Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

How the Director of ‘Love, Gilda’ Became a Documentary Detective


It’s hard to watch Love, Gilda and not feel the spirit of Gilda Radner, the influential comedian and original Saturday Night Live star, inhabit every frame. That’s largely because director Lisa D’Apolito had access to hundreds of images, audio recordings, and video clips that she channeled into the film to depict the full range of Radner’s life. We spoke with the director about the materials she used in the film, how she acquired them, and how it all was organized into the critically acclaimed final documentary.


Adding Gilda’s Personal Touch

Any good documentary needs a wealth of material as a foundation, so D’Apolito started with two objectives: scheduling and collecting. “The first process was really trying to get interviews on board, and then searching for all the archival material that was available online through CBS, ABC, and all the stock houses,” the director says.

But then a major turning point came in the project: Michael Radner, Gilda’s brother, offered D’Apolito access to boxes and boxes of Gilda’s home movies, diaries, and audio tapes. That completely changed what the director had to work with and what the film could become, creating the opportunity to make a much more personal film. It also changed the research process. Instead of public material, D’Apolito dove into finding more of the personal. “Once we got all this original material, we were on a mission to find, however we could, wherever we could, any other personal material through friends or, through further research, in libraries and archives.”

'Love, Gilda' director Lisa D'Apolito

Director Lisa D’Apolito

Preserving Gilda’s Voice

Invaluable as Radner’s personal audio tapes were, they did come with a significant challenge. “The original tapes that we had were extremely damaged,” D’Apolito explains. “We had to weed through what was usable in those tapes and see what could be fixed and what couldn’t be fixed.”

At one point, she made a cut of the film with all the audio she liked best, regardless of quality, then assessed from there. Where the material wasn’t recoverable, or the audio quality was too poor, D’Apolito did what all great documentarians do: get creative and make it work. She searched for ways to supplement or fill in the gaps left by the poor-quality audio.

“We contacted journalists who had interviewed Gilda to see if they had tapes from when they interviewed her,” she explains. “Luckily, a couple of them did. We contacted probably about 50 people.” But it wasn’t just a technical issue — it was all in keeping with the spirit of wanting to preserve Gilda, in her own voice, as much as possible.

Gilda Radner writing in a personal diary

Organizing the Materials

In time, D’Apolito amassed over 50 hours of interviews, 60 hours of audio tape, and five years’ worth of SNL footage. With that much material, organization was key. Early on, she categorized the research herself, typically by date, period, or subject. But when editor Anne Alvergue (and later, co-editor David Cohen) came on board, that changed. “They had to organize their own way,” she explains. “It took Anne a couple of weeks to organize everything, but once she had it the way that she wanted it, she could find anything.”

That became invaluable, because editing a film like this can become a puzzle-like experience that often involves having to find the right pieces and moving them around until they fit in the proper place. “When it got to a point where we were really putting the film together, it’d be like, ‘We know Gilda said this somewhere…’ and Anne was always able to find anything from any audio tape, any interview.” Organization was key to allowing the filmmakers to do that.

Gilda Radner scrapbooking

Playing the Detective

For all the organization they did, however, editing Love, Gilda was unique in that not all materials were collected by the time they were in the editing room. “As we were editing, we were always having new material coming in,” says D’Apolito. “Even though it seems like we have a ton of stuff, our quest and struggle was really finding more, because I was so insistent that we use as much audio as possible. It was a challenge for the editors to find material to cover things.”

D’Apolito became determined to track down anything and everything else she could. She even came to think of herself as a Gilda Detective. “There was always a search,” she says. “We would say, ‘Oh, Gilda was at Mardi Gras in 1976. There must be some footage.’ Then we would find some photos. And then, ‘Maybe she did an interview when she was down there.’ Then we would go through the New Orleans archives and see if we could find anything. We never had as much as we had hoped for.” So, even while editing, it always became about finding more material, then finding its place in the film.


A Modern Touch

The power of Love, Gilda lies not just in Radner’s own voice, but with those sharing it. Some of the most memorable moments in the film come when modern-day comedians like Bill Hader and Melissa McCarthy discuss Radner’s influence, and are also given a chance to read from her personal diaries. “I wanted the modern-day comedians to read what we call the ‘fame diary,’ where Gilda wrote about fame, because I thought that they could totally identify with what it’s like to become famous.” It creates a tangible connection between the past and present, and in doing so, becomes a testament to much of what the film is about: Gilda Radner’s legacy and the survival of her spirit.

Top image: Gilda Radner with husband Gene Wilder. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Love, Gilda is playing in select theaters now and available on demand. For more info, visit the film’s official site.