Q: You first learned about Mabel Stark while researching Behind the Burly Q, your first documentary. What about Mabel specifically caught your attention?
LZ: Well it is rumored that one of her first jobs in the circus was dancing in the "cooch show," so that's where the burlesque connection came in. Her career switch to working with the tigers initially intrigued me, and I wondered what it took to get into a cage with something that could kill you in seconds. The longevity of her work also intrigued me. I thought it was going to be a film about courage, but it turned out to be about love. She loved those “stripes" as she called them. When she fell in love with tigers she found a communion with these animals. She trusted them more than she did people. She knew exactly what they were capable of, but felt they were more honest than some of the backstabbing double dealing people she knew.
Q: Are there common threads in the three documentary films you’ve made? If so, what are they and how do you choose these as topics.
LZ: Former pop culture entertainers that were once hugely popular and well known, that partly because of the demise of their type of entertainment; burlesque, circus for example, are no more and we know little about them. Yet both circus and burlesque were at the forefront of our entertainment culture. They were all fiercely independent women, ahead of their time. They had to struggle and scramble to become successes.
Q: Do you feel a responsibility as a women director to make films that are specifically about women?
LZ: I feel responsible as a director to tell a good story, an honest story. I just happened to be interested in a certain type of women that has not been examined, or rather their career choices examined without preconceived notions about these women. I am interested in telling stories from the character's point of view, through their words and writings. I am interested in women who were, for whatever reasons, marginalized or stigmatized, usually for their career choices. The women were exceptional and ahead of their time and unique, strong and independent.
Q: How long did it take to make this film and what was the production experience? Any unforeseen challenges? Specifically, when you filmed in Sarasota, FL at Kay Rosaire’s tiger compound...
LZ: Initially it was challenging to have current and former animal trainers talk to me. They had been set up before by animal rights group and did not want to be sabotaged. But some were also familiar with my former work and for example how I treated Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese superstars, and grew to trust me in that they, nor Mabel, were being exploited. The most thrilling was filming the tigers. They are mesmerizing animals. I wanted to film the tigers as the trainers would have seen them, from their point of view, so we put cameras on the trainers directly. These circus folks devote themselves to their craft and the animals. We were given full access for days with the animals, and it took a year or two to complete, mostly because I had a book deadline in between.
Q: You interviewed 5 or 6 female tiger trainers, did you notice any personality traits that were similar? Are there any parallels with women who choose to direct films or more broadly with women who succeed in male-dominated careers?
LZ: Well they ALL owned dogs now, which was hilarious. The love they felt and feel for their cats, their tigers, could not be faked. There were a lot of touching moments they shared with us. There was a certain element of them being more comfortable with animals than people. To succeed at anything, one must be tough - and all of them, as well as me, have a certain toughness. Mabel for example would not take no for an answer, as I would not when people stood me up for interviews. I called the next day, I showed up the next day. You keep moving forward with enthusiasm and integrity.
Q: How does one become a big cat keeper today at a sanctuary or zoo?
LZ: It’s tough as times are changing. Sadly, we will see the end of animals in circuses and we will lose a certain understanding and communion these "old" trainers learned.
Q: What do you hope that girls/young women who watch the film today will take away from it? What impact do you hope to have with this film?
LZ: To never take no for an answer. That whatever sex or age you are that should not stop you. Never give up. And to be unique and different is a good thing.