Sundance Features

January 18, 2007

David Stenn, Girl 27

"I just didn't feel anyone could tell the story like I could, because I lived it. I was part of the story."

Patricia Douglas, the subject of David Stenn's documentary Girl 27

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

For the record, maybe you can explain some of the story behind Girl 27 and how you got turned on to it.

I was on deadline for my second book, which was a biography of Jean Harlow, and the first week of June, 1937, Jean Harlow is dying. A 26-year-old star, the biggest star in MGM, and nobody knows why, nobody knows how. She's at home dying. The same week, the Duke of Windsor is marrying Wallis Simpson; the King of England has abdicated his throne to marry an American divorcée. So those are two of the biggest stories of the entire decade, and there's this other story pushing those stories off the front pages about an underage girl who claimed she'd been raped at a party at MGM and went public and filed a lawsuit. I'd never heard of it. I checked every source -- hundreds of sources -- and there was nothing in there. I thought, "What could this be?" That's how I got started on it: I stumbled on it.

And you eventually followed up with a Vanity Fair piece about it, right?

I did, because after the book came out, my editor, Jackie Onassis, said, "What do you want to do next?" And I said, "Well, there's this story, but it's never been anywhere else and I don’t know what happened and what the truth is and why it hasn't been anywhere. And she said, "If anyone can find out what happened, David, it's you." And when you hear that from that type of person, you think, "Maybe she's right." I ended up writing it for Vanity Fair first because Patricia was so old and so infirm by that point that I was really anxious to get it in print so that she could see it in her own lifetime -- that vindication. After that story came out, having the only interview she ever gave on film -- and also having footage of the MGM party that no one had ever seen, it just felt like a film to me.

And you had done some film and TV producing and writing previously, but how did you decide that this was one you could pull together as a director?

I just didn't feel anyone could tell the story like I could, because I lived it. I was part of the story. To me, there are two stories here: There's her story -- the main story -- and then there's the story of me finding her story, because what kind of person spend years -- a decade -- tracking down the story and -- when you find that this person is still alive and she hangs up on you for months and begs you to leave her alone -- stays with it? And then how do you change? I mean, when you call someone up who's a recluse who hasn't left her house for 65 years and you tell her you know her deepest, darkest secret, there's an instant intimacy between the two of you. And that's a really interesting relationship, I felt, because right away you have this closeness to somebody to somebody you don’t know because they're trusting that you won’t tell anyone, and you're trusting that they'll tell you.

And now you're in Sundance on your first try. What was your reaction upon getting in?

It is indescribable. In my wildest dreams, I never even thought about this. It never even entered the realm of possibility. I guess I was fortunate because I was in a bubble. My big concern was I had a ticking clock. I had someone who, like I said, was elderly and infirm and there was this desperation to get her story told before it was too late. Because once she was gone, the story was gone with her. And you could never do that story again because it would all be speculative. She's the eyewitness, she's the protagonist. She's the person it happened to. I never thought it would be at Sundance. It's every cliché. It's a dream come true, it really is.

Completely useless trivia for you: You wrote the first official episode of Beverly Hills 90210, while Tim Hunter directed the show's pilot. You both have films at Sundance '07 [Hunter's 1987 film River's Edge will be featured in a 20th anniversary screening].

Yeah, in fact, Tim directed an episode of Central Park West, which I also produced.

The Beverly Hills 90210/Central Park West charm is alive and well in 2007.

It just shows you how you can't type anybody.

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Comments (1)

Wow, this documentary is amazing and touching. I give so much credit to David Stenn who pursued to have Patricia Douglas come out of her shell and tell the world about her horrific experience. I am a big fan of this documentory. It was one of the best ever seen. Patricia seemed like a wonderful person my blessings go out to her and her family. She is inspirazional, so much that other can learn from.

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