The story of Jean Seberg, the Marshalltown, Iowa, native who was cast in a movie by age 18, was put on an FBI watch list with other radicals in Hollywood and died mysteriously in Paris at age 40, had already been told several times by documentarians.
But Kelly and Tammy Rundle of Moline, through their Fourth Wall Films productions, say that "Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg" gives a more personal and in-depth perspective.
"The biggest difference is that they're all done from the outside looking in," Kelly Rundle says, "and because we're talking to people who knew Jean and weren't just casual acquaintances, we're more from the inside out."
"Movie Star" made its debut in October in Marshalltown at a festival bearing her name. The first night was audience members who included Seberg's family, close friends and those who were interviewed for the documentary. The second was a more general audience, those who weren't as closely associated with the star, who died in 1979.
Both groups raved about the movie.
"Movie Star" gets two showings in Davenport next weekend, including a more elaborate premiere at the Figge Art Museum and another showing the next day at the Nighswander Junior Theatre.
The Rundles had received acclaim and awards for their documentaries about an ax murderer in Villisca, Iowa; the Ioway tribe of native Americans and one-room schoolhouses. A Seberg documentary might be viewed as covering new ground for them.
"It's true with all the work we do; it's not Hollywood, it's heartland," Kelly said.
The prospects had been discussed since about 2005, when the Rundles met Garry McGee, an Elma, Iowa, author who had written three books on the actress. McGee had many interviews taped with people who had not talked about Seberg's life before, most notably the actress' older sister, Mary Ann.
Much of the footage McGee had shot ended up being used as archival footage, the Rundles said, while they shot their own to complement it. McGee is credited as a co-producer, co-writer and co-editor.
"It's a whole different dynamic, because Kelly and I have worked together for a long time and to have somebody else come into the mix was something we had to think about and wondered how it'd work," Tammy said. "Gary's been a great partner."
Kelly Rundle said he didn't want the documentary to look like a museum piece.
"We had to figure out how to give the film a more contemporary package," he said. "We wanted to shoot some additional material and we wanted to shoot some additional interviews, so the end result would be a more updated feel."
The contributions of family members and close friends help to set this Seberg documentary apart, Kelly said.
"That gives you an incredible amount of insight, personal insight," he said. "It also gave access to family photos and home movies. A lot of the material we have has never been seen anywhere, never been part of a documentary about Jean Seberg."
Who was she?
Unlike her husband of 33 years, Tammy Rundle said she didn't know much about Seberg before she became involved in the documentary.
"When you get on the Internet and look up anything about Jean Seberg, it's not very factual. There's a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "We wanted to make sure we did kind of sort out the myths and the misinformation and try to bring out a more accurate picture about who she was."
Born to a pharmacist and a substitute schoolteacher in Marshalltown in 1938, Jean declared at 5 years old that she was going to be a movie star.
Her activist nature was evident at a young age. She led a campaign to be nice to animals in her hometown, and by 14 years old had become a member of the NAACP in nearby Des Moines.
"She had a deep compassion for people, people who were without," Tammy said. "She kind of took to the underdog."
"What rankled her the most was that someone might be treated differently for who they were, their color, their religion, whatever that might be," Kelly added. "That got under her skin, and apparently got under her skin at a very early age."
A month before her 18th birthday, she was cast by director Otto Preminger, out of a reported field of 18,000 actresses, in the title role of "Saint Joan" in 1957.
Despite the film's disappointing box office, Seberg gained a contract with Columbia Pictures. Kelly Rundle said studio execs at one time were ready to mold her into a star the same way that had been done with Rita Hayworth a decade earlier, and Kim Novak five years before.
"By the time Jean was under contract with Columbia, they weren't really doing that much any more. She didn't get that star treatment the others did," he said.
But it was her role in French director Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" in 1960 that gave her acclaim, more in Europe than in the United States.
"That was the turning point of her career," Kelly Rundle said.
But Seberg also caught the attention of the FBI, particularly for her work with and donations to the Black Panthers, a militant civil-rights group. It was not unusual to support the group, the Rundles said, as Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Preminger also did so.
The young actress, however, was a relative newcomer without the public support that the others had.
Seberg's phones were tapped. A blind item planted in a Los Angeles gossip column, reprinted in Newsweek, claimed the actress was pregnant with a mixed-race baby by a "black militant," according to the documentary. The shock of reading it sent her into labor three months ahead of her due date, and the daughter, Nina, lived two days. The funeral for the child was in Marshalltown, with an open casket to show that the baby was white.
"It's weird how they used something that was a mistake in a way on their part to discredit her," Kelly said. "It really was just a matter of chance that Jean was the one that they got something on."
The baby's death was "when you see the downward spiral of Jean at that point," he said. "It was the placement of her in that light that scared a lot of people away."
Seberg appeared in a few more American movies, most notably in the blockbuster "Airport" in 1970, the comedy "The Mouse That Roared" in 1959 and the musical "Paint Your Wagon" in 1969, but remained in France for much of the rest of her life.
In 1979, the actress was found dead in the back seat of her car in Paris, wearing only a blanket that was wrapped around her. An official report said she died of a barbiturate overdose and alcohol.
Although reportedly planning to revisit Iowa later that year and still expressing a fondness for her hometown, she was buried in Paris.
The FBI's smear campaign, Kelly Rundle said, "was successful to the point ... that on the day she was buried in Paris that the FBI released a statement that they had smeared her name and it was wrong, and they weren't in the business of doing that anymore to people."
Carrying it forward
The point of the documentary, the Rundles say, isn't to clear Seberg's name but to get to the truth that many say has never been examined.
"She'd been painted as somebody who was anti-American. That was one of the big things for me, because she was anything but that," Tammy said.
However Seberg chose to express her opinions, Kelly said, it "came from a good place."
"That's something people don't realize about Jean Seberg," he said. "She took a different approach to activism than even other movie stars did. She was more in the background, providing money or raising money. She wasn't in front of the camera all the time, saying I'm doing this or I'm supporting this, I'm drawing attention to myself while I'm doing it."
The Rundles will make final edits to the documentary before it's released on DVD later this year. They also are placing it contention for film festivals and shopping it to broadcast, public and cable television.
The busy couple will release a documentary on Iowa's leg of U.S. 6, which runs from Davenport to Council Bluffs, before the end of the year. They are also in the middle of shooting scenes for their first docudrama, "Sons and Daughters of Thunder," which is scheduled to be released in 2015. A documentary on Hero Street in Silvis also is scheduled for next year.
But the topic of Seberg, they say, is something that will stay with them.
"With all of our films we've become very close to the subject," Tammy said. "This one was especially difficult because ... I think we were both depressed by the time we got ready to premiere it."
Seberg gained immortality because of the scandals and not her work, Kelly said, but he hoped the documentary may help to change that.
"As time goes on, more and more people are going to discover Jean as an actress, and she's certainly recognized as a fashion icon. But there's a lot more to her," he said. "People may rediscover who she was, and rediscover her movies."