HBO debuted its film about the creation of An American Family, but the series’ producer has called the film’s plot fiction–and as usual, reality is more interesting and complicated.
While the performances in Cinema Verite were strong, and the actors looked surprisingly like their real-life counterparts, I was somewhat disappointed by the film, which was more like a Cliffs Notes version of the creation of the first reality series than a significant addition to the conversation. It touched on the ethics and the consequences of the then-new kind of filmmaking, but those felt quick and rote, and ultimately the film never really went anywhere. And on top of that, the relationship between Pat Loud and producer Craig Gilbert, which got the most attention, may not have even been accurate.
“The story line was essentially fallacious,” Craig Gilbert told The New Yorker, which reports that Gilbert hired a lawyer but never sued. The magazine also reports that “The Louds, who also were reportedly unhappy with the script, ended up accepting a financial settlement from HBO for agreeing not to discuss it publicly.”
That is pretty damning and devastating. Why couldn’t HBO, and director/producers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and their screenwriter David Seltzer, produce something that was accurate? Presumably, there’d be no reason for HBO to pay off the people its film portrayed if that portrayal was accurate, or at least as accurate as a condensed version of reality can be. Perhaps the Louds wouldn’t have been happy with any version of what they went through 40 years ago.
Meanwhile, Alan and Susan Raymond, the filmmakers who filmed the Louds, are still publicly critical of Craig Gilbert, but also said that parts of the film is inaccurate. Regarding the scene in which Alan punches Craig, Alan told The New Yorker, “I did push him. I should have punched him.” Susan Raymond said, “Craig destroyed that family.”
Craig Gilbert seems to agree, telling the New Yorker that Pat called him after reading scathing reviews. “Pat was screaming. She’d taken a below-the-belt hit, and it hurt. That, right there, was the beginning of my own confusion. What have I done? What do I do? I’ve never resolved it. I didn’t know what I had wrought. I still don’t,” he said.
For more insight into the actual production from the people who participated, there’s Pat Loud’s 1974 memoir, and a 2010 interview with Alan and Susan Raymond. The Archive of American Television’s 3.5 hour, five-part interview is on YouTube, and in it, they discus the reaction to the film and its impact, including how they weren’t credited for their work, and filming and bonding with the family, and Gilbert’s “meddling” in the family’s life.