The co-directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have had a long career in documentary film, working together for the last two decades, while Reichert’s career was recently celebrated with a 50-year retrospective at MOMA earlier this year. While on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, talking about their Oscar nominated 2009 short film about the closing of one of America’s most iconic factories, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” and their remarkable new Netflix documentary “American Factory,” about the reopening of that same plant by the Chinese company Fuyao, the duo talked about the keys to both career sustainability and what has allowed them to gain access to their subjects and stories.
1. Live Close to Your Subject
Reichert and Bognar have long lived in Dayton, Ohio. Their home was only a 25 minute drive to the old GM factory, now the Fuyao factory, where “Last Truck” and now “American Factory” took place.
“We drove to that factory hundreds and hundreds of times and if we were dive-bombing in from New York or LA it wouldn’t be the same film at all,” said Bognar. “And the fact we would run into people who work there in the grocery story, or at the ball game — we have a minor league baseball team. All that really matters to being there, to understanding what the story is and being trusted to tell the story.”
Reichert said the way they gained the trust of the factory workers for “Last Truck” was that she and Bognar kept showing up. “People know we aren’t going anywhere,” said Reichert. “We live there too. They find out where we live and they can come and harass if they really hate what we’re doing. We’re more accountable.”
2. Keep Your Nut Low
Living in Dayton, Ohio, has had another benefit for the partners in filmmaking and life in maintaining their filmmaking careers.
“You talk about sustainability of a career, or a bunch of films in a row, whatever you call what we do, we always say keep your nut low,” said Reichert. “Meaning keep your daily living expenses – your rent, your cost to get around, your groceries – keep that as low as possible. You don’t get much lower than Dayton, Ohio in terms of cost of living.”
Reichert and Bognar say that if they ever had needed to take on a demanding or permanent job to pay for an expensive rent or mortgage, they would not have been able to make most of their films. Reichert explains, “Because then if something, which happened to us every film we’ve ever made, if an opportunity comes or a story seems to be opening, or a situation you want to follow, you can do it.”
Reichert and Bognar have maintained side jobs, like teaching and working with kids in schools, which supply an income, but give them the flexibility they need.
“We have a car and a camera, and we can start following pretty much any story within an hour, hour-and-half drive of our house,” said Bognar. “If the people are willing to let us hang out, we have that flexibility and that flexibility really matters to us, to be quick on our feet.”
3. Learning How To Talk To People
The turning point for Reichert and Bognar in making “Last Truck” was breaking through with workers at the bar near the factory. “Learning to talk to people in a bar, or a coffee shop, is a skill that a documentarian should have,” said Bognar. Part of that, regardless if you are just getting to know the subject, or interviewing them, is about how talk to people. According to Reichert, filmmakers need to be generally interested in the person, rather than viewing them as simply a source.
“You always want to find out what is that person going through and what is that person’s view on their life, their work, whatever it is. What are they going through right now?” said Reichert. “Then you, hopefully, with the type of films we make, you’re going to see them again and again, and then you can say, well, ‘How is it going?’ They can see you are actually interested in them, not just in the story, or the film. You never want to feel like you are asking people to talk for my movie, or to talk for history, but really just talk to me and I’m really curious and interested. And we really are.”
The “American Factory” team didn’t always record video with audio, putting a premium on intimacy during interviews. One example, is the remarkable interview they got with the Chairman of the Fuyao Factory, where he talked his youth and mixed feelings about what he had built with his company.
“We were sitting on a couch with him,” said Reichert. “We had a microphone up about three to four inches from his face, no camera, and we could just go on as long as we wanted, and you could look at the person’s eyes up close. I think that matters. I’m such a believer, whenever I do interviews, my knees are almost touching the other person’s knees and I’m looking right at them. I don’t believe in being across the room. It’s more intimate and it’s more of a conversation. Which I think a good interview is really a conversation.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.