Five Sisters Battle Ageism from Behind the Camera

The filming of the short-form film comedy series “Old Guy” was a family affair. The writer and directors are a mother and her five daughters, and the star, their father. It was made in partnership with students at Tufts University, making it an all-generation affair as well. The whole point of the six-film series that lasts a total of 25 minutes was to fight ageism in the media, so it makes sense that’s it’s the brainchild of a purposeful intergenerational effort.

The directors (Jennifer, Gabrielle, Maria, Ursula and Charity Burton) make up the company Five Sisters Productions, their father Roger Burton stars as Harry, along with Peri Gilpin (Roz from “Frasier”) who plays Harry’s agent); the writer is Gabrielle Burton, who also acts as his wife in the films. The short films tell the story of Harry retiring from a conventional career and deciding to re-engage with his first love, which is acting.

Told as a comedy, in the series Harry quickly runs into rampant ageism in the hiring process and roles he is offered (which he accepts). But what becomes clear when watching all episodes back-to-back is that Harry becomes increasingly disillusioned with show business as he begins to question the roles he’s being given and how they play onscreen. His wife is a consistent voice of reason throughout.

The film was the senior Burtons’ idea, stemming from Roger’s personal experience retiring as a university professor, moving to LA and being “discovered” at a party while in his 70s, leading to his “third act” as a successful character actor in film and television (“Shameless,” “Baskets,” etc.).

In a recent interview, four of the Five Sisters spoke about their motivations behind making such a series and why fighting ageism is on their agenda.

‘So often the character’s name was “Old Guy” or “Old Old Guy.” ’

“The entire project was conceived as cross-generational,” said Gabrielle, explaining that Jennifer, a professor at Tufts, brought the Five Sisters in to work with her students and mentor them in the film process. “The college students were studying the representation of age on screen, and how to acknowledge the reality, without being reductive, or erasing the complexity and richness in the lives of older adults,” said Gabrielle.

The sisters still receive notes from students about ageism they find in the media, now that their eyes have been opened.

Conscientious Filmmaking

Like many happy families, the Five Sisters tend to talk together and over one another in rapid succession as they describe the films. “Our father was a psychology professor, our mom a writer who wrote novels and was interested in screenwriting and they moved to LA together after he retired,” said Maria.

“I was acting and he came to my agent to audition for commercials,” said Ursula. “And immediately began working all the time—on ‘Fargo,’ on ‘Baskets,’ etc.”

“But so often the character’s name was’ Old Guy’ or ‘Old Old Guy,’ ” said Maria. “So, [the storyline of ‘Old Guy’ is] mirroring his experience in real life. But he had to be strong to play these parts, as he’d have to do prat falls, or suddenly die. He was very strong and vital in real life, but noticed the parts for older people were always playing on stereotypes. Mom was like, ‘This is weird, the joke is the same over and over again in so many shows.’ ”

Jennifer agreed, adding, “there are three elements: So few people in film who are older (less than 10 percent), the characters are not developed, and then there are the stereotypes. What was interesting was that in real life Dad was learning Spanish, so he could read “Don Quixote” in its original form, cooking elaborate meals, learning to play the piano when he had moved on from playing trombone, because he no longer had the breath for that. So that was his life experience.”

“His life was diverse and interesting, and the roles might be funny or fine, but when that’s all there is, and there’s never any complexity, it becomes a problem,” said Ursula.

“The power of ageism is that it hampers what they can do with their lives,” added Jennifer, mentioning “Grace and Frankie” as one show with more realistic portrayals of the complexity of older adults. “You don’t have to be a curmudgeon or a perfectly sweet person, people are complicated at any age.”

‘We think carefully about what we are putting out in the world.’

In 2002 the Five Sisters made “Manna From Heaven,” which involved many older characters, and actors including Cloris Leachman and Shelley Duvall. Tester audiences had a great response to the film as they hadn’t previously seen themselves onscreen portrayed as full characters. But the movie was produced independently because a studio preferred that the characters be younger. Then AMC decided to support its release as an independent film because its CEO enjoyed the movie and was surprised at how grandparents, parents and kids were all able to enjoy it.

“Manna From Heaven” also was produced with multiple generations behind the camera. “This is something that has always been a part of our company,” said Jenn.

“We try to think of things mindfully. We know we all as humans have a finite number of years in which to be productive and creative, so we think carefully about what we are putting out in the world,” Gabrielle added.

The company also produces commercial work and is proud of a recent project with Ford Motor Company where loyal Ford owners tell stories about their cars, the first being a man in his 80s who has a treasured Mustang for which he has kept tomes of every repair he’d ever done on the car. “Even in commercials, we’re thinking about ways of seeing the world that contribute a positive image to the future,” said Jenn.

Fostering Representation

Outside of their own projects the Five Sisters are working to help other filmmakers gain a voice. “There’s so much data that proves in so many ways that representation behind the camera—as writers, directors—reflects what’s in front of the camera. It’s so important to have that representation,” said Maria.

“So much of what we do circles around representation on screen, it’s about age, gender, or identity from whatever aspect you’re thinking—we try to be thoughtful about that,” said Gabrielle. “We film stories that interest us.”

Some films in the works include “Expiration Date” about two sisters in their 80s, one of whom is working on an online dating profile for the other, when they realize they are their true companions; another film addresses parenting and gender; their script on the Mercury 13, the women who tested to be astronauts in the late 1960s, has been picking up writing awards; then there’s their limited series “Searching for Tamsen Donner” (wife of the leader of the Donner Party, from a novel of the same name written by the elder Gabrielle), which Gabrielle the daughter describes as “a cross-generational thing, 100 years later.”

Here's a preview of episode one of “Old Guy”:

Photo: Top, Ursula; second row, left to right, Gabrielle and Maria; third row left to right, Jenn and Charity

Photo credit: David Henderson