A Voyage Out of the Land of Broken Hearts and into Singular Joy

A Voyage Out of the Land of Broken Hearts and into Singular Joy

On Valentine’s Day, HBO will premiere single director Debra Solomon’s Getting Over Him in 8 Songs or Less — a funny, poignant reminder that losing love can mean finding yourself.

This Valentine’s Day, HBO will present the debut of Getting Over Him in 8 Songs or Less, an animated musical voyage that follows a woman as she goes and grows through the breakup of her marriage and finds her footing as a single woman. The film was inspired by Solomon’s own experience when her husband came home one day and told her that their 17-year marriage was over.

As she began to piece together the fragments of her relationship and her life, she turned to song writing as a way to channel her emotions. With a catalog of eight songs, each about another stage of her self-discovery as a single person, she began the creation of her next short film.

Singular magazine sat down to talk to Debra about her life as an artist, director and animator living a successful, singular life in Manhattan’s SoHo district.

Tell us a bit about your background – where you grew up and where you went to school.

DS: I’m originally from Boston. At the age of 23, I struck out on an around the world adventure in a jeep (after dropping out of an art therapy program at Boston University) to drive the Pan-American Highway and visit every important Mayan and Incan ruin between the Boston Commons and La Pas, Bolivia. On that trip, while waiting for a freighter in the Panama Canal, I found The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides (still a classic). I decided to go to art school after that.

Besides that book, what inspired you to become an artist and an animator in particular?

DS: It was clear to me from an early age. When I was young, my parents took us to art museums all the time. But like most animators, my influences were, in good part, low-brow culture. The 1960s were the beginning of cartoon everything: cards, Mad Magazine, Saturday morning cartoons, Disney,on and on. I grew up with Rocky and Bullwinkle and I lived for Saturday morning cartoons. I was afan of The Jetsons, The Flinstones, Gumby and Davey and Goliath. I loved the idea of telling a story — but not all my stories are funny or have happy endings — that comes from being a reader who loved Rob Grillet, Carson Mccullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner and a host of other non-happy endings writers.

Do you feel you create your art more successfully when you have solitude or when you are working in a collaborative environment?

DS: I do my best creative work alone — no question about it. There is nothing like an open weekend — starting early on Saturday, when I know that I have the luxury of two days to make something new. But a word about creative time alone on weekends: I have very dear friends who are married and they’ve asked me what the hardest time of the week is for me. My answer: Sunday nights. So every Sunday night, for many months, I would meet them for dinner and sometimes long walks into Brooklyn. That anchored me. I had this “love time” to be with people I knew cared about me — and whom I knew would be there for me.

Isolation is the hazard of my profession. I live alone and I usually work alone — which is fine until it gets to be too much. I need human contact and need to hang with people too. I’m more creative and do better work when I fill myself up with people and experiences outside of myself — so I make an effort to go out.

Is journaling something that you do? The character mentions it in the movie.

DS: I have about 40 Chinese notebooks of all shapes and sizes, and other notebooks that I sketch in and write down thoughts. My most beautiful and meaningful notebook was from a trip I took to France right after my little brother dies of AIDS. I have pressed flowers from orangeries and rose blossoms that still have scent — or maybe my brain has the smell locked away  just like I’ve retained the ache from that terrible loss. This notebook with its bits of paper doilies, matchbook covers, tickets and sketches is from August 1997 — the month I lost my darling brother.

How long did it take you to complete Getting Over Him in 8 Songs or Less? And how do you feel about it premiering on HBO on Valentine’s Day?

DS: The film took three years for me to make. I am proud and delighted to have it be on HBO. This will be my biggest audience to date and I hope nobody calls on the phone while it’s playing!

What were your views on being single prior to your marriage and how did your views on marriage and being single change once you finally found your footing as a single woman? What have you learned about yourself in this journey?

DS: I have always admired single women who were just fine on their own — strong, happy and independent. At the same time, I envy with every morsel of my being, families with little kids. As for finding my footing as a single women, it was when I realized that my life was full of wonderful people and I could do my work in the day and be with my friends, both single and married at night and have fun. I could be part of the extended family I’d created around me.

“Teach Me to be a Woman” – let’s talk about that song in your film – what inspired it and do you feel you’ve learned what you needed to find out?

DS: There is nothing like a failing relationship to make you yearn for being a different type of woman — the type (you hope) your husband would want. But having said that, I have always been a no-frills gal (from the women’s lib age) who after decades of wearing jeans and turtlenecks, and paying attention mainly to my work, wanted to be more feminine. I just didn’t know how… or so I thought. In the long run, liking myself went a long ways to feeling more beautiful, and frequent exercise has brought up the rear, literally and figuratively. As time goes on, I’m more comfortable indulging that girly side that might like a swishy skirt and getting my hair streaked as much as taking a course in Shakespeare.

And the song about “Retail Therapy” – was that something you tried too?

DS: My retail therapy was done at CVS, it’s a place where you can buy everything you set your eyes on — and Forever 21 (I call it Forever 49) — also Ikea. But the hole that’s left by losing someone isn’t filled by things … it’s just distracted for a bit.

The character in your film spends a long time going through the healing stages of a failed relationship before she finally finds her peace as a single person. How long did it take you to do that in real life and what were some of the most challenging parts of that journey for you?

DS: It took me about two years to get my stability back — meaning when I could walk into a party and feel strong, and not dread evenings alone. But from about the second week on, I would tell people I was OK and smile. I knew I was setting a path for myself. But the worst part was getting into bed at night. The first thing I did was get rid of the king-size bed and then I took up with Harry, Harry Potter. In the first months, lying in bed at night was the last thing I wanted to do. Harry Potter put me to sleep in about 10 minutes. I never did finish one of the books. I also watched a lot of Japanese anime (animation), my favorite being Perfect Blue – the girl in it wants to become a pop star.

How does this film compare to your previous works in terms of being autobiographical and being vulnerable — opening and baring yourself to the world? Did you struggle with being willing to do that?

DS: My work while being highly autobiographical is also not at all. I trained as an illustrator and as I look back on all of my work, I see it as a construction of metaphors that start with me, but lead off in many directions. I don’t climb around on the outsides of windows peering in, or axe my way into people’s homes or head butt the doors of my neighbors. It’s my art to seemingly draw the audience into the very heart of my life and experience, just as any good writer draws on his experience and then mixes it with other elements. Hence, I am completely open — and not — at the same time.

How have your views of being a single woman changed over the years? Would you consider giving up the independence you’ve found to remarry, and if so, why and what would you need from someone before taking that road again?

DS: No need to ever marry again. Love doesn’t need to go to the altar unless there’s health insurance waiting there and you don’t have any. I have health insurance. I think that dedicating yourself to another person, as a partner, is job one can undertake without the license. I just recently learned that half the couples in Canada don’t get married.

What would you like people to take away from this film? What’s next for you?

DS: I’d like people to see themselves in my film and if they’re seeing themselves, then they’re going to be bolstered and by the end feel validated. But it’s OK too if the music just makes them tap their feet and they love the flow of images. As for what’s next, I’m learning the banjo, writing songs and will start animating some new work soon. I’ve also been asked to write some songs for kids and to animate them, so I’ll be getting in touch with my inner 5-year-old soon.

Debra Solomon’s previous projects include the Emmy Award-winning How do you Spell God? and Kids are Punny: A Rosie O’Donnell Special. Debra helped create the animated segments of the Disney series, Lizzie McGuire and her short films have won awards at film festivals including a Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for Mrs. Matisse and a special Jury Award at the World Animation Festival for Everybody’s Pregnant. Her illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, Vogue and Self.

Getting Over Him in 8 Songs Or Less
Debuts on Sunday, Feb. 14 7:30 – 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO2.
Other airdates: Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. and Feb. 27 at 6 a.m.
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