- Screening the Bungalows
An Interview with Pamela Gray,
Screenwriter of “A Walk on the Moon”
Interview conducted by Phil Brown
from In the Mountains #8 October 1999
Pamela Gray’s film, “A Walk on the Moon,” was released in 1999, to much critical acclaim. The film has brought back so many important memories for Catskills veterans, and has shown this amazing world to many who never knew it. Pamela brought her marvelous film to the Fifth Annual History of the Catskills Conference where we showed it, and where Pamela spoke eloquently about the process of making it. Phil Brown conducted this interview with Pamela Gray shortly before the conference.
- Phil Brown: This wonderful film feels like it could only come from a Catskills veteran. What was your life experience in the Catskills?
Pamela Gray: I was three years old when I started going to Silverstein’s Bungalow Colony in Swan Lake. And I remember being there at least until I was about nine. Then we were at a place in Swan Lake called Tommy’s Lodge. After that we started moving around. We were in Mountaindale for a few summers, Woodbourne for a couple of summers, and the last summer I spent in the Catskills was in South Fallsburg.
- Always in bungalow colonies?
Always in bungalow colonies.
- Did your parents ever talk about why colonies instead of hotels?
Money. Hotels were not even an option. We could never afford that.
- What did they do?
My father was a salesman and my mother went back to school when I was a child and eventually became a New York City schoolteacher. In the early years my father was selling storm windows, he sold encyclopedias; he eventually settled into selling funeral supplies. My father had worked as a stand-up comic in the Borsht belt before he married my mother, so the Catskills had been part of his life for many years. In general we associated the hotels with the people who had more money. My parents recently said that it was something like $250 for a bungalow for a whole summer. My parents had certain friends that they had made in the bungalow colonies and then we would all as a group go to the same bungalow colony.
- And how long did you go there? Did it last till teenage life or after?
My last summer I was fifteen and I had had enough. I have a younger brother and my family went a couple of more years after I stopped. By the time it was my last year in the Catskills it felt like it was over. You know, we would look around and more and more of the bungalow colonies around us were becoming Hassidic. And there was a sense that an era was coming to an end and people just were not going to be there any more. I really did not feel nostalgic for it until I was in my thirties. I think that when I was a teenager I was embarrassed that we were still going there and that my friends could afford sleep-away camp or that I had friends going to Europe for the whole summer and this was all that we could have! So it was so idyllic when I was a child, but as a teenager, it felt to me like everyone had more money than we did.
- When did you get the idea to write the script? And how long did it take?
I started the script in 1991 and I had probably been thinking about it a couple of years. I cannot remember the year when “Dirty Dancing” came out, but that movie was partly an inspiration to tell my own story, which I thought was quite different. The world of the bungalow colony was very different than the hotel world, and I thought that that movie was lacking in authentic ethnic identity. I did not know what the story was, but I felt this strong desire to put the world of the bungalow colony into a movie.
- How long did it take to write?
The first draft that I worked on took six months, and it was called the “Blouse Man.” I finished it in the spring of 1992. I was a graduate student at UCLA film school in the MFA screenwriting program. In the Fall of 1992 I won a major screenwriting award–the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award. Anyone who is in the University of California system can enter a screenplay or play. I won first prize and got a lot of attention for the script. I had close to 200 meetings with people all over Hollywood, and I thought because of the attention I got, that it would take no time at all before someone made it into a movie. But that is not what happened. People would tell me that they loved the writing and they loved the script and the ideas but that they did not feel it was commercial enough. It was either too small, too soft, or not universal enough. And I always looked at the words “not universal enough” as the code word for “too Jewish”! A couple of people were actually honest enough to say it was “too ethnic.” They still did not say “too Jewish.” One producer just said to me point blank “Well Jewish movies do not make money.” Then in the spring of 1994, the actor Tony Goldwyn was given the script by his agency, CAA, who had a copy of it from when I won the award. Tony called me and I thought he was calling because it was his grandfather’s screenwriting award (Samuel Goldwyn) and his father Samuel Goldwyn Jr had given me the award, but Tony did not even know about that. It was just a wonderful coincidence that he’d read the script and loved it and wanted to option it. And from the point that Tony and I partnered, I did a lot of rewriting on the script. Tony had me doing drafts for the next two years and we had a director attached for half that time ñ David Seltzer, who had written and directed “Punchline” and a movie called “Lucas.” At the last minute he got another project, and Tony and I were kind of back starting from scratch.
- So Tony was initially a producer?
Yes. He wanted to produce it and possibly play the Blouse Man. And when we lost David Seltzer we then spent six months looking for a new director, and couldn’t find the right person. So it was at that point that Tony said to me “What do you think about me directing it?” and I was initially hesitant about a first time director but he and I had gotten so close and he loved the material so much and he had a lot of passion for it and a lot of great ideas, so I said yes. And at that point I thought the script was done, because I had finished it when we were working with David Seltzer, but now that Tony was the director, he was looking at it through a different lens and I did more re-writing for him. By the time Dustin Hoffman’s company called in the fall of ’96 I had probably done, I would say, six more drafts.
- And you are then pleased with how it finally came out? You did not had to make compromises that you hated?
There were some compromises I made. I am still very pleased and still I feel that it is my movie, this is my vision and this is the script I wrote. There were things that were taken out in the cutting room, things that are missing that I still miss very much. And I think the movie works without them, especially if you do not know that they had been there. It is unfortunately a typical writer’s experience in the film industry to wind up with a movie that you don’t recognize or that feels like someone else’s movie, so I feel very lucky. It is very rewarding to have kuchalayn people come up to me and say “You got it right and this is my memory.” You know I love that, making people remember the Catskills. The only film that showed a bungalow colony was “Enemies ñ a Love Story.” If you blink you may not even know it is a bungalow colony. And I wanted to be the one who would let the world see what a bungalow colonies were.
- It was a challenge, I would gather, to portray working class people as very interesting for a film world that does not necessarily see that.
Yes, because the film world does not often show working class people, except in stereotypical ways. Growing up, I thought that the Catskills were predominantly working class people and bungalow colonies. Although I knew that the hotels were out there; we would try to sneak into them (e.g. as teenagers we tried to sneak into dances). At one point in the script there were scenes with Pearl and Marty climbing fences to try to sneak into the hotels to go to the shows, and I said “you know this is just going to fit that stereotype of Jews, you know of ‘cheap Jews.'” But literally we could not afford it. That was why bungalow colony people did that. Anyway, that scene was cut for other reasons so I didn’t have to worry about it.
- How did Woodstock actually influence you?
The summer of ’69 we were in Dr. Locker’s Bungalow Colony. And that is where I watched the moonwalk and that is where we saw the hippies walking by–from the swimming pool we saw them on their way to Woodstock. I do not remember this, but my mother remembers that that summer, the week before Woodstock, Moishe’s Butcher Shop changed its name to the “Funky Chicken.” In retrospect, it is so hilarious that he would really think that people on the way to Woodstock would stop at a butcher’s shop and get a piece of flanken on the way to Woodstock.
- In the last scene when the camera pans away, that is a minute portrait of the whole Catskills bungalow colony life and it is so powerful and beautiful it actually brought more tears to my eyes than the directly emotional scenes. I was wondering if you could tell me if that was in the script and what your thoughts were about that last scene?
Well that is a good question, because the ending of the movie had quite an evolution. Up until Dustin’s company came along, my movie ended with a mock marriage ceremony. I ended the script with Marty and Pearl being chosen by the bungalow colony’s entertainment committee, to be the couple that was to be in the mock marriage. I had different versions of it. One year I had it that it was the grandmother who put them up to it. And one version was that it was Pearl’s friends, and then in my last version it was Pearl herself who did it, as one of the ways in which to heal the marriage. It was a comical ending to the movie. They were in drag, Pearl in the tux and Marty in the gown. I got comments that the ending was not serious enough for everything that had transpired in the film. By the time I finished the script for Dustin’s company, the mock marriage was out and I had changed the ending to Pearl and Marty dancing on the porch. I think that it was Tony and I together who wanted to have this sense of moving out and seeing the world, to show that balance was restored. Tony did not want little vignettes. He didn’t want us to focus on specific characters that we knew, but to have more of a the sense of the mundane beauty of life in the bungalow colony.
- And did you like the way it worked?
I loved the way it worked.
- Why are there so few films that are based in the Catskills? There were so many people there, it was such a wonderful piece of life. There is so much attention to the Catskills comics, but nevertheless very few films.
I do not know the answer to that. I certainly know that there is a dearth of cinema of Jewish experience in general, but I do not know if that means that there were Catskills scripts around and that people just would not make them, or if there just weren’t that many people who went to the Catskills who turned into screenwriters and directors. But I do believe that if there had been more scripts, they would have had trouble being made, just as my script had trouble.
- You already told me that you were working partly in response to “Dirty Dancing” as being not a good representation. Of course everybody who I ever speak with who is at all involved in remembering the Catskills dislikes it. What is it about that film that does not make it an honest portrayal?
The word Jew or Jewish is never used in my movie, but you know these people are Jewish. Yet in “Dirty Dancing” it felt like there was a deliberate “de-Jewing” going on, a whitewashing of their ethnicity. “Dirty Dancing” is not “heimishe.”
- But you said when you were doing yours you watched “Sweet Lorraine” a lot.
I did. “Sweet Lorraine” felt authentic, and I knew it had to have been made by a Jew and by someone who knew that world. Even the little jokes. It was just a feeling of familiarity. I also loved “Sweet Lorraine” because Maureen Stapleton reminded me of my grandmother. It just had an authenticity to it. Also “Sweet Lorraine” was about a heimish hotel, a rundown hotel; it had a little more working class feeling to it because the focus was on the staff . I felt like, OK, this is the feeling I want for my movie, but I want my movie to be about a bungalow colony.
- Did Dustin Hoffman or Tony Goldman have any Catskills connection?
Not at all. Tony had never even heard of the bungalow colonies. He did not know of this world but he was very attracted to it. He loved learning about it in the scrip, and he thought it was a wonderful world for a film. Dustin grew up in LA and also knew nothing about the bungalow colonies. This was an alien world for both of them. Tony wanted me on the set and he relied on me to help him, to help educate him about the world. My parents had bagels, cream cheese and lox with Liev Schreiber, Diane Lane and Tony, and told them Catskills stories. Tony took Diane and Liev on the same location scout that he and I went on in the Catskills, so they could be in real bungalow colonies.
- Given that you had all that experience ñ did you need to do any more research?
I did do research when I was writing. I read Stefan Kanfer’s book [A Summer World]. I read Joey Bishop’s book about the Catskills, and then I used [Myrna and Harvey Frommer’s] “It Happened in the Catskills.” I used that a lot just to look at photographs. I spent years trying to track down a copy of [the film] “The Rise and Falls of the Borscht Belt,” which I’d seen at the San Francisco Film Festival. All the actors had to watch that movie and read “It Happened in the Catskills” ñ and of course the production designer relied on those things very heavily. And then I tried to see whatever movies I could, like “Dirty Dancing,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Enemies,” and “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”
- Why did this have to be shot in Canada?
The main reason any movie gets shot in Canada is budget. The unions in New York require a pay scale that is non-affordable for many independent films. Tony was hoping at the last moment that maybe we could convince them to shoot in the Catskills, but when we went on this Catskills scout, it was kind of depressing. There were so few bungalow colonies. The day we went to Dr. Lockers it was in complete disrepair. Also, the overall look of the Catskills didn’t feel lush enough. As it turns out our production designer Dan Leigh created a bungalow colony from an out-of-business Jewish boys camp. Dan took these run-down little tent cabins and made this beautiful bungalow colony and he made the main house and the casino. He did enough scouting and he was brilliant and creative enough to recreate the world. He really got a picture of what it looked like and it was great that I got to be with him on the scout because I could pick and choose and say, “Those are the bungalows that I have in mind.” And I would just point and say “Oh my God, Dan, the propane tank! Don’t forget the propane tank.” He had exact replicas of the hotel signs. He got permission from the Nevele and the Concord to use the kind of script that they used. The one thing he was not able to recreate was Poppy’s ice-cream parlor. We went to it, but it’s not there. It is just this vacant lot in Parksville. The sign was there and Dan made an absolutely beautiful replica of it, then fabricated the ice-cream parlor. As it turns out, the scene was cut from the movie. We went to the actual Woodstock site and Dan and Tony were able to find a farm in Quebec that looked enough like it. Tony, Dan, and I went to Mountaindale, Woodridge, Liberty, and South Fallsburg, and Dan used a little town in the Laurentians to look like a version of Woodridge. Dan did an amazing job of making things look as authentic as possible. I love the look of the movie.
- Yes. It is completely authentic. It is wonderful.
My parents, my entire mispoche, are in the movie as extras — my parents, my brother and my sister-in-law, my nieces and friends of my parents. When my family got to the set, they almost fainted. They felt that they had walked back in time. They were very emotional. It was so much like being back in the bungalow colony.
- Well it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and hear about your enthusiasm about this whole world.
Thank you. I’m so glad that you’re keeping it alive. That’s really great.