Rachel Fleit’s Introducing Selma Blair is not your typical profile documentary, covering the life and career of the actress best known for films like Cruel Intentions and Guillermo del Toro‘s Hellboy movies.
Instead, it follows Selma Blair‘s journey after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2018 and leading up to and following her getting a critical stem cell transplant that might help alleviate the troubles it’s caused with her speech and movement.
MS may be a disease that few understand, because its effects only appear sporadically, and it affects everyone diagnosed differently. It’s a disease that affects the immune system and nerve cells causing a range of signs and symptoms from the inability to speak/articulate to severe muscle deterioration that makes it impossible for those with MS to move or walk without accompaniment.
Fleit’s doc probably does a lot better job explaining it, and that alone is why it’s such an important film, but its fly-on-the-wall verité also allows us to see Blair at her most vulnerable and emotional but also get a good sense of her sense of humor and how she uses it to get through her treatment.
Introducing Selma Blair premiered at the annual SXSW Film Festival where it was picked up by Discovery+ for its streaming network, although it will get a limited theatrical release before launching on the streamer.
Below the Line spoke with Ms. Fleit about her first encounter with Ms. Blair, and how COVID not only affected the making of this movie, but also her subject’s condition following her crucial stem cell transplant.
Below the Line: I’ll start with the obvious first question about how you got involved with making this movie? Did you know Selma beforehand?
Rachel Fleit: I’d never met Selma before. A dear friend and our executive producer, Cass Bird introduced me to Selma and Troy [Nankin, Selma’s manager]. Selma was about to get a stem cell transplant, and Cass had just photographed her for Vanity Fair. Selma and Troy, her manager, were thinking that this needed to be documented, so I met Selma on FaceTime for the first time, and we really hit it off, as did I with her manager Troy. We quickly found producers that were willing to finance the project, because it became really clear to me in talking to Troy and Selma, that this was something that needed to be filmed imminently because of the timeline of her stem cell transplant etc. We met, I think, in April of 2019, and we were filming by the end of May 2019.
BTL: It’s been maybe 10 or 12 years since I’ve met and interviewed Selma, but she was always a very funny and vibrant personality, which I think you can see in the movie. What were your first conversations with her about what the film would be?
Fleit: Just to be super clear, I think it’s important for people to know across the board is that she’s not a producer on this film. She didn’t have an agenda at all. We talked about nothing in terms of what I would film. Nothing was off-limits, so she didn’t control the narrative in any way. I had complete creative control, and that was 1000% incredible. I didn’t have anyone breathing down my neck being like, “You can’t talk to her about that. You can’t do that.” Troy was like, “Just go for it.” It was very clear that between Selma and I, we’d created this trust very, very rapidly. I knew people that she grew up with. This is actually funny for you to know later on, but the family that I made the film about [the short Gefilte], Selma grew up with them, and that was a complete coincidence — really, really, really coincidental. And then, Selma never stepped foot in my edit. We showed her a cut of the film when we were about picture lock, and she was like, “I’ve just one note,” and I was like, “Oh my God, what is it?” and she said, “There’s this photo that you have at the end of the film in the archival material. That’s not actually my mom. It’s my aunt, and you should probably switch that.” And I was like, “Is there anything else?” and I was like, “No.” So she really likes it, which is a feat and a joy as a documentary filmmaker, to have your subject be happy.
BTL: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I assumed she was a producer. I feel like in many docs with a single subject like this one, you often see the subject taking some sort of producerial role, as well.
Fleit: Also, to my producers’ credit, they also gave me creative control — they would give me notes that were based on structure, and Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon and Troy Nankin were like dream producers to have. They, especially Mickey, would constantly push me towards like telling the bigger story, like what’s the bigger story here? It was always really helpful notes, but they really supported me. I felt so held and simultaneously able to run free, so it was a dream scenario. I have very big shoes to fill after this project.
BTL: What size crew did you have with you? Did you try to keep it fairly small and intimate?
Fleit: Super, super, super tiny. That’s how I always want to work, because I just want to keep making verité films, so I would have a single camera until the last two weeks of filming — they shot from multiple angles. Single camera, single sound operator, an assistant in the other room dealing with the media management, and Troy would be on-set a lot of times. Pete and Mickey would sometimes be on set, but if they were like “on set,” they’d be away. No one would be in the room, except for me and the cinematographer and Selma and a boom operator at a distance. Our sound mixer doubled as a boom operator. We only had a one-person sound team, so basically four of us. And then, for the stem cell transplant, I was the only one permitted into the hospital room. I couldn’t bring a camera crew. I filmed that on my iPhone.
BTL: So was your cinematographer also your camera operator?
Fleit: No, so the Cinematographer Shane Sigler, we worked together years ago, in fashion stuff, and I just really liked him, and we have a lot of mutual friends. He’s worked with Cass Bird a lot, so he got introduced to us that way, for this particular project. He’s incredible. I want to work with him over and over again, and then we had other cinematographers like John Heller sometimes shot for us, and Joseph and Jacob Yakob, they’re like a brother duo that are part of the LD Entertainment team. They were incredible as well, and they shot with me the last two weeks of the filmmaking, which was during COVID. We had to finish the film after a three-month hiatus, and I came to Los Angeles when the numbers were low, and put on a hazmat suit and flew across the country, got a test. We mostly shot outside of Selma’s house and at a distance, and we were able to finish the film, but Shane set the look for sure.
BTL: I’m curious about the timeline and when you started and finished the film, because it does go into the start of COVID, but I wasn’t sure if you had to stop and restart to finish it. When did she have the stem cell transplant?
Fleit: It was in July of 2019. When I wasn’t with Selma, I would ask her to make my videos, so it would appear as the cellphone diary, like when she was in the hospital. I asked her to make the videos portrait orientation, so it was clear that it was Selma talking to us through her iPhone. There are other times when I asked her assistant Bonnie or Troy or somebody to take B-roll of her if she was sleeping or if she was getting a test done just so that we would have sort of that extra texture for the edit, when I wasn’t able to be in the room with her. And then, during COVID, I asked her to send me videos of her life. In the lockdown, I was not filming — she was filming. Like she says, “I’m sick today,” and you could hear in the background, if your sound is okay in your system at home, that it’s a Coronavirus update on the news. She filmed that, and then we filmed with her again in June into July of 2020, and then we took back the footage to New York. I was convinced we were done, and we were, so we edited the film. We finished it on December 31, 2020, and we submitted it to South by [SouthWest], and the rest is history.
BTL: How was the post on the movie? I’ve spoken to quite a few editors and VFX people and composers about doing post under COVID, but how much was involved with matching the footage from the different sources and make them look as good as they do in the movie?
Fleit: The luxury I had going into COVID was that we had about 75 minutes of a film already edited. My editor, Sloane Klevin, was mostly finishing the last 15 minutes of the film remotely with me. That was okay. We went back and forth a few times, and I was like, “I think you got it.” And then I sent it to the producers and they’re like, “I think you got it.” So like the picture lock wasn’t as challenging. We did remote color sessions, and that was fine. And then I actually did the sound mix in person, like wearing a mask at a distance with Dungeon Beach in New York City. We did our ADR session with Selma obviously remotely with a studio in Los Angeles.
My composer and I worked remotely except for a couple of sessions. I would come to her apartment in Brooklyn and sit at the edge of her bed while she worked on her in=home studio setup. But we did a lot of our work together remotely, and then, we tied the whole thing together completely remotely. So all the tech stuff was done in LA, and in our various studios. The color and sound, and all of that came together through like the internet, really. I mean, God bless the internet.
BTL: How did you your composer, Raphaelle. I’m not sure if she’d composed a ton of music before, at least not that I know about, but she also did the music for Secret of the Whales, which was pretty amazing.
Fleit: I think Troy and I were determined actually to work with a female-identifying composer. There was a lot of mindfulness in creating this film. It’s a film about a disabled person. Our film is completely accessible in that it’s going to be shown in closed caption, and there’s going to even be an audio description for people who are sight-impaired in some way. Because we want the film to be accessible to the world, not just to people who don’t have any impairments. So, with that being said, we also wanted to create the most diverse group of people, and I think, especially as a female director, composers who also happen to be women are also few and far between in the industry. So any moment that I have to lift up an underrepresented voice, I’m going to take it. We really focused our efforts towards female composers and Troy actually found Raphaelle’s work on Spotify, and he sent it to me and I was like, “Oh, no, no, it’s her.” I can tell very quickly by someone’s music, if they can score my film. Like if their music moves me, then I know that they get it. And Raphaelle just completely got it.
BTL: Do you have a music background yourself? I’m always curious when I talk to composers if the directors they work with have musical knowledge themselves to communicate in that way.
Fleit: I played an instrument when I was young, but I was sort of half-assed. I sing, so I was in like chorus, and I guess technically, I’m a classically-trained mezzo-soprano. I understand music in that way, and I can say, like, “I think we need lower the register here,” or like, There’s too much strings” or “Can we try to make it sparser?” I can speak through music pretty well, and with each passing project, I get better and better at it. But I am super inspired by music, so most of my work, I’m constantly listening to music, almost like 24-7. I mean, not when I’m sleeping, but I listen to music everywhere. I’m constantly making playlists. I’m constantly pulling references. I don’t know, music really does inspire me, and especially in my narrative work. I make sort of music mood boards.
BTL: I wanted to go back to your comment about making verité docs, but there seemed to be some interviews in this one, but in some cases, it could have just been Selma talking to the camera without being asked specific questions?
Fleit: Again, I really want to stay in the realm of verité as much as possible and by the nature of Selma’s situation, a lot of her time with me, she was in bed. And so some of the things ended up feeling maybe like seated interviews, but we would use it as voiceover, and sometimes, cut to the seated interview. There were people in her life — we didn’t go super-wide. I mean, Selma knows everyone — but we went with the really close people in her life, and I did a seated interview with all of them, because I wanted to get just like the story from their perspective to see if that would be helpful in sort of moving the narrative forward.
BTL: And you’re doing a narrative feature next? Is that something you’ve started and is it something you’ve been developing for some time?
Fleit: I have a narrative feature that I’m hoping to make at some point soon, and there are some others I’m hoping to become involved in that other people wrote. As much as I love verité documentary filmmaking, I came towards this industry from a narrative standpoint. I started writing scripts about 10 years ago, and I’m committed to this one project that I really want to shoot. It takes place on Long Island in the summer, so it’s kind of seasonal. I couldn’t do it this summer. I couldn’t do it the summer before because of COVID, and actually, because I was filming with Selma, so maybe this summer.
BTL: By the way, before you go, you mentioned the accessibility you wanted for your film, so is Discovery+ getting behind that and making it properly accessible on its streaming platform?
Fleit: Yeah, totally. They’ve been so amazing with that. They’re doing the whole thing, so we’re going to have closed caption. As I said, we’re also going to have audio description, and we’re really committed to that. We chose to screen in theaters that have closed captioning. I think it’s T-coil accessibility, so we’re really committed to that.
All photos courtesy Discovery+ except where noted.