In 1974, in the midst of the Middle East oil crisis, a sleek new three-wheeled automobile promised Americans high mileage, a low-price tag and hope for better things to come: the Dale. The only thing more audacious than the car itself was the executive behind it, Elizabeth Carmichael, founder of the 20th Century Motor Car company and a trans woman in the male-dominated business world. A supremely savvy marketer, indefatigable entrepreneur and devoted mother of five, Carmichael was, as it turns out later, also on the lam from the FBI.
“It gets pretty juicy,” says Zackary Drucker (BFA 2005 Photography), co-director of HBO’s new 4-part documentary series The Lady and the Dale, which premieres this Sunday, January 31, with two back-to-back episodes, and chronicles Carmichael’s checkered story.
As a brash businesswoman in 1970s Los Angeles, Carmichael claimed that the Dale would be the biggest thing in cars since the Model T, upsetting Detroit’s iron grip on the auto industry. Interest in the Dale intensified, accelerated by Carmichael’s boasts of its efficiency and safety, but also fueled by her company’s dubious business practices. Just as publicity for and investments in the three-wheeler automobile reached its peak, Carmichael was outed as a fugitive who had spent the last few decades running from the law with her wife, Vivian, and their kids. She was arrested for fraud and business-code violations before the Dale could even hit the streets. The trial that followed was one of the longest in Los Angeles criminal court’s history and became as much about Carmichael’s transgender identity and the media’s transphobia as it was about her revolutionary car.
Drucker was new to Carmichael’s story—“[Producer] Jay Duplass called and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Liz Carmichael?’ I had not,” she says. Drucker is an artist and trans woman whose photo, video and performance-based practice focuses on the lives of trans and non-binary folks and breaks down the way we think about gender, sexuality and seeing. She is also an Emmy-nominated producer for the docu-series This Is Me, and a producer on the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning series Transparent.
“Liz’s story is so layered and it’s so complicated, that to untangle that and unpack it—it was a deep dive,” Drucker says. “I would say after reading over a thousand pages in FBI files, reading hundreds of articles about Liz, there was a period of time in the summer when I dreamt as Liz or of Liz every night probably for three months.”
“I really do feel like she willed it to happen somehow,” she adds. “The echoes continue to reverberate into the present, so it was only a matter of time before her story broke through.”
Read on for a Q and A with Drucker about the making of The Lady and The Dale and Carmichael’s larger-than-life story and impact.
While front page news at the time, Elizabeth Carmichael and her radical cars are lesser-known these days. How did you first learn of Liz’s story? And how did you get involved in the project?
Nick Cammilleri, my co-director, was obsessed with this story for years and started doggedly track people who knew Liz, her family members, people who worked in her company, and created this network and laid the groundwork for the documentary. Very few people I know had ever heard of Liz—I could count on one hand—and they were all trans women who were trans history enthusiasts. I think that it was very much a local story for folks in Los Angeles and Dallas at the time. She was really lost to time and had never been a part of any roundup of trans historical figures, so there was a lot to discover.
I came to learn that Liz was done wrong by the press and that her story was never vindicated; her being treated as a complex human being didn’t happen in her lifetime. I don’t think her soul was really at rest—I really felt as though I was wrestling with this spirit of Liz Carmichael for the last year and a half, that she was really banging on earth’s door for her story to be told.
Photo-collage and animation dominate the visual storytelling of the series and create such a distinct look—how did that come to be and what was important about the aesthetics for you?
Like many trans stories, there was not a huge amount of source material, and the style that we settled on [in collaboration] with [animation studio house] Awesome and Modest really leaned into this notion that Liz would tell her story in a very kind-of DIY, scrappy way, where she’s cutting things out and everything is kind of rough-edged. You’ll notice that the animation is entirely paper-based—so there’s no dissolves, it’s entirely tactile, it’s entirely analogue. We were able to procure a roll of film taken by [journalist] Colin Dangaard; we ended up using that in the animation quite a lot just for different expressions on Liz’s face. Had COVID not happened, we may have tried some other things out, but animation became, serendipitously, the best option for us to tell her story, because Liz’s imagination is like this limitless space of possibility and obviously that’s what animation can do—it can transcend the limits and constraints of physical reality.
Your own photography and filmmaking is often quite personal and intimate—you’ve frequently been both subject and author—so I wonder, would you consider this a departure, something new?
Both. I think that my work across genre and medium is really unified by a deep dedication to expanding our culture’s notions of difference and creating more empathy, specifically for trans and non-binary people. In our world it’s kind of an “all hands-on deck” moment, you know, the way in which trans folks have become central to the culture wars that we’re in today. When you get to the last episode you’ll, I think, feel the reverberations of Liz’s story to today because we really take it into [the present]. Her story is like a small, inciting microcosm.
Was there something new you wanted to do with the documentary form—or made-for-TV, serialized storytelling—that seemed right for Liz’s story?
I would say that overall [The Lady and the Dale is] the longest piece of content that’s been made about a singular trans public figure, and that’s not only new to me, it’s actually new to the entire genre of the episodic format.
I have a feeling that I’m going to continue to pursue true stories. I think that it has definitely cracked open new possibility. I think it takes multiple strategies of embedding trans and non-binary people into culture but there is a very persuasive argument for [foregrounding the stories of] folks who have actually existed—it’s undeniable. You can’t deny that Liz existed, that she was a libertarian, entrepreneur, all these living contradictions, defying the narrow kind of space that culture would let her exist in. Liz’s resilience is undeniably inspiring.
The Lady And The Dale premieres on HBO this Sunday, January 31, 9:00pm ET/PT.
In the 1970s, one entrepreneur took America for a ride. All roads lead to #TheLadyAndTheDale, premiering January 31 at 9PM on HBO Max. #HBO #HBODocs