DS: In the last year I have discovered a bevy of young and beginning documentary filmmakers that I believe are deserving of and in need of greater exposure for their often neglected art form. There are, also, however, any number of good, solid veteran filmmakers whose work would reach far less people in an earlier time, but whose works penetrate into culture via Netflix and other streaming video companies. With this in mind, this DSI is with a filmmaker named Rick Goldsmith. I discovered his work with his 2009 film The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers, but in looking up his resume, found that he had also directed a documentary on journalist George Seldes, that I saw many years ago, Tell The Truth And Run: George Seldes And The American Press. Before I go into more detail on those films, and forthcoming documentaries or feature films, let me first welcome you, Rick, and give you an opportunity to tell the readers a bit more about yourself: who you are, what you’ve done in your life, what your goals are (and if you feel you’ve achieved them), and also your place in the film world, etc.
RG: You’ve answered that question pretty well within your next question.
DS: You seem to
work exclusively with a company called New Day Films, and your
page on their website states:
RICK GOLDSMITH'S mission as a filmmaker is to tell stories that encourage social engagement and active participation in community life and the democratic process, and to stimulate young minds to question the world around them.
Goldsmith has produced three films in the New Day Films collection. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (co-produced/co-directed with Judith Ehrlich) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and tells the story of a leading Pentagon strategist whose daring act of conscience leads directly to Watergate and the end of the war in Vietnam. Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, chronicles the life of a pioneering muckraking journalist and press critic. It was broadcast nationwide on public television and has become a staple in college and high school journalism programs across the country. Everyday Heroes (co-produced/co-directed with Abby Ginzberg) is a behind-the-headlines look at AmeriCorps and a provocative look at youth, race and national service.
Born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, Goldsmith came west in 1975 and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area ever since. Trained in architecture, music and community activism, he began working in films in 1979 and made his living for years as an editor. He is a member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and the Writers' Guild of America, West, and the father of two teenage girls.
First, what drew you to New Day? Do you share a philosophy or outlook, as
all your films seem in a political/polemical vein? Or is it just that you knew
some people there, and they thought your work was good, despite any philosophic
differences? Has working with one entity saved you time in terms of funding?
Currently, you have three directed titles, so you seem to work at a leisurely
pace, given your age. Do you just do projects that interest you, and have a day
job directing commercials, or is it all editing work for other films?
RG: To clarify: New Day Films is a distribution co-op of filmmakers distributing their own social justice films (rather than handing that job to a traditional distributor) to the educational market. It was begun four decades ago by 4 pioneer filmmakers and now has well over 100 members and 300 films. So New Day is a place filmmakers go AFTER they’ve finished making their films—it provides no funding nor structure to MAKE films.
Having said that, I do embrace everything that New Day is about—its emphasis on social justice, the democratic nature of our work together, its business model, and most of all the dedicated and creative people within—and did so when I joined (was admitted) in 1996 with my first feature-length doc, Tell the Truth and Run. See more about the coop at www.newday.com.
DS: Twice you
have had co-directors and co-producers. Has this helped or hindered your
‘vision’ of the projects? Were they assigned to you by New Day, or did you
choose to work with them? What are the pros and cons of a second set of eyes on
a project? How were disagreements, which seem inevitable, solved?
RG: Answers to this question would fill a book. It is always important to have more eyes than just your own when making a film. In both my collaborative directing efforts (Most Dangerous Man and Everyday Heroes), the “co-“ part was both positive and problematic. It is difficult to combine visions, and there are constant disagreements, part and parcel of the creative process. What worked best was when we were frank and honest with each other, cleared the air asap after tension creeped in, and each stayed open-minded about what the other had to offer. On Most Dangerous Man, everyone involved knows Judith and I fought hard and often. One benefit was that the almost-constant disagreements led to the bar being set high—i.e. neither one of us could “get by” with a so-so idea, scene or edit, since the other wouldn’t stand for it. So, in a way, it forced us into making decisions that really passed muster. And it also led to us to ask for and embrace the creative ideas offered by others on our team—most specifically Lawrence Lerew and Michael Chandler, our co-editors and co-writers.
DS: The bio
states you are a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, so
you likely see far more many documentary films than others in your field. First,
what are the pros and cons of the Academy? A frequent complaint, especially in
documentaries, is that it is too staid and political- like the Pulitzers and
Nobels. The winners of Best Director and Best Documentary inevitably seem to
produce safe, Leftist documentaries that preach to the choir. I recently
interviewed a filmmaker, Matthew
Pellowski, who did a documentary on a staple in paranormal circles- the
Mothman- and made it a compelling journalistic probe of a sleepy West Virginia
town and its history. This film was innovative and apolitical, therefore would
never even be considered by the Academy, yet it will stand out in 50 years,
whereas de facto infomercials, like An
Inconvenient Truth are already outdated, scientifically, and are now
seen as mere agitprop, considering revelations of Gore’s personal life,
finances, and marital breakup. Yet one knew from its release that the gore film
was destines for a nomination, if not a win. Does any of this make your skin
crawl, even if you may have political sympathies with most of the films that
win? After all, there should be some art in the documentary form, as well as
RG: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, my friend. I take issue with much of your premise. An Inconvenient Truth was, without a doubt, one of the most influential docs ever—it took global warming out of scientific circles and into the vast American (and worldwide) public/political forum—and it still resonates today. I often disagree virulently with the nominees and choices, but I will say that I know many of the Academy’s Doc Branch members and they are almost all talented, thoughtful, creative and independently-minded people. I do find this year’s rule changes—promoted by Michael Moore among others—very problematic, in the requirement for review in the New York and/or LA Times (journalists have no place in this process, Oscars are peer-awards) and, more importantly, the doing away with committees to create the shortlist, which, IMHO, will lead to unknown films and filmmakers not getting seen by enough members because of the sheer numbers (60-100) of films submitted. As a doc branch member, you can’t watch them all, so only the high-profile films and filmmakers will get watched and hence nominated. So the process will be more political than before.
DS: This from an
Born and raised in Valley Stream, Long Island, I am the son of Kennedy /
Stevenson liberal parents -- a pinkish-diaper baby, you might say, or a fellow-travelling
toddler. I was brought up on Yiddish folk songs, the Weavers, Burl Ives and
Nichols and May. I went to Hebrew school, got bar mitzvahed, didn't believe in
god, and went to synagogue reluctantly, when at all.
In 1969 I enrolled at Brown University, transferred down the hill to the Rhode Island School of Design (Riz-dee), where I studied furniture design, architecture and got my first taste of filmmaking (super-8 silent). I also protested the Vietnam War, canvassed the neighborhoods, and finally dropped out, deciding that I'd been going to school since I was 5 but was drawn to Mark Twain's philosphy: "I never let my schooling get in the way of my education."
After gigs as a coffee-house blues and folksinger, psychiatric aide, Berkeley Free Clinic counselor and administrator, and prisoner rights advocate, I took a course in the basics of 16mm filmmaking and never looked back.
At the first Jewish Film Festival in 1981, (I'd been living in the decidedly goyish Bay Area since 1975) suddenly had the feeling I was at a family reunion, listening to other audience members debate, argue and expound on the fascinating array of films shown at the festival. My Jewish heritage began to resurface.
Unbeknownst to me until at least mid-way through the 7-year production of TELL THE TRUTH AND RUN, the making of this film tapped into my somewhat dormant sense of Jewish identity. Seldes's moral outrage at social injustice and apathy, resonated with my own feelings about similar themes. The outrage, I ultimately recognized, was decidedly Jewish in nature -- not religious in the least, but certainly according to the teachings and traditions of my parents and forbears. It was through this film, I hoped, that I could put that outrage into a productive form, one that could maybe make some social and political impact. You judge.
The first thing that struck me in this bio is calling Kennedy and
Stevenson liberals because, nowadays, they’d be considered moderates or
center-right. Yet, oddly, America, and human culture, are getting profoundly
more open and liberal with every year. If one only goes back in quarter century
increments, this is clear. In 25 years, gay marriage will be passé and it will
be polygamy on the table, and in 50 years, it will be human-android sexual
relations. Anything on this conundrum of perception vs. reality in political
RG: Kennedy and Stevenson were definitely liberals of their day (albeit cold-war liberals). In contrast to your assertion, Nixon’s domestic policies would be considered liberal today. We live in a country full of contradictions. Gay marriage will soon be legal everywhere, the writing is on the wall. Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions in 1973, would never pass the Supreme Court in today’s political atmosphere and because of the bias of today’s Court.
DS: How did
furniture design, and other earlier forays into creativity, help or hinder your
later goals in filmmaking?
RG: The whole atmosphere at RISD helped me learn to be creative and trust my own judgments on what that meant. I spent only 2 years there, being young, headstrong and often quoting Mark Twain, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” Like Gates and Jobs, I’m a college drop-out.
DS: It’s been
years since I saw the Seldes film, but on looking up your filmography, I
immediately recalled it. Who was Seldes and why did you want to make a film on
RG: A pioneer muckraking journalist, who was a foreign correspondent in WWI and 1920s Europe, kicked out of the Soviet Union by Lenin’s Bolsheviks and of Italy by Mussolini’s fascists. He spoke truth to power, influenced the likes of IF Stone, Ben Bagdikian, Ralph Nader, Victor Navasky (long-time editor of The Nation), Studs Terkel and Daniel Ellsberg. I heard him at age 98 on the radio, was struck by both the freshness of his ideas and his gripping and funny story-telling, and interviewed him for the film five months later. His life had much to say about censorship and suppression in America’s news media, and the need for a truly independent and free press in our democracy. That’s the who and the why.
DS: When young,
I read a few books by Seldes, as well as some works by Howard Zinn, but neither
struck me as much as the work of Studs Terkel. While Zinn seemed to be the most
historically minded, and Terkel seemed the most in touch with individuals,
rather than movements, Seldes seemed to be the least objective. His works, even
when good, are often lessened by his biases and rah-rahing, rather than strict
reportage. How do you reconcile his subjective style to journalism, and is this
a trait you favor in your work or not? Why?
RG: Seldes’ “subjective” style is one that not only worked for him, but had much resonance among his audience in the 1930s-1940s (his heyday as an independent). As the great Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy said about Seldes, “He was criticized for only giving one side. Sure he gave you one side—the side you never got elsewhere.” The newspapers of the day were VERY conservative, more so by a long shot than today. It was said about Seldes’s publisher at the Chicago Tribune (now paraphrased for Rick Santorum), “He had the greatest mind of the 14th Century.” At any rate, it’s true that my style is more balanced if you will, and less strident. But Seldes was very effective and influential, and isn’t that the point?
DS: The Seldes
film is awash in Left-leaning personages: Susan Sarandon, Ed Asner, Nat Hentoff,
Ralph Nader, and Daniel Ellsberg. Is it easy to get in touch with, and hire,
such folks if they are in sympathy with your film, politically? Do they discount
you their services? And, does that make the film better, or not. I mean, suppose
a Right-leaning actor, like Tom Selleck, would be better to voice a certain
personage, than, say, Asner. Would you pursue Selleck first? And, have you ever
been turned down for a film because of your, or its, political views and
RG: I picked Sarandon for her voice and delivery, and Asner because he seemed to embody the Seldes combativeness, sense of humor and sense of outrage. The fact that they were left-leaning was definitely part of the equation as well: it gives them (and their voices) a sort of “moral authority.” As to getting in touch with them, it is a misconception that Hollywood stars are hard to reach. I have more trouble getting a return call from my dentist. Hollywood stars have agents whose business is to get them work! As to landing them, think of it from their perspective: why would a right-leaning actor work for essentially no money for the kind of film I would make? Most actors who lend themselves to documentary films do it because they believe in the films and the filmmakers. They certain don’t do it for the money, so what else do you have to persuade them?
Let me turn to The Most
Dangerous Man In America, but before I explore that, let me state
that I watched your film, and a bevy of other good and interesting documentaries
after I got Netflix’s streaming option. My opinion is that while Hollywood is
killing American fiction films, and indy films are in a state of hibernation,
the American documentary film may be one of the few areas in all of the arts, in
this country, especially, that is NOT in the tank. Think of it: television is
all bad hospital and cop drama soap operas and predictable sitcoms, or banal
faux reality shows and contests. Hollywood films are special effects and
glorified video games- where is a John Cassavetes or Orson Welles, in Hollywood
or the indy scene? Novels, short stories, and poetry are being killed by the
incestuous MFA writing mill mentality, and the visual arts of painting and
photography are still in the doldrums that followed the wake of Abstract
Expressionism and Pop Art. Music and cinema have never recovered after the highs
of the 1970s, and Broadway is dying, propped up by overly expensive bad musicals
adapted from Walt Disney cartoons or other media- where is a Eugene O’Neill or
Tennessee Williams? Yet, the documentary film seems to be creatively thriving,
even below the realms of titans like Michael Moore and Errol Morris. Do you
agree? Why or why not? What are your ideas for the medium?
RG: Again, a barrel of contradictions. There are more docs now than ever. They are more sophisticated and/or creative in form than ever, and the bar keeps being raised. However, there is more junk out there too. Almost no distributor will offer an advance or anything beyond a service contract (where the filmmaker pays for everything, including P&A), so the theatrical track is more CLOSED (at least financially) than it was say 5-10 years ago. But the internet has opened things up. YouTube has been a boon and a bane at the same time. The world of “reality shows” has bastardized the art form to a great extent, and probably adversely affected what “non-fiction” people will watch.
Are there any doc makers that you’ve discovered on Netflix, or elsewhere that
you think are good? Who, and what works would you recommend, and why?
RG: Michael Moore’s stuff, to me, is generally strong, bold, watchable, and influential even if he takes liberties with things like timeframe and context. He’s like the muckrakers of 100 years ago put to film—like a bulldog he locks his jaws around the leg of his subject and doesn’t let go. Barbara Kopple, Bill Jersey, Jon Else were influences, for their mastery of form and story, and of planting questions in the audiences mind both during the film, and that they would take away from the viewing. Steve James, Stanley Nelson, Joe Berlinger make consistently great films. Errol Morris is always interesting and creative, even if I take issue with much of his point-of-view and approach. Buck by Cindy Meehl was one of the great docs of 2011 and should have been nominated for an Oscar—terrific story, treatment of central character, tone, and message.
Re: Netflix, what do you think of their recent debacles of raising their rates
so drastically, then the ill fated and reversed decision to split into streaming
and DVD companies alone? Without such a service I would have never discovered
you nor your work. In that way I think Netflix is utterly invaluable. What is
the future of streaming films? Is more content gonna get out, for less? Is that
good or bad for filmmakers like you? Comments on these matters?
RG: My comments and $2.25 will get you on the subway. I’ll spare you.
Part of the reason Netflix decided to raise their rates was because of studios
wanting to be able to eventually stream their own films, but this seems absurd
to me because no one feels a brand loyalty to a studio the way they do to an
actor or actress, or a film director. Who will pay for only Sony or Disney
films? Plus, this would destroy the very desire of people to want to sample a
variety of new things on Netflix. If one has to pay per item, then people like
you will be screwed over by the big studios yet again. What are your thoughts on
RG: My comments and $2.25 will get you on the subway. I’ll spare you.
This, in fact, is why I think the studios want to destroy Netflix, and also
things like Hulu, because, just as with cable tv, they want to be able to force
people to pay for crap they don’t want with bundling, rather than let the free
market play out and allow bad channels and shows to fall away. After all, if
I’m a science guy and only want three or four nature or science or history
channels, and no sports, porno, nor cooking and shopping networks, why can’t I
have that? Netflix operates on that model of choice and sampling. Do you think
that this is the ultimate goal of the Hollywood studios and television networks,
to monopolize and deaden the minds of its viewers, to turn them into zombie
RG: The ultimate goal of everyone involved here is to make money and more money, and to extend reach. There’s no conspiracy to deaden minds—that’s been done far too effectively by the “free market” and needed no conscious coordinated effort.
Let me turn The Most Dangerous Man In America. First, I mention
that I did not know much of Ellsberg, other than this guy helped toppled Nixon.
What drew you to him. I realize he appeared in the Seldes film, but to do a
whole documentary on him. What new info does the film present that was
RG: Well, the entire internal story, as told by Ellsberg and others—we had more than 20 on-camera subjects, all first-person actors in the story (no “experts”), and the White House tapes—was never done before. But let me point out one thing that popped out—we did not consciously do this-- while we were busy editing: there appeared in our film a “contagion of conscience” that involved most of our characters. Randy Kehler, a draft resister gave a speech at a small conference that he was going to prison to protest the Vietnam war. Ellsberg heard Kehler and said “what can I do, now that I’m ready to go to prison?” Tony Russo was called to testify against Ellsberg, refused, and went to jail; Dan’s wife and son faced decisions that would likely involve Ellsberg going to prison for the rest of his life. Hedrick Smith, Max Frankel, and Jim Goodale of the NYTimes faced the prospect of going to prison for publishing (and/or the demise of the Times as an institution). Congressman McCloskey and Senator Gravel, the same. Egil Krogh and John Dean (from the other side) faced prison time depending on how they acted in the wake of Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers actions. And on and on. They all voiced this moral dilemma when on camera in our film. Pretty amazing, eh, what happens when one person takes a stand? (And, of course, President Nixon’s reaction to Ellsberg was his political undoing and changed history.)
My dad was a working class, union man and liberal. Ellsberg was more of an
elitist liberal sort. Yet, my dad loved Ellsberg’s taking down of Nixon, as he
hated both Nixon and LBJ. Nixon is understandable, but LBJ’s ‘crime,’
against liberalism, seems to be solely with the Vietnam war. Had he not
escalated that war, and stuck with social agendas, how do you think history
would differ, and how do you think history would view him?
RG: A big question, I can’t do it justice. Cleary LBJ was courageous and brilliant on civil rights, and criminally deceitful in re: Vietnam. Again, a bundle of contradictions.
The film seems to imply the Gulf Of Tonkin incident was a 100% fabrication. Do
you believe that, and, I’ll admit, I only read, decades ago, a paperback
condensation of them, and this while young. What do the papers say about Tonkin
RG: There was an attack on a US ship (fact). It was undoubtedly provoked by the US actions, likely purposely. There was no second attack (fact, as we say in the film). There was intentional deception of Congress and the American people around this (fact that came out later, but Ellsberg and others knew it at the time.) The incident was used as justification for convincing Congress that LBJ should be authorized unconditionally to attack N. Vietnam (though not a declared war), much like the (phantom) WMDs were used by Bush. I don’t think there is much debate, now, about this history.
worked for the Rand Corporation- a think tank. Yet, the film, rightly, I think,
shows the utter silliness of such think tanks. Yet, these, and corporations,
dominate politics, not the people. If Bank of America or Walmart or Google want
something, they get it, via lobbyists and/or think tanks they fund to the max.
Ellsberg was there at the beginning of the think tank mindset. What are his and
your views on them? Are they net positives, negatives, or washes?
RG: I don’t think our film “shows the utter silliness of think tanks.” Great minds work at think tanks. As a concept, they serve a purpose. Most think tanks, maybe all, have a political leaning (yes, often because of who funds them), and their “thinking” tends to reflect that leaning, much as the individuals involved would like to think they are independent thinkers.
DS: To quote my film
Ellsberg and a
Rand Corporation co-worker, Anthony Russo, who photocopied the documents, stood
trial for espionage, yet were both let go after a mistrial was declared. What is
odd is how, decades later, there are still people who declare Ellsberg a
traitor, and guilty of treason, when any objective glare at the facts reveals it
was all the Presidents, from Truman through Nixon, who were guilty of- if not
outright treason, then being traitors to the best interests of the nation, due
to their own macho impulses over not wanting to ‘lose’ Indochina to
Communism, which they did, then regained bloodlessly, making the whole of the
wars in that region one of humanity’s greatest losses of life, time, materiel,
and human dignity. And Ellsberg exposed all that, yet it still took four years
for the war in Vietnam to end; a testament to the utter sloth of the American
public who, decades later, would not turn on the Iraq War, after its premise was
utterly rent. Ironically, it was on the strength of the so-called Pumpkin Papers
of Alger Hiss that Richard Nixon’s rose to power, so it was fitting that his
own demise came via The Pentagon Papers, and his own psychoses.
There are several points I want to address. First, the whole concept of
treason and being a traitor. Nothing that Ellsberg did, as far as I know, or the
film shows, could legally be called treason. As stated, he showed possible
treason (i.e.- the reckless and casual disregard and endangerment of the lives
of military men) by five Presidents- two Republicans and three Democrats. How do
you reconcile this oddity? Clearly, Ellsberg was the white hat in this morality
play, and Nixon, of all the Presidents, was Black Bart. And, do you view Nixon
as evil, or fatally flawed, or a decent guy with absolutely no self esteem (what
one would call the Oliver Stone take on Nixon)?
RG: Too big a subject to tackle here. Suffice it to say Nixon was a “bad guy” and in his resignation in the face of impeachment, he got what he deserved.
DS: Second, what
do you think it took so long, after the release of the Pentagon papers, for the
war to end? Is it inertia, a will to be deceived, even when shown one is lied
to, ala Bush and the lack of WMDs in Iraq.
RG: Look at history and two-and-a-half centuries since the so-called “French and Indian Wars” in the mid-1700s, America has not gone a generation without a) someone in power proposing that we consider going to war, and b) the nation saying “yes” to that war, and c) opponents of those wars being called traitors. Many of those wars the United States won, none did we lose. Vietnam stood to be the first. What is more remarkable than the war lasting so long after the Pentagon Papers is the fact that there was, finally, enough opposition to the war in this country to end it.
DS: Lastly, do
you think there was any karma to Nixon’s being undone by ‘P’ Papers, since
his own rise onto the national stage was coordinated by the fraud of an earlier
set of ‘P’ Papers?
RG: Mmm, a stretch, I think.
DS: You film
lacks the razzle and dazzle of some other docs, but it seems to have a
relentless focus. Was this your idea, or a natural consequence of Ellsberg as
the subject? And why did you make Ellsberg the narrator? Some would claim this
descends the film into agitprop.
RG: This was the subject of great internal debate among our team. The argument against Ellsberg as narrator was the possible loss of credibility or believability. The arguments in favor were that he was uniquely at the center of all these events and inside the halls of power, that the film was about his decision-making and his conscience rather than the “facts” of the events, and that his voice gave the film both an urgency and an intimacy we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
What is your ultimate filmic goal? Do you want to continue with documentaries? I
think there is a HUGE market for adult films, fictive or not, that Hollywood
wholly ignores for the latest puerile video game as film, and that this market
is underserved. The elderly are growing and are more affluent than teenagers,
and more likely to look for films that play in theaters than Netflix. Ideas?
RG: I’m comfortable with, and good at, the documentary genre. But if I had any guts, I’d take a risk and go to fiction. As one of my daughters has constantly asked me, for the past decade or so, “Hey, dad, when are you going to make a real film?”
Let me just digress on your filmic output so far vs. other documentary makers.
Having watched, now, numerous documentaries, it’s clear that most are done by
folks who lack the fiscal resources of an Errol Morris or Michael Moore,
therefore their output is spare. Some even have a hit at Sundance, Toronto, or
SXSW (in my local Austin area), but then go a decade before another film is
released. Most of this is due to limited finances. How do you finance your
films? Have you ever thought of moving into producing other filmmakers’
projects? Is this alleviated by working with New Day?
RG: I feel fortunate that for the past twenty years or so, I’ve made a living (such as it is, enuf to put food on the table and raise a family) by staying inside the documentary community. That includes editing and writing other filmmakers’ films, which I’ve done intermittently and between my own projects.
DS: Let me now turn more basic. How do you define your job, as a documentarian or filmmaker?
RG: Good question. Both, I guess.
DS: Did you have
any heroes in filmmaking or screenwriting (or any other form of writing) as you
grew up? If so, who and why? And how did you gravitate to the more journalistic
pursuit of documentaries?
RG: My filmmaking heroes and role models growing up and in my formative filmmaking years (I got into this business when I was 28) were all from the narrative side: Chaplin, Hitchcock, Capra, Kazan, Costa-Gavras, de Sica, Lumet, Woody Allen, Coppola.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
RG: I grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island, a suburb of NYC. My mom was a music teacher of violin, viola and guitar, and a folk singer of some local renown. She sang international folk songs in the 1960s, inspired by the likes of The Weavers, Theodore Bikel, Miriam Makeba, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan (loved his songs, hated his singing). She was my first guitar teacher. More importantly, her daily life infused me with the notion that art, music and culture were as important and essential to anyone’s well-being (and society’s) as air, food and shelter. My dad (also a musician by avocation) was an electrical engineer whose work was in guidance systems used in both the space programs and the military. Not surprisingly, there was a certain tension in my household during my teens as the Vietnam War approached its peak (circa 1968)—my mom was the first one in my household to oppose the war, while my dad’s firm had military contracts. Nonetheless, everyone in my immediate family—my older brother and I, both away at college at the time, and both my parents—ended up in the nation’s capital in November, 1969 with a million other Americans, protesting the war (singing, with Pete Seeger “All we are saying, is give peace a chance”). My parents were supportive of my switch from Ivy League academics (Brown University) to more creative pursuits (I was a budding architect and designer at RISD), and while they were against my dropping out of school in 1972, they supported my decision once I made it. My mom, at 88, continues to be my biggest fan, and unceasingly gets her friends from around the country to see my films.
spoken of truth and its need in documentaries, whether or not you are in
political sympathy with him or not, this inevitably brings up the top
financially successful documentary maker of our time, Michael Moore. What is
your take on him? My opinion is that he is a brilliant technician, but he wastes
his time pandering to the liberal choir rather than, like Errol Morris, seeking
out a broader audience. Thus, I think time will consign his work to a ghetto,
like that of Leni Riefenstahl, whereas Morris will be seen as one of the greats
in documentaries. Agree or not, and why?
RG: Michael Moore hardly speaks only to the choir. $120 million in Box Office for Farenheit 911 debunks that notion, and he has the broadest audience by far of any documentary filmmaker in the world.
DS: Art speaking a truth is fundamentally different from its being a truth. Looking at the root of the word art, after all, shows it derives from the same place as artifice. Therefore, art can NEVER be truth, only an instrument that CAN get at a truth. But, it can also illumine aspects of existence utterly disconnected to truth, like emotions, bad ideas, politics, etc. Do you also find the ‘art is truth’ equation laughable and silly?
RG: Art is at its best, I think, when it uses the tools of the artist—beauty, form, insight, creativity, music, poetry, prose, passion—to move people in ways that mere factual or prosaic approaches cannot do. I prefer art that uses “truth” or “essential truths” to art that is propagandistic, because I think most propaganda is based, at least in part, on falsehoods or the bending or stretching of the truth, and I think most propagandists know that. But I still appreciate propaganda, which is often artful. If you’re using propaganda to move people in a certain direction, there can be value in that. And the line between truth and propaganda isn’t always clear—sometimes it’s just a question of point of view. Artists of whatever stripe, have passion, and strong points of view, and have something to say. They’re pushing boundaries and trying to influence. They’re not NY Times reporters following Elements of Style and rulebooks. Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras, Vittoria de Sica, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag, Alice Walker, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Miller, Lenny Bruce, Paul Robeson, Charlie Chaplin, Martin Ritt, Spike Lee, John Lennon, Gil Scott-Heron, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Richard Pryor just to name a few, are all political artists who have influenced me and whom I admire. I think they all have pushed their visions of what the world is and what the world COULD be. They’ve all been “truthful” in that they all, IMHO, have a valid perspective
DS: Following in
that claim, as a documentarian, are you even interested in ‘truth,’ as a
concept, or is your concern more multivalent- to affect mind, heart, eyes, ears,
etc.? And, if so, what are the pros and cons of this approach vis-à-vis the
more blatantly promotional sort of ‘documentaries’ a Michael Moore does?
My style is one in which I have rigid standards of “objective fact”
if you will, in what I use as the pillars, the foundation, of my documentaries
(and then I build my story, my arguments or implied arguments, or food for
thought, around those pillars). I
just feel that if I’m going to influence, stimulate thought and discussion,
and inspire, that I need to be able to defend—to myself, and hence to
others—every choice I make in the edit room.
What that means is that if I imply cause and effect by my juxtaposition
of shots/scenes, or my choice of a sound-bite, and certainly, by any narration I
write or use—then I stand by that cause-and-effect implication as an
unassailable fact or truth. For
me—and I don’t take a holier-than-thou position on this—it is both the
most honest AND most effective way I can make films.
DS: Do you
believe any critic or filmgoer owes it to the artist to take into account
anything that does not belong on the screen, page, or between a frame? If so,
does that not necessarily bastardize the standalone work of art? As example, if
someone points out what you left out of your Seldes or Ellsberg films, as a
possible distortion of a greater reality, is that fair?
RG: “What is left out” is an interesting discussion, both in the edit room and in public. In both Seldes and Ellsberg, of course there were many things “left out.” Here are my guidelines: Like any good novelist, playwright, screenwriter or film director, you pick your STORY, composed of a plotline and a theme. “Capote” wasn’t the life of Truman Capote, it was a story built around one short (5-year?) period in his life. Tell the Truth and Run was a story built around censorship and suppression in the press. At Most Dangerous Man’s core was the internal story of Ellsberg and his decision to leak the Pentagon Papers laid on top of the related journalistic and political ramifications of his act. So every decision made in the edit room, of what to put in or leave out, has to be filtered thru the question, “does this enhance the story?” That question might further mean, “does this make the story, the dilemmas, the audience’s vision of what is right or wrong, more complex, richer, more interesting, more thought-provoking?” or “does this distract from the main theme and plot-line and muddy the waters?” Be clear, every documentary film is a manipulation of the audience, but no more so than a well-written and constructed non-fiction book or biography. The most highly-regarded works—film, literature, theater, music, fiction, non-fiction, whatever—are highly-regarded because they pull the audience, reader or listener thru a story that is coherent and powerful, and hence it affects that audience profoundly. Especially in film, where you have two hours or less to grab your audience and wow them, you stick to a through-line, at the same time you are stringing together your most powerful material.
DS: Let me ask you of something I see as deleterious to both the appreciation of film, and the purveying of good criticism, and that’s what I call ‘critical cribbing.’ It happens especially online, but started long before that, in print. This is when claims- pro or con- about a film, or serious errors, are propounded again and again. If a Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert said A, B, or C about Film X, then the same ideas, with the slightest variations, are propounded on hundreds of blogs and newspapers. I think about the misinformation in films, such as when I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup; and the same nonsense about the characters having names cropped up, but there were none in the film. A similar thing re: the characters being called by letters occurred in Last Year In Marienbad; but that, too, was false. This tells me the review is a phone-in, and I’ve seen similar things occur in reviews of books and poets. I posit that most critics, in whatever field, truly do not engage the art they review. They watch or read part of it, justify presuppositions and biases, and, once an artist or film gets a reputation, they never waver from it. If you troll about online, you will find very little variance in the ‘meme’ that gets attached to any film or director. The point of view- negative or positive, may be differing, but the take, often flawed, is always the same for each critic. Do you agree that this lack of attention to their own craft is formed by biases? Have you ever felt a work of yours was unfairly maligned, not just by a single critic, but especially so by the repetition of the wrong meme by critics who lazily ‘picked up’ on the initial critics’ misread?
RG: Our very first review for Most Dangerous Man was by David Denby in The New Yorker. Can you believe that? The day it appeared, I got calls and emails from friends, colleagues and relatives from all over the country—The New Yorker! You? Wow! It was, by and large, a positive review, but it called some of our animation, or maybe it was the re-creations, “cheesy.” I still stand by both the animation and the re-creations, they provided an important role in the film, were well done, and we’ve had many, many compliments on both. But if I had a dollar for every time “cheesy” re-appeared in subsequent reviews, I could fund my next film. (Jon Stewart could string all the “cheesys” together and get a few laughs, like he does with the Republican/Fox News catchphrases of the day.) It’s unfortunate, but it goes with the territory. In general, I’m happy to get reviewed, and the more the merrier, and what they say is what they say. You can’t have a thin skin around reviews, it’ll kill you, or worse, stop you from making movies.
Let me speak of editing. How much footage do you shoot for films before editing
them down to a final length- in terms of hours and minutes? How
does a feature fiction film differ from a documentary?
I start with an idea for a story, and shoot as much as I have to in order
to tell the story. Hopefully, the
original idea gets altered, bent, detoured, enhanced and hit with surprises on
the way. For Tell the Truth I think
I shot maybe 25-30 hours of interviews for a 111-minute film. For Most Dangerous Man we shot more than twice that (for a
90-minute film), and had probably 100 hours of archival material at our disposal
as well. For Everyday Heroes, which
was “a year in the life,” and hence we weren’t shooting to a story or
script, but were capturing everything to make
the story, we shot over 300 hours of footage for what ended up to be a two-hour
film, and later re-cut a one-hour version.
And by the way, you never “edit down” from all that material.
Rather, you pick the candidate material for an assembly and go from
there. My first assembly for Most
Dangerous Man was six hours.
How often do you strive to get a narration and an image consonant with each
other? Or do you seek to have them, more or less, play off of each other?
RG: Writing narration for documentary is an art in and of itself. I learned from Sharon Wood, one of the best, who wrote most of Tell the Truth and Run. It’s a back and forth thing. You cut to story, write narration to the pictures of your cut, then re-cut, re-write, etc. Never write anything that is not supported by what you see on screen, IOW don’t have the words and the images at odds with each other, or try to “tell” with words while your picture is pulling the audience elsewhere. Be economical and succinct, never flowery. Use “but” a lot—you want the film to turn, turn, and turn again, rather than “and, and, and” which gets boring in a hurry.
DS: As an editor
on others’ films, do you usually get assigned routine cuts, or are you allowed
to improvise, suggest? How is your approach different on a work for hire than a
film you conceive?
RG: You use the same approach on someone else’s work as on your own. The difference is that you need to get “in sync” with the director, with another person. My best situations, sitting in either chair, is a collaboration where each person is free to create, argue, defend, enhance.
DS: Let me ask a
few queries that I ask almost all my interviewees; because this is a series, and
the parallax of replies is of interest to me and my readers. I started
this interview series to combat the aforementioned dumbing down of culture and
discourse- what I call deliteracy, both in the media, and online,
where blogs and websites refuse to post paragraphs with more than three
sentences in it, or refuse to post anything over a thousand words long. Old tv
show hosts like Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, Tom Snyder, even Bill
Buckley- love him or hate him, have gone the way of the dinosaur. Intellect has
been killed by emotionalism, simply because the latter is far easier to claim
without dialectic. Only Charlie
Rose, as a big name interviewer, is left on PBS, but near midnight. Let me
ask, what do you think has happened to real discussion in America- not only in
public- political or elsewise, but just person to person? And, even in a small
way, do you think films like yours help to counteract such willful ignorance?
RG: Good question. We’ve degenerated in America, I think, in two ways: 1) the advance of TV, commercials, MTV and now the internet has made attention spans shorter and shorter, and, in general, the culture less interested in discussion and complexity. 2) Most recently, there has been the rise, on the right, of disingenuous and dishonest “political discourse”—and I’m talking Limbaugh, Fox TV, the Tea Party, Religious Right, and every prominent Republican in both houses of Congress—so that lies are presented as fact, facts are attacked as deceptions, science is derided and dismissed, learning is denigrated, history is distorted beyond recognition, all in the service of a political agenda—and a dangerous one at that. It is commonly referred to as a problem of “both the right and the left” or “both sides of the aisle”, but in fact it there is no “equivalence,” and it is really almost solely coming from the right.
I like to think (back to a previous Q&A, above) that my films are grounded in fact and history, and that my “value added,” what I bring to the table, is a stimulating narrative based on that foundation—for ALL audiences, and especially for young (under thirty) audiences. Because without discussion throughout our society, and across class, racial, sexual and ideological lines, we’re dead as a culture and as a democracy.
DS: A few less
intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history you’d like to
break bread with, and why?
RG: Shakespeare—let’s discuss your approach to art, drama, conflict, themes. Damn, man, how do you do that????
The Polynesians from hundreds of years ago—how and why did you set out in boats to lands hundreds and thousands of miles away? How did you find Hawaii, in the middle of the ocean, and how did you even know it was there? What was it like on your boats, months on the water without decent food and limited fresh water?
Lewis and Clark, and the Indians he met. Let me understand this whole clash of cultures thing, manifest destiny and all. Don’t you guys see that genocide is in your future?
Jefferson and Madison—Give me the skinny on how this Declaration and Constitution really came about, because these are amazing documents. But I’ve got to ask you about this whole 3/5 thing, the property, the slavery. I know you were going for political compromise, but, slavery? Please. C’mon guys, give, what is that?
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