Directors Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus‘ doc “Al Franken: God Spoke” turns the lens on political commentator and author Al Franken on the heels of his highly publicized feud with Fox news channel’s conservative anchor Bill O’Reilly over Franken’s book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” Featuring Ann Coulter, Franni Franken, Sean Hannity, Henry Kissinger, Katherine Lanpher, Michael Moore, O’Reilly and more, the film captures the often hilarious and serious side of Franken, a former “Saturday Night Live” regular, on his efforts to oust George Bush during the 2004 election. Hegedus collaborated with D.A. Pennebaker in the 1994 Oscar-nominated doc “The War Room” and Doob shared an Emmy for “American High” in 2001. Balcony Releasing opened “Al Franken: God Spoke” at the IFC Center in New York Wednesday, and will open in select cities nationwide soon.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
Chris: I have always loved movies but I didn’t think that I could make films when I was growing up because I had not heard of any women filmmakers. In art college, I saw some avant garde films directed by women, most memorably Maya Deren, and I was inspired to pick up a camera and shoot. My first movies were super-8 art films but it was when I first saw some cinema-verite documentary films that I became really excited to be a filmmaker. These were sync-sound 16mm films, without narration, that had characters and stories that unfolded with a dramatic arc, creating the same excitement as a Hollywood film. Sometimes these documentaries were even more compelling because they were about real people. Most importantly, since I didn’t need movie stars I could go out and shoot them myself.
Through the years the adventure of being dropped into different worlds, which I would never have had access to without my camera, and being able to film people when they experience something important in their lives, has remained fascinating to me and also a privilege. This is especially true of our latest film on Al Franken.
Nick: When I was a kid I loved taking still photographs of things that seemed important to me, and in high school I started to take Super 8 movies in a somewhat similar way, shooting real scenes and people and putting them together into movies. Somehow I knew then that this is what I wanted to do in life. I used a projector and tape recorder to edit, splicing with scissors and scotch tape. I loved and was excited by Bergman and Antonioni and Fellini films, but later on in art school, saw Flaherty and Grierson documentaries and eventually Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back” and “Monterery Pop” which opened up a new world of filmmaking for me. A little later a friend who worked at Leacock Pennebaker Films asked me to shoot on Pennebaker’s film about David Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and then I was hooked. That film was called “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
Maybe five years after that, in the late 1970’s, I shot “The Energy Wars,” for Pennebaker, a series of films about the natural gas legislation going through Congress during the Carter administration, which is where I met Chris.
I think what excites me about this kind of filmmaking is the adventure of tapping into real-life dramas and into the lives of remarkable (though not necessarily famous) people. Part of this is about simply being observant and in tune, but it is also about filming what is necessary to tell the story. A good part of it is about luck and timing, being at the right place at the right time.
Can you talk about how the initial idea for this film came about?
We were following the Revered Al Sharpton around for the first six months of his presidential run when someone inside Sharpton’s organization suddenly decided that he should be making the same film. It’s difficult to have two cameras pointing at the same subject so we dropped the project. We were still feeling the campaign bug and looking for another story that would contain the excitement surrounding the upcoming election. We found it with Al Franken. We joke now that we just switched Al’s.
Our producer Rebecca Marshall read an article about Fox News’ plans to sue Al Franken for trademark infringement for using the term “Fair and Balanced” in the title of his new book “Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” Seeing the makings of a hilarious film, she tossed out the idea of an Al Franken film. But when the case was thrown out of court after less than an hour, so was the possibility of a cinema verite film about Al Franken being sued by Fox News. But the publicity generated by Fox News’ failed lawsuit propelled the book to the top of The New York Times best-seller list.
A couple of weeks later when we heard that Al Franken was going on a book tour, we decided to call him up. It turned out that Al was a neighbor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so we asked him over to the office and told him that we were interested in following him around on his book tour. We told Al that we didn’t really know what to expect or where it would lead but Al seemed excited by the idea.
Huge crowds were showing up at his talks, hungry for someone to take on Bush and the Right Wing. The political landscape was heating up, there was anger and confusion about the war in Iraq and Bush’s economic policies, and there was a growing movement against Fox News and the conservative media. Al was being drawn into the role of liberal spokesman, and he was taking the plunge. “Lies and the Lying Liars” was motivating people to take a stand. Democratic presidential candidates began calling asking if he would stump for them. We found ourselves not only once again in the center of a national campaign but with a person who was turning a corner in his life.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, as well as your overall goals for the project?
Technically, instead of the traditional one person with a video camera and another with a sound rig, we each had a Sony PD 170 camera with shotgun and radio microphones–so we functioned as both the camerapersons and sound recordists. Sometimes we worked in tandem, both cameras on the same event, and sometimes we shot independently, one staying with Al, the other with his Republican opponents.
From the beginning we would launch out with Al whenever there was something important or interesting going on. We realized on the first day that this would be an adventure when we went with Al to a Playboy Magazine photo shoot where he dressed up as God (which is part of the beginning of our film)–then to a Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate, where afterwards all candidates came up to solicit Al’s support–and then to a posh fundraising dinner where Al gave a hilarious keynote speech. We knew then we were with the right guy.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the film?
Entree is everything in documentaries, and Al generally provided it for us. During the Republican convention, Newsweek Magazine put on a party and Al was invited. Henry Kissinger was there as well as Newt Gingrich, Alan Keyes, Bill Kristol, Republican convert Ron Silver, William Safire, Senators Ted Stevens, John Warner and Alan Simpson, to name a few.
At the door there was a table of gatekeepers with a guest list. Somehow we breezed by on the coattails of Al’s celebrity. Fifty yards later we met up with a bouncer the size of two Al Frankens. He didn’t believe Al had been invited. “I’m on the list,” Al said with his best disarming smile. “No you’re not,” grinned back the bouncer. “Yes I am,” replied Al, still smiling, clutching his tie. This went back and forth until Al dared him to check with Lally Weymouth (Katherine Graham‘s daughter and Newsweek editor). “Yes he’s on the list,” she said with a cool smile.
As a result of this distraction, we all slipped in. For the next hour, Al moved from one Republican to the next both confronting and charming — and we managed to film some priceless scenes including Al doing his Henry Kissinger impression to Kissinger himself.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
The only casting we did was to cast Al Franken as the lead. The financing was too convoluted to begin to talk about. For the first months the budget consisted of buying a few DV tapes and an occasional Au Bon Pain sticky bun for Al, which he adores.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Chris: Fellini is a major influence. His films are magical. The scenes flow seamlessly from fantasy back into reality. He brings us inside a character in unique way. His films can be simultaneously mysterious and hilarious. Although our documentaries are not at all like his films, they continually inspire me.
Nick: My first film teacher was Standish Lawder, an extraordinary experimental filmmaker with a wicked sense of humor, probably best known for his film “Necrology.” He was very much a contemporary artist who also loved the early European and American experimental filmmakers, Lumiere, Man Ray, Duchamp, Eisenstein, Steiner. He was a very funny but passionate guy, who conveyed a sense of the pure excitement of films, which I have never lost.
What is your definition of independent film, and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent films are made outside the studio system, and are not defined by the bottom line. The director has a vision of the film and retains artistic control.
What are your interests outside of film?
We film a lot of musicians, and really admire the unique talent of musicians, so listening to music is something that I love to do. My partner Pennebaker and I both love early jazz music and have a large collection of 78 records. Also, I have a very large, extended family and they are an important part of my life. We love getting together, cooking, and sharing meals together.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
For aspiring documentary filmmakers, if you have a story that you are passionate about get a camera and start shooting.