Interview: Oscar Winner Morgan Neville Talks BEST OF ENEMIES And More
Chatting with Oscar winning documentarian Morgan Neville makes one believe that the guy could probably tell just about any story and make you want to be a part of it. With decades of experience covering a wide range of topics, mostly popular culture, his films manage to be both highly informative while entertaining to the casual filmgoer. It's a skill that's rarely pulled off so well, and whether it's his impressive record as a producer or the films he's done solo or in collaboration he's truly one of the modern masters of nonfiction cinema.
His latest work is a real treat, delving into the intellectual pugilism of the Vidal/Buckley debates in the late 60s. Along with Robert Gordon, Neville manages to situate the circumstances like a prize fight, with each participant jabbing at one another in blows that continue to resonate in the contemporary political sphere.
During last Spring's HotDocs ScreenAnarchy spoke with Neville about his most recent work and general career, delving deeply into what shapes his films, how success has affected his work, and what he things about the current state of documentary filmmaking.
When was the first time you became aware of this titanic debate between left and right?
I actually don't know. I was dimly aware that this had happened at some point, and then when I really became aware of it was when Robert Gordon, my co-director and old friend, called me and said I have a bootleg copy of these debates, do you want to see them? And I said yeah, so he sent them to me.
I love that this is your porn.
[Laughs[ Yeah! This film was such a labor of love, which is such an odd labor of love. Labor of loves, those documentaries tend to be not about things like political debate.
I started in political journalism; my first job was fact checking for Gore in (left-wing magazine) The Nation magazine. I've always been interested but never made documentaries about that. This film is that it's not about politics - it's about culture, media, and cultural politics. It's not about the argument; it's about how we argue. It's trying to have a bigger, meta-discussion about debate. That's something I'm totally fascinated by.
As a filmmaker you want great stories and you want great characters and this one had them both.
So, whatever your political stripe is....
I worked at The Nation, you can probably guess.
Fair enough. But as a fact checker you're delving in and finding out the nuts and bolts of a given argument, taking apart things you may agree with. That's obviously served you well in your documentaries
Yeah. Just out of college I went to The Nation and Gore was writing essays for them and they assigned me to be his fact checker. This was before the Internet - he was in Ravello, Italy at the time and he would quote from memory. He would write these essays that had all of these facts, and they were very accurate, they just weren't 100% accurate. You just miss tiny little things. I would call him on the phone and say "Mr. Vidal, paragraph 3, this actually should be this." He hated, hated being contradicted. It was actually a terrible job. He was kind of notorious for being a difficult person to fact check for that reason.
It's just mind boggling to think that you went from basically checking his work to eventually doing a definitive documentary about him.
Well, I don't know if it's definitive.
I sure seems definitive.
Well, Gore had such a huge life, as did Buckley. As we were making the film we had to keep reminding ourselves, this is not the biography of Buckley or of Vidal, it's the biography of their relationship, or the Venn diagram of all of the parts of their lives that influenced that connection. There were parts of both their lives that we excluded because it didn't inform their relationship at all, and these debates.
What I mean by definitive is that if we are going to hold up one talisman that actually defines them, it is both as an intellectual titan and an antagonist. This is what this film does, it shows directly both the confrontation and the incredible elucidation of his point of view. Plus, you've done it like a boxing documentary.
I love that. I've only made one or two other films like this, where you take a very small story and through that small story, you get to talk about much bigger issues. I have to say, that's all I want to do now, though the next two documentaries I'm doing are not like that.
I just love having a tight story like that. It gives you the opportunity to tell what the meat of the story is without having to deal with the potatoes. You don't have to deal with where or when they were born or who their father was. There's a whole bunch of stuff that I just never want to do in a biographical documentary again.
Could you talk about other films where it wasn't so specific, where you had a much more general canvas to draw upon within the constraints of the theatrical documentary?
20 Feel From Stardom . That documentary started as "hey, why don't you make a film about backup singers?" What's the story? Who are the characters? No idea. We had to find it. And it wasn't easy. I interviewed 80 backup singers to wind up with 5 characters. It took a year of editing. That was hard.
Is it always done after the fact? Are you a filmmaker that captures as much as possible, and then in the editing room, finds the story?
You always find the story in the edit room, but I am a big believer of shoot while you edit. So, we shot a bunch and then we started editing, and then I shot the entire edit. I shot my last interview for 20 feet ten days before we hit picture lock.
So you're able to see the pieces that you're missing.
Yeah. And that was partly because of Bruce Springsteen too, because it took him forever to agree to do an interview.
...and that opens the film.
I know! We used to have someone else making those points and I was like, no, Bruce is better.
Can you say who that someone else is?
I think it was actually two different people making points. It was just not nearly as good.
In fairness, Bruce is pretty good. Was BEST OF ENEMIES a similar kind of thing with you finding the story while proceeding?
On this we had a much clearer idea of what the story was because we had to apply for grants. The structure we kind of laid out early on, with the idea that it's structured like a prize fight. We didn't know exactly what those scenes would be, but we had a pretty clear idea of the structure and knowing that there was this big blowup and penultimate debate, we knew we had this kind of end of act II completion.
You have the core historical story and then you're using the other interviews to actually fill it in as opposed to for 20 FEET where you had this diffuse storyline, singing, and then had to nail it down, is that kind of the contrast?
this gets very complicated, but with the structure of 20 Feet we had to create a meta-character so there's a 3 act structure around a backup singer's journey - finding your way into the industry, people realizing you're great, and giving you opportunities to go out solo on your own, and what happens when that doesn't happen and you coming to terms with that.
So instead of it just being Claudia, or Darlene, each plays a role in the larger journey?
All of them dovetail in different ways and you don't necessarily have to visit every character at every point in that journey because other characters fill that in. It's funny because people are like oh, 20 Feet , it's so smooth, it's easy. It's actually a very complicated structure and finding characters that also not only fit that way but that came from different generations, so you can a chronological progression, superimposed on top of the character progression and that they sang on great songs and were great characters themselves, and that they made different decisions about the opportunities and failures that they had.
It was tough to do that.
When I first talked to you about 20 FEET I suggested that the film STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN was a touchstone film paving the way for films like yours, and you disagreed quite strongly. What was I missing?
I think you are putting too much into it. I don't remember what year Standing in the Shadows came out - 2002? I had started by making documentaries about producers and songwriters before that film came out. I did a Sam Phillips documentary in 2000, I did a Lieber and Stoller documentary as well. I was always interested in the people behind the stars because in a way stars' stories become about the music.
My mentor, as much as I ever had, was a guy named Peter Guralnick who was a music writer. He wrote this two volume book on Elvis, Last Train to Memphis. Peter had been writing about music forever and said to me very early on "the three least interesting things in writing about musicians is stories of sex, drugs, and getting screwed over by your record label, because everybody has the same stories." That stuck with me. That is VH1 Behind the Music-type doc - we're just going to tell those stories over and over again. Change the names. What's interesting is the other stuff, what makes these people unique = Where did they come from? Where are they going?
Songwriters and producers are always fascinating. What's interesting and challenging about backup singers is that they had less authorship of the music. That songwriters and producers, producers, Phil Spector's, Sam Phillip's the whoever, their name was the one that was more important than the Ronettes or whoever else and songwriters are the real authors of the songs. There were a number of times in doing 20 Feet when somebody had sung on a great song and they'd say, oh yeah, I only did 3 sessions, I don't really remember. And OK, that's a good story. They didn't have the same connection to a song as the producers and writers. The film becomes about that dissociation from having any power in the creation of the music and only having power in their own voice, in their own contribution.
Certainly, from my own personal journey, that was the first time I had ever really seen
the notion that within this musical DNA, you had these artists that contributed to all of these songs. I knew of James Jamerson, but it was my introduction to that. This I think, I've spoken to so many people that sort of knew Darlene Love but had never heard of Claudia, had never heard of, certainly looking at what Lisa's doing now.
And she's going out with the Stones again in like a month. I'm going to go see them. And I've been working on another film, it's a whole other thing, about Keith Richards.
Oh my! How's that going?
It's awesome. It's been super fun.
That brings up another thing - Is it easier to deal with people who are long dead when you're telling their story?
Yes. There's an old phrase, "the deader the better", and you couldn't have made this film when Buckley as alive, certainly not like we did.
For Buckley, this was such a stain on his reputation, that he never would have talked about it. Christopher Buckley wouldn't talk to us about it. And I think he would have dissuaded people around him from talking about it. The fact that he was gone meant that I interviewed two of his brothers, one was his assistant and his researcher and maybe I would have gotten them all. I feel like this is a film that only would have happened with Buckley not around.
Gore we interviewed for this film - it's one of the first interviews that we did, it was such a bizarre experience. We went to his house in the Hollywood Hills, he moved back at the end of his life, and they brought him in. He was in a wheelchair at the time and in chronic pain and very cranky. We did this long, long interview with him, during which he accused us of being Buckleyites and he kind of wouldn't give us good answers, just say "oh, I don't want to talk about that", or give us fragments of answers. It was the worst deposition you could ever do and he just assumed, because we tried to pick apart what happened in the debates, he kept feeling like we were speaking for Buckley, when in fact, we were just trying to get at what was there.
We finished this long interview and we're all kind of shell shocked and he's kind of left the room. His servant comes in and says would you like to have drinks with Mr. Vidal and we all think, yes, we need a drink and yes, we should do this. So he leads us upstairs and we assume that we're going to go into a salon or den or something and instead, he takes us into Gore's bedroom. Gore's in bed and he says "sit down," and there are no chairs in there. So we all sit on Gore's bed and he brings in cocktails and we sat there for like two hours. Without the camera and everything he was more comfortable I guess and with the cocktail, more relaxed, and started to really see what we were going after. But Gore couldn't say anything other than just the most dismissive things about Buckley, which just weren't helpful. Ultimately, we played with even using some of that stuff but not having Buckley speak for himself and having Gore speak for himself just didn't feel right, so we didn't use it.
Given that intoxication helped him open up, are you finding is it sometimes better that they're their element, especially when you're dealing with musicians, and other people who do have some substance issues? Have you been in interview positions that you are getting things that are incoherent but great for the film, but decide not to use it?
No, and I, I don't know that Gore was on anything when we interviewed him. But the loosening up, certainly.
I think it's great when an interviewee has a glass of wine before we interview them, I think it's bad if they have a bottle of wine before the interview. Going on camera, for most humans, is not a natural thing and it's part of that process of working with somebody long enough that they lose their self-consciousness. Occasionally you'll come across people who are exactly the same person when the camera's on or the camera's off without any kind of ramping up.
Have you had to do a formal reshoot? Have you ever done an interview, cut it into the film, and thought, these points are good, but I want these people to tell these stories again in a more clear, coherent way now that I've seen the edit?
I've definitely gone back and interviewed people a number of times. In fact in 20 Feet, I went back and interviewed Sting twice.
What was the difference?
The first time I interviewed him, I kind of did it with a couple of singers there, so it was a kind of conversation and it just became one of those things where he was saying, oh, they're great, and of course, they're there and so he's just kind of being, "aw shucks."
For him to be speaking about backup singers in the presence of backup singers means he's only going to speak a certain way and it wasn't useful. I called him and said can I have another interview and they gave it to me and then he was much better. I've reshot interviews a number of times, sometimes I just need to get deeper into something, sometimes. I've had people call me and say I want to do an interview again - Burt Bacharach did that with me once, Gerry Goffin the songwriter did that with me once. It's ok, I want you to feel like you came off the best and I'm always happy to shoot more if you feel like you have something more to add to it that would be better.
Somebody calls you up and says I don't want you to use that, do you ever use it?
The only time that's really happened was Lieber and Stoller. That they talked a fair amount about the mob and the music industry and one of their labels was taken over by the mob, Red Bird Records. I love that stuff. They were worried and I felt like way too much time had passed and they should not be worried, but it's hard to tell somebody you shouldn't be worried that the mob's going to come kill you, and so I did temper some of what they said for their safety for their peace of mind, if nothing else.
On this other project I'm doing right now, somebody's talking about some things that could actually endanger them. It's this film I've been working on with YoYo Ma, the Silk Road project, but it's about a group of musicians - YoYo's one of them, but there's a Syrian musician, an Iranian musician, and one of them fled Assad and one of them was arrested last time he was home and his family's back there. I said to both of them, I don't want you to censor yourself. I'd rather have you say it and then we can discuss if there's something you're uncomfortable with.They're letting me in and I don't want them to be filtering that at the beginning, I'd rather us be able to have a discussion afterwards.
Do you find you get over that, I mean everybody's going to be self-censoring, everybody's going to be worried about how they look. What's unique about your dynamic is that you've made a career out of interviewing superstars who are so used to being in front of the camera, so used to being not only open but guarded, if that makes any sense, or the appearance of openness, getting through that, getting around that must be your biggest challenge and also your biggest skill.
They're all different - Some people come off completely authentic and they are authentic, sometimes people come off authentic and that's their schtick to appear authentic. My big thing is it's all just about having conversations - All of this stuff that I see people do, where you repeat the answer and repeat the question in your answer and the stuff that I see filmmakers do, I hate all of that stuff. I never want to say action, I just want it to be just like we're just rambling on a talking and I feel like good interviewers do that and you just follow questions.
It's the difference between Terry Gross or somebody who does a good interview and somebody like the guy who does Inside the Actors' Studio, James Lipton. He's got these cards and he's like "ok, you graduated college, you went to Yale drama school." And the answer is "yeah, I had a teacher there who just gave me the best advice anybody ever gave me." And he's continues, "and then you went to..." and I'm wondering where's the follow up question? What was the advice?! I just can't watch it because it's an interrogation, it's not a conversation.
These people have been interviewed a million times - you're not just talking about the same thing, or you're approaching the same thing, but from a different angle. People tend to be just telling stories because they're used to telling the story that way rather than actually thinking about or remembering the thing they're telling the story about. They're telling it by rote. That's why sometimes asking very detailed questions like what were you wearing or something, because they'll actually have to think about the event that they're trying to tell a story about.
Are there documentaries you still watch that still energize you by other people?
I watched something like 110 documentaries last year. I mean, you probably watched more, but for me, that's a lot. I love films likeRoom 237 or Let the Fire Burn - those are some of my favourite docs of the last couple of years. I loved The Act of Killing. I also love really well made films in my genre - I don't know what documentary genre that is. I'd say culture docs - I'm a culture doc guy.
Finding the story within the story of something that we take in on one level but might not necessarily understand the stories behind that level, in other words, we might appreciate the music but not understand what's underscoring it
Even in politics, or this YoYo Ma film I'm doing, it's all about culture. It's about the idea that culture matters and how it's interesting. I'm somebody who's made a lot of music films but I've also made films about art, about literature and truly cultural subjects. Often they're kind of discounted because they're tough to get funding for. The things that get the most funding are harder issues and culture is soft influence, it's soft power and that translates all the way into the funding of documentaries.
It's less measurable, yet to me, culture isn't the frosting on the cake, it's the plate the cake sits on. Culture is fundamental to who we are as people. When I started in political journalism at The Nation, that stuff's all very important, but to me, those were all just arguments. What I personally cared about was stuff I did when I left work - what did I want to read, what did I want to talk about, all of that kind of cultural stuff.
That's why I'm an evangelist for David Simon's TREME - I adore THE WIRE, but his deep exploration of culture that mashes documentary and fiction is so intoxicating. I'm still hoping for more people to clue into this fact
It gets critiqued for the reason it's too soft, not enough story. But I love the way they use music in Treme.
And those films that drive you crazy?
The kind of docs that I don't like are the whole Harvard, sensory ethnography stuff,
Oh, fuck, I hate LEVIATHAN so much,
...and Leviathan's better than some of the other ones.
To me it's like the Emperor's new clothes. I'm not a fan.
I feel like their wilful dismissal of the need for context or story is treated like a badge of honour when to me it's completely wrong-headed. They even they have this kind of manifesto on their website - it's kind of anti-journalistic and I'm a journalist at heart. I believe in understanding context and all of this stuff.