Writer and director Jane Anderson (It Could Happen to You, Normal) discovered something wonderful one day in her attic: a trunk full of art by her great aunt Edith Lake Wilkinson. Ever since then, she’s been trying to uncover the mystery of her great aunt, who disappeared in 1924 after being committed to an asylum and never heard from again.
Taking time out of her busy schedule, Jane Anderson spoke to me about the film, Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, her journey to bring her art to the world, and the difference between making a documentary versus a narrative film.
You can read the entire interview below and find my review of the film here.
You’ve been looking into your great aunt Edith’s legacy for decades. What was the turning point when you said this should be on film?
It happened about three years ago when it just hit me that if I don’t do something now for Edith, the story would be buried forever. What I didn’t realize was that I turned 57 at the time and that’s the age that Edith was committed to the asylum. So I don’t know, take it or leave it, it was maybe subconscious on my part or if she was just giving me a hard tap on the shoulder, saying this is it. But I just felt that I had the resources to make this film and it was also just the right timing to get her story out there. She wouldn’t let me go. Basically that’s the answer [laughs].
You were reluctant to appear on film at first. What changed?
Our director, Michelle Boyaner, is just a wonderful documentarian. I had to trust her vision completely. And she was the one who said that the narrative should be told through me because basically, we started out this film with one photograph of Edith and very little information. And you can’t base an entire film on someone you barely know and the narrative of the film is about trying to uncover the mystery and to get her work back to Provincetown. I think the fact that it’s told through me gives it a happy ending. If it had been told any other way, it would have been a really sad, tragic film because her ending was fading away in a horrible asylum. My ending is that I brought Edith back and gave her a voice again. And I’m the person who had to give her that voice so I reluctantly let them hook me up with microphones and all that [laughs].
This was your first documentary writing credit. What was this process like for you versus writing a screenplay for a narrative?
Making a documentary is all in the editing. It’s a royally frightening kind of experience because we had over a hundred hours of film that we had shot and had to sort through to find the imagery, etc. When I would edit my films, I still had a script to go by. You have a map when you edit a narrative, but when you’re editing a doc, that’s when you do all the creating and structuring. I remember the first assembly we had and the film was over three hours long. And I went home feeling devastated, thinking, oh my god, what do we have? And I had talked to a good friend of mine who’s made many documentaries and he said to me, oh yeah, that’s just part of the process. And then we just went back in and rolled up our sleeves. Michelle had all kinds of charts set up, but yeah, it’s a very, very different process.
Do you look to do more documentaries in the future?
Michelle is going to go on and make more docs. I’m more of a narrative filmmaker. I didn’t do this documentary for my career. I did this strictly for Edith’s sake. I mostly financed it and it was just an act of love. I don’t feel compelled to make another doc. It was just the right form to get Edith out there in the world.
And now that she is out there, outside of Provincetown, do you have any plans for displaying her art and contributions to art in other places?
I hope to get her into other museums. I have a whole new task now of finding a representative for her art, getting a book published about her art. So I have a long way to go to get her out into the art world. And I’m hoping that this documentary being on HBO and getting shown nationally, I’m hoping somebody somewhere has an Edith hanging in their back bedroom and that they’ll bring it out and contact me. I’m also hoping that relatives of Fannie [Edith’s companion], or someone who knew Edith or has a letter from Edith will contact me. Who knows what’s going to come my way after it’s shown on HBO? I’m just hoping more of the mystery may get solved.