“Best of Enemies,” co-directed by Neville and Robert Gordon focuses on a more rarefied subject matter: the live television debates between conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal during the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the summer of 1968.
Indiewire recently spoke to Neville and Gordon about their new documentary, which is world premiering today, and what they expect from this year’s Sundance.
How did you get interested in the project?
Morgan Neville (MN): Robert called me and told me about these debates, which I was only sort of vaguely aware of. He got me a copy and I watched them and they blew me away. My first job out of college was fact-checking for Gore Vidal, which is one of the worst jobs you could ever have. Gore never wanted anybody to question his authority on anything. Robert and I were both print journalists and very interested in the media and that’s what interested me – not to make a film about the politics but the culture of politics, not to make a film about the arguments, but about how they argued.
Robert Gordon (RG): I’m old enough to have been raised with an awareness and appreciation of these two guys. They were popular culture figures back in the day in the ’60s and ’70s. Then I kind of forgot about them and a friend of mine got a bootleg DVD of some of the debates. He actually screened it at an art museum here in Memphis and everyone stayed afterwards and wanted to talk about it. The footage blew me away. I knew it was a documentary to be made because I was attracted to these two guys and the polar opposite positions they had.
What expectations do you having going into Sundance?
MN: Other than showing rough cuts to a few friends for feedback, we’ve never shown it to an audience. I feel like it’s going to play well with a crowd. Even though it’s about TV, these guys understood theater in such a way. They’re such larger than life characters and they understood how to play their public personas.
“20 Feet from Stardom” set the bar pretty high!
MN: The bar was set so high that I’m just ignoring the bar. We had an incredible experience on “20 Feet.” You can only be Cinderella once. This is such a different film. It’s an archival documentary. I know this film is not as broad and pop-y as “20 feet,” but I think people will respond to it well. I’ve kept my expectations low, which I always try to do. I try to keep everything in check as much as possible. But it’s not going to be a “20 Feet” experience. There’s going to be no singing on stage!
What goals do you have in terms of distribution?
MN: We’ve been working on this for five years. It’s been a little labor-of-love project. We’ve just been so excited about it, but it’s been the pet project that we finally get to put out there. I know that people who are familiar with the debates, their eyes light up when they hear about it. There is a segment of the population that will completely get this film. I would love to get distribution and show it in theaters and take it as far as we can take it. In a dream world, we could even use it as a tool to engage in a larger cultural debate about the role our media plays in how we discuss our politics. We’ve talked about doing things like a road show of debates and maybe even doing some event that ties into screenings where we could bring in people from the film like Frank Rich or Andrew Sullivan.
Did funding get easier after “20 Feet from Stardom”?
MN: It does become easier. It’s funny how that happens. There were some foundations that came in before “20 Feet,” but the thing is a film like this is not in the wheelhouse of most documentary funders. It’s not easy to raise money for a documentary about rich white guys. A lot of funders came around, particularly as the film came together, they got it. But we were alway the odd men out when we looked at other films being funded. When we went to an ITVS panel and there was one film on immigration, one on migrant field workers and then the one about the rich white guys. We got here finally and I think now people are seeing the value of it. The question we kept getting early on from funders is, “Is this still relevant today?” Now the comment we get is, “I can’t believe how relevant it is.”
RG: In addition to getting the movie out, part of the dream is that the film could impact the way people talk to each other on TV and off TV. That it makes people aware of TV’s influence and elevates the level of discourse. When was the last time Pericles was quoted on network news?
So where did the funding come from?
MN: It was mix of private money and ITVS (U.S. TV rights) and foundations, the Ford Foundation, Sundance Documentary Fund. Independent Lens has already taken television rights, but they won’t air until just before election in 2016.
What was it like co-directing? How did that work?
RG: This is the fifth film that Morgan and I have made together, so we have a shorthand language and there weren’t any new trails to blaze in how we would work together. We would sometimes split the interview process.
I’ve got to say that Morgan’s on fire after “20 Feet.” He’s just hitting home runs. So my job was to cheer on the good ideas. Morgan has a super trained eye for pulling out the best phrasing from these guys that will present the drama and the conflict and heighten all of that. We were able to do the edit fairly quickly once we finally got funded and got most of our interviews in the can. The issue became how to emphasize the drama. I love that it looked like it’s obvious to do that and it would have been easy. That indicates that we did it well. Morgan’s constant immersion in film really helped expedite that process.
MN: Just in terms of how we tackled stuff, I probably spent a lot more time on the historical nd interstitial parts of the film and Robert delved deep into the debates themselves. That was one way we divide up the work. When you’re making a film with zero funding for years, it’s nice to have someone with you to tell you you’re not crazy!