Marriage is humanity’s first and most enduring institution. Still, the concept can be a little baffling when you really think about it.
Two people—who in some cases were total strangers less than a year before the big question—promise to love and cherish ’til death do us part, which also means forever taking into account one another’s moods, needs, desires and toilet paper roll habits.
With no guarantee of happily ever after, why does it remain such a prevalent milestone across all human cultures? Do we really know what we’re signing up for? And when things get tough, why do some couples hold it together while others split?
With a deeply rooted desire to know, Edina resident Joe Brandmeier hit the road in search for answers. A director and producer for more than 25 years, he’s worked all over the world with big crews and big names including Prince, U2 and Janet Jackson. But this time, it was just him and a camera and GoPro, driving around the Midwest, talking to people from all walks of life on streets, in living rooms, at kitchen tables and on a fishing dock.
The result is what he describes as a light-hearted documentary about the “crazy” concept of marriage titled I Do? resonating with folks around the world. Moving through the international film festival circuit, the film has been shown in Singapore, Montreal, the Bahamas and was selected as a finalist in Calcutta. Locally, it won Best Documentary at the Twin Cities Film Festival and was voted as Audience Favorite in Green Bay. It’s also now available to buy or rent at Amazon and iTunes.
“People are tired of so much negative stuff, and this is something light and easy to connect with,” Brandmeier says. “For me, it’s been like free therapy.”
Brandmeier says he’s always thought the marital custom is strange. His parents were divorced after 30 years, not a great fit from the start according to him. But true inspiration for the film came from a low point in his marriage of 29 years to Joan Steffend—well known in the Twin Cities for her decades as a Kare 11 news anchor, former Hgtv host of Decorating Cents and now recent inductee into the Minnesota Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame.
“Somewhere around 18 or 19 years, we were exhausted by a lot of things. I felt I couldn’t do it anymore,” Brandmeier says. “I was standing at the bottom of the stairs with my bags packed, and she looked at me with her beautiful face and said to me with her beautiful voice ‘we are ultimately better together than we are apart.’”
Ten years later, still married, Steffend echoes that sentiment to Brandmeier after settling into a chair in his home office, pulling her socks off and taking a sip of coffee. “I’d be a hermit if it wasn’t for you. And you’d be eating mac and cheese and spam and living in somebody’s basement if it wasn’t for me,” she says.
“Yeah. Or I’d be in Alaska getting eaten by grizzly bears,” he says, laughing. A Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer trophy, inscribed with a favorite quote “let’s be independent together,” looks amused from its spot on a corner shelf.
The couple met while on a shoot at Kare 11. He was the photographer. She was the reporter. However, these days Steffend spends her time off screen as author, inspirational speaker, founder of a nonprofit called Peace Begins with Me and grandma to 8-month-old Isla and 4-year-old River. She downplays her part in the making of I Do? but Brandmeier insists her input made all the difference. “She has a huge talent as a writer and storyteller and helped give it structure … We had a lot of fun bouncing ideas around,” he says.
While the film is light-hearted, it also has “great depth,” Steffend says. “It’s tremendously comforting and convicting because we all have those thoughts. Should I have gotten married? Did I make the right choice? Can I love somebody forever? Where is that fairytale romance I was promised?”
Brandmeier’s original plan was to interview people coast to coast. He pitched his idea on social media, on local television show Twin Cities Live and on his brother’s radio show in Chicago. Due to a big response, though, he never made itout of the Midwest. “I would love to do a sequel. We’ve only touched the surface,” he says.
Featured in the 80-minute documentary are couples of all ages and stages, two divorced women, one widowed woman and one single man. They talk candidly with Brandmeier about different aspects of marriage—from first attraction and proposals to fights and unexpected loss.
Some in the film claim love at first sight. “He’s my James Dean. The minute I saw him, he had to be mine,” says Lu married to Joe for 37 years.
For others, not so much. “I didn’t really like him at first … I didn’t quite understand what his aura was,” says Dedra, newly wedded to Andy.
For Ruth and Ralph, together for 73 years, the magnetism was more about grit and usefulness. “What attracted you to him?” Brandmeier asks. “Well, he fixed my radiator up,” Ruth says. The film highlights fancy proposals. And unfancy ones. Leanne talks about finding her ring in a glove compartment. Tania says she got proposed to during a Halloween movie. “He pops out a ring, and I’m like, ‘now?’” Tania says.
It shows us loud marriages and quiet ones. “Just us two. That’s all we need really,” says Dennis in overalls on a pier out in the boondocks fishing with his wife Barb. “And our dogs,” says Barb from under her straw hat.
Some in the film describe marriage as amazing. “Once you do this magical, mystical signing of the papers and commit to it, legally commit to it, the riches, the rewards are better than you could ever conceive,” says Ray married to Helen for 25 years.
For others, it’s been disappointment. “I gave up so much … Internally, I had so much anger,” says Susan, divorced after 16 years.
For most, forever is the plan. “The thought of being an old man next to him. That’s what I visualize down the road. I don’t see myself next to anyone else,” says Steven committed to Lyle for 12 years, married for two.
But sometimes, forever is cut short. “If I ever say ‘I do until death do us part again,’ I will know what that means,” says Kim, widowed after 10 years. “It’s a huge responsibility and opportunity. Something I will never take lightly again.”
Did Brandmeier find the answers he set out looking for? Was his outlook on the time-honored mysteries of marriage transformed by the quest? No spoiler alert here! For more information about the film, to watch the trailer or to rent or buy from Amazon or iTunes visit the website.