Over 50 years after Judy Blume’s classic novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was published, the author’s work is once again back in the spotlight on many fronts
There’s a Margaret movie from Kelly Fremon Craig and Lionsgate coming this spring, and a Mara Brock Ali and Netflix small screen adaptation of 1975’s Forever in the works. However, leading the charge is the documentary Judy Blume Forever from Very Semi-Serious directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok.
Set to launch on Amazon Prime Video late this year, the 97-minute film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. In many ways as much about octogenarian Blume’s legacy and the state of free speech in 2023 America as it is about the writer’s life, the documentary straddles that rare divide of being a labor of love and a rigorous examination.
“There’s definitely something going on in the culture right now that makes the books she wrote and the things she went through, especially with book banning, feel extremely relevant,” says Pardo. “It feels like that moment is really repeating itself in disserving ways,” adds the filmmaker of a country where many states are literally taking books like Blume’s off the shelves in schools and libraries.
The Emmy winning directors sat down with me to talk all things Blume and to reveal what they wanted viewers to get out of their film, on a multitude of levels.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, where you Judy Blume readers growing up?
PARDO: I was a Judy Blume reader as a kid. Leah and I joke I was an early bloomer, and she was a late bloomer in many ways.
I think for me Judy was someone who taught you about things that no one else was talking about and it made me feel okay even when I felt like whatever I was going through was new or different. I got my period when I was 10, before my older sister got hers. I remember reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and realizing there are kids who want this. There are kids who want their periods and then there’s a character in the book who like has to wear a bra when she’s in third grade. That blew my mind.
So, it was a very safe, comforting and also fun place to live as a book reader and I flash forward 25 years and I have kids. I decided to introduce them to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I turned on the audio book on a road trip one day and I hadn’t thought about the books really over all those years and suddenly I’m hearing Judy’s voice read the audiobook. She’s got this amazing, lovely voice and it immediately took me back, and also had me thinking about it from an adult perspective for the first time wondering who this woman was and how she did all that and what had become of her.
WOLCHOK: I am a late bloomer in every way. I didn’t read Judy really when I was a kid. I didn’t read much as a kid. I did read V.C. Andrews secretly a lot, which is really embarrassing. I was more of like a movie, TV, radio worm than a book worm and I played outside a lot because I grew up in Florida. Anyways, I got interested in making this with Davina in part because of the deep respect I have for Davina as a filmmaker. She’s like the most thoughtful and sensitive documentarian and because I started to watch some videos of Judy online and I realized oh my God, I would have been such a different kid if I had read Judy.
I wish I had read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and not been afraid of it.
WOLCHOK: Because it was banned in towns like mine in Jacksonville, Florida and it was seen as taboo. I was a good girl. I didn’t want to read something that was taboo despite the fact that I was reading V.C. Andrews. So, I was fascinated by her honesty and mesmerized by her honesty and knew that her life story needed to be told in documentary form, and I was really honored that Davina asked me to make it with her.
DEADLINE: In that, Judy Blume books are very much of their time, dated – in a good way. Do you worry that there’s if not a lack of relevance maybe a boundary that separates people from enjoying the books or getting anything out of the books the way we did when we were younger?
PARDO: There’s a universality of coming of age whether it takes place in the 50s or the 70s or today.
DEADLINE: How so?
PARDO: It’s why we’re all drawn to great coming of age movies, or coming of age books. So, there’s that as baseline and then I think because the books are so specific and honest about where they are in the experience that they’re living in. I mean, Judy is not pretending to speak for everyone. The characters are first person. The specificity I think helps make them feel more accessible if that makes sense and I think that’s often true of like best films too.
Like really specific experience can translate, but kids today for sure have access to so many different types of stories, so many more authors and so much more range of experience. It was really important to us to include the creators of those books in the film to hear how they reacted to Judy Blume when they were growing up. Also, to acknowledge a nod to the fact that there’s a whole new generation of authors with different perspectives and points of view on coming of age and on all experiences. We were really trying to balance those two things. I mean, nostalgia is so fun to lean into and we wanted to kind of live in it, but it also has to feel contemporary. So, we were constantly kind of living in those spaces and trying to do both at once.
DEADLINE: This is a film about Judy Blume, her art, her legacy, but it is also a film about a retreat in America. About the wide ranged and bold faced banning of books. A bit of a Trojan Horse, I wanted to get a sense of what kind of impact are you hoping it has once it launches on Amazon?
WOLCHOK: I mean, it’s funny if you’d have asked us the question three years ago I’m not sure that we’d have the same answer because of the way book banning and censorship is really evolved and blown up, exploded.
Now, we want the film to start the dialogue within schools, within libraries, within homes. I think one of the things I would love is that parents and kids talk to each other differently after they watch the film.
Maybe the kid watches the film. Maybe the adult watches the film.
Maybe they just read a Judy Blume book and discuss it, but I know that for me working on this film has led to different conversations around the dinner table. Different conversations in my family than we ever would be having if I didn’t start reading Judy Blume as an adult, meet Judy Blume and really start talking to all the people who are influenced by her and who’ve like pushed the form in a totally different direction because of her honesty. So, I think if they watch the film and have like one honest conversation with someone in their family or someone in their community or someone in their school, I would be thrilled to know that the film inspired an honest conversation. That would be one small good thing.
DEADLINE: You are here at Sundance with a doc headed to launch on Amazon, there’s the Margret movie, the 1975 novel Forever is becoming a Netflix series, why do you think Judy Blume is having a second or third bloom in 2023?
PARDO: I don’t know if I agree with that. I feel like that’s been going on for a long time.
We’re so in this right now that I don’t totally have perspective on whether it like a bloom moment or what that moment is. People have always had this really strong reaction to her. Even 10 years ago when she published the last book she wrote In the Unlikely Event. She would do these book tours and she was swarmed by people who had read her books when they were younger, and people would come to book signings and cry, and she always had a box of Kleenex. Same when Summer Sisters came out 15 years before that.
It may be more in social media right now. Maybe she has a stronger presence there and for a while was really active on Twitter and in the last five years she has this book store where she’s very present and people know she’s there and make pilgrimages to come see her. There’s definitely something going on in the culture right now that makes the books she wrote and the things she went through, especially with book banning, feel extremely relevant. It feels like that moment is really repeating itself in disserving ways. In that sense, clinically there’s been a lot of parallels.
WOLCHOK: I mean, I think there are many layers to everything because I think part of it is that Judy is turning 85 in a couple of weeks, and I think she made a conscious decision to say yes to projects, to say yes to adaptations of her work, That’s part of the reason that Judy Blume is having a moment now because there are a lot of adaptations on screen and on TV upcoming. I read about Summer Sisters and Forever both being adapted. The Fudge series we’ve read about being adapted. We haven’t talked to any of the creators of those three things and then of course Margaret is coming out in April and that’s something she literally held onto.
DEADLINE: Leah, you mention Judy saying yes to projects more recently, in that context what was it like telling her story with her such a big part of your film?
PARDO: Judy’s honesty on the page, we saw it in all our interactions with her. She’s very straightforward. We were just always very clear with each other. We were clear with her about what we wanted to do, and she was very clear back about what her boundaries were, what was possible, what wasn’t. I think we immediately had a rapport. The initial meeting with her was like I was still pretty much such a fan, but I think I quickly got over that.
DEADLINE: And you are very honest about this too, separating fan and filmmaker can’t be easy …
PARDO: I’ll tell you one of the things that cemented my wanting to do this film is watching videos of people interviewing her.
Every single, I mean so many, I don’t have to say every single but many interviewers, people who had interviewed Judy publicly on stage are like holding back tears or crying. I remember going to meet her for the first time and telling myself do not cry. Do not cry. But we had this three hour lunch, and I came home and just balled, and then I do think we got past that. I do. I mean, you have to, right.
We did very long interviews. We also had a long year of preparation because Judy said yes to the project in February 2020 and then everything shut down, so there was a year of talking to Judy on Zoom. Watching her do 50 anniversary events on Zoom. It was a slow build to production. I think that was really helpful to. It allowed us to kind of sit quietly with her work and also continue to build our relationship with her remotely until we could finally get to her in person again.
DEADLINE: Over and over this year, I hear filmmakers say there was an opportunity in the pandemic in that it gave then time to consider, to contemplate that they don’t usually have …
PARDO: Yes. One of the things I always come back to with Judy is the thing that made her successful was the moment she looked inward and spoke from her own experience. I remember she wrote based on what she was really interested in and who she was and what mattered to her when she was only 10 or 11. That was the thing that struck a chord.
For me that’s really inspiring. I hope it is for other people too.
Your voice matters and it’s important to hold onto that and the fact that she was able to do that opened doors for other writers to do similar kind of writing, a sort of intimate first person story. Stories can be stylistically different but they’re stemming from one’s own unique, intimate perspective. I hope that comes through in the range of authors we’ve interviewed, the things that they’re talking about, and I hope it inspires other people to find their way, to tell their story.