What could be wrong with spending your retirement years in a kind of candy-colored, sun-drenched utopia where you can enjoy a second youth, partying at dance clubs, performing on cheer squads and going to margarita parties?
That’s the question posed by “Some Kind of Heaven,” a documentary about life in The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community, near Orlando, Fla. With 120,000 residents, The Villages offer a massive array of recreation activities to disconcertingly uniform — mostly conservative and mostly white — population.
But while news articles about the Villages tend to look at the sexual antics and political divisions among the residents and their Trump-bedecked golf cart rallies, Florida filmmaker Lance Oppenheim decided to focus instead on the deeply personal stories of a few residents for whom the idyllic setting wasn’t quite as idyllic. After temporarily taking up residence in The Villages to film off and on for 18 months, Oppenheim decided to structure the documentary around four people: fractured married couple Reggie and Anne, drifter Dennis, and widow Barbara.
Oppenheim is just 24, but the South Florida native and Harvard grad is the kind of obsessive film buff who has been keeping a spreadsheet of his favorite directors since his early teens, and got the New York Times to accept his documentary “Short Term Parking” into their Op-Docs series while he was still in high school. He was able to make real connections with the subjects, who were of his grandparents’ generation. “In some ways it helped that I was two generations below” the age of the residents, he says.
Producers on the film, available on VOD Friday, include director Darren Aronofsky, New York Times Film and Television editorial director Kathleen Lingo and his sister, Facebook executive Melissa Oppenheim.
How did you get interested in documentaries?
Part of it comes from the fact that I’m from Florida. Florida is an insane place. I was terrible at sports, so I found solace in making films. I realized there was an over-abundance of really interesting stories that were constantly written about in the local newspapers but never given a deeper dive. Even if I didn’t have the nicest camera, if I found an interesting story and latched on to it, I could find my voice through other peoples’ stories.
How did you decide on The Villages as a subject?
One short film I made was about a man living on a Royal Caribbean cruise. I wanted to explore this fundamentally American desire to escape reality and live in a privileged bubble. I had grown up knowing about The Villages, and then I saw a marketing video they had put online. The images looked like they were coming from a David Lynch movie, but they were un-ironic. It looked like the opening of “Blue Velvet” — a place that bills itself as America’s friendliest hometown. I was obsessed with the idea that so many people were choosing to move to this place to be in this artificially manufactured fantasyland. Those were themes that I’ve been interested in that crystallized with the setting of this film.
Was it hard to find people willing to participate?
I started without a real agenda. I got myself invited to different clubs, and spent the first several weeks without a camera. Eventually, we were filming about 10 to 15 people. I was following the village residents who form a chorus in the beginning of the film. The most interesting perspective was from people who didn’t relate to the community but were really struggling to find the happiness that others around them had.
There are so many aspects of life at the Villages you could focus on — why did you decide to feature the people who it wasn’t working out for?
When you start to hang around with people who are going through problems, who exist outside of the marketing brochure, and you get their perspectives and their experiences, it casts a different light on the constructed nature of the world there. This story could happen anywhere, but we chose to focus on the Villages. There is something special about that gulf — embracing the artifice of the place and turning it into something real through emotions and painful experiences.
You’ve referenced Larry Sultan’s saturated, hyper-real photos as an influence on the style of the film. What are some of the other works that informed the look?
I was looking at a lot films that deal with suburban life in interesting ways — Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger than Life,” “Edward Scissorhands,” and especially, Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life.” I almost wondered, were the people who created The Villages aware of the thematic legacy of films like “Defending Your Life”?
You emailed Darren Aronofsky for three years before finally getting him to watch your work. Why did you want to get him involved?
“The Wrestler” and “The Fountain” inspired me to pick up a camera in the first place. When I was starting to work on this film, I finally heard back from a creative executive at his company who asked me to stop emailing. But then Darren saw the sizzle reel and he wanted to help. He watched about five or six cuts and gave detailed notes. The form of his movies is informed by the subject matter, style is inseparable from the story. Those types of questions became the main way we engaged with this movie. He was instrumental at helping us fine-tune things and develop the style.
One of the most moving stories is that of Reggie, who seems to have a tenuous hold on reality. What was it like filming him and his wife, Anne?
I first met Reggie when we shooting at a dance — at the back of our shot, this 6’4” bald-headed man was wearing strobe-lit gloves that kept turning on and off, and he kept following us and doing tai chi with the gloves. He then told us that he had manifested us and that we were filming with the wrong subjects.
Was anyone hesitant to open up to you?
Anne was the only person who was initially reluctant, so we would hang out, have dinner, have drinks — it took several weeks. When we sat them down together, it did feel like a therapy session. Over time, over a lot of drug use and maybe a growing mental illness, these tensions came to the surface and they had to deal with them, after we had been filming for a quite a while. We had to be more invested as people than as filmmakers to make her comfortable at all times.
What has the reception been in The Villages so far? Are the residents concerned that it’s a negative portrayal of their lives?
The community has been very split. More people are upset about the film than happy. The development has issued some kind of comment that it portrays their lifestyle in a negative fashion, so they don’t want to fuel its popularity.
They don’t understand what you were trying to do?
I wasn’t interested in making a journalistic exposé, I was interested in what happens when the fantasy turns into a nightmare. I’m disappointed that people in The Villages are calling it fake news because they don’t believe unhappy people exist in The Villages. But it’s a movie that happens to be set in The Villages, it’s more of a novelistic look.
The reaction has only been intensified by the political divisions. It’s almost a political cliché at this point, how conservative the place is. So any time anything negative is written about this lifestyle that so many people deeply enjoy, it makes sense that they get upset.
Have you kept in touch with the subjects?
I speak with them at least every week. They’re all extremely excited the movie is coming out, and I’m very happy they feel that way, because there’s a lot of pain in the film. They’re very brave and I’m extremely grateful to them for being so open with us.
Are you thinking of moving into narrative filmmaking, or do you have any other documentary projects?
I’m working on a narrative film currently and also a documentary. The hope is to make a film that can go a little bit deeper. I’m working on an adaptation of one of my short documentaries. Even most vérité docs follow a narrative, so there is a lot of overlap. I’m eager to take on other things.