At 85, Judy Blume is going through one of the best years of her long career. The Prime Video Documentary judy blume forever and a charming adaptation of his most famous novel, Are you there God? it’s me, daisy, debuted a week apart in April. A flurry of corresponding media attention reaffirmed Blume’s status as America’s preeminent writer of realistic young adult fiction. And in July, judy blume foreverr earned two Emmy nominations, one for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special and one for Directing.
Those new Emmy-nominated directors, Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, came to the project from different points of view: the former was a longtime Blume devotee, while the latter had never read his work. Lifelong friends who collaborated in the new yorker doctor cartoonist very semi serious, Pardo and Wolchok made a film that honors a model of free speech at a time when book bans are censoring material in schools and libraries across the country. Following the attention of his awards, THR talked to the couple about what it took to persuade Blume to open up to them.
What have your interactions with Judy been like since the movie came out?
LEAH WOLCHOK Judy has always known how much her fans have gravitated to her characters and their stories, but she is realizing how much her own personal story has touched people. She has talked to us a bit about what people say when she walks into the bookstore (Books & Books in Key West, Florida) after seeing the documentary, because she’s had fans come to the bookstore to say hi to her for years. She opened the bookstore in 2016, but they always came as fans of her stories. Now they know a little more about who she was growing up, who was hers in her first marriage, why she became a writer and the struggle she went through, and people actually feel even more emotionally connected to her as a person.
Leah, since you weren’t that familiar with Judy Blume, what was your reaction to Davina’s idea of making a documentary about her?
WOLCHOK He had been supporting Davina from afar for as long as she had been contacting Judy and corresponding. They had this little long-distance love story via email for a year and a half. Davina and I met at film school in 2003 and we support each other through all phases of the documentary making process. I remember Davina talking about this from the beginning. She was at my parents’ house and I went into the closet and found a copy of Also known as Sheila the Great, and I was like, “Wow, wait, we had the book!” I don’t think she’s ever read it. Inside the cover was a stamp that my mom had put with the names of my brothers. She had sent him to camp with them, and my best friend’s brother and sister had also signed their names in the book. That book had been passed down and was in my parents’ closet for almost 40 years. How did I not have this deep connection to the work of Judy Blume that so many other women of my generation have? I felt a bit left out of a club. When I was a tween, Judy’s books were really off-limits. They were talked about as taboo and inappropriate, and I think I internalized a lot of that. It wasn’t something my friends were talking about. We were passing VC Andrews books, which you’re probably too young to remember.
Flowers in the Attic?
WOLCHOK Exactly. That was the book that everyone was reading in fifth grade, and it was somehow considered okay to read that gothic horror story, which has a lot of really challenging themes, but not okay to read about a girl who was discovering her own special place. or a girl who questioned religion or a girl who wondered about her parents’ marriage or wondered when her breasts would grow or her period would come.
What was Judy’s response to the first email you sent her?
DAVINA PARDO The first response, which came perhaps a few weeks after I wrote, was very warm. It was also a bit hesitant. She said: “Thank you very much for the email from her. I’m tempted, but I have a really full life. And to be completely frank,” in the way that Judy Blume always is, “I don’t know how I feel about making a documentary. Maybe.” So the door was ajar.
And what was the moment when you fully opened the door?
BROWN We went back and forth for quite some time. Towards the end, we started talking a lot about his readers, the children who had written to him, and the fact that he had kept all those letters for so many years, even though he claims to be a person who throws everything away. I went to the Yale library to see what was there. You could spend weeks and weeks there. Once I tried it out and learned that Judy was still in contact with some of the letter writers, it became very clear that this was an important part of the story. And then bringing in Imagine Documentaries was huge. That way, it wouldn’t be me as an independent filmmaker slowly raising money over many years, which is how I’ve often worked in the past.
What was it like to exist in Judy’s world?
WOLCHOK We were locked in. Immersing myself in Judy’s world was a welcome escape from all the stress and anxiety the entire world was experiencing. She allowed me to think about my mom’s life and my mother-in-law’s life. My children, at the time, were 8 and 11 years old, and they were stuck at home. My 11-year-old son felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, and immersing myself in the lives of these characters gave me a sense of freedom and possibility.
What is it like to be invited to Judy’s house? What kind of snacks do you serve?
BROWN His apartment in Key West is very pristine and white. I remember being really scared that we were going to scratch a white wall, coming in with a team. We brought our own snacks, but one thing he loves to do when guests come over is take you out to eat on the beach at his favorite restaurant called Salute. On the beach. He always orders key lime pie with a ton of whipped cream.
Were you aware of the strength of Judy’s fan correspondence before you began working on the film?
BROWN Not before the investigation began. He gave the file to Yale, so there were a few articles about it. There were dozens and dozens and dozens of boxes organized in many cases by topic: everything from divorce to “my annoying brother” to grief, loss, and eating disorders. Looking at those folder names, he could see how much depth and breadth was there. But he didn’t know at the time that Judy was still in these long-term relationships. It’s also important to say that you can’t just walk into a library and pull cards off the shelf. The privacy of the letter writers has been very important to Judy and her husband, George, in transferring the letters to Yale because she is still in a relationship with some of them. When she was ready, she approached a few on our behalf and said, “They’re making a documentary about me. They would love to talk to you. Are you comfortable doing that?”
What was it like watching the two letter writers featured in the film, both now adults, read their old letters from their teens?
WOLCHOK We had months of going back and forth with them before we brought them in for the interview. We ask them about specific passages we would like them to read. We talked a lot about what it would be like for them to go back to that space. We worked with a therapist to make sure we were sensitive to the trauma that might come up in interviews. They wrote the letters as children, sealed them in an envelope, put a stamp on them, and mailed them off, not thinking they would ever see them again. We were reintroducing them to their childhood and wanted to make sure they felt comfortable every step of the way. It was really powerful to witness that, to be a listener, which is always the greatest honor as a filmmaker. That’s something Karen says in the movie, that Judy honored her by responding to her letters over the years. Judy had met both of them in person when they were teenagers. She really was there for them in the deepest way.
Did Judy give you any idea why she chose those two people in particular?
BROWN Those are two he’s really kept in close contact with. I think he recognized the power of his stories and the strength of his writing. Even as young children, they were very eloquent writers.
When you were in production, was the book ban already the hot topic that it has become all over America?
BROWN It was simmering, but had not boiled. Because of Judy’s experience, we pay attention to it and look at what kinds of books are banned today. We were learning that most of the banned books are about queer and transgender characters, about black and brown characters, and by authors with those identities. From the beginning, we knew that it was going to be very important to talk to contemporary authors who experienced what Judy was experiencing. It is a sad and disturbing fluke that she has broken out the way she has. Judy has been very vocal in the last few months on this, and we’re grateful that the film can play a small part in that conversation. As Judy says in the movie, “A book can’t hurt a child.” It’s been maddening to work on this alongside this increase in bans across the country.
what did you think Are you there God? it’s me, daisythe movie?
BROWN I saw it twice: once with Judy at a Lionsgate screening and once with my kids and in-laws on the Upper West Side. It was a full house. Perhaps this is seeing it as an adult rather than experiencing the book as a child, but for me, Margaret’s mother, Barbara, is much more complete as a character. They did such a beautiful job of making that character more nuanced. Rachel McAdams makes me cry. And to have these two movies coming out at the same time has been really cool for all of us.
WOLCHOK (Daisy flower director) Kelly Fremon Craig was brilliant in the way she realized that women who read Daisy flower as girls now they are middle-aged moms who are going to connect with mom. Davina and I watched (her debut movie of hers) the edge of seventeen at the beginning of working together on this documentary, and we both loved that film. It is so well run. I see Kelly in that movie, and there are pieces of Are you there God? it’s me, daisy in that.
BROWN When I saw Daisy flower the second time around and Judy’s name appeared onscreen over the end credits, the audience cheered. I am so grateful that we were able to have a small part in sharing her story and her legacy.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an independent August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, Click here for subscribe.