Co-Directors Zackary Drucker & Nick Cammilleri’s “The Lady and The Dale” Brings a Forgotten Figure Back to Life
Watching The Lady and the Dale, a new HBO documentary series co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker (Transparent), felt like a 2020 meme. How it Started: I thought I was going to watch a documentary about the production of a three-wheeled automobile innovation called the Dale. The two-seater car was created by Dale Clifft as a way to ensure he could get the feel of riding a motorcycle, even in the rain. I’d recently watched Who Killed the Electric Car and found the hold that gas and oil companies held over automobile manufacturing to be fascinating. Not only had I never heard of the Dale, but I’d never heard of it’s self-imposed spokeswoman, Elizabeth Carmichael. I buckled in ready to hear about corporate espionage out of Detroit, blowback from Ford, or coercion from Chrysler.
How it’s Going: I mean, sure, The Lady and the Dale talks about the car, but the car is not even adjacent to the point. This story isn’t just about The Dale, it’s about Liz Carmichael. And also it’s about the ‘70s and the legitimization of the Trans community in addition to the many ways and people that held them back. It’s about a woman whose every chapter could serve as a full life for us mere mortals.
In 2011, NBC re-aired the April 5th, 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries that changed Nick Cammilleri’s life. The popular show, hosted by Robert Stack, brought attention to criminals still on the lam. Most of the tales are of garden variety criminals who got in too deep and went into hiding, but there was one in particular that caught Nick’s attention. It wasn’t just the idea of Elizabeth Carmichael (FKA Jerry Dean Michael), a hustling entrepreneur who was on the cusp of revolutionizing the car industry, it was the fact that a woman had come so close to disrupting the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) and yet, Cammilleri had never heard of her before watching the episode.
“Trans history gets erased.” Camilleri recalls knowledge shared with him by Drucker, “I could find… like, nothing! It was almost like she just didn’t exist. It was like, erased.”
It’s a lesson he’d grown familiar with as finding information on Carmichael at first proved to be a futile process. Carmichael has a herstory that is repellant to being forgotten, and yet, by 1989, she’d been reduced to a third act feature in an investigative journalism television show. After the show aired, she was found and arrested two weeks later on April 19, 1989. But even the arrest was overshadowed. The date may seem familiar, but it’s not because of Liz. It’s the same date the Central Park 5 were arrested in New York City.
Some would see the dismissal as a fitting end to a decades long grift, and others would call it injustice, and disrespectful to the legacy of the woman in question. And oftentimes these would be the same group of people. Liz Carmichael has a way of being equal parts endearing and irritating and the fact that a three wheeled car that could get 70 miles to the gallon at the height of the gas crisis is a side note in the documentary, shows just how divisive… and enthralling her large personality could be.
Love her or hate her, she’s intriguing and steals the spotlight in the four part series. I sat down with Cammilleri and asked him about his fascination with the story of Elizabeth Carmichael.
Nick Cammilleri: When I saw the Unsolved Mysteries episode in like, 2011, it was mind altering! My brain melted because what am I? What am I looking at? What am I experiencing right now because she was this incredible person – an entrepreneur, a mother of five and like, the human Swiss army knife. She was also a career criminal. I think I saw in her a fearlessness that I rarely ever see people have. She just wished to live full and wholehearted and as herself everyday and just accepted it from minute one.
In the Unsolved Mysteries episode, they misgender Carmichael and claimed she was “masquerading as a woman”. Even in 2011 this confused Cammilleri. He understood she was a transwoman, but more importantly, she was incredible and had an amazing story with very little context available. Curiosity caused Cammilleri to begin researching the story of this dynamic woman. As the search unearthed more and more hidden gems, he found his curiosity became a fascination, and then a full blown passion project.
Cammilleri spent the next ten years trying to come up with a way to share the life of this woman with the masses. To bring her out of obscurity and into the hearts of those who would dare to dream of marching to the beat of their own drum.
NC: She’s an incredible antihero, like, not all antiheroes need to be white men. They don’t have to be Walter White or Tony Soprano or Vick Mackey. She’s an incredible character, but she’s an incredible antihero. She’s important because she challenges society’s views of what is socially acceptable. And because she says, ‘That doesn’t work for me, I can’t survive or live my best life under the rules that are either gendered, or put in my way, or otherwise the construct because I’m in poverty.’ She went on going around you. Sometimes you have to do the bad stuff to achieve the good stuff, right? Society isn’t structured in a way for [her] to succeed and so for every obstacle she went up against, she ultimately created and shined a light on every single problem in society.
The Geekiary: She definitely was a hustler and to some detrimental ends and then to some satisfying ones. But it’s like you said, she is kind of the anti-villain-
NC: Sorry, did you say hero? Not villain, definitely antihero. [Anti-villain] is not in my lexicon, I don’t know what that is, so I want to make sure.
TG: Oh definitely! I said it incorrectly but what I meant by that is she is both the protagonist and the antagonist, you root for her as much as you do against her.
Throughout the excellently paced four hour-length episodes, The Lady and the Dale clearly doesn’t have a dull moment, and it’s because of the balance of Liz Carmichael as both the villain and the hero concurrently that makes it such an intriguing watch. Roughly defined, an antihero is a hero who sometimes does bad or questionable things in the pursuit of good. An antivillain is someone who normally performs morally dubious acts, but ends up doing good, sometimes on accident.
Throughout her journey, we see Carmichael embody both of these polar opposites, causing an almost rollercoaster effect for your emotions. While living as Jerry Dean, she was convicted for counterfeiting and had a long history of petty theft, and bilking people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. She once said that moving constantly was easier than paying rent and one of her daughters, Candi Michael (who, along with her brother Michael, her niece Jeri, and Carmichael’s brother-in-law Charles Richard Barrett, all provide intimate talking heads for the film) said that they once moved twenty times in as many months. Yet through all of that, she maintains that Liz was a wonderful mother.
She allegedly made deals with the mob, she paid people under the table and sold options on cars illegally, all while making sure that the weekly Sunday family picnic was stocked with her famous pasta and potato salad.
The Lady and the Dale succeeds at giving equal weight to both sides of this woman who stood six feet tall, 185-200lbs. She’s an imposing presence for sure, but there’s a vulnerability where you can’t help but feel sympathetic towards her once the walls begin closing in. I asked Cammilleri if he was cognizant of that push and pull while putting together the doc.
NC: I think one of the biggest things to make this happen was what made the collaboration between Zackary and I so incredible. I came at it from a screenwriting perspective – which is me in every scene saying, ‘If you’re going to gain something, you’ll also lose something’. So every moment is an oscillating rollercoaster of up to down. Every time you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that bad thing I’ve done!’ a good thing would happen. And so I was cognizant when we were plotting it out because after doing this for eight years, I was the only one who really knew on paper how everything came together. I had my own plot points. The collaboration with Zackary was important because I came at it from ‘Liz the entrepreneur’, ‘Liz the mother of five and was a career criminal’.
Cammilleri spent years personally gathering and editing information. While he was producing, securing interviews, and writing court orders, he hadn’t even arrived at ‘Liz, the transwoman’. Her life was so rich and dense and he wanted to make sure he didn’t overlook a very special part of her identity. Representation of trans identities by the trans community has been hit or miss. Cammilleri credits Drucker with making the transgender element of the story a priority since it served as both her savior, and a bit of her downfall in the way others pursued to destroy her because of it.
NC: What was so amazing about Zackary is that she came in and said there’s a whole other side to this and you need to see this other side. She’s a remarkable trans historian and she knows every facet. So I would be coming in from a plot perspective and she’d be coming in from a character perspective.
They both worked to fill every gap and created a natural and organic process of telling the story fairly. The progressive nature was both on and offscreen. The crew and subjects feature members who are cisgender and trans or nonbinary. Cammilleri felt it was important to have several points of view while telling such a textured story.
Cammilleri spent years gathering data, traveling the country and even bidding on eBay auctions of archival footage. He remembers a time he was making hundreds of calls per day and sending out close to a thousand letters a week trying to amass information. The original idea read like an SNL Stefan skit: This documentary has everything: scams, fraud, robbery, cons, Tijuana two-steps, Dick Carlson, the ‘70s, secretaries that are moms, the mob, random office murders, high speed chases and on and on! I asked Cammilleri about the process of putting all of this into a tellable story and the answer was just as involved as the outcome.
NC: I tried six, seven different ways to construct the first episode of this. And if you watch it was like osmosis – it was rocks rolling in the waves again and again and again. It was so many different viewpoints and I like to say it came together naturally, but it took two years. It was such a fight on every conceivable level for Liz to be three-dimensional and wholehearted and have agency and you realize how much of the narrative is so, so gendered and controlled by white men.
The production team found themselves running into walls where the story was being told by a white man and they kept going until they found a way to ensure this would be Liz’s story. Cammilleri gives credit to his team: Allen Bain, Andre Gains, Mark and Jay Duplass, Mel Eslyn and many more. He also gives special credit to Awesome and Modest, the animation team that created many of the visual elements throughout The Lady and the Dale. At first, I was unsure of how the animation affected the tone of the documentary, but as you start learning about the type of person Carmichael was, the animation only amplifies that personality. Cammilleri worked hard to ensure his team were all pulling in the same direction.
It’s an effort that shows on the screen. It doesn’t look like it was easy and that’s to the credit of the film. Some of the info they got was astounding, from finding the first test driver of The Dale who was not recorded and paid under the table, to gathering subject matter experts like Susan Stryker and jury members during Carmichael’s infamous trial. There is a dearth of information that doesn’t feel overwhelming and is in fact, thrilling. Many moments caused me to gasp and during one, I screamed in shock!
There’s a nerve to Liz, an obstinance that will either annoy or inspire you and oftentimes both. But it’s undeniable and makes her story accessible and interesting. There was a turning point for me while watching The Lady and the Dale where I said, “Alright Liz, I’m rooting for you, but I need you to chill out!”. Although she was on the lam from the law, she’d made herself the spokeswoman for The Dale. I couldn’t believe the nerve! She was a wanted fugitive, she should be keeping a low profile! Clearly she deserved jail, right? But then seeing the effect of the blatant yet casual transphobia in the way they judged her, I realized that even if she “deserved” punishment, they were never going to serve it to her in a way that was fair and ultimately rehabilitative. She seemed to be punished for believing in herself and thwarted at every turn. So while she saw herself as the only hope for The Dale (and she may have been), she was also the arbiter of its demise.
NC: Her scars affected everyone else.
Cammilleri speaks to displaying the effect of Carmichael’s actions while shooting a scene with Greg Lease, one of Liz’s head engineers, outside of his trailer.
NC: I shot it aiming down to make Greg look small and to have him set against a fence where on the other side where green pastures. You could tell that he couldn’t move outside [the fence]. He said, ‘we’re all living different lives right now’ and the shot showed how poverty affected him, too. Liz’s attempts to rise out of her own class and become accepted, she thought she could carry that dream to completion.
Her efforts, successes and failures held ramifications that are still felt by those who were close to her today. And the resurrection of her story is sure to provide representation, inspiration and greater context to the many communities she inhabited that are often overlooked. Carmichael’s story is too important to be forgotten and is lovingly captured in this faithful documentary.
The first two episodes of The Lady and the Dale premiere on HBO on January 31st. The following two episodes will air on the 7th and the 14th.
Check out the trailer for The Lady and the Dale below:
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