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Fact or Fiction: real-life as a catalyst in Mother of All Shows

People like to ask me if Mother of All Shows is "based on" my own personal life. This is always such an intriguing question for me because I write a lot of my experiences into any script I'm working on. I think that's true for many writers, or at least, many writers I know.

Some photos of myself with Wendie Malick for the cover of Liza's scrapbook in the film. Design by Eshaan Gupta.

With this film, it's a bit more complicated than usual. The catalyst for writing this script was in part my own personal experience of going no-contact with my own mother several years ago, but the project didn't start out with that as its intention.

I had written a film treatment over a decade ago about a woman who gets sucked into a 70s variety show in her own mind, but it was more of a science-fiction, mass hysteria film at that point. My colleague, friend and story-editor David James Brock took a look at it one day and noticed, very astutely, that there was a scene where the main character is bringing her mother to live in a long term care facility because she has dementia and can no longer care for herself. Incidentally, this had happened with my grandmother, and I noticed a lot of changes in her personality that struck me, so that was part of what I was exploring. David pointed it out and said: this is such an interesting aspect of your idea; why is there only this one scene?

At the time that he said this to me, I had already gone no-contact with my mother for several months. Going no-contact is a term used in toxic relationships when someone chooses to cut off contact with someone in order to preserve their mental health and wellness. After years of trying other strategies like "grey-rocking" and "low-contact" I found myself in a position where my only option to preserve my own peace of mind was to cut off contact for a time.

On set with Wendie Malick and our Cinematographer Gaelen Cook

I found my experience of going no-contact a roller coaster ride of relief, freedom, guilt, grief, rage, deep sadness, liberation, joy and independence.

My whole life I've relied so much on fantasy and daydreaming to get through. Sometimes those daydreams became quite maladaptive, and I would get lost in rich, vivid fantasy worlds I had built. I found I could actually go through my day, do my work, even be in conversation with people and also be fully daydreaming at the same time. When I was a kid I often fantasized that my parents were Victor and Nikki Newman from the Young and Restless. I even wrote fan fiction for it, which gives you some insight into how I ended up making this movie!

And then, just before David and I began writing the script, my father was potentially going into palliative care, and I decided to go visit him. Visiting my dad during my estrangement from my mother was hard because they sort of came as a package deal; he didn't have his own phone and he was rarely without her. But I was able to arrange a visit with him (without my mom being present) and have a bit of closure with him, which was a relief.

David and I got to talking about what I was experiencing in my estrangement from my mother, and my maladaptive daydreams, and we decided to work together on the concept of the film with the framing device of someone who had not been in contact with their mother for several years and was going to visit her before she moves into palliative care.

So, the concept for this film was inspired by some of my own experiences, but the characters and situations are highly fictionalized. I didn't want to make an autobiographical film about my life. I also didn't want to make a movie exposing actual things that happened in my relationship with my mother, and though I speak about some of my own experiences, I keep a lot of the details of my personal life with my family private.

Rosa, the mother character in the film (played beautifully by Wendie Malick) is a combination of many women, real and fictitious: Mama Rose from Gypsy, Bea Arthur, Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds, Judy Garland and yes, a bit of my mother and some of the women I grew up around. Liza, the character I play borrows a lot from my own life, but is also based on stories I heard from Liza Minelli and Carrie Fisher about their mothers, and many other women I know who have had similar experiences.

Part of healing from growing up in a household filled with secrets and shame is speaking our truths and owning our experiences, since they were often dismissed through gaslighting and guilting. And so, making this film was an attempt to do some of that, while using the imaginative and fictional world David and I created to differentiate the film/characters from my specific personal experiences. This was hugely helpful to me, and I think it makes for a far more interesting film than if I just told you the story of my family as an autobiography.

I also wanted other people to see themselves and their families represented in the film. I've read a lot of books on narcissistic and toxic parents, and so I brought a lot of those key characteristics into the writer's room as we shaped Rosa, the main character, into being.

I'm always fascinated when audiences are desperate to know what's real and what isn't in a movie - did a thing actually happen? Was that character a real-life person? I think it speaks to our wider desire to be seen and to connect. But ultimately, even when a character is based on someone real, the writer, the actor, the director, the editor - all of these artists shape the person they become in the film. And the audience then projects their own experiences onto that performance.

In the context of my film, full of surrealism and fantasy, this is an even more potent question. That's why I like to make the distinction that this isn't an autobiography or "based on" my life. It's a fictitious story we built that shares a context with my own personal experiences - my life as a catalyst. I hope it speaks to you.

The back of Liza's scrapbook featuring an emo photo of me as a teenager.

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