The Lady and the Dale, a new four-part documentary series from HBO, tells the story of Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael, an entrepreneur — and con artist — who set out to manufacture a three-wheeled car, the Dale, during the gas crisis of the 1970s. Liz also happened to be a trans woman, an element of her story that eventually stole the spotlight as she went to court for promising clients a car that would never roll off the lot.
Transgender artist-actress-producer Zackary Drucker (Transparent, I Am Cait) co-directed the series along with Nick Cammilleri. Drucker sat down with NewNowNext to discuss The Lady and the Dale, why it is important to tell Liz’s story all of these years later, and how Tucker Carlson’s dad played a role in her downfall.
When did you first hear about Liz Carmichael?
I first heard about Liz Carmichael when Jay Duplass called me a year and a half ago and said, “This project just landed on our doorstep about Liz Carmichael and the Dale car. Have you ever heard of her?” And I was like, “No.” And my first instinct was like, why this story, right? Because there are so many incredible stories of trans folks who were able to carve out a space for themselves against all odds, and at face value I was skeptical and I had so much to learn, honestly. I felt personally transformed by the restless spirit of Liz Carmichael and I feel strongly like Liz’s story was told through such a transphobic lens in her lifetime and that in some ways actually exacerbated and got worse as time went on. And to witness the media shaping of trans-ness through Liz’s lifetime… she got a very typical treatment in a lot of ways.
Was The Lady and the Dale always envisioned as a four-part series, or was it originally just going to be a feature-length documentary and then the story just kept expanding?
It was always conceived of as a four-part series. Initially Nick Camilleri, the co-director, saw an Unsolved Mysteries episode about Liz in 2011 and became somewhat obsessed with this story. And just over a decade, [he] built this network of people who had worked for Liz, people who knew Liz, gathered all the materials, got access to the FBI files, pitched to these two independent producers who brought us to Duplass who wrote for HBO. And I came on and did all the interviews with Nick, all the final interviews as a team and then kind of put it all together. We packaged it, figured out, what is the story here? And I think initially, there was this expectation that this would be a true-crime story — that it would be like a car story, a true-crime story. And she happens to be trans. And really, what we discovered was that there was this incredible human story about Liz and the car and true-crime elements kind of frame Liz, but it’s not necessarily the hook. Like, the hook is that she was pilloried as a trans person in the media and was still somehow able to persist and survive into old age.
I loved the choice to use animation.
Did you ever think about recreating scenes like in Unsolved Mysteries, or were you always going to go the animation route?
No. Animation was [due to] COVID. So we had everything in the can except for what we thought would be a reenactment. Two weeks before COVID, I had dinner with a friend who has an animation company. I’d even forgotten that she and her partner is, like, the main animator. In any case, things shut down and we had to pivot, and animation ended up being a serendipitous medium to represent Liz’s expansive imagination. Like her internal basis. I mean, there’s a lot of Liz in the night sky. It was a lot of her as a dreamer, I guess, as somebody who is able to float out into the stars. And it’s also a very kind of like DIY scrappy. Honestly, our big directive to our animators was like, how would Liz tell her story? Like, she would tell it in a very analog, tactile, cutting things out, kind of sloppily, like rough edges. And it’s a completely analog process. There isn’t a single digital dissolve or crossfade or anything; it’s a totally analog animation style. And that was, for months, the majority of what we were doing: reviewing animation, working with the animation team for hours a day. And for much of 2020, we were working on all four episodes simultaneously.
Wow. I really liked the animation. I love that image of her on the moon with the trans flag.
Yeah, that was my idea. I’m glad you caught that.
Liz was such an entrepreneur that I feel like if she were born two decades later, she would’ve been the CEO of some major company or something. Do you agree?
Yeah, that’s a fun thought experiment to think about. Like, it didn’t make it into the final cut of Episode 1, but Liz’s brother-in-law tells this story about her having a photographic memory and the parlor trick. She would flip through a phone book or she’d flip through a book, and you could go and find a name, and she could tell you the address and phone number. So, yeah, I think, regardless of how you feel about Liz’s actions or criminal behavior, it’s clear that she was always thinking one step ahead of everybody else. She was getting away with as much as she possibly could. She was testing the limits of the world around her to say like, “How far can I push this? How cunning can I be to kind of chase the world around me?”
Why do you think reporter Dick Carlson was so hell-bent on outing trans people?
I had always thought Dick Carlson, in his telling of his story, prowled the Tenderloin district in San Francisco in the 1960s. It was a serendipitous thing that happened. I got a link to the footage, it was like from Oddball Films, it was like Tenderloin prostitute included also footage. And it had this trans woman at some kind of a city council meeting. And she’s saying, she’s in the first and second episode, she’s saying, “I’ve tried to get work. No legitimate office will hire me; they say, ’We don’t want anyone of your caliber working here’… what am I supposed to do and I get damn hungry.” And it’s this incredible thing. We included it in the first episode, and as we were working on the second, I started poking around and looking at those particular reels and it was Dick Carlson’s footage. So it has always been this thing in my mind where I was like, “I’m sure he encountered trans women and trans people in the Tenderloin,” and sure enough, this footage that we had… It was like this visual proof that he had encountered trans people before. So when he met Liz, he was that much more able to identify that she was a trans person, within his imagination. And because of his reporting on Liz, he was given this anonymous tip about Renee Richards which led him to La Jolla, where he was living in 1976.
Whether it was like happenstance or not, I think it’s clear in his reporting and his telling of the story, and then I think it’s clear on his legacy as manifested by [his son] Tucker Carlson that their misogyny kind of crossed there. I think that they hate women. I mean, I think that the notion that anybody would want to become a woman is really inflammatory [to them]. I think they probably don’t want trans people to exist at all. I think that’s what is underneath their rhetoric and their actions. I think that it’s probably often something within oneself that you hate — the feminine parts of oneself when you’re trying to survive masculinity. And it’s because of those sacrifices where you’re like, “I’m not allowed to be a full human being. Nobody else should be, either.”
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Liz?
I feel somewhat haunted in some ways by Liz. I feel like over a year and a half, I got very close to her, as close as a person could get to [someone] — like, reading her words, being totally immersed in her world, being immersed in her community. And I think that I feel fortunate to understand her. I think there’s so many positions you can look at Liz from, there’s so many perspectives, it’s such an expansive story that everybody can learn something from. I think in her time, she was misunderstood because her story’s always told through this lens of bias that was, no matter what, whether she’d committed a crime or not, going to conflate her trans identity with fraud.
Is there another queer person from history who you would love to make a biopic or a documentary about?
I would say Frances Thompson, who comes into the last episode. Her story, which we only told the tip of the iceberg about. She was among the first Black women to testify in front of Congress after the Memphis massacre, which was one of America’s first race riots after the Civil War. And it was 10 years later that she was outed as trans, and that outing became a public national spectacle in newspapers everywhere. Yeah, so, I think Frances Thompson, but there are so many good ones.
The Lady and the Dale premieres Sunday, January 31 on HBO.