“I don’t think there’s been a larger group of filmmakers on this stage at once,” indieWIRE‘s Eugene Hernandez said as he introduced a panel featuring the six filmmakers that came together to create “Freakonomics.” Based on Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s intensely bestselling 2005 book, the movie brought together Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp,” “12th & Delaware”), Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”), Alex Gibney (“Enron,” “Taxi To The Dark Side”), and Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) to each direct portions of the “anthology film.” Magnolia is releasing the film in theaters this Friday.
All six filmmakers took the stage at the Apple Store SoHo just prior to film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April. While the talk predominantly focused on “Freakonomics” itself for a good portion of the panel – in itself a quite fascinating discussion – something quite extraordinary happened when the topic turned to documentary filmmaking in more general terms. There were six of the most notable doc filmmakers of the past decade, sharing their thoughts on the medium together on one stage.
Read more about “Freakonomics” in indieWIRE‘s review, and view the panel in its entirety here. Below, iW has highlighted some of these filmmakers’ reflections on how they make their films, and what the past decade of the medium itself has meant to them.
Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock on Spurlock’s accessible way of filmmaking.
Jarecki: “I really admire the way Morgan reaches people and I think he reaches a wider audience than I do, and the way in which he does that… I mean, he has a special knack for doing that without screwing up the material. Usually, when you try and go really wide with something, you dilute it.
My godfather used to say to me, ‘When there’s 10 people sitting around the table, and one of them has a 40 IQ, you’re all going to end up talking about baseball.’ I mean, no offense to baseball, but the idea is that you tend to be sensitive to the lowest common denominator so you don’t want to make something too highbrow. I never want to do that but I tend to take on really hard subjects. And then I try to figure out what I think comes very naturally to Morgan when he goes to try and find out what’s wrong with the food supply… He doesn’t end up making a complicated, bottom-heavy piece about the food supply. He ends up taking on the thing we all know and love: the super-size. That’s just something his mind does in the same way he is with people. He’s gonna touch somebody very openly and very quickly in a very palpable way.”
Spurlock: “The thing that we always try to do when I direct something is that we always try and make sure that throughout the material you always bring it back to something humorous. In the saddest and most difficult things, there’s always some piece of humor that’s in there. And I think if you can make somebody laugh, you can make somebody listen.”
Heidi Ewing on how she and directing partner Rachel Grady choose their topics.
Ewing: “We get our inspiration everywhere. Eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, reading, listening to the radio… But we always ask ourselves the question: Should this be an article in The New Yorker? Should this be on “This American Life”? Or should this be a feature length documentary film? Because it’s easy to make that mistake. Sometimes a topic you’re interested in is just not right for a film.
We do character driven pieces. So we really have to go out there and start with an idea and then cast it… and then you know it when you see it. You say, ‘this person could carry a film. This is a story.’ And we have to be interested in it. Because sometimes it takes years to make these films, [and] if our attention spans are going to wain, we don’t make the film.”
Rachel Grady on working as a team with Heidi Ewing.
Grady: “Usually we go into the field together and cast and figure out together what the story and direction might be. And then we take turns, because it’s inefficient for both of us to go. And then it’s actually more helpful for one of us to watch the material later and give each other feedback. Often you miss things when you’re there as far as you think it may be better or worse than you thought it was.”
Eugene Jarecki on how you find a film’s point of view.
Jarecki: “Alex Gibney often quotes this line by Marcel Ophuls where he says, ‘of course my films have a point of view, but I always go to great lengths in the film to show how hard it is to get that point of view.’ Which is to say he shows just how textured and how complicated the landscape is that you’re operating in. So if you start out with an idea and the research gets done, and it produces a passionate conclusion, [and then] a year later that’s what comes out in your movie, it’s probably going to be a pretty bad movie. Whereas if a year later the movie shows all the struggle you’ve gone through to really reckon with the countervailing arguments… you can end up with a courageous piece. “
Alex Gibney, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock on the popularity of documentary films during the past decade.
Gibney: “I think we’ll look back on these ten years and think, what a renaissance for the documentary form it has been. There’s never been this willingness to so radically experiment with how to tell stories. Because you see not only a tremendous respect for the stuff that you observe, but also the willingness of authors to put themselves in the work and show their personality in the way they tell the story.
I think one of the reasons it happened was because we’d come to a kind of dead end in terms of the sort of way cable television had kind of channelized everything. You would click along and see how each channel was branded a certain way. Everything had a corporate brand. But mysteriously, inexplicably, people started realizing… I mean, when Morgan Spurlock’s film ‘Super Size Me’ was released in theaters, everyone went to see it because it was so fresh and it had a sense of personality. It was like the experience that you get when a non-fiction author speaks to their reader through a book. You’re seeing the facts but you’re also hearing the voice of the author in a way that is so engaging and personal.
From there it just flowered, so it’s really an extraordinary moment. All of these filmmakers [on this panel] have just been so inventive, and also really giving in terms of sharing something personal even as they respect the reality around them.”
Grady: “I think audiences have been trained over the past decade or so to expect more. So filmmakers have to have their game up, first of all. And I think part of why they expect more… Well, look where we’re doing this today [at the Apple Store]. We’ve been 100% saturated with information, stories… It has to be good or it will disappear.”
Ewing: “I think we’ll look back on this and we’ll see this perfect storm of things all lining up together: A frustration with conventional news and media sources, the cheapening and easier access to technology for people who might not have had the means to make these films 20 years ago, and the scourge and awesomeness of reality television which has both hurt and helped us as filmmakers. Because people sitting down and watching regular people – or semi-regular people – live their lives and being interested in this… That’s probably been good for us. It’s hurt us in other ways, when subjects think we want them to perform or that they’re going to get paid. So I think that confluence of factors has allowed this medium to flourish.”
Jarecki: “I just think there is a political dimension to all of this which is for the ten years that were the Bush era… I think documentary filmmakers found themselves dealing with all those shatterings of confidence in mainstream media, but also there was a very Orwellian quality to what you could or couldn’t say. If you were trying to make a living being a journalist you were being very frightened and very repressed in your communication, and I think doing a disservice to history.
If you were a courageous filmmaker willing to not make a living and not have a real prospect, you might be very animated in critiquing the Bush Administration as a lot us were. But there’s a new moment now – for good or for bad – where you don’t feel what you’re doing is a reaction, one way or another, to a repressive American regime.”
Spurlock: “I’m a big believer that reality television and politics push people towards documentary film. I think documentary film became one of the last facets where we could express something unique and different that wasn’t under the guise of the five media puppies that controlled what we get to hear and read and see on a daily basis. So I think that the fuse was lit and that’s going to continue to burn for a long time now.”