INTERVIEW: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen On Their Robert Evans Doc, "The Kid Stays In the Picture"
(indieWIRE: 07.24.02) — indieWIRE recently hosted a New York City film community screening of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” the new documentary about the life of legendary producer Robert Evans. Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, directors of the award-winning boxing documentary “On the Ropes,” were on hand after the screening and fielded questions from the audience and indieWIRE’s editor in chief, Eugene Hernandez, about the making of this unique documentary. Focus Films released “The Kid” on Friday to a phenomenal box office of nearly $90,000 on only four screens in New York and Los Angeles over the weekend. The film will expand to other markets this Friday.
Eugene Hernandez: So, lets start from the beginning, how did you end up making this movie?
Brett Morgen: We got a call from a woman named Pam Brady, who wrote the “South Park” movie, in the fall of 1999. After “South Park” became a big success, Pam asked for a meeting with Bob Evans — she was a big fan of his book on tape [the audiobook version of his 1994 book “The Kid Stays in the Picture”] Pam offered to write a screenplay to produce. So she called us and told us about it, and it sounded like “Sunset Boulevard.” We signed on to do it on the spot.
We were about to shoot the film, we had raised one and a half million dollars, and three days before production was going to begin, we got a call from Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. Graydon told us that he had the exclusive non-fiction rights to Bob’s life, and we needed to cease and desist. We met with Graydon later that afternoon and we decided to do “The Kid Stays in the Picture” together, which was a departure for us because “On the Ropes” was a pure cinema verite film and we had never done archival films before.
Nanette Burstein: We didn’t really know if it would work having him off camera. It was a challenge.
Hernadez: This is not a traditional documentary in the way it’s put together. Maybe that’s a good place to start.
Burstein: With documentaries, you have different perspectives or point of views, you either follow people and film them or you interview them, you’re a fly on the wall, and it’s more of a he said/she said. The best way to describe this film is a third-person autobiography in which Bob describes his life and his is the only voice you hear. He’s such a great storyteller that we wanted to embrace that and give you a Bob Evans experience. And then the visuals are commenting and we’re giving our own subtext to the film, underneath Bob’s narration.
Morgen: If you’ve seen “On the Ropes,” obviously this is a very different film. And I think Nanette and I are believers that the style of the film should be dictated by the content or the subject matter of the film. Ultimately when you talk about the style of the film the adjectives that come to mind are the adjectives that describe Bob — glamorous, kitschy, schmaltzy. This isn’t so much a movie about Bob as a movie that IS Bob. We wanted to personify him.
Burstein: We always said this is the kind of film that Bob Evans would have greenlighted. The thing about Bob was that he was a huge risk-taker. He made “Harold and Maude,” about an 80-year-old woman having an affair with a 15-year-old boy. How do you sell that today? He had his losers and he had his winners. But this was a movie where we knew we had a guy talking off camera for 90 minutes and we weren’t really sure what we were going to see yet.
Morgen: One thing going in, we knew we wanted to try something different with photo animation, and I’m sure somebody will ask us how we did the that.
Jun Diaz is the editor of the film and also the editor of “American Movie.” Film is a huge collaboration and Jun deserves as much credit as anybody on this film. We knew we wanted to be very trippy and 3-D and Jun is a master of a program called Adobe After Effects, which enables you to take a photograph, cut out each of the elements and then put them back together again, creating a separation between background and foreground. Once you separate that photo, you can work like a director walking onto a set and blocking a scene. You can zoom, you can rack focus, you can add real footage and stills.
Burstein: Some of the shots were a little more high-end, we did some 3D animation, but most of them are just with this fairly accessible program.
It was really important to us to creative this disorienting, hallucinogenic world. Because it is Bob’s version of the story, and he lives in his own enchanted tale so he wanted the visuals to comment on it. And because Bob is the guy who got everything in his life based on his image, and lost everything because his image was tarnished. It was this true Hollywood extreme story. It was important that the visuals took you into never-never land.
Audience member: I was curious how you approached Bob, did you pitch it to him?
Morgen: It was interesting, the first time we went to meet with Bob was with Pam Brady. I don’t think anything in life prepared us for that. I think when most people meet him — Eugene you would probably say the same thing — you go into a room intimidated by his legend, and he immediately disarms you and makes you feel like you’re his best friend. We went there and had this first meeting with him for three hours, he was crying to us, at one point he suggested the three of us form a production company called Stallion Pictures. [laughter] It was wonderful, because here is Bob Evans asking these two little filmmakers from New York to form a company with him.
Normally its our job as documentarians to seduce our subjects, we want to create that intimate space. Bob made it really easy for us because he was actively trying to seduce us, which we found amusing. We were hopefully savvy enough to see through it. I like to think that all non-fiction films are collaborations between the filmmakers and the subjects and your film can only be as good as your subject. We think this was like a mutual seduction, and more like a dance of death. It was insane. There’s a point when he’s talking about “Rosemary’s Baby” when he says fighting is healthy and the work is better because of it. Bob really takes that to task and would fight with us over ever line in the film.
Burstein: He was very hesitant to talk about anything in the second half of his life. He just wanted to go with the high instead of the low. Anytime we would try to record voiceover about the drug bust or cocaine, he would just get so upset that his butler would have to come in with a blood pressure machine. So a paragraph could take us two weeks.
Morgen: It’s interesting because when we shot “On the Ropes” we felt we would shoot two days a week but we were with our subjects seven days a week. And the time we were with them really helped those moments when we brought the cameras out. And you would think with a film like this you wouldn’t need that intensive immersion, but it was really important for us and for Bob to spend a lot of time with him, to really gain his trust, to get to the point where he was able to give us everything we needed for voiceover.
Burstein: Plus it was fun to hang out in his Beverly Hills mansion.
Audience member: How many photographs did you use?
Hernandez: And maybe take a step back and talk about getting those photographs.
Morgen: Bob saved everything in his life from the time he was 15. Nanette and I once asked him why he saved everything; when he was 15 years old he was a child star on radio in New York. Bob said at the age of 15 he was a big star in radio dating some of the top showgirls in town, he would finish his homework and run to the Copacabana and go with these ladies, and he started to be written about in all these columns. And he says he started saving them because if he didn’t think anybody would believe him. And we still don’t really believe him [laughs] but nonetheless he kept these scrapbooks that are catalogued by film and project.
Burstein: And he has a “Bob and women” photo album, and a closet full of magazines and everything. We had a lot to choose from and we used tons of it. The biggest problem was getting rights to every photo and any clip — any time an actor appears in the clip you have to get his permission. There were 256.
I think the great thing about keeping Bob off camera and hearing the narration is that it allows everything to be in the moment. You’re constantly in the present tense. It’s not necessarily a film about a 72-year-old man looking back at his life, but you the audience get to experience it moment by moment by moment. If we would have put him on camera I think it would have been sad, because contrasting him how he is now with the aesthetically gorgeous man he was then