Morgan Neville won an Oscar for his 2013 crowd-pleasing documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” about back-up singers who could be stars in their own right. With “Best of Enemies,” co-directed by Neville and Robert Gordon, the subject matter is seemingly more rarefied, but just as engaging.
The new film chronicles 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. Though a historical documentary about a television debate may sound dull, “Best of Enemies” is anything but as the directors focus on the two “leads'” oversized personalities and their intensely contentious relationship.
In addition to the magnetic, larger-than-life characters at its center, “Best of Enemies” delves into the introduction of point-counterpoint type television debates, which both predated and anticipated the opinionated Fox News’ type antics we see today. Given that we’re gearing up to begin the 2016 Presidential Debates, the film seems more relevant than ever.
Indiewire spoke to Neville and Gordon in advance of its world premiere at Sundance 2015 and again recently.
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.
“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!
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 always 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?
Aside from funding, what were some of the biggest challenges you encountered?
MN: In the beginning, we knew one of the challenges was to make a cinematic movie about literally talking heads and to try to make it feel like something you want to see in a theater. I feel like we managed to do that. We used every tool we could to make it play as operatic as it seems to us, and I think that’s been something else that’s been really interesting to see: It’s playing like a grand drama. At its essence, this is about two guys sitting in a room, talking.
RG: That was the last challenge that we faced – to communicate to people that it’s not going to be a history lesson, but an entertaining film.
How did you choose Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow to provide the voice of Buckley and Vidal, respectively?
MN: We struggled with what to do in the beginning, because we knew we needed to get their voices in there from the page, and we kicked around every idea, from having stand-alikes to having children to having women to having Bill O’Reilly and John Stewart. We thought about all of these things, and at the end of the day, we thought about getting people whose voices captured that patrician, mid-Atlantic sound. When we started talking about that — and I’m not sure if it was John Lithgow or Kelsey Grammer first — their respective politics seemed to make a lot of sense to us. And then when they actually did it, it reminded us just how great it is to work with fantastic actors. They really make it come alive.
Have there been any responses to the film from people who knew the two of them?
MN: A number of people who knew them have seen it. And we’ve gotten some really nice comments from those people. We weren’t trying to do a biography of either man, but rather of this relationship between the two of them. Through them I think you get a window into who they really were as people.
Have there been any responses that surprised you?
MN: The making of the film was one of those things where every corner we turned around, and every rock we turned over, we found some nugget that made the film richer. It was just one of those stories that got better and better the deeper we got into it, and I think we both felt like it had a bunch of potential, and was saying a bunch of stuff, about America and discourse and how we talk to each other and all of these things. What’s been incredibly cool is that other people seem to be seeing those same things in it. We had intended to make a film not about the arguments but about how we argue, and I think we’ve done that insofar as we see people from the right see the film and say, “I’m really glad you favor Buckley,” and then people on the left say, “I’m really glad you favor Vidal.”
RG: If they don’t feel like we struck a balance, they feel like we favored their side. No one has come in and said, “Why did you attack like that?”
I’m familiar with the work with Buckley and Vidal, but I wonder, how would you pitch the film to an audience member who knows nothing about either of them?
MN: It’s been interesting to show this to younger people, who really do not know who these guys are. Whenever you have two polar opposites who are well-armed with their ideas, it’s just fascinating to watch them go on a purely theatrical level. To me, it’s a verbal bloodsport, and that is inherently dramatic. The other thing I keep forgetting is just that it’s really funny. They’re quick-witted and, on the one hand, the film is a cautionary tale, but on the other it’s an absurdist comedy. I think those things are translatable to anybody, whether they agree with any of the politics or know of either man.
RG: And what’s interesting about this is that Morgan and I both saw the raw footage immediately as so amazingly contemporary — as if they could look into the future and see the culture wars we’re in now. Yet it took us four years to find the funding. And the great reward there is that the responses are now, “I can’t believe how contemporary this film is.” In terms of how we would pitch it, it makes me wonder what we were doing wrong for four years!
MN: I keep telling people, “This is really relevant! Trust us.”
Watch the trailer for “Best of Enemies” below:
“Best of Enemies” is being released by Magnolia Pictures in New York and Los Angeles on Friday July, 31.
READ MORE: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Face Off in Exclusive ‘Best of Enemies’ Poster