Category Archives: Filmmaker Interviews
Fisher Stevens, ‘Before the Flood’: Video of the Q and A at Hamptons International Film Festival 2016
Fisher Stevens’ Before the Flood is a prodigious effort by the filmmaker who is also an actor, writer and producer. The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (he also co-produced the film), which screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016, comprehensively details the subject of climate change through cogent interviews by scientists, activists, researchers, world leaders and more. Stevens’ perspective could have been a browbeating doom and gloom treatise on global warming. Instead, after seeing the film, one leaves the theater feeling the urgency that there are ways one can individually make a difference in the fate of the planet.
Stevens’s documentary is compelling and memorable as he traces how climate change impacts every being on this planet, every microscopic creature and every seed, every spore, every molecule of life that has managed to evolve and survive through the eons up to this point in time. He shows how experts in climatology and related, supporting fields have been monitoring the planet for years and have produced the facts, details, information, data, maps, visuals, photographs that predict signs of impending global catastrophe. In an overwhelming consensus, they have explained what is ongoing and current: rising seas, melting glaciers, disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet. They have almost uniformly predicted the subsequent inundation of coastline cities, mass population migrations, starvation and decimation of a planet caused by greenhouse gas overload which created chain reactions that many believe are irrevocable.
Stevens also reveals the antithetical arguments to climate change and why they exist. Despite scientific consensus, climate change deniers managed, with Fox news propaganda prestidigitation, for expedience and profit, to turn black into white, to twist up into down and to morph fact into fiction. The result has been a quicker burn, a delayed global response which even after the Paris Climate Summit 2015 is not effectively doing enough to stem the glacial melt, dissipate the acidification of the oceans, ameliorate the dying of coral reefs, end unsustainable practices employed by energy corporations and create an effective reduction of carbon emissions to cool the planet.The scenario scientists, researchers and experts paint has far reaching dire consequences that impact every global culture and every land or oceanic ecosystem with supporting marine and wildlife. This result may be likened to the ushering in of the four horseman of the apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, death.
But this must-see documentary is uplifting despite the revelatory evidence of overarching power demonstrated by a handful of genocidal nihilists (climate change deniers), who are egregiously and willfully deaf, dumb and blind to the earth’s reality show. How Stevens’ journey (which follows the investigation and work of Leonardo DiCaprio as United Nations Messenger of Peace on climate change), arrives at the realm of hope that suggests a possible rainbow in our future, is miraculous, invaluable filmography.
The film must be seen for its poetic script, its breathtaking cinematography and concurrent dark and soaring music, its cogent analysis and exhaustive documentation through experts’ interviews, visuals, maps, data and much more. Fisher’s documentary is an accessible and definitive work on climate change. It will inspire all those who see it to become involved on a personal and community level to overturn the climate change denier’s lies and take action before it is too late. The film Before the Flood is being aired on National Geographic and is screening at City Cinemas Village East and elsewhere. Check about dates online.
Here, Fisher Stevens speaks to the moderator at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016 after the screening of this seminal film.
Ralph Fiennes was at the NYC press day held at the Park Hyatt to discuss A Bigger Splash. In the film which also stars Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, Fiennes gives an energetic, profound, and spot-on portrayal as Harry Hawkes, music producer who seeks out his former love Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a rock star who is recuperating from voice surgery. Marianne and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are luxuriating on sultry, wind-wily Pantelleria, the island between Italy and Africa. Pantelleria plays an intriguing and unpredictable character in the film, especially as a contrasting presence to the main characters who are well off and revel in their high-end getaway.
Fiennes’ Harry is an amazing personality. He is frenetic, electric, exciting with shades of irrepressible abandon. He is an admixture of winds, like those on the island: he is incapable of drawing lines of propriety when it comes to restoring his love with Marianne; yet he combines his desires for salvation by her with an acute and keen sense of authenticity and blunt truthfulness that is admirable. The character of Harry is quite unlike his film portrayal of Gustav, the honorable, reserved, always impeccable and soulfully noble concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fiennes’ virtuoso acting skills which are also legion on the stage, allow him to pull out all the stops in his complex, exceptional portrayal of Harry. He discussed Harry and entertained six of us with his effervescent story telling skills during the roundtable. The versatile stage and film actor is also a director and at the end of the interview, Fiennes shared his latest multiple endeavors.
Last time we saw you was in The Grand Budapest Hotel. You were wonderful. I was hoping that the film would receive the Academy Award. It was a phenomenal film.
(Ralph Fiennes shyly smiles.) Good, good. Thank you.
Great contrast in portrayals from The Grand Budapest to A Bigger Splash. It was an inspiration to see you move from that character to Harry Hawkes. Could you feel physically, the difference between these two characters?
Oh, Yes. Very much. In The Grand Budagest, there’s a sort of upright postural thing going on which I think I identified early on as I remember. And of course Harry moves completely differently.
They are like night and day.
It seems to me that they are. Everything about Gustav from his costume to his upright posture is different from Harry. Harry is a rock and roller. (Ralph smiles)
Could you talk about the shoot on Pantelleria as an intriguing location which created its own dynamic?
Yeah, Pantelleria. I didn’t know what I was going to encounter there. I had a sense of some place sunny in the Mediterranean. It’s quite an odd place because there is no other island near it, and it’s volcanic. It must be that it’s sort of on a massive finger of rock that sticks up because the water encircling it is very deep. There are no beaches. And it’s very windy. And it doesn’t feel like Italy. It’s closer to Africa, I think. Odd place, odd because it’s quite rugged even though there is this August summer holiday-like thing happening. But that’s only in August.
It’s quite an eccentric place and the winds are unsettling. They sort of nag at you. They tug at you. It’s not that restful. When the winds stop and you feel the heat, it can be very calm. But the winds change direction all the time. Constantly. Because there are no beaches, you’re conscious of there being these homes. Dammusi is the name. And a single house is a dammuso. And lots of wealthy Italians have their holiday homes there. Armani is famous for being there and has a house there and he’s there precisely for the whole of August.
I remember a couple of times I went out with this local fisherman called Mimo in his little boat composed of flakey wood. Mimo’s a classic local fisherman with his little bottle of wine, offering up some olives and bread. And we jumped over the side into the water with our masks and the boat would chug, chug, chug along quite slowly.
Once we anchored in a little lagoon. Then suddenly I heard this sort of low throb of an engine. And there was this long, long, sleek, state of the art motor boat that drifted into view. There in the back was…gray hair…sunglasses…Giorgio. And there were all of these beautiful people, men and women, all sort of draped around the boat. And there they sat in the water (Ralph makes a purring noise of the boat engines…smiling at the humor of the incident). And Mimo said, (in Ralph’s best Italian accent), “Hey Gorgio.” And they sat and watched us, with me and a couple of friends looking a bit messy. They sat and hovered in the water (thrummmm), and went away again. Very funny to see all these sunglasses switching to a view in one direction. (we laugh at Ralph’s acutely humorous visual description and innate story telling skills)
Your character is not really likable. But he is charming and witty and is intelligent about a myriad of different subjects, but he’s so self-centered and narcissistic. What was it like reading him in a script and then portraying him on the screen? Do you like him?
I do like him. I like him for all the reasons you said. There’s an honesty about him. I think you can take the view that these four people are privileged people and are sitting in their own dysfunction. For Harry…there is something malign and something benign. He’s a sort of devil figure, like a satyr. He’s there to provoke people into self-recognition. He’s got his own demons. And I agree he is narcissistic to some extent. But I like the things he says. I love the lines where he says, “The men have had their chances. It’s the women’s chance to run the world now.” There’s another great line that he says, “We’re all obscene, but we love each other anyway.”
I think he wants no bullshit connection with people. But he’s also a muddled man. The best of Harry is someone who is very direct and doesn’t bullshit. He’s mercilessly honest. And though the film doesn’t show this, I believe he’s a very, very good music producer. Actually, in the room with an artist, he’s brilliant. He really knows his stuff. But he’s a bit of a lost soul. For all his verbosity and provocative antics, underneath, he’s actually a lost person. That’s why he wants Marianne to give him some kind of anchoring.
In the evolution of his character…how you evolved him through the film, when he first goes to the island, does he sense that there’s any impulse to destroy himself?
Good question. I think it might be unconscious (Ralph contemplates), unconscious. Because I think that it is quite a provocative thing to do. To push yourself in on someone’s private holiday. You have to really willfully ignore all the norms. I wonder what a psychotherapist would say about that sort of behavior? It strikes me that it’s unconsciously self-destructive.
You mention about how important it is that he’s a brilliant music producer. A music producer has a different role from a producer in a film. A music producer takes what’s buried in the music and takes what’s best about the musician and, not imposing his will, the producer gets the musician to channel the best performance
He’s brilliant at that.
Could you talk about what you might have learned from the role. If you met some music producers now, what questions would you ask as a result of the film?
My brother’s a music producer. I sat with him in recording studios and I’ve worked with music producers on films I’ve directed. I’ve seen music producers guide musicians with a language I don’t know, but I can see how they are shaping musicians. And when I was directing these two films, I was able to say, though I’ve not much musical or technical knowledge, I would be able to say, “Can it be more like this?” And they would understand what I was trying to say and they would have the skills to say, “No we need to do this or play that on a lower key, and don’t come in too quick on that.”
So I sort of got a sense of what that would involve. And I was reading these books about The Rolling Stones that were helpful background reading. One was about Keith Richards’ life and the other was a book called The True Stories of The Rolling Stones by an American journalist on the Altamont Tour. He was present at the Muscle Shoals’ recording of “Sticky Fingers” and he was there to hear “Wild Horses” being recorded and put down. That was very useful to connect my own little, tiny experience being in recording studios to understand, you know, how musicians go on and on and on playing, and have breaks, have a row and suddenly the magic is there. Or the producer says, “Try doing this,” or “Try playing in that key.” And I thought that’s what Harry’s really good at. Sadly, the film doesn’t show this. But it helped me to know it (Ralph laughs).
Did you collaborate with Mick Jagger?
No, no I didn’t. I understood that the material was sent to them, meaning their representatives. And they knew about it and we got notes on the story. And they were happy for us to, as it were, incorporate the story for Harry. But it was based on a true story of a producer’s. The name I can’t remember right now, but it is a true story. This producer did say, “Try playing the percussion on the trash can in the recording in Dublin for Voodoo Lounge.”
Did you and Tilda work out the characters’ history? It’s such a long and toxic tumultuous relationship.
We talked about it a bit. But I don’t remember talking about it at huge length. We would share our own sense of what our backstory was. But it was quite clear from the script what it was. I think we did talk about it, but it just fell into place quite quickly. All four of us quite quickly seemed to be playing who we are. Luca is not one, and I think he would agree with me, he’s not one given to exhaustive analysis and discussion. There are directors who will pick away in detail at the backstory. I think Luca just got his cast and wants to let the energy unfold between them and doesn’t want to interfere too much.
How do you see your relationship with Penelope? Is he using her to get back on Marianne? There is a lot of ambiguity between them but at the same time there is a good dynamic also.
He believes, as I imagined it, that this is his daughter as a result of an affair or a fling he had 18 years before. I’m not sure whether Harry knows her real age. I imagine the daughter said to her mother, “I want to meet my father.” She had been a model or whatever…Penelope/Dakota had her backstory. Anyway, the mother rings up, we have a daughter of 18 years, or maybe he knows about the daughter but he’s never met her. It moves to “Our daughter wants to meet you.” So he says, “Cool. Fine. Let’s meet.” He’s been with Penelope the last month or so traveling around Italy. And I think he’s enjoying the experience. Harry is someone who’s open to what that experience will be and who she is. He hasn’t pushed her away or closed her off. And I think he’s gotten to like her, finds her interesting. She challenges him and he says in a scene…of course she’s sexy, a young, sexy girl and he can deal with that.
I don’t think he’s tried anything transgressive or incestuous with her, but I think because they’ve never experienced each other as a child or baby or young adolescent, I think they enjoy this slightly flirty vibe that they have. But I don’t think it’s fucked up in any way. I think, as you say, it’s ambivalent. Dakota and I seemed to find it quickly whatever this thing is. She’ll sing “Unforgettable” with him and she’ll enjoy the vibe of sort of flirtatious proximity. I don’t think that Harry’s trying to get into bed with her. Not at all. Not remotely. In fact I think he likes to feel that energy, but he will never cross that line. I think he’s actually quite protective of her.
Any more directing for you?
Yeah. I’m developing some screenplays to direct, but it won’t be for a while.
Any chance you’ll come to Broadway? I’ve seen everything you’ve done there and loved it.
Well, I was hoping to come to Broadway this autumn with The Masterbuilder.
But actually the producers…well, it’s a sellout in London.
Of course. I’ve read that it is.
I don’t know. I think it will come here in the next couple of years.
I hope so.
This article first appeared on Blogcritics.
In a phone interview I spoke with director Brian Sloan about his film WTC View, which is having its 10th anniversary first-time digital release in HD format on iTunes. (Click here for the film on iTunes) Starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Celler). WTC View is an intimate look into the life of one New Yorker in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The film is constructed in a subtle way. The character Eric posts an online ad for a roommate on September 10th. On September 20th he is able to return to his apartment and interview prospective candidates. Inevitably, when they investigate the apartment, they go to the window of the bedroom they will be sleeping in only to see the smoking rubble of the WTC site, a horrible view. Then each opens up about where they were when they heard about the events and how their lives have changed as a result of 9/11. Eric listens, and as the film progresses, situations and conversations gradually unfold; we understand what he has been through and how he is in an emotional crisis that he struggles with and denies he has. Only after Eric has a meltdown, does he finally begin to face his crashing emotional devastation. We are there with him every step of the way.
I really liked the film. I’ve lived in NY for most of my life so I can’t see how any New Yorker wouldn’t enjoy this film. Congratulations on its release on iTunes tomorrow, March 3rd in HD format.
I’d like to start by discussing that it was a play first. Could you just talk about how what motivated you to evolve this into a play.
It was a few months after 9/11 and people asked me about this as a film because I was a filmmaker. They asked me questions like, “Oh do you think 9/11 is something that you would write about?” I hadn’t really considered it because it just seemed like too big of a topic and seemed too large for a film. I couldn’t see any way into it. I guess it was about 6 months after 911 that CBS aired the documentary by the Naudet brothers I think it’s just called 9/11. The Naudet brothers were following a rookie fire fighter that day and they ended up having all this footage of them actually in the WTC when this was all happening. I watched that documentary and it struck me that these guys had such a personal perspective on this event. They were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time, but they ended up being able to capture this incredible story and it got me thinking about my story on 911.
My story was that I had taken out this roommate ad which is the last thing I did before I went to bed that night. And then I left my apartment on September 11th. I was in that frozen zone below 14th street. When I got back to the apartment almost a week later, there were all these messages of people calling me about coming to see my apartment. Some even called me on September 12th, which I just thought was crazy and strange. When I started thinking about this whole thing, I thought that this could be an interesting way, a very small look at what was happening, through a small lens, though not even a lens. But it was a situation happening in one room where people are having conversations and monologues about what life was like in the city at that time after 9/11. And I like to say everyone knows what happened on 9/11. The piece really is about what happens after 9/11 on September 12th and the days after that, and what is happening in the city at that time. So I was thinking about these things as a play. I didn’t think about it as a film. I thought the only way this could work was a play in one room and people having these conversations.
I started writing the play. A friend of mine had directed a couple of one act plays recently which were more comic one acts, like comedy sketches. With his encouragement I started writing this up as a play. We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and that’s where it first had its debut onstage.
When you cast this play… did you know the actors you wanted before hand? How did you cast the play?
We were doing it at the Fringe Festival. So it was sort of a no budget operation when you’re doing a show like that. You get actors wherever you can. Basically we kind of pooled our resources. I, the director, and the producer Helena Webb, we all thought of people that we knew who would be right for some of these roles. Andrew Volkoff had a lot more ideas because he had worked in theater and Helena too. Since I worked in film I brought in some people I knew from film. And we started auditioning people. In the end, I had actually seen Michael Urie in a play that Andrew directed the year before. And we were having trouble finding this lead role. I remembered that Michael was at Julliard. And I remember thinking well, this is great because we need someone with serious training because the actor’s onstage for the entire show for like two hours straight. No break. And I considered that it’s hard for a film actor to make that transition and to do that role. Some people who came in were great, but I didn’t know if they could do that role for two hours on stage. It’s a different operation.
Michael Urie came in and he read for us. I suspected that he was a bit younger than the part that we were casting. I asked Andrew not to tell me what his actual age was and he didn’t. And it turned out that Michael was about 9 years younger than the role called for in the script. But we figured that he’s a really great actor and that he could act a little bit older, and we can do some hair and makeup stuff that will make him look slightly older as well. When people saw it, people didn’t think that he was too young for the part. And then we really kind of cast around him. You can set a cast up to make them look younger or older. When you tell the audience the age, you create a world in which it is true and it is believable to them.
Wish I had seen the play. He was wonderful in the film. Looks like he turned out to be a find since he hit with Ugly Betty and other things, like Buyer and Cellar.
Yeah. Ugly Betty came out I think a month after our broadcast premiere of the film which was on MTV’s Logo channel. With Ugly Betty coming out a month afterward, it was show he’s become much more widely known for. After that he’s been doing better and better.
That could only be positive for WTC View which stands on its own. But his performance and the other actors were really wonderful. So it started at the Fringe and people really liked it. I read somewhere that you were wary about whether or not it was too soon for something like this, but turns out it was well received. How did it evolve from there?
From the Fringe, we got some really great responses and very good reviews and the show did very well. We initially hoped that we could move it to some Off Broadway house or somewhere Off Off Broadway, but we really had trouble finding commercial interest. At that time, 2003, the commercial feeling was that this kind of a play is not something that New Yorkers are going to see. It was still too close to the 9/11 attacks. There was a feeling that since there were two other high profile plays that were also 911 related and they had failed that year, it was a risk. We couldn’t get anybody interested in making that transfer.
When that happened, I just started thinking about making this for a broader audience. Initially, we were thinking of something like a PBS style live playhouse and actually filming the play. That didn’t really go anywhere. Then I started thinking about making an actual film because this is what I do and what I know how to do. I know how to make a very low budget film and make it good. I started thinking that if I look at this carefully, I can turn it into a film. Then it didn’t seem possible after all. But I started talking to some people and other producers and people encouraged me. They felt that the topic was what makes this really interesting, as well as the way that the topic is approached. You know it might not be the most cinematic movie because it still has its roots in the play and you can’t get away from that.
But the thing that made it unique was dealing with this topic in such a different way. We are dealing with the events after the attacks from this one person’s perspective. We’re showing this very realistic look at life in NY at that time. A lot of films about 9/11 tend to treat the subject very melodramatically or super tragically. It definitely was a major tragedy that happened in the city. But I think life in the city was not that way afterwards. People were trying to deal with events in different ways. Some people were dealing with it with humor. Some people didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to show that range of experience in the film.
You were encouraged to transfer it to a screenplay. I love the fact that the entire film takes place within Eric’s apartment until the very end. What were some of the issues and concerns that you had making the play into a film.
Well the biggest concern was probably not trying to make it something it wasn’t. I thought of ways to make the action break out of the apartment. You know have Eric walk through the city.
I’m glad you didn’t.
But I didn’t because the more I thought about it, it doesn’t really make sense for what this is. The guy is almost trapped in his apartment.
In his mind…
In his mind, truly. I thought I could continue that in the film. Also there’s a history of films that take place in one location. It’s not something that hasn’t been done before. The most famous is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also was adapted from a play. So there are a lot of other films. I actually started watching a lot those movies. Rope was definitely a big one for me. I watched Rosemary’s Baby; most of it takes place in their apartment. And there was also an indie film from the 90s, called What Happened Was. It is about a date in an apartment that sort of goes crazy over the course of an evening.
My Dinner With Andre is another one in just one location.
Yeah, My Dinner With Andre
That was a great decision on your part.
Thanks. I’m definitely glad that we stuck with what we did. I think it would have lost its focus and lost its feeling. And that’s what I think this movie is about. The film gives you a sense of this character and what he’s going through.
Then you took the original play and staged it at 59E59 Theatres. How did that happen?
That came about because we wanted to do a full production of the show that would be different from the Fringe where we had no money. We wanted to do a full, traditional production. And also we wanted to do something around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We felt that NY is a constantly changing city and maybe there is an audience living here now who is interested in seeing this. It turns out that there was. A lot of people came to see the production. We had a great run at 59E59. I feel that because there were a few more years removed from 9/11, people were able to see the play as a play. That for me was really heartening. People were able to see that it is more than just a strict documentary. They can see that the play is really getting at this character, getting at what he’s going through and telling this person’s story in a theatrical way.
One thing I think every New Yorker will identify with in perpetuity is getting living space in the city and having to have a roommate or partner to afford living here.
It’s a New York thing for sure.
As cities nationwide become more expensive to live in, that is a topic that will continue to resonate. I like how you dealt with the window subtly, the view of the WTC site. I also liked how we don’t know what really happened to the character until the end of the film. I thought you unfolded it in a very human and realistic way.
You mention the window. That’s one of the things I really love about the film which we couldn’t do onstage, which was sort of to see what people are seeing, I mean to see their reactions as they are looking out that window. It’s a very intimate moment. In the play the characters are generally faced away from the audience who don’t see their reactions as well. In the film we could get in there and closely focus on their reactions. That’s one of the more interesting adaptations that happened in the film version.
I loved the many meanings of WTC View, a play almost on Room With a View…
It’s a powerful and beautiful film. Good luck and looking forward to its release on iTunes March 3rd.
Yeah. It’s great to talk to a fellow New Yorker about apartments. It’s very true. I was looking at the original ad for this apartment and now it’s about double the cost, so the real estate situation gets crazier and crazier.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.
The documentary ‘1971’ screened in a World Premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I screened the film and later reviewed it giving it 5 stars. The amazing documentary chronicles a time in our history that has tremendous currency and importance for us today. In fact, Laura Poitras (she directed CitizenFour which is about Edward Snowden’s revelation of the US massive surveillance program), is one of the co-executive producers of the film. As Snowden’s revelations were coming out, Hamilton (who also produced), her co-writer and editor, Gabriel Rhodes, producers Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and others were stunned to see that the events of 1971 were being played out but this time on a global stage with Snowden. The chilling question was, since technology had gained huge strides that few comprehended, was it even possible to know how long and to what extent the government’s security programs were covertly vitiating American citizens’ constitutional rights? Snowden’s revelations and the events in 1971 (revealed for the first time in the film), are most likely the “tip of the iceberg.”
Hamilton’s documentary is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO. In the film Hamilton explores how and why The Citizen’s Commission felt there was a moral imperative at stake: they esteemed the principles of freedom in the Bill of Rights. Their beliefs and our American principles were held in the balance when they went to the Washington Post with FBI files that they had taken, files that were “secret,” and revealed surveillance of average Americans who did not adhere to the politics and philosophy supporting the Viet Nam War. Would the Washington Post prevent publication, in effect censoring the files? Or would they publish the damning documents? Hamilton reveals the fascinating account of what happened in its entirety and includes the identities of the 8 heroic and unassuming Americans who wanted to uphold the constitutional foundations of the country they believed in.
I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Hamilton via email and ask her about the film which is opening on February 6th in Cinema Village in New York City and on March 13th in Los Angeles.
The film tells a fascinating story of individuals who broke the law. It is revelatory about our segments of the government which in effect exceeded their powers to push forth a political agenda that was damaging to our country. Why/how is this story especially relevant for us today?
Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. I think this film is relevant today because a number of people acknowledge that post-9/11 we have lost a lot of those check and balances. And that was perhaps understandable in that moment but, perhaps, in hindsight we lost too many and maybe it’s time for a fresh look. That was true even before the Snowden revelations; and then he gave us empirical proof just as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did back then.
Is the country in better or worse shape than it was in 1971, politically, ethically? Today, do you think that citizens might be less likely to take a stand as these individuals did as a collective group remaining quiet about their actions? Why or why not?
There is so much to say and this subject has filled many books; I feel like you’d need a dissertation to encapsulate the first part of the question! Without doubt, the country is very different than it was in 1971; that was pre-Watergate. Today it is probably more politically polarized than it was then. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI is unusual in that it was a relatively large group who all had to work together and then keep a secret for a very long time. Back then this type of collective political action was less unusual. Most often people who are leaking information work alone, precisely to minimize the risk to others. I’m not sure a group of people would do it today. Then it was very easy to feel very directly affected by the Vietnam War, for example, because of the draft. You wondered whether the person next to you was an informant. Today, there’s no draft and although in this Digital Age the surveillance capabilities are much more vast they are also more ephemeral. It’s much more difficult for the general public to feel directly affected by surveillance. It’s more personally invasive today, but you don’t necessarily feel it.
How did this film evolve? Where did you receive the impulse to dig deep to find the people and recreate the events?
I consider myself very fortunate to have known Betty Medsger, the journalist at the Washington Post, to whom they leaked the documents in 1971 and who wrote the first stories. She and I have been friends for a long time, long before this professional collaboration. She was writing and researching her book that is now The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
(In her Director’s Statement, Hamilton says, “…we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefited enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation.)
I implored her to let me know when she was ready to make the film! Several years went by and one day she asked me if I was serious, whereupon she helped arrange a meeting with several of the members of the Citizens’ Commission and their lawyer David Kairys. We met and a couple of days later they let me know that were ready to go on camera. In terms of the recreations, I immediately thought to recreate the events of that night. Cinema is an immersive experience and I wanted people to be able to put themselves in their shoes. Plus, they left nothing from that night, no notes, no photos, nothing, just memories. I loved the sense of being able to create a nonfiction heist movie or film noir. Without them, it might have been a short film.
In what way did making this film impact you? What did you learn?
I learned a lot about civic courage. And I learned an enormous amount of the inner workings of both the protest movement in the late 60s and early 70s as well as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.
Laura Poitras is a co-producer of the film. In what way did the making of this film have an impact on her making CitizenFour? The two films have similar concepts. In what way are they very different? What would you like audiences to see and understand about that time (1971) and our time now?
Laura is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. She and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. She was one of the very first advisers on the film. She was already making a film about contemporary surveillance when I started working on 1971. So my film did not influence her, but she did know the story. Then in March 2013, she sent me an email asking me how I was doing on the film and reiterated her willingness to help. I found out about Edward Snowden with the rest of the world in June of that year. She was already in touch with Ed when she sent me that email in March; clearly she was drawing the analogy between the two stories and the two eras. Our films are similar in that they deal with people who have taken a stand at great risk to themselves by leaking information (in analogue and digital ways), but that ended up benefiting democracy. They both have a thriller element. But they could not be more different in that CitizenFour unfolds in real time; much of it is cinema verite. 1971, a story in the past, had to be reenacted in order to bring it to life.
In her director’s statement, Hamilton solidifies the wide ranging nature of what The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI accomplished for the country.
“The break-in is a little-known but seminal event in contemporary American history. The decision by the Washington Post to publish the documents was a defining moment for investigative journalism. We know about COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s dirty tricks targeting Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and many others, but we only know about them because of the stolen documents and the actions of The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves. They didn’t look for the spotlight. Their mission a success, they returned to their normal lives.”
It also may have indirectly eased the way for the Washington Post to adopt a prominent investigative role during the Watergate scandal which too, began with a break-in, and ended with the resignation of a President.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.