EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses. This edition is an interview during the Sundance Film Festival with since Academy Award-shortlisted documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev regarding “The Tillman Story.”
Following up on his 2007 documentary “My Kid Could Paint That,” Amir Bar-Lev returns with “The Tillman Story,” about the professional football player who gave up his “career to join the Army Rangers in 2002—and became an instant symbol of patriotic fervor and unflinching duty. But the truth about Pat Tillman is far more complex, and ultimately more heroic, than the caricature created by the media. And when the government tried to turn his death into war propaganda, they took on the wrong family. From her home in the Santa Cruz mountains, Pat’s mother, Dannie Tillman, led the family’s crusade to reveal the truth beneath the mythology of their son’s life and death.
Amir Bar-Lev on what drew him to filmmaking and this project…
My name is Amir Bar-Lev, I live in Brooklyn and am originally from Berkeley, California. I came to film through studying comparative religion in college, and when I look back at all 3 of my documentaries, it seems that any subject I probe deep enough into, I arrive back at religion – whether it’s two elderly war survivors arguing over their personal mythologies as in “Fighter,” or art collectors projecting myths on a child in “My Kid Could Paint That,” or, one of the oldest myths around, the hero, as in “The Tillman Story.” It’s a hell of a rut.
Like most people, I had heard first about Pat Tillman when he left his professional football career to join the military, and I knew just the barest details of his death by friendly fire. After “My Kid Could Paint That,” John Battsek (Producer, Passion Pictures) and I were looking for another film to do together, and he approached me about this in early 2007. Throughout that year we researched and reached out to the Tillmans. We knew we had a good challenge on our hands when his widow, Marie, agreed to be interviewed on 2 conditions: she didn’t want to talk about their life together, and she wouldn’t talk about his inner life and feelings.
Going forward with “Tillman”…
Marie Tillman set the ground rules I just mentioned because she felt as though she had basically lost Pat twice; once to death, [and] once to seeing him turned into a one-dimensional cartoon. The public perception of Pat had squashed the complexity of his character— it had made him into a symbol, not a human being, it had, even, in a way, robbed the family of the chance to grieve. There’s a wrenching scene in the film at the memorial service for Pat a week or so after he was killed. Maria Shriver stands in front of the Tillmans and gathered guests and says, “Pat – your family doesn’t have to worry any more. You are home, you are safe.” Richard Tillman, Pat’s younger brother, then gets up and says, “Pat would want me to say this: he’s not in heaven, he’s fucking dead. Thanks for your thoughts — but he’s fucking dead.” The family’s mission was to keep Pat a human being, not a symbol – and we made it our first order of business in storytelling.
In terms of the basics of the documentary, it’s formally very different than my first 2 films: we didn’t have any verite shooting to do so we put our energy into crazy things like lugging a dolly around the country and shooting in super 16mm, it’s driven by a terrific score by Philip Sheppard who did the music for two other films John’s been involved with: “Sergio” and “In The Shadow of The Moon.” I’m very proud of the archival we found for the film; everything from lots of rare and unseen interviews with Pat from as early as high school, to Jessica Lynch footage we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. NFL Films was incredibly helpful in getting us stunning Super 16mm slo-mo play footage of Pat.
The toughest thing about telling this story is trying to explain how Pat was killed; it remains a mystery to anyone who really looks into it. Even his mother is left with more questions than answers, and she’s spent years trying to get to the bottom of what happened that day. There’s a sense out in the public that Pat was just the victim of a horrible accident, that he caught a stray US bullet during a chaotic ambush due to the fog of war. This is a misperception that the military has deliberately fostered. Their investigation into the actions of the shooters was a sham, and these men aren’t speaking to anyone. It was a challenge for our film because of course an audience wants answers. To this date there are very few.
Bringing the film to Sundance…
It’s been talked about so much it’s already a little cliché, but I do think there’s some truth to this notion that documentary films have picked up where conventional journalism has failed over the past years. Time and again while making this film I found myself flabbergasted at the degree to which the main stream media had fallen short on this story. There’s a rush I always get watching documentaries at Sundance when I can very viscerally feel the impact a film will have on the commonly accepted story moving forward. I hope this film changes the Tillman story, and of course if it does it will begin at Sundance.
Amir Bar-Lev shares his influences in making “Tillman”…
“Who Shot Liberty Valance” comes to mind. There were also lots of books: Frank Rich’s “Greatest Story Ever Sold,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Blood Rites,” Joan Didion’s “Fixed Ideas,” Chris Hedges’ “War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.”
…and future projects…
I optioned a great memoir called “The Royal Nonesuch” by Glasgow Philips, I’m looking for a writer to help adapt it.
Previous Honor Roll 2010 Entries:
December 14: “The Kids Are All Right” Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko
December 13: “Rabbit Hole” Director John Cameron Mitchell
December 12: “Last Train Home” director Lixin Fan
December 11: “Carlos” Actor Edgar Ramirez
December 10: “The Oath” Director Laura Poitras
December 9: “White Material” Actress Isabelle Huppert
December 8: “Blue Valentine” Director Derek Cianfrance
December 7: “The Social Network” and “Never Let Me Go” Actor Andrew Garfield
December 6: “I Am Love”‘s Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino
December 5: “Waste Land” Director Lucy Walker
December 4: “Restrepo” Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
December 3: “Another Year” Actress Lesley Manville
December 2: “Please Give” Director Nicole Holofcener
December 1: “Winter’s Bone” Director Debra Granik