With the Internet surpassing print as our main news source, newspapers going bankrupt, and outlets focusing on content they claim audiences (or is it advertisers?) want, Page One chronicles the media industry’s transformation and assesses the high stakes for democracy if in-depth investigative reporting becomes extinct.
The film deftly makes a beeline for the eye of the storm or, depending on how you look at it, the inner sanctum of the media, gaining unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom for a year. At the media desk, a dialectical play-within-a-play transpires as writers like salty David Carr track print journalism’s metamorphosis even as their own paper struggles to stay vital and solvent. Meanwhile, rigorous journalism—including vibrant cross-cubicle debate and collaboration, tenacious jockeying for on-record quotes, and skillful page-one pitching—is alive and well. The resources, intellectual capital, stamina, and self-awareness mobilized when it counts attest there are no shortcuts when analyzing and reporting complex truths. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]
“Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times“
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Andrew Rossi
Screenwriter: Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi
Executive Producers: Daniel Stern, Daniel Pine
Producers: Josh Braun, David Hand, Kate Novack, Alan Oxman, Adam Schlesinger
Associate Producers: Keith Hamlin, Luke Henry
Cinematographer: Andrew Rossi
Editors: Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Sarah Devorkin
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Responses courtesy of “Page One” director Andrew Rossi.
Rossi’s quest to document New York on screen…
I grew up in New York City in the late ’70s/early 80’s and seeing films that depicted the city at that time — “Three Days Of The Condor,” “French Connection,” “After Hours”–really captured my imagination. But I got sidetracked a bit with grad school and didn’t start working in film until 2001. Going to film school wasn’t really an option at that point, so I bought a Canon DV camera, borrowed a copy of Final Cut Pro 3.0 and shot, edited and directed my first film (“Eat This New York”) which was really my education in filmmaking. Since then I directed “A Table In Heaven” for HBO and worked in various positions for lots of projects, but that’s how it all began.
Settling on the Times as the subject for a doc…
I interviewed David Carr, the Times‘ media writer who is a central figure in “Page One,” for another project that I was developing. We were in the newsroom at the Times, and I thought, I want to make a movie about David instead. He was just so sharp and spoke his mind and was so counter to the expectation of a typical, straight-laced “Timesman.” And the interior of the Times, with its soaring ceilings and sprawl of journalists typing away, was so cinematic. A few weeks later, for that same project, I went to a private dinner in New York City with media executives and journalists, kind of a Facebook of the New York City media establishment. The discussion after dinner was all about what would happen if the New York Times went out of business. I was shocked at the earnestness with which this group entertained the possibility. And immediately the narrative to a film seemed clear.
Rossi talks workflow…
My approach here was the same as it has always been. I showed up with my camera and a commitment to honestly investigate my subject, in this case the Times. My goal was to be a fly on the wall inside this newsroom that has so much history and lore behind it during a time of such vulnerability and opportunity. But I also didn’t want to hold back when addressing the challenges the paper has and continues to face, so we tackle head on the failures in reporting during the run up to the war in Iraq, the Jayson Blair scandal, the layoffs and buyouts in 2009 and the declines in the print advertising market through both verite and archival/analytical sections. Insight on those issues comes from remarkably candid conversations with those inside the Times as well as interviews with industry watchers who can provide a counterpoint. So overall we strove for a candid and balanced approach.
I knew that I wouldn’t have a film unless I earned the trust of the reporters and editors at the Times. I worked, as I always have, as a one-man crew. Going into the newsroom with a boom operator and a field producer watching a video monitor would have destroyed the intimacy and led to a very different type of film. For the first couple of months, I’d often sit on top of one of the low file cabinets the writers have next to their cubicles and just wait for hours for something to happen. It helped me become part of the furniture (literally).
We may need a script supervisor over here…
Brian Stelter, another writer on the Media Desk, lost 90 pounds during the course of filming. All I could think of as he kept getting smaller and smaller was the continuity problems his diet would cause in the edit.
Parallel narratives and lessons learned…making it all into a movie that works…
The film business is facing some of the same challenges as print journalism, so the movie may strike close to home. Ultimately though the hope is that the movie will connect as a portrait of professionals struggling to do their jobs under extraordinary circumstances. The image of Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in “All The President’s Men” with his feet up on the desk at the Washington Post during Watergate was an obvious image for inspiration. But I also wanted the movie to push past that mythology of journalism.
I worked as an additional editor on “Control Room,” about al-Jazeera during the first days of the Iraq war, and so I got to see first hand how the director, Jehane Noujaim, managed to really hang back and be a fly on the wall. The footage in the newsroom had the naturalistic and nuanced tone that you find in great cinema vérité, as with anything by D.A. Pennebaker (one of my heroes). “The War Room” was another model. The interplay between James Carville, the unfiltered renegade of the campaign, and George Stephanopoulus, his judicious foil reminded me a lot of the back and forth between David Carr and his editor Bruce Headlam.
I’m writing a screenplay for a dramatic feature on a California artist from the ’70s and developing a project for HBO on the companies that vet images for the Web.
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]