Local Filmmaker’s Debut Explores Underside of The Villages

The Villages
Life in The Villages, from "Some Kind of Heaven"

Fort Lauderdale native and filmmaker Lance Oppenheim did not have to travel far to find the subject for his debut documentary feature. It sits on 32 square miles, just three and a half hours from Boca Raton, and it is home to some 129,000 senior citizens. It has been called “Disneyland for retirees.”

This is the image that The Villages, a master-planned boomer utopia in Central Florida, would like to project to the world: endless fun and sun, design trappings engineered to resemble the happier days of a 1950s town square. But Oppenheim, who embedded himself in a rented room for 30 days to discover a deeper understanding of the community before filming began, discovered stories that chafe against The Villages’ manicured reputation.

In “Some Kind of Heaven,” a 2020 Sundance hit that opens in South Florida theaters today, Oppenheim delves into the stories of Anne and Reggie, a long-married couple whose relationship is threatened by Reggie’s increasingly unstable behavior; Barbara, a downcast widow who works in a drab office while nominally seeking companionship; and Dennis, a perpetually tanned and penniless 82-year-old bachelor who squats in a van on The Villages property, hoping to land a partner with a generous bankroll.

Oppenheim originally intended to make an institutional film about The Villages along the lines of one of his documentary influences, Frederick Wiseman—but he says the Village developers impeded his best efforts. “There was a moment that dawned on me, where after the developers sniffed out that there was a filmmaker there trying to make a film about the place, they … tried to shut me down, not just from making a film about the institutions of the place, but more generally they didn’t want anyone to be creating images of the Villages that they weren’t in control of. When we’d shoot in public, we would have about 15 minutes before I knew we were going to get shut down. It became almost an act of guerrilla filmmaking just to make the film as it was.”

The result, which ultimately focuses more on his four subjects than the place itself, is a deft combination of humor, darkness, pathos and insight that attracted the attention of none other than cult filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who signed on to produce. In this interview with Boca, Oppenheim discusses his motivations, his process, Villages life during the pandemic, and more.

Lance Oppenheim

Did you have an opinion or a perspective on the Villages prior to embarking on this project, and did it change as you delved into the place and the people who live there?

I did. As a documentary filmmaker, before I go in and make something, I try to do as much research as I possibly can on whatever subject I’m about to make a film about. And then the goal is to essentially drift as far as possible from that idea as I’m making the film, and if I’m not—if I end up making a film that just validates the opinion I had before going to make the film—then I have failed.

So I think with the Villages, at first it felt like I was wandering through an alien planet. Everything there was completely foreign to me—the ways in which people, in my initial opinion, distracted themselves so that they didn’t have to think about the problems of life, and the things that didn’t feel as gratifying to think about. I think you can see that in the film itself; when you watch the first few minutes, there’s more distance between the subjects and the camera. And as we spent more time there, I was thinking about the institutions of the Villages, how they have a newspaper that only prints good news, and a radio station that only plays hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s. A lot of these things I was really fascinated by gave way to stories of the people who didn’t really exist within the margins of the fantasy.

I was trying to find a way to make the artifice of the place, how plastic it felt, the prefab quality of so much of the fantasy, feel authentic. I thought that would be the real challenge: if I could turn my opinion of the place inside out by the end of the film.

There’s a lot ways you can look at the film. I think you can look at it as more of an ensemble piece of people who happen to live in the Villages, but I also think there’s an element of something deeper than that. It’s about looking at people who are going through very real problems in a very unreal place, or surreal place. And the tension between the place itself and their problems will hopefully give audiences a different way to look at the world of The Villages.

When you were filming the movie, you could have been the age of the residents’ grandchildren. The age gap being what it is, how candid were the residents about opening up to you?

Surprisingly, maybe more candid than they would be if I were older. I was the age they were desiring to turn back to. The Villages is a place that’s designed like going back to college. And I was just about to leave college, and I think a lot of the activities, a lot of the ways in which people were spending their time … did remind me of what I was experiencing back in Boston. And I think for them, there was a kind of commonality.

Over time, age didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t want to make a film about elderly people. I wanted to make a film about people, and the ways in which I was speaking to folks there, the way I was going about making the film, all had to serve that principle. We would eat with our subjects, drink with our subjects, do everything they would be doing. And I think from that kind of vantage point, it became much more equalizing—giving trust and being rewarded with trust.

Dennis, one of Oppenheim’s primary subjects

The Villages has up to 129,000 residents. They probably all have interesting stories. How did you come to zero on these four people as the focal points of the film?

It’s important to note that these four people are not, by any stretch, the mainstream there. These are four people who are on the margins of the marketing-brochure fantasy that the overwhelming majority of the people who live there subscribe to. For me, I was looking for people who can give me a different point of view on the place. And I think certainly there are some folks that could give an interesting point of view that are subscribing to the social mores of the place, and the nomenclature, but I wanted to find people outside of that, so I could see something different.

I do think that in a place like the Villages, this blissful optimism can become a little bit terrifying sometimes if you’re not feeling it, especially if you’re at that age. Hopefully when you see these stories, I hope that when you see that final shot, when the camera’s descending, and Barbara is dancing with a bunch of people in the crowd, and one of the characters joins the flock—becomes part of the pack—that your perspective of a lot of the people who are in the clubs, and doing these kinds of things, will change. Because everyone has their own problems they are trying to hide or distract themselves from.

There’s a good deal of humor in this film, but were you always cognizant not to present the residents in a way that would be judgmental or unflattering? A lesser film might have gone that route for cheap laughter.

As a younger filmmaker, that tension is almost impossible to erase. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there’s an increasingly large gulf between the baby boomer generation and the Gen-Zers or millennials. I think one of the easiest things you can do in a documentary is make your subjects appear foolish. That was something I didn’t want to do.

The second part was that The Villages is known as a potential bellwether, politically, for the state of Florida, and it’s extremely polarized. It’s a very conservative world there. But I also didn’t want to make something that continued to indulge in the political cliché of the place. I wanted to make something that went beyond partisan politics. I wanted to do something that was more human and more existential. The reason why I’m following four people who are on the outside of the fantasy is because I think there is something existentially relatable about what that feeling feels like.

You get to … this fantasy you’ve bought into, and it will probably be the last house you live in. What happens when that fantasy becomes a nightmare? That’s something, no matter where you are, that is a very relatable idea. But specifically in The Villages, it’s something people don’t like to talk about. I was trying to find ways to get to this underlying base of what felt human, what felt authentic, in a place that reminded me of “The Truman Show.”

Barbara, one of Oppenheim’s subjects

Have you kept up with The Villages in the time of the pandemic, and how it has disrupted life there?

I have. Not as much with a magnifying glass as I was when I was making the film, but definitely in the early days of the pandemic, I was very much interested in seeing what was happening there. It took them way too long to close everything down. It seems that up until this point, they’ve more or less outfitted the place with testing, already knowing that if anything were to happen drastically to The Villages, that the media would probably have a field day talking about it. It seems that there have been attempts to mitigate as much as possible the threat of the lack of testing.

I went back to see the subjects outside, at a distance, over the summer, and it was interesting to see how so many people there weren’t wearing masks. A lot of it wasn’t that surprising, given that so many people there are unabashedly supporters of a president who openly doesn’t wear masks; a lot of that has carried forward in the daily lives of senior citizens. I remember even Mike Pence and Donald Trump showed up at The Villages amidst the pandemic, at one of its deadliest times, and thousands of people showed up without masks. This is something that is unfortunately the norm there.

Having spent so much time in the Villages, would you see yourself wanting to retire there?

I don’t know… I don’t think so, but who knows? The Villages will have to change when the baby boomers are no longer with us. I don’t know if people in younger generations will want or desire to live in a place that looks like the ‘50s or ‘60s. Perhaps there will be another community that’s sort of like The Villages that pops up, that attempts to freeze a moment of the ‘90s or early 2000s. Even then, I feel like if I had to take the red pill or the blue pill and be dashed back into the reality of how harsh everything is outside, or live inside of a fantasy, I think I would choose the former.

The idea, or just the knowledge, that your “Truman Show” boat can eventually hit a wall and expose a lot of the artificial qualities of what that fantasy can feel like is so disheartening and terrifying to me that I would much rather live in a world where I’m constantly reminded of how harsh things are, and if I look close enough, I can find the beauty in it. But I find it harder to do that with the reverse.

I don’t think I would want to live there if I were to retire, but hopefully I have a number of years before I would have to concretely think about it!

“Some Kind of Heaven” opens today at Living Room Theaters, IPIC Theaters and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, IPIC Theaters in Delray Beach, Lake Worth Playhouse, CMX Cinemas Wellington, Silverspot Cinema in Coconut Creek, Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and more.

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