What’s so fun about the documentary
“Best of Enemies
,” a hugely entertaining look back at the intense 60s rivalry between intellectuals William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, is how little the two 40ish men respect each other.
What makes it so timely is there’s nothing new about that. Straight conservative (“crypto-Nazi”) Buckley, host of “Firing Line” and founder of The National Review, may have been smarter and less right wing than most of his contemporary counterparts, but he still underestimated Vidal, his well-prepared historian (“goddamn queer”) Liberal opponent. They were so well-matched partly because they had much in common: patrician families and Eastern establishment educations as well as a rabid intellectual curiosity. They could both write and articulate.
Their infamous 1968 television debate was prescient in more ways than one, as the film’s co-director Morgan Neville
points out. “This is a film about how we argue,” he told NPR. Their debate fed many Point/Counterpoints to come and presaged today’s uncivil and strident Fox News vs. MSNBC polarities.
Neville, who won the Oscar in 2014 for “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” recognizes that these films, “in some ways, overlap; both films are about divas,” he told me on the phone, although the back-up singers in the popular Radius release ($5 million domestic) are “not as entitled as these.”
For Neville, “Best of Enemies” brings together his two loves, journalism and culture. It’s a film “about politics,” he said, “but it’s also a film about the culture of politics.” Like many documentarians, Neville started out as a journalist at The Nation Magazine. “I came up in left wing political writing. My first job out of college was working as Gore Vidal’s fact checker. Yes, at the time before the internet I would find tiny things that Gore had gotten slightly wrong. I’d call him on the phone in Ravello, Italy and tell him he was not 100% accurate, then take the receiver away from my ear. He was an experienced fact checker who didn’t like to be questioned about anything. By and large he was an accurate writer.”
Now Neville can indulge his love of both journalism and music via documentaries
. “I am a big believer in the power of journalism, it’s a heroic pursuit,” he said. “This felt like the perfect cautionary tale, of the media gone wrong, of something that happened so gradually that we take it for granted. It’s not about the arguments but who we are and what role TV plays in that.”
Rather than work for other organizations, Neville made the decision to start his own company in 1999, back before documentaries had their theatrical heyday in the wake of “Spellbound” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” “I’ve been working for myself for 15 years as a filmmaker,” said Neville. “That was the best and the hardest thing I’ve ever done…There was no model how to make a documentary production company work. I figured it out as I went along.”
Back in the early 2000s, documentarians “were left with TV networks who were willing occasionally to finance docs,” said Neville, whose passion for music led him to tell music stories about the likes of Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Pearl Jam, and Muddy Waters. “I did get to be known as the music guy, which had advantages. People call you because you know how to do these kinds of films. That helped to sustain me for a long time.”
Neville got to meet incredible musicians —among them Brian Wilson, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and the Rolling Stones. “I always tell aspiring documentary filmmakers,” he said: “‘You have to go into it because you love it; if you go into it for the money, you’re an idiot.’ The number one prerequisite is you have to be intensely curious. If you love learning and trying to make people figure out what makes people tick, it’s the best job in the world.”
One thing Neville learned on Oscar-bound “Twenty Feet from Stardom” was to stop making other documentaries and take the time to go on the road to promote the film. “The landscape was changing,” he said. “The people I was working with, Nancy Willen and Tom Quinn and Ryan Werner, have been doing this for a long time. One mistake I’ve made in the past which is common for filmmakers was to finish the last thing and not keep promoting it; I’d want to move on. I love the making of them, not the promoting of them. With ‘Twenty Feet’ something was happening from the first screening. I felt I had to take six months off from working and do whatever I could for that film: ‘I’m here, tell me what me to do.'”
So Neville went on a promo road tour to multiple cities with the singers–including vets Darlene Love and Merry Clayton–who turned showings into must-attend events. “We all realized that something special was happening, we all were going through a journey,” he said. “We had a moment where people got intensely interested in what we were doing, which was great to share.”
Winning the Oscar had a huge impact on Neville, he admitted, “mainly on my ability to make and get the financing for the films I want to make —I’m the same filmmaker I was before the Oscar of course, but somehow to the outside world it gives people an assurance and a stamp they feel comfortable with.”
“Best of Enemies,” started before “Twenty Feet,” is one of them. Neville and his frequent collaborator Robert Gordon (“Respect Yourself: The Stax Record Story”) thought it was “an incredibly relevant film which we would finish for the 2012 elections,” Neville said. “But when we took it out to pitch for grants and funders, the overwhelming reaction was: ‘does anyone care about these guys anymore ?’ ‘Yes, yes!’ I kept saying. Some backers came in early but it wasn’t until ‘Twenty Feet’ took off that we suddenly started getting the funds.”
Finding the throughline for “Best of Enemies” was easy, said Neville: “We decided it was a heavyweight bout of 10 rounds between two intellectuals, a verbal bloodsport. We knew that was the frame. They blew up in the ninth, penultimate, debate, so we knew we had a climax near the end. We were confident about that, we had so many options.”
One option they chose not to take was using any of their 2010 interview with the cantankerous Gore, when he was in chronic pain and wheelchair-bound. “He was incredibly uncomfortable during out three-hour interview,” said Neville. “He disagreed with the premise that he and Buckley could even be considered to be on the same plane whatsoever…He was being mean in a way that wasn’t informative and not adding anything.”
“Best of Enemies” debuted well at Sundance 2015, skipped over the youth-oriented Los Angeles Film Festival in favor of the more enthusiastic BAM and Outfest, and opened strongly–with plenty of PR– in theaters via Magnolia on July 21. “Some people aren’t used to making a film about two old rich guys,” said Neville.
Things are a lot easier now. The filmmaker has a staff of 20 as he juggles three or four projects at any given time at various stages of production. “Twenty Feet from Stardom” took five years to get made. “That’s how you make a living,” he said. “You can’t just have one film you are working on and nothing else, because things heat up and cool off in ways that are beyond your beyond your control. The market has been great for docs recently, after the lull when DVD sales crashed and no one could figure out how to justify paying for docs. Now with the rise of VOD and the arrival of Netflix and others it’s really become a lot more flexible.”
Up next: “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” his documentary profile of the Rolling Stones star guitarist, which will have its worldwide premiere in September 18 on Netflix. The doc goes to Nashville for the country scene; Chicago, where Richards first met bluesmen Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; and New York recording sessions with Steve Jordan and Waddy Wachtel for Richards’ latest solo album.
Neville has also finished another music doc, “The Music of Strangers,” about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which may be shown to distributors ahead of the fall film festivals.