Pacifica filmmaker Tiffany Woolf shines a spotlight on stories of lives well lived.
When filmmaker Tiffany Woolf envisions her ideal movie premiere, there’s a twist: The red-carpet promenade is silver, and the leading ladies and men are old enough to be your grandparents. Seemingly, nothing about Woolf’s creative vision aligns with the entertainment industry’s preoccupation with youth. She founded Silver Screen Studios four years ago as a platform to share the oral histories of Jewish elders, and has since produced three short documentary film series. Like last year’s Dispatches From Quarantine, each takes viewers into the living rooms of a collection of seniors who offer some of the most authentic takes on aging — and living life to the fullest — you’re likely to find. And while a few are stars in the traditional sense — she’s interviewed Larry King, Carl Reiner, Tommy Chong, Norman Lear and even her own godmother, Happy Days matriarch Marion Ross — far more are simply extraordinary seniors with extraordinary stories, like centenarian holocaust survivor and calisthenics enthusiast Risa Igelfeld, and Arthur Weil, a holocaust survivor, WWII vet and longtime Oakland schoolteacher who became a prolific poet later in life.
“My hope is that we create these films to inspire other people to do it.” — Tiffany Woolf
Woolf deftly packs decades of wisdom and insight into her refreshingly unfussy short film segments (most are under 10 minutes), from Lear discussing what it means to live in the moment — “It took me every split second of my life to get here, so it has to be important” — to King marveling at landing a spot at the “head table of life.” Whether discussing their good fortune, great loves, loss, or contemplating death, the seniors come across as overwhelmingly vital, even in the case of King and Reiner, who both passed not long after their Zoom interviews for Dispatches From Quarantine.
Woolf is something of an old soul herself (though at 50, she’s decades younger than her stars), and says she’s long been drawn to the sage words and stories of older folks, dating back to her college days working at a nursing home. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in social work, and landed in the field of public relations, working as a publicist for film festivals and the San Francisco Film Society (now SFFILM), which brought out her “sweet spot for documentary films that had messages.” These days, her kids sum up her vocation as: “My mom likes to talk to old people” — something they observed firsthand in the Zoom interviews she conducted from their Pacifica home during the pandemic.
“I love the idea that everybody has a story to tell,” Woolf acknowledges. “Our elders should be put in a position to shine as if they were a silver screen star, as if they were Elizabeth Taylor.” Silver Screen Studios is a collaboration between Woolf and Emmy Award–winning writer and producer Noam Dromi, who is also the managing director of Reboot Studios, a branch of the Jewish arts and culture nonprofit Reboot, which provided seed funding for the films. Dromi, who handles research and gleans archival materials for the films, calls Woolf a “very intuitive storyteller” and “force of nature,” and notes that his own 82-year-old mother, who is a clinical social worker, was so taken with her that she agreed to help fundraise and support a future project.
Connecting with people from all walks of life comes naturally for Woolf, who grew up in the Boston area in a bustling home that was a hub for neighborhood kids and household names. Her father, the late sports agent and attorney Bob Woolf, represented everyone from talk show host King to basketball great Larry Bird and New Kids on the Block. Though neither of Woolf’s parents lived to reach the age of the seniors in her films, she feels strongly that “there was some gentle whisper or nudge from them to do this.” In turn, she passes on that nudge to others. “My hope is that we create these films to inspire other people to do it,” she says.
For Woolf, the impetus to capture these stories was also inspired by her own role model, Ross, who moves through life guided by optimism and curiosity. When reached by phone at her Southern California residence, the actor — who has appeared in two of Woolf’s documentary film segments — praises Woolf’s positivity and interviewing style: “Tiffany makes you feel like you’re the most interesting person in the world that she’s ever talked to.” As for her own take on aging, Ross giggles when acknowledging that she’s 92: “I could make something up, but I think it’s sort of fun to be so O-L-D and keep going. I have had such a full life, I truly have.”
In one of Woolf’s films, Ross casually reflects on death, noting: “I suppose that one day I will die. … I think perhaps, because I’m such an optimist, there’s going to be the most fantastic thing happen after you die.” In Woolf’s interview with Lear, who turns 99 this month, he broaches the subject frankly (“I’m not looking forward to it; I want it as far away as possible.”) but with a hint of wonder: “We do not know what follows for one split second after life is played out and I think that can be, and for me is, exciting. … Nobody has come back ever to tell us what has happened after that.”
Woolf’s three series, The Last Act, Coming of Age and Dispatches From Quarantine (which can be viewed on YouTube), were produced with grants and funding from Reboot, though she is now also exploring private work. Earlier this year, she was commissioned to document the oral history of Menlo Park philanthropist Dorothy Saxe. Shares Dorothy’s grandson Dave Saxe, “My grandmother has had, and still lives, a very dynamic life that we knew would provide incredible content for a film. We also wanted to memorialize her life story for future generations.” Woolf and Dromi put together an 18-minute film filled with Saxe’s stories and archival photos that premiered at her 95th birthday party in February, with extended family tuning in via Zoom.
In the film, Saxe declares without hesitation, “I’m grateful for my life and every component of it.” Those words echo a sentiment Woolf has heard repeatedly while making these films. If there’s one key takeaway from her conversations with older, wiser individuals, Woolf says, it’s: “If you can stay in the place of gratitude (and most of the people I’ve interviewed have talked about this), it just makes your life better. It’s a better way to live.”