In one year, Alex Gibney directed three documentaries; one on the legendary singer and actor Frank Sinatra, another on Apple co-founder and industry icon Steve Jobs, and also a little HBO doc you may have heard of titled “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” To say he’s a busy man is an understatement, as would saying he’s a game-changing documentarian.
Yet the latter adjective is fitting for the savvy helmer’s next project: a docu-series (that’s not a docu-series) set to premiere on Amazon (via a release strategy that’s a first for the company) and co-produced by Kahane Cooperman (from “The Daily Show”). But these two are far from the only creative minds behind “The New Yorker Presents,” their new half-hour series set to debut weekly for Amazon Prime subscribers. In fact, they’re more like the curators than the creators, as they have a hand in constructing the episodes that are made up of news reports, cartoons, short films, poetry readings and more.
Indiewire sat down with Gibney and Cooperman to get a better idea of what goes into making each episode of “The New Yorker Presents,” how they snagged directors like Jonathan Demme and actors like Andrew Garfield for a streaming series and what, exactly, we should be calling it.
How do you guys categorize this show? A docuseries doesn’t quite seem to do it justice.
KAHANE COOPERMAN: That’s such a great question, because it’s not a docuseries. There’s so many more elements to it and different types of storytelling. […] I think we just call it a series. It’s got comedy. It has fiction and narrative pieces. It has poetry. It has cartoons. So, to call it a docuseries, you’re only representing one part of it. It’s a hugely important part. It’s the majority — like it’s the majority of the magazine. It’s non-fiction, but it’s not representative of the whole series. So, docuseries is not correct.
ALEX GIBNEY: I think in some ways it redefines what a magazine show is.
GIBNEY: Because the traditional magazine show, yes they do different subjects. We do a cultural piece, a lighter piece. We do a heavy piece. But the vibe is monochromatic. It’s the same style from piece to piece to piece. So, it is of a piece. It’s like a magazine in which the layout is the same from article to article. We’re doing something that’s much more in the spirit of The New Yorker…where it’s a magazine piece, but each one has it’s own sense of character and style that is wildly different. Now The New Yorker has more of house style than I think our filmmakers do. Nevertheless, the idea being that it’s more eclectic, so it’s kind of redefining an idea.
Yeah, could you talk a little bit about that because you kind of get a distinct feeling and tone–
GIBNEY: It’s also not hosted which is very important because that’s another way– Sometimes the host, while they guide you and they become a kind of reassuring presence, they end up dominating so that all you get after a certain period of time is the host. And everything else seems to fall away. You have this kind of drone. And the content is just there to serve the host rather than the host serving the content.
COOPERMAN: Whereas this one the content drives it.
I thought it was an interesting kind of setup, too, because you have the table of contents at the beginning of each episode that lays out what’s to come and when it’s coming — how long each segment is, when it’s going to trigger in the episode. To me it read like this allows people to see what’s coming, and it also allows them to skip around if they want to.
COOPERMAN: And it’s also a visual nod to the style of the magazine’s contents. […] You look at the magazine for all the different ways you can interpret it differently, and I’d imagine the thought was that it would be a nice mirror for the table of contents; to give people the sense that maybe how long various pieces were within the show.
One of the things that seems to be a challenge for viewers these days is the shortening of attention spans, but if you have something laid out like that where people know exactly what it is, how long it is, they could skip ahead.
GIBNEY: I think so. I think it gives people a comfortable format in which to engage in. Though I would challenge a little bit the idea that everyone’s got a shorter attention span. I think that’s become a trope that is both true and not true at the same time. Because let’s face it. Let’s look at it in the area of non-fiction in particular. People are bingeing on “Making of a Murderer.” That’s not short. It’s not a Vine. It’s a long series. Same with “Jinx.” And I think the idea here is that even inside this half-hour format there are longer pieces, very short pieces–
COOPERMAN: –anywhere from 40 seconds to 15 minutes.
GIBNEY: I think people go where their interest goes. And if you can tell a compelling story in 10 seconds you should, but if it takes longer to dig a little bit deeper, then people will go there with you.
Talk to me a little bit about that curation of it. How do you guys actually sit down and say, “This is going to make up this episode?” Do you find common themes? Just go with the timing of it? How do you decide you’re going to have — this, this, and this, but not this — each week?
GIBNEY: Kahane is the one who’s really doing this, but I think the overall guideline is to find a way of both coming up with stories that might be good for certain filmmakers and present them to then also listening to what the filmmakers are interested in as we reach out to them.
COOPERMAN: We had a back and forth.
GIBNEY: It happens both ways. It’s a two-way street.
COOPERMAN: What we kind of set out to do early on was to sort of curate all these stories; create this menu of stories that we knew all the powers that be would be good with. There’s a lot of voices in the mix here. There’s The New Yorkers, Conde Nast, Amazon and Jigsaw. And so, we’d pick these stories — and we’d pick them for a variety of reasons. One is they’re great stories, obviously. The content is king and you need to tell great stories, but you also want to make sure you have a lot of range throughout the series. You want to make sure there’s different voices being represented. You want to make sure that you’re covering a lot of different topics and, because of what the series is, you want everything to not feel the same.
We were doing a ton of reading at the beginning. […] We were coming out with these sheets that we’d send to everyone. They’d proofread it and then we were able to call down after all these considerations. It was this incredible menu of options which we’d then be able to give to any filmmaker saying, “Do any of these stories float your boat? And If they don’t let us know what you’ve read lately that you’re interested in, we’ll see what you can do.” What you end up with is people who were incredibly excited about the piece they were doing and it shows in the filmmaking.
Sounds, from a very organizational standpoint, very daunting, but also very fun and very satisfying once you got it put into place.
COOPERMAN: It was satisfying for me, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. We shall see. But it was interesting. You’re sort of like a DJ with these episodes and in a way you have think of what the emotional impact is of each piece. How is someone going to feel when this piece is done, and then it’s like you’re controlling the mood of the room. I want to build up and then bring the crowd down. That’s my approach to how I looked at all these pieces.
Would you consider giving something an entire episode or 25 minutes out of the episode — because of the importance they found or the relevancy of it — or are you going to try to cut it down to fit the timeline?
COOPERMAN: Personally, I think that we’re truly reflective of the magazine —at least for our first season, which will hopefully not be the only season. I really felt strongly about establishing ourselves within the spirit of the magazine. [In magazines,] you’re dipping into so many different worlds, and I think the episodes should do the same thing. That being said we have one episode in the mix of the 10 that is a theme episode in the same way that The New Yorker has occasional theme editions of the magazine. So, we do have one episode — I didn’t go out to make it — I just say a connection between a lot of the pieces we were working on, and I saw we had enough to create an episode that’s a food episode. Where every element of it — from the cartoons to the doc to the short comedy film to the poem — everything touches on food in some way. It’s not always the most direct food connection, but everything has some mention of something edible.
One of the other things I wanted to ask you guys about was the fact that you’re premiering at Sundance. How that came about? Who approached who?
GIBNEY: Well, we had some money left over in the budget so we were able to mount the bribery. It was always felt that we could put it in the pockets of the right people at Sundance.
That’s a good strategy.
GIBNEY: No. it seemed like a good fit — we hoped. And we’re glad that Sundance agreed because of the tremendous number of Independent filmmakers — mostly non-fiction, but some fiction — who are Sundance veterans. It seemed like a way of celebrating–
COOPERMAN: It’s a filmmaker’s show.
GIBNEY: We use the idea of inventing the magazine. It’s kind of got a film festival vibe this series. It seemed synergistic to have a premiere at Sundance.
What do you hope to get out of that?
GIBNEY: I think Sundance has also started to embrace these longer form experiments. We’re a different kind of experiment. They’re cinematic in nature, but are coming out online or television. The classic example is the Jane Campion longer piece a few years ago.
COOPERMAN: With Elizabeth Moss.
“Top of the Lake.”
GIBNEY: That they’re embracing that idea in a way that I think is very exciting so cinema is not limited to being necessarily in a movie theater.
Do you know what episodes you’re premiering there? Is is the first one?
COOPERMAN: We’re showing the first two which includes Alex’s film, “Agent.” And Steve James’ piece. And Shari Berman and Bob Pulcini’s period piece, starring Paul Giamatti.
Was that one of the clips [from the TCA panel trailer]? I thought it looked like Paul Giamatti–
COOPERMAN: He’s got prosthetic jowls on.
That’s what threw me off.
COOPERMAN: It’s based on a “Shouts and Murmurs” piece called “What I Imagine Honoré de Balzac Thought During His Daily Fifty Cups of Coffee.” So, Shari and Bob came up with this idea: We have one shot for every cup. You go through 50 cups of coffee with Paul Giamatti as Honoré de Balzac, and it’s pretty great.
What else did you guys find over the course of what you’re doing so far that you’re really excited about — a surprise from a filmmaker or a story that you think is going to hit home?
GIBNEY: I think the Lucy Walker episode was a really fantastic exploration both visually and otherwise about how a life infuses food. It’s part of the food issue, and it’s really a visual feast and also gets a cooking in a really personal way through this character who has this really exclusive restaurant in Los Angeles.
COOPERMAN: It would be hard for me to name one particular piece. I would say there’s one character […] the main character in Roger Russ Williams’ piece.
COOPERMAN: The world is a better place because that guy’s in it. He’s the most inspiring Lucha Libre wrestler in drag you could ever imagine in your life. He’s lovely, this man. And I’m still moved by that when I think of that story and the way Roger made it. It’s beautiful.
When I first heard about the show, I really didn’t know what to expect going in. And then, after watching the pilot episode, it really hooked me. I was hoping that you could give some sort of elevator pitch for this thing. I know that’s the dreaded thing, to reduce a piece of art to 15 or 20 words, but I feel like it could be good for people to more ready find it.
GIBNEY: The world’s greatest filmmakers at the top of their game telling compelling stories.
COOPERMAN: The world’s greatest magazine.
GIBNEY: Right. For the world’s greatest magazine.
Oh man, well done. Did you guys have that in your pocket already?
COOPERMAN: We’re crafting it.
“The New Yorker Presents” premieres at Sundance Wednesday, January 27 and debuts on Amazon Prime Tuesday, February 16.