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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: “Sacco and Vanzetti” director Peter Miller

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: "Sacco and Vanzetti" director Peter Miller

Peter Miller‘s doc “Sacco and Vanzetti” centers on Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists who were accused of a murder in 1920 and executed in Boston in 1927 following a notoriously prejudiced trial. The ordeal of Sacco and Vanzetti came to symbolize the bigotry and intolerance directed at immigrants and dissenters in America, and millions of people in the U.S. and around the world protested on their behalf. Nearly eighty years later, the story continues to have great resonance, as America once again grapples with issues of civil liberties and the rights of immigrants. Miller is a veteran producer in television and film, notably working with Barbara Kopple on the 1991 Oscar-winning doc, “American Dream,” which he served as coordinating producer. His 2000 directorial effort “The Internationale” won best doc at the 2001 Woodstock Film Festival. First Run Features will open the film beginning in New York Friday, March 30 and LA April 6.

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

I intended to do political activist work after I finished college in the 1980s, but I always had a passion for film lurking in the back of my mind. After a stint working at an organization linking activists and filmmakers, Barbara Kopple hired me to work with her on her labor documentary “American Dream,” which went on to win an Academy Award. In a sense, I channeled my activist energy into filmmaking, believing that films could have a powerful impact on social change. I never went to film school, but learned on the job how to make movies that honor the stories of courageous and complex people. I’ve since worked on many independent films about social issues and history (“Passin’ It On,” “The Internationale,” “Sacco and Vanzetti”) while collaborating with Ken Burns on numerous projects (“Jazz,” “Frank Lloyd Wright,” “The War“). And I still believe that a well-told documentary can help change the world.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

I’m deeply moved by history, especially stories of what historian Howard Zinn calls “people’s history.” My goal is to use the best techniques of documentary storytelling to bring to life the stories of people who have tried to create a better world. Some day, I’d love to make a series about the American labor movement–it will be a struggle to get it made, but it’s a story I feel that audiences should know.

How did the idea for “Sacco and Vanzetti” came about?

I had heard about Sacco and Vanzetti for years, and knew a little about their story. Then I read a book of the letters Sacco and Vanzetti wrote while in prison, and it blew me away. Here were two uneducated laborers who spoke very little English, but their letters were some of the most powerful writing I’ve ever read in the English language. I knew I had to make a film after I read the letters.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

I started working on the film just before September 11, 2001, and thought of it basically as an important historical story. Then, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, I started to notice parallels between the time of Sacco and Vanzetti and what I was seeing our government doing in the present. During the “red scare” of the 1910s and ’20s that set the stage for the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the government responded to a perceived terrorist threat by rounding up thousands of radicals and immigrants, holding them without charges, staging mass deportations, and depriving people of their Constitutional rights in the name of protecting public safety. The overreaching response of our government after 9/11–the Patriot Act, the military commissions, the scapegoating of immigrants–seemed eerily familiar. I realized that my film about a historical case would have valuable lessons to offer in the present, about the way in which our system of justice can be compromised during a time of crisis.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?

Perhaps the greatest creative challenge to us in telling this story was that most of the people who remembered the case were gone, and that those few who remained were generally in their 90s. So we needed to film quickly to catch the few remaining older people who could help tell the story. We managed to film with a number of 90-somethings, but lost a couple of wonderful people before we could interview them. Sacco and Vanzetti themselves were executed, of course, but we were able to bring their words to life through the remarkable talents of Tony Shalhoub and John Turturro, who read the powerful letters the two men wrote from prison.

A scene from Peter Miller’s doc “Sacco and Vanzetti.” Image courtesy of First Run Features.

How did the financing for the film come together?

There isn’t very much money out there to make historical films, particularly ones that are politically engaged. To historical television programmers, I suspect the film seemed too political, and to political programmers the film was too historical. But I knew the story had to be told, and that there were costs I couldn’t avoid. Archival footage and photo costs, and music licensing fees were a particular burden. But in the course of five years, I somehow found enough grant money to almost cover our expenses. A couple of miracles also occurred: the participation of my editor and producing partner Amy Carey Linton, who lent her magic to the film out of love and generosity; and the involvement of Crawford Communications in Atlanta, which offered their remarkable post-production services. At the end of the day, we were able to make this film for about a fifth of what it should have cost. First Run Features, a wonderful distributor, has picked up the film and is releasing it far and wide. Despite the struggle to get it made, our filmmaking story has a happy ending.

Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

I’ve been lucky enough to have long associations with a number of great filmmakers, including Barbara Kopple, from whom I learned about socially-engaged filmmaking, and Ken Burns, who is a master at making history come alive. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Judith Helfand and George Stoney, whose ideas about putting a film to use once it’s done have helped me shape my approach to distributing “Sacco and Vanzetti.” For example, I’m working closely with ACLU chapters right now to link the film to their work. And I maintain a fond spot in my heart for a number of documentaries from the 1980s that blend history and social engagement, including “Seeing Red,” “The Good Fight,” “Union Maids,” and “With Babies and Banners.”

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

I love documentaries. If I won the lottery and could do anything I wanted in life, I would continue to make documentaries about history.

What is your next project?

I’m working with Carlos Sandoval on “A Class Apart,” a new film about the early Mexican American civil rights movement. It’s another historical story with profound meaning in the present.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

I think of “independent” films as ones that do what commercial films are too chicken to do. There was a movement in Argentina called something like “Cine de Base”–a cinema that comes from below, whose impulse I admire. To me, multi-million dollar dramas released by boutique studios aren’t independent films. The impulse that created the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) came from the political movements of the ’60s and ’70s, and I hope that AIVF’s demise doesn’t mean the end of that independent spirit. It still motivates my work.

What are some of your all-time favorite films?

What a hard question! Here are a few films I’ve been moved by: “Harlan County, U.S.A.” (which my parents brought me to as a high school student and changed my thinking), “The Civil War” series (which made history feel urgent), the Michael Apted “Up” films, John Carpenter’s “They Live” (a futuristic thriller with a radical heart), Bertolucci’s “1900,” “The Battle of Algiers.” I like films with something important to say about the world, that tell compelling stories.

What are your interests outside of film?

I’m a full-time parent at the same time as a full-time independent filmmaker. Whatever interests I have other than those two overwhelming tasks will have to wait!

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

There’s an obligation in Judaism to “heal the world,” which is a good rule to live by in all aspects of life, including filmmaking. It’s like the doctor’s oath to “do no harm,” only better. Don’t follow the money, follow your conscience and your heart.

What is an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?

I recently showed “Sacco and Vanzetti” to a group of college students. At the end of the film, we showed images from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, making connections between past and present outrages. A student emailed me after the screening and said that until she saw my film, she hadn’t heard about Guantanamo, and now that she had, she was appalled about what her country was doing. I set out to make a film about an 80-year-old legal case, and in the process got one student to learn something important about American justice today. Our films reach people one at a time. That’s the kind of achievement that makes me proud.

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