In Stephen King’s 1982 novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the prolific horror writer wrote that “all of geology is the study of pressure. And time, of course.” Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker’s HBO docuseries “The Lady and the Dale” ended up being the product of the same two elements.
“The Lady and the Dale” is a four-part series that examines the life and entrepreneurship of Elizabeth Carmichael, a former con-artist-turned-hopeful-automotive industry disruptor. She was a trans woman who started the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation in the 1970s to design, build and market a three-wheeled car called the Dale. The car received early acclaim, and was even featured as a top prize on “The Price is Right,” but concerns grew about its safety and the validity of company investors, eventually resulting in Carmichael’s deadname and former life being exposed. Due to criminal activity in her past and mainstream misinformation about what it meant to be transgender, Carmichael was much maligned in the media, including being accused of continuing her con by only “pretending” to be a woman.
“The conflation of her gender identity and her brushes with the law was rolled into one,” Drucker tells Variety. “It was not unique; the evil deceivers and make-believers trope of trans-ness was created long before Liz. Had Liz not been trans the car may have succeeded. It was her trans identity that flagged that she was suspect and needed to be looked into.”
Carmichael passed aways almost two decades ago and therefore could not be involved in “The Lady and the Dale” to share her own story or recollection of events. Instead, the filmmakers relied on members of her immediate family, including one of her daughters and some of her grandchildren, to provide personal anecdotes and life details they could not learn anywhere else.
“Understanding her as a mother, understanding how difficult it was to transition in the 1970s with five children and a wife — a full family — anybody in that position as a caretaker and provider would have gone to any lengths to provide and caretake for a family. I think Liz’s story as a mother is the redemption. It gives you a perspective that is indispensable,” says Drucker.
But getting the family to be willing to talk with, let alone be filmed by, the team did not come easy. That is where the “pressure” and “time” factors came in.
“It took me seven years just to penetrate that fortress [of the family], to just talk with them, to get them to understand that we need their story to tell Liz’s story,” says Cammilleri. “Most people just stop trying, but I will keep trying over and over and over. I will keep showing up. I never went away.”
Carmichael’s family members are private people who have tried hard to stay out of the spotlight. But as years went on and some of the younger generation who had been “kept in the dark for so long” about Carmichael’s legacy learned more about her, they found they wanted her story told, Cammilleri says. Specifically, Carmichael’s granddaughter Jeri Burchard, with whom Cammilleri struck up a strong rapport, was instrumental in getting others on board, saying, “I trust him, maybe you can trust him too,” Cammilleri recalls.
Cammilleri notes that, in part, it was about “trying to explain that times have changed and you can’t cut together a chopped up piece that makes someone look terrible because the audience is much more aware of edits and transparency, and also we have a legal department that looks over everything to make sure we’re not misrepresenting.”
Additionally, the fact that the project was already underway on the automotive side meant the filmmakers could explain what they were doing and how they were shaping the story, to further put the family at ease about the approach to Carmichael’s story. They worked with the Museum of American Speed and the Petersen Automotive Museum, as well as an individual who “had the only running prototype — and he only got the car because he bought a building and the Dale was in the corner,” Cammilleri says. They also interviewed past colleagues and employees of Carmichael’s.
Once Cammilleri and Drucker had family and members of the automotive community committed to the project, it became about balancing who she was as a woman and who she was as a business person in the storytelling.
“We dealt with her actual life transition in the first episode, and then in the second episode we don’t mention it at all, intentionally, to let viewers naturalize their understanding of Liz apart from her gender,” Drucker says. “In the last episode we reveal the trajectory that she was a part of — the ways in which trans people were always doubted and misunderstood and misrepresented. I think had she lived in this time, her persistence, her intellect, her resilience would have taken her very far. It took her to pretty unprecedented places in the 1970s, of course. But Liz’s story was not told accurately or justly in her lifetime. It was an error of bias that needed to be rectified. I feel so strongly that Liz is not completely at rest and there was an element of her pushing this story forward.”
“The Lady and the Dale” premieres Jan. 31 on HBO.