friends and he made an entry in his diary: "I saw the movie. Wow. Wow. Wow." And that's a big deal! He's so very very particular about the perfection of his art, so we wanted to make a film that lived up to his level of perfection. And he did.

Eugene: What hand did you have in the entire creative project?

Michael: We had the idea.  We hired the director, we hired the composer, we raised the money, we hired the editor…

Jill: We were on-hand for all the shooting and all the editing.  It was the first time we have ever done anything like that.  We had a wonderful director and a great shooter named Will Parrinello.  And a spectacular editor named Mary Lampson here in New York, who did a brilliant job threading the story together.  And the composer Michael Friedman was just brilliant.  We feel like we put a great team together.

Eugene: What was it like collaborating with people like this for the first time, because this was your first documentary… working along directors and film-makers?

Michael: We've done a lot of work on film, but on the other side of the camera, it was excellent.

Eugene: What did you learn, being on the other side?

Michael: Being a producer is a very hard job!

Jill: Everything! We were gaffers and lighting technicians and we held the boom for the sound, fundraisers.  It was a lot.

Michael: I turned to Jill when we were done with the whole thing and said: "I don't know about you, but this is the most creative thing I've ever been involved in my life."

Jill: The highlight – though there were many highlights – was sitting in the editing room with this wonderful woman, Mary Lampson, to see her pull the film together was one of the most amazing experiences! Fantastic!

Eugene: What do you hope audiences will say on the way out of the theatre?

Michael: Encore!

Jill: There's a lot of laughs in it.  It's a very emotional film but he is a very funny guy. He's not heavy. It's entertainment as well as a documentary.

Eugene: Good luck on Friday! Switching gears quickly, I'd like to know what else is going on in your life.  I saw on your new website that Michael has got a book tour coming up?

Michael: I do! We'll be in the Bay Area July 25 and 26.  It's called Living in a Foreign Language and it's about Jill and my most recent chapter.  We bought a house in Italy four years ago and live there part of the time and how it changed our life.  It's about food. It's about wine. And it's about love.

Eugene: Aww! Speaking of love, I understand you two are working with Ben Toth and Richard Jay-Alexander on a new performance act, "Life is a Duet."  What have you got planned?

Jill: We have a show we are very excited about, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander – who's a real pro! Speaking about knowing how to put a story together! It's an autobiographical piece, it has 11 songs.  It also has clips from "L.A. Law" and other things. It's a theatre piece.  We're very pleased. It's been done it in Arizona and California a bit.  I think we're coming to San Francisco in the fall.  That would be great, it'd feel like coming home.

Eugene: Congratulations! It sounds like you guys have a lot on your plate in this new chapter of your life.

Michael: Thank you!

Jill: Thanks so much for doing this.

Eugene: You're welcome and good luck on Friday!

For more information on NewFest visit www.NewFest.org, or to learn more about Jill and Michael visit www.tuckerberry.com.

Photos: Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, courtesy www.tuckerberry.com
Emile Norman: By His Own Design, courtesy www.emilenorman.com
Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker (2006), photo by Ben Strothman

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Eugene Lovendusky Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF Bay Area, his love for the arts bloomed at an early-age; a passion that has flourished in NYC, where Eugene now lives and works. He is a proud member of the New York City Gay Mens' Chorus.


 
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