Kushner docu latest arrival in rich year

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Documentary discussion: The rise in recent years of nonfiction or reality TV has been mirrored in Hollywood by a corresponding increase in popularity for nonfiction movies or documentaries.

Reflecting on the growth that documentaries have enjoyed, Freida Lee Mock, whose latest documentary "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" opens in New York today via Balcony Releasing and expands in the weeks ahead, told me, "It's just a great renaissance for the form. Basically, the public has discovered how entertaining and interesting and engaging documentary films can be."

"Wrestling," an American Film Foundation presentation, is directed, written and produced by Mock and executive produced by Terry Sanders. I enjoyed a recent look at the film, finding that although I didn't approach it with tremendous personal interest in Kushner, I was immediately caught up in it thanks to Mock's strong storytelling ability and the very likeable way in which she presents Kushner, who is quite funny at times. I also appreciated how she remembers to put people's names and identifications on the screen to let us know who we're watching. Too frequently these days documentary filmmakers don't realize how important it is to identify who's talking on camera for those who may not instantly recognize them.

Mock's perspective on the genre comes not only from her work as a director -- she won the best documentary feature Oscar in 1995 for "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" and was Oscar-nominated for three documentary short subjects -- but also from being one of three current Governors of the Motion Picture Academy's Documentary Branch. Mock was the Documentary Branch's first Governor when it was created in 2001 and last year also chaired the Academy's Documentary Executive Committee.

What accounts for the documentary genre's new popularity as evidenced by such boxoffice hits as Michael Moore's "Bowling For Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me?" "The public began to be exposed to nonfiction as a story form that's entertaining," she replied. "Television has helped expose people to (nonfiction). Cable shows have a great deal of nonfiction programming, but are different from a theatrical documentary. I think people began to see nonfiction as part of one's viewing experience whether in a theater or on television. I think the Sundance Film Festival and Robert Redford's commitment to showcasing nonfiction equally with fiction in the competition -- the selections are made equally (with) 16 fiction and 16 nonfiction -- has had a huge impact on putting us in the limelight and saying that this is an important genre. I think he has helped give an imprimatur to the genre."

There have been, she noted, breakthrough documentaries going back over 10 years to "Hoop Dreams," the 1994 documentary about two inner-city Chicago teens hoping to become basketball superstars, for which Steve James won the DGA Award for directorial achievement in documentary: "There's always been nonfiction films out there. Historically, the Academy has acknowledged them as a theatrical form for 60-some years since World War II. 1941 was the first time they gave an Academy Award for nonfiction. I think the genre's (had its ups and downs). I guess it was booming back then and that's why they started it. It sort of ebbed for a while, but in the last 10, 12 or 14 years we've seen it slowly coming back.

"I think besides those reasons, the Academy by creating a grant finally in 2001 helped (by giving) documentary filmmakers equal representation on the board. Every branch has three Governors. And people do look to the Academy for the gold standard of motion pictures. I can't document it empirically, but I think those all have had an impact. Certainly, people in the field all look to the Academy for standards. When the branch was created in 2001 the board voted to allow us to have one Governor. The next year they voted to give us parity. Every branch has three Governors and that's where we stand. Michael Apted, Rob Epstein and I are the Governors for this year. We're elected for three year terms. We just had an election and they stagger it so there's an election every year, basically. A Governor can serve three consecutive three year terms so you can be on for nine years. I'm in my second term."

Asked if Michael Moore's great success with "Fahrenheit 9/11" made a big difference in popularizing documentaries, Mock told me, "I think so (but I also) think there was a lot before then. For instance, 'Hoop Dreams' made a splash and did well theatrically. But '9/11' was a huge blockbuster. He started to make a presence with his style of filmmaking with 'Roger and Me' (1989) and I think 'Bowling For Columbine' (2002) really hit the zeitgeist, so to speak. It reached a mainstream audience with his style and the story. But definitely Michael Moore has had a huge influence on attention to documentaries. But then Morgan Spurlock came along with 'Super Size Me' (2004). And others have done very well, but aren't quite so personality driven -- such as 'Spellbound' (Jeffrey Blitz's 2002 documentary about eight teenagers hoping to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee), which people liked very much and which did very well. That's an example."

Another reason, she said, that nonfiction films "have had a spike (in popularity) is that the tools of making films have (become more available to people). People have greater access to the means (of making films), meaning digital media. There are more people coming into the field and bringing a different storytelling (style) and techniques that are much more entertainment based. So there is an audience that (likes films) like 'Spellbound.' That's a great example of the 'little engine that could.' I think they did it with virtually nothing. They had a very inexpensive digital camera and they did it with a couple of grants, but virtually out-of-pocket. They cut it in their living room. And it ultimately was nominated for an Academy Award. It was very entertaining and said a lot about America. There are a lot of different layers of story in that theme."

Mock's new documentary about Pulitzer and Tony award winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America," "Munich") came about, she explained, after "I saw an article in the L.A. Times about Tony coming out with a new drama, the first big one since 'Angels in America.' It just caught my eye. It dealt with Afghanistan. It was called 'Homebody/Kabul.' I was equally interested in Afghanistan (and I thought), 'What is this person doing about Afghanistan?' That was the tipping point. I saw this article right after 9/11. I was just curious about Tony and the writing of a play dealing with this backdrop. I had, of course, known about Tony's work and 'Angels in America,' but I actually did not see it when it came out here and in New York and I hadn't read it before I started. But I knew its reputation."

What made a big difference for Mock was that she saw Kushner deliver a one-minute speech at a college graduation a few years earlier. "I think had I not seen him speak for one minute I might not have started the film," she told me. "He was receiving an honorary doctorate and he and another distinguished person, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, were told they could speak, but only for one minute. We all knew about Tony Kushner, so we understood why he was distinguished and getting an award. But the one minute was such a tour de force. It was just staggering.

"He had us laughing and deeply inspired and we felt the possibilities of a better world. That's kind of how he looks at the world. He has a sense that there's hope and there's something all of us can do. So that one-minute speech was a catalogue. He (told) the students that 'Rather than give you advice, I'd like you to think about ridding the world of this list of evils.' He went through this huge list, which he delivered in his rapid fire talk (including) the usual racism and homophobia, but then he threw in cluster bombs and bad education and third world debt -- all the kinds of things we, of course, actually could agree that we should get rid of."

It was something, she said, that made your head spin: "You thought, no one had actually quite talked about these things in this way and framed them in a way that was so insightful and you kind of felt, 'Why don't we all try to do something?' He's both very funny and very serious and ultimately he's kind of inspiring about social justice and creating a better world. So you left feeling kind of good. I think that speech kind of stayed with me. You know, there are a lot of playwrights. Why this one? As a filmmaker you kind of look for someone who ultimately can carry a film charismatically."

In the course of following Kushner around, Mock noted, "I kind of lucked out in that he had a tremendous amount of work being produced during this three year time frame (between her first getting interested in him and finishing the movie), all of which had been marinating for three to four years."

How did she manage to secure Kushner's cooperation? "I'll just write a letter to a person if that's what I want to do," Mock explained. "I have done quite a number of films about people. I wrote him a letter and I sent him some of my films. I think he knew about the "Maya Lin" film (about the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial), which was an Oscar winner. And people liked the film, so there was a certain credibility, I guess. You'd have to ask him. But, anyway, I just wrote a letter. One page. It was very straightforward about what I do and what my interest is and that I'd like to talk to him.

"And eventually we talked on the phone. You know how you can go back and forth. I don't blame him for (taking time) figuring out, 'Who is this person? Is she legitimate?' We eventually talked and he sounded very chatty and he was interested. What it meant was, 'Would you cooperate with me and allow me to be a part of your professional life?' I was really interested in doing a story about a playwright and the creative process, but there's a lot of other issues that come out of that. He finally said yes and I said we should meet. So I went to New York and met in the East Village where (his play) 'Homebody/Kabul' was in rehearsal and that was it. We just started. He was obviously comfortable and that's basic, I think. For a documentary filmmaker there has to be a sense of comfort level and trust."

As for how intrusive her cameras were in following Kushner around, Mock observed, "That's always the challenge -- to both be there and not be too intrusive. You have to kind of be very sensitive to not being very overbearing otherwise they're going to kick you out. There was that rhythm set up. I guess he felt comfortable enough with me to say, 'Yes, let's do it.' Actually, we share a mutual friend and my hunch is the friend said something (like) that I'm okay. So we started in that I was allowed into those areas of his work life. It was up to me, of course, to get individual permission for all the different people and the places we were in to film. That's just basic (work) that you do as a filmmaker to (get) clearances and all that. But obviously it starts first with having the cooperation of the principal. And so that was it. He never asked to see anything in the film."

She shot over a three year period with Kushner: "From 2001 to '04. It took a year to shape the film, to edit it and do post-production. So it was finished in time for Sundance (earlier) this year. It was frightening that at the last minute (Sundance co-director) Geoff Gilmore called and said, 'We're going to switch you into this other theater.' It turned out that we were going from a 400 seater to 1,300 seats. That's very big. He said, 'Don't worry.' There were six screenings. To start off with that huge (theater) was pretty terrific. I've never opened in a 1,300 seater so it was exciting. A lot of press was there and overall (the film received) wonderful press. I said, 'We always get one or two cranky ones, right? I expect that.' But overall it was really terrific."

As "Wrestling" begins its platform release today, she said, "We're opening in New York at the Film Forum (and) if you're an independent filmmaker you're particularly happy to have that kind of opening. They have a reputation (for showing the top independent films). We're doing our platform through the fall. From October to early December we're opening in about 15 to 20 markets. We'll be in L.A. in early November. If we're lucky, people will like the film. We hope to keep it out there and open in 60 to 100 markets in the New Year."

"Wrestling" will qualify for Academy consideration in the best documentary feature category. "It's one of many dozens and dozens and dozens," Mock said. "There are an awful lot of wonderful documentaries that have been out this year. I think the public has a hunger for stories and ideas of substance some times."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Mar. 25, 1988's column: "In recent years film school has become the entry level route followed by many would-be first time feature directors. For Andrew Fleming, who directed 20th Century Fox's horror-thriller 'Bad Dreams,' the road to Hollywood began in New York at New York University's Film School.

"I was interested in Fleming's thoughts about how good a beginning film school is. 'For me it was good because it gave me the physical possibilities of making films,' he told me. 'Especially NYU. It's a very creative environment. I can't speak for other film schools, but there was a lot of really varied influence there. There were people from the Soviet Union teaching. There were people from Eastern Europe, from Japan, from South America and there were all sorts of factions of films being taught there. There was a very strong documentary department and animation and a very interesting avant-garde experimental department...

"Fleming's big break was attracting the participation of producer Gale Anne Hurd ('The Terminator,' 'Aliens' and now 'Outer Heat' with Richard Kobritz), who wanted to become involved with low-budget production and will launch such a company this year called No Frills Films. 'Dreams,' which cost approximately $4.5 million, is that company's maiden effort.

"'The script was written to be done on a very independent level,' he points out. 'It's logistically kind of contained. Most of the action takes place in a hospital. It's kind of an ensemble piece. The writing was done with me directing in mind. I was writing something that I knew I could do. What we were hoping to do was get the finances together and do it on a very primitive level. What happened is while I was writing, I got an agent and he read it and thought it was quite good and submitted it to Gale. She read it and wanted to acquire it and soon found out that I wanted to direct it -- a package deal. She saw my student films and was impressed enough to say, okay, it's a deal.'

"From that point on is where he says the work really began: 'That was the easy part apart from writing. There was a long process of revision. I spent about three months doing a lot of storyboards and discussing casting. Once she felt the script was in good enough shape and there were enough elements in place, she submitted it to the studio and they said yes. So it was a lot of work, but it was in a way a little less complicated than I thought it would be.'"

Update: "Bad" opened Apr. 8, 1988 to $4 million at 1,180 theaters ($3,397 per theater) and went on to gross about $9.8 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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