Opening this weekend, Andrew Rossi‘s eye-opening and entertaining “Page One: Inside the New York Times” is a peek behind the curtain at the last bastion of serious news journalism, in an age as tumultuous and violent as anything conjured up in the Hollywood blockbusters storming the multiplexes. We saw the film back at SXSW and were taken with the amount of stories that the documentary covers – everything from the Times’ evolving relationship with the internet (including the introduction of the pay wall, implemented this spring) to its coverage of similar media institutions (like the titanic Tribune Company) falling by the wayside. It will also introduce many to one of the year’s great superheroes – journalist David Carr, whose gravelly voice and no-nonsense attitude (watch as he gives the hipsters at Vice Magazine a verbal smack-down!) makes him seem both heroically resolute as the tide shifts, and hopelessly anachronistic. Either way, you want to be his best friend (and as you’ll see, we nearly got a standalone movie about the man himself).
We recently spoke to director Andrew Rossi about what it was like putting together such a massive undertaking, how David Carr became the film’s breakout star, and his observations about the fourteen months he spent at the Times.
The Playlist: With 14 months spent inside the New York Times, the editing must have been a challenge. What was the hardest stuff to lose?
Andrew Rossi: I don’t know. This movie is really an observational documentary. It doesn’t go in there with an agenda, it’s really aspiring to a certain cinéma vérité fidelity to what it’s recording. You have people out there wishing it was four hours long, you know, doing the “full Fred Wiseman“. One of our models for storytelling is [famed screenwriting guru Robert] McKee. So all of the ideas of the hero’s journey and all of the gripping elements of genre storytelling, with David Carr as your Virgil/protagonist going through the story, apply. To assemble it with that kind of rhythm while also taking these literary tangents off into important vignettes that reflect the future of media, meant that we had to do a lot, but do it in a very pithy way. I would say that there isn’t any scene that we wanted to include but didn’t. We crammed as much in there as possible. There were certain moments when we felt that the stakes were high enough that we would let the tape roll, let it go. So in the Iraq troop withdrawal scene, in the scene of reporting that David Carr does about the Tribune Company, in the WikiLeaks scene at the start of the film, we really tried to, as much as people could tolerate, let the scenes play out as they were.
When did you know that David Carr was going to be the breakout star of this documentary?
Initially I was planning on making the film just about him. And he didn’t want to be the sole focus of the film. He was the one who asked that the film not be about him exclusively but I’m glad that that is the case. I think he is such a star that he just rises to the fore. But [New York Times media reporter] Brian Stelter is great and ultimately the message of the film — which could have been done at the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post or AP or the Los Angeles Times, anyplace that has as its mandate original news reporting as its mandate — is quality journalism. That’s very rare. There aren’t too many companies out there that still do that, with boots on the ground all around the world reporting original news. It’s incredibly complex and expensive and it’s severely threatened. So the way that that daily miracle is produced on that black-and-white page isn’t because of one star like David Carr, it’s really a team effort. I’m really glad that we expanded it to the whole media desk.
Is there anything you’re looking to include on the eventual DVD? Is David Carr going to do a commentary track?
We should definitely do that. I think Magnolia has plans for that.
Did you have any idea that the year you would be covering would be so important for the paper?
All I knew was that I wanted to be at the right place, at the right time. And it did seem like the right time, because so many newspapers were going bankrupt. It just seemed like it had reached the boiling point with a collision between new media and old media. Little did I know that WikiLeaks would become such an enormous story and such an example of everything that’s going on, that it would become such a part of the culture that it would wind up as a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. And, it turned out, unlike the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, WikiLeaks was working with the New York Times. So we were able to see that revolution from the initial scenes of reporting on WikiLeaks and the Times trying to figure out if these guys are an advocacy group, are they journalists, can they be a publisher and a source at the same time? To then, a couple months later, they’re still suspect of WikiLeaks but they’re actually taking information from them and running exclusives pairing them with the Afghan War Logs, the Iraqi War Logs, and the State Secrets [columns], which were these blockbuster stories and ran on the front page for over ten days. In that one little story you have a three-act play-within-a-play happening. You have the New York Times, like Doctor Frankenstein looking at the monster, wondering “What is this WikiLeaks thing?” And by act three they’re running blockbuster stories with that monster.
Well, it seems like it ended up being the best place to be at the time.
Yeah, I think the movie is about the New York Times and you want it to be as perfect as possible but on the other hand, you want to get it right. And I hope we come as close to humanly possible to doing that. But there’s also a timing issue. There’s an urgent conversation going on about journalism right now – should we pay for online journalism; if these places keep going bankrupt, will anyone care? That’s ultimately what it is [and] this is a front row seat to the journalism that is being practiced inside the New York Times.
You talked about McKee as an inspiration for structure but what documentarians were you looking up to?
Certainly D.A. Pennebaker. I really love “The War Room” and I felt like that movie created a really interesting dynamic between [James] Carville and [George] Stephanopolous and I felt was very similar between David Carr and [Media and Marketing Editor] Bruce Headlam, where Carr is the crazy Cajun man and Bruce is the more measured intellectual. And I worked on “Control Room” and [director] Jehane [Noujaim] is a student of Pennebaker. So I just feel like that form of going and baring witness and sticking through hours and hours of prosaic material but building a relationship that, when something flairs up, you can catch something.
Was it hard to finally walk away from it?
Yes. It’s such a moving target, this film. It’s so hard to sufficiently explain enough what these writers think the future of printed media is, but at the same time do it in enough of a poetic way that you can end without having an ending. It’s a little bit like a piece of music that doesn’t necessarily resolve on a final note, but you come out of the theater lingering in thought. That’s okay, since there’s no real conclusion.
“Page One” opens in limited release on Friday, June 17th.