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‘Best of Enemies’ Co-Director Morgan Neville on Intellectual Divas and the Theatricality of Politics

'Best of Enemies' Co-Director Morgan Neville on Intellectual Divas and the Theatricality of Politics

Politics are a spectacle now more than ever, a trend
encouraged by the current state of the media and content platforms that thrive
on outrageous comments and destroyed reputations. In this climate, a film
like Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville‘s “Best of Enemies
reminds the public that, though there’s always been an air of theatricality to
political debates and expressing polarizing opinions, there used to be a certain elegance
and sophistication in the way two ideological adversaries rallied behind their
beliefs.

Their larger-than-life subjects are Gore Vidal, a prolific liberal writer, and William F. Buckley, a brilliant
conservative debater, who were one another’s nemesis. Leading up to the 1968 presidential
election the two intellectuals got a chance to make television history on ABC – then the least prominent of the broadcast networks – during 10 debates that felt
like exhilarating boxing rounds in which the opponents replaced punches for a much more brutal
arsenal of sharply written arguments.

We had a chance to have a lengthy conversation with co-director
Morgan Neville, whose film “Twenty Feet from Stardom” earned him an Academy
Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2014. Neville wanted to explore a completely
different aspect of American culture in “Best of Enemies,” one that is as relevant
now as it was over 40 years ago: the crucial importance of the way we argue, civil discourse, and debate. 

Aguilar: I honestly didn’t know about these two characters prior to watching the film. How did you become aware of them? You were
probably not born yet or were very young when these debates took place.

Morgan Neville: I
was born the year before these debates. I was one-year-old when they happened, so I
wasn’t paying a lot of attention [Laughs]. I knew who Buckley and Vidal were growing
up being a political junkie. I actually used to work for Gore Vidal as a
fact-checker right out of college. It was one of my very first jobs. We came
across a bootleg copy of these debates like five years ago from a friend of a
friend. They were just transfixing and we started to think, “There is something
here that’s interesting, that’s so contemporary and so foreign to what I’m used
to seeing on TV.” It just seemed like something I wanted to investigate, and so
here we are five years later [Laughs].

Aguilar: They are certainly
bigger-than-life characters. Did you notice this right away when watching the
debates?

Morgan Neville:  Yes, you only find characters like
this in Nöel Coward plays [Laughs]. They are unlike people you see today. You
don’t see people like this on TV. You don’t see people like this anywhere
today. They lived these kind of huge lives that were at the center of so many
things: politics, television, media. If you look at them they were such
polymaths. Vidal was a novelist, an essayist, a playwright, a screenwriter, and
many other things. Buckley started a magazine, hosted a TV show, lead a
political movement, and was a master debater. They were multihyphenates in a
way that you rarely see anymore. 

Aguilar: Regardless
of what anyone thinks of their opinions we have to admit they were very
passionate about their views. Do you think some of that passion for one’s beliefs is gone from
politics and culture in general?

Morgan Neville: Yes.
They believed the stakes were
incredibly high for what they were doing. They truly believed that the other
person was evil and that the other’s ideas would ruin America. They weren’t
just fighting about 1968, they were fighting about the empire. They were
fighting about everything from the Founding Fathers till today. When you see
pundits arguing on TV today, they never seem to be very sincere. You always know
what they are going to say before they say it. You don’t get the sense that
they feel the stakes are all that high, even though the stakes are, of course,
incredibly high. They all seem to be playing at it as though it’s a game, which
for them it is.

Aguilar: Tell me about the arduous labor of finding all
these footage from many decades ago to piece this story together.

Morgan Neville:  It was a massive hunt for footage. One
of the big treasures was ABC itself. They have an amazing archive and we found
some much stuff buried in cans of films that had never seen the light of day. After spending
so many years working on it, we kept turning up more things, these little
nuggets that would make our day. For an archive documentary like this you kind of live or die by the strength of your material.

Aguilar: Besides
telling Buckley and Vidal’s story, you also tackle a piece television history and ABC. Would you you say these debates were game-changers in terms of how we relate to news and broadcast programming?

Morgan Neville: The
actual ABC story was the story we didn’t know when we started making it. We
knew about Vidal, Buckley, and these debates, but what we didn’t really
understand was how they came to be and that is was really an act of desperation
that lead to this happening. That’s fascinating. We felt like, of course, what
they were doing then was so different from what we have today, but we didn’t
understand the connection until we really started getting into it. I don’t want
to say that if it weren’t for these debates television would be completely
different today because I think in some ways it was inevitable, but this was
certainly one of those crystallizing moments for how television viewed news
commentary. They realized that commentary got ratings, it’s cheap, and it’s
easy.

Aguilar: It seems as
if these debates could have only happened out of desperation because ABC threw this two
polarizing agents into a formula and they didn’t know how it would turn out. They
were taking a chance.

Morgan Neville: Yes.
I don’t think ABC was expecting it to get this explosive. I think they thought
that there was going to be some good friction and some sparks, but I don’t
think they expected it to get as out of control as it did. I think initially
they were a little embarrassed about it until they realized how successful it
was. News at that times was seen as a public service and news departments of
networks were seen as having a higher calling. News department were not the
profit centers of networks as they are now.

Aguilar: When you are
making a film like this that’s so polarizing in terms of the opinions the
subjects express, how do you keep it as objective as possible and avoid taking sides based on your own opinions?

Morgan Neville: I
thought it was important from the beginning not to take sides because it’s very
easy to get caught in the arguments Once you start doing that half the people
are going to agree with you and half the people are going to disagree with you.
I think you’d fall into the same trap we are in now as a country. We wanted to
make a film about how we argue and say, “Can we at least have some agreement
about how we should talk to each other, what civil discourse is about, and about what debate can do for us?” We should agree on a common set of facts not
just all go to our own corners and to our own cable channels and tell each
other what we want to hear.

Aguilar: Although the
debates took place over 40 years ago, they feel so relevant. You are also sort of
introducing these characters to a new audience that perhaps didn’t know bout
them.

Morgan Neville: I
kind of feel like people under 40 don’t know who these guys are. We realized
that people don’t really remember who they are. We didn’t even know until we
were making it how much educating we had to do to let people know who they
were. But I felt like regardless of whether or not you know who they are, there’s still a kind of drama and a theatricality to it that should draw you in
even if you don’t know who they are.

Aguilar: While watching the film I couldn’t help but think about Siskel and
Ebert, two big and contrasting personalities that, though in a different context, were tough on each other but also respected one another. Did they ever cross your mind while working on “Best of Enemies” ?

Morgan Neville: I
saw “Life Itself,” the Roger Ebert documentary, and certainly when I watched
them bickering in that film I was thinking about Vidal and Buckley because I
was already working on this film. Sometimes we have our perfect foils or you
can call them their bête noir, the person who brings out both the best and the
worst in you because you disagree with them so completely. Yet, you understand and
respect them enough to give it your all. I feel like underneath that kind of
hatred between Vidal and Buckley was respect, because if you didn’t respect
somebody you wouldn’t take it so personally and you wouldn’t be so prepared.

Aguilar: Something that’s very interesting is Vidal’s work as a screenwriter. He seemed to have had a talent for discussing politics via entertainment.

Morgan Neville: It’s
very interesting. He wrote a lot and even his fiction and screenwriting are all
around the same themes. He was interested in power and corruption, hubris, and
the close-mindedness of our society and his films play that out. “The Best
Man,” which was a play made into a movie and which I loved, says so much of what
Gore once said about politics and he’d done that just before these 1968
debates.

Aguilar: Both Buckley and Vidal were giving a performance during this debates. They created a persona for this appearances.

Morgan Neville: Absolutely,
Vidal and Buckley both understood that television was a theatrical medium. Gore
was a playwright and a screenwriter, he knew how to deliver a good line, and
Buckley was a master debater. He was one of the debate champions at Yale and
really understood that debate is theater and that it’s about delivering a good
line. They had a very similar skill set coming from slightly different
backgrounds and that’s why it was such a perfect match.

Aguilar: When the big
moment in the film happens and Buckley loses his cool, it comes a cross as a really provocative occurrence for the time. Today we see worst things on any reality show or TV in general.

Morgan Neville:  People didn’t do that on TV then and
often if people do it on TV now, if it’s on a reality show or on the news show,
you get the sense that they are just handing it out to the camera. In this case
it was the opposite,  the last thing
Buckley wanted to do on camera was to lose his cool.

 Aguilar: Do you feel
like you’ve gotten to know these two people closely by making the film?

Morgan Neville: Absolutely,
they are both very complex men, which is what makes it so rewarding to make a
film like this. You don’t mind spending so much time getting into the character
because both of these characters were so rich. I came to understand them much,
much better. Because I was much more familiar with Vidal when we started,
Buckley was a revelation for me just in terms understanding things about him
that I didn’t know. In spite of his political leanings he didn’t
really like to talk about politics when he was on camera. Speaking in public
was mostly a trend for liberals. That I didn’t know.

Aguilar: Did the fact that you knew
Vidal from working with him made a difference in your approach? 

Morgan Neville:  I don’t think it actually really did, bu since I knew him I came with some knowledge. We actually interviewed Gore
for the film too about a year and a half before he died. We decided not to
use it because Gore had already gotten the last word in a way. To have Gore
speak and not Buckley, because he had already died, felt somehow unfair and would
tilt the film to one side, which we didn’t want to do.

Aguilar: Do you think
that under other circumstances Vidal and Buckley could have been the best of friends rather
than the best of enemies?

Morgan Neville: Yeah,
you wonder. Today everybody  is a “frenemy”
[Laughs]. I don’t know if being a “frenemy” means you are an enemy but you
are kind of winking at it and you play along at the enemy side of it, which is
so much of what we see in news media now. There is an alternate universe
where they are good friends but God knows where that universe is.

 Aguilar: It probably wouldn’t have been as interesting.

Morgan Neville: Yeah,
I probably wouldn’t have made a film about it [Laughs].

Aguilar: In terms of your career as a filmmaker, do you feel like the stakes and expectations are the
stakes higher after winning an Oscar? “Best of Enemies” is definitely a departure in terms of subject matter from “Twenty Feet from Stardom”

Morgan Neville: No, the stakes are always high. You always want to make the best film you can. If
anything I feel more relaxed after the Oscar. I feel like I have a chance to
just tell the stories I want to tell and it’s actually been really nice. I’m so
happy that this is the next film I’m putting out because it’s a whole other
area I’m interested in that people wouldn’t know about. But they are both films about
divas [Laughs].

Aguilar: What’s your next project now that “Best of Enemies” is hitting theaters?

Morgan Neville: I’m
working on a Yo-Yo Ma film, which is almost done, and I’m working on Keith
Richards documentary.

“Best of Enemies” opens today in Los Angeles at The Landmark and in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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