An Interview with Director Walter Matteson
Pretty Old is a documentary about women from their late-60s to 80s coming together annually to compete in the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant, which was founded and is still run by Lenny “Low Price” Kaplan. It’s a slick, smart, and eye-opening production, sure to warm the hearts of young and old while teaching what real beauty is all about.
Director Walter Matteson recently answered some questions via email.
How did you stumble upon this fascinating topic?
Pretty Old was inspired by Magnus Wennman’s award-winning photojournalism displayed at the 2007 World Press Photo Exhibit in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was there visiting my girlfriend (now wife) and I had just finished looking at the war and sports photography when I stumbled into the still life exhibit.
I walked around the corner and saw this majestic image that from afar looked like a photorealist painting. It was three senior women backstage at what looked like a Broadway show, and was a mixture between beautifully vivid textures of skin tones with lights and glitter intermingled with a haunting reality of aging and a clinging to a past youth.
For me there was something unexplainable about it and I couldn’t stop staring. I looked at the caption and all it said was “Ms. Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant, Fall River, Massachusetts.” I was hooked. I wanted to make those pictures come alive.
Were these women eager to be interviewed, or were they at all shy about what the doc might become?
Most of them were very eager to be interviewed. As the film hopefully portrays, these are out-going women who are very comfortable within their own skin.
However, for many of them, that has not always been the case. A lot of them would have never imagined themselves participating in a beauty pageant when they were younger. But as they went through life, especially the difficult periods, these women had to make a choice: Give up, feel sorry for themselves and accept to just sit around and get old, or continue on with life in the face of death, sickness, and aging.
For those who are fortunate enough to be at the screenings at the SBIFF, they will get to meet the ladies in person and see how grounded and down to earth they really are. But, and this will also be evident, they absolutely love the attention and are more than comfortable in front of a camera or microphone. They are people persons and they were thrilled to be a part of the doc and really trusted our intentions, which I am more than grateful for. It would have been impossible to capture what we did without their trust.
So it was our responsibility to make sure we represented their lives and this pageant in the most authentic and honest way we could, without just clinging to the stereotypes. We have to realize that for the majority of elderly people in America today, no one actually listens to them, especially younger generations, so they were as fascinated with us as we were with them. We all became great friends.
Just knowing his nickname, “Low Price” Kaplan seems like an interesting character. What more can be said about him?
Simply a larger than life character who commands an audience, big or small and will absolutely make you smile. He is also very very emotional and just thinking of a fond memory or friend will bring tears to his eyes. He is one of the most interesting people that I have ever met. A truly inspiring person, bursting at the seams with life and energy.
Len has taught me that no matter what age someone is, if you have a dream that you are pursuing at all costs, and do so with spirit and passion, you will not only be able to live a full life, you’ll actually be happy doing it. I say this because it is Low Price’s dream to bring the story of his pageant to a greater audience. Yet despite the fact that it never happened on a grandiose stage, he knows that the show must go on no matter what. And he and his committee work tirelessly year in and year out on a shoestring budget at a Hampton Inn of the side of the highway in Fall River, MA to maintain a venue for seniors to continue to be who they truly are.
And more importantly, he has created a place that gives seniors an opportunity to continue to challenge themselves in a very healthy and loving environment.
Did these women grow up in pageants, or find them later in life?
Most of them found them later in life. However, others have done them their whole life. There is truly a mixture of both, but without hardly any of the negative cut-throat drama you see at the younger pageants. It is there if you are looking for it, but at the end of the day these ladies have such poise and respect for others that that is what cuts through the rest.
What’s the deeper message you’d like viewers to take home?
With Pretty Old, we are trying to show people that being and growing “old” can be absolutely beautiful. This was a concept that I myself did not believe when I set out to make this film.
At first, as I expect many audiences will do, I came to the subject from the point of view of being primarily interested in finding out what type of seniors would subject themselves to the vanity of a beauty pageant. The stereotypes of plastic surgery, caked on makeup, and “train-wrecked” women were driving my interests to find out more. Through the making of this film I discovered, as did the subjects in it, that we had very similar interests, fears, desires, and needs that crossed generational boundaries. We became real friends, real family, and we laughed, cried, and learned all together.
My entire perspective about what it can mean to be and grow “old” was completely flipped on its head. And I know this is also the case for all my collaborators on the project. We want to show people how the harsh realities of aging and the purity of youth can exist together and how much knowledge can be gained from listening to and learning from one another.
Our hope is that the film will open up a conversation between two generations that rarely communicate. Internationally, seniors have become an underserved and underrepresented population, especially in the media. In the past couple of years we have seen condescending documentaries and TV shows mocking seniors as out-of-touch, overtly sentimental, and childlike. We spend less time caring for and conversing with elder relatives, who are often placed in retirement homes, rather than taking care of and respecting them, as was traditionally the case. In the midst of the current global instability, my generation should ask those who have experienced similarly difficult times, questions that will provide much needed insight.
This was an independent film in the true sense of the term. I especially want to thank all of the subjects in the film for being so honest with me and allowing me full access into their personal lives. Without that, nothing can be learned. I also want to thank my producers, writers, editor, DP, composer, and the rest of the incredible crew who made so many personal sacrifices for the project as a whole. This film is a result and a perfect example of how the art of filmmaking, when it’s at its best, is most definitely a collaborative effort.
Pretty Old screens on Wednesday, February 1, 8 a.m. at the Metro 4 and again on Thursday, February 2, 5 p.m., at the Metro 4.