When the Making of a Documentary Is as "Insane as the Movie Itself"

9:00 AM 6/3/2018

by Don Steinberg

Filmmakers behind 'Operation Odessa,' 'Tickling Giants' and 'Wasted! The Story of Food Waste' reveal the backstories of their Emmy contenders, which dug into the rise and fall of a Miami arms trafficker, the unlikely tale of a surgeon-turned-comedian and the food waste epidemic, respectively.

Tickling Giants, Wasted, Operation Odessa - Split - Publicity - H 2018
From left to right: Courtesy of Sarkasmos Productions LLC; Super Ltd; Showtime

  • 'Tickling Giants'

    Of the many spinoffs and imitations that Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show has spawned, maybe none has been as fascinating as Al-Bernameg, Egyptian for “The Show.” Sara Taksler’s Tickling Giants documents the rise and fall of this daring political satire program, which Bassem Youssef, a 37-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon, started in the laundry room of his Cairo apartment in 2011.

    The charismatic Youssef became one of Egypt’s most famous faces with a lovingly spot-on imitation of Stewart. The Show became a sensation, moving from YouTube to national TV before government authorities, unhappy with the mockery, forced it off the air in 2014.

    Taksler, a producer on The Daily Show since 2005, met Youssef when he was a Stewart guest in 2012 and proposed documenting his show. “We never could have imagined how much was going to happen when he said yes,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll follow him for two months to see what it’s like to make a comedy show in a place where free speech is not necessarily acceptable.’ I had no clue.” They ended up shooting through 2014. 

    The documentary opens with Youssef’s decision to switch from medicine to comedy as a way to make a difference, then covers two violent regime changes in Egypt. The Show cracks jokes all along the way. It gets dropped by one skittish TV network, then picked up by another before Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime finally succeeds in killing it off.

    “I didn’t discuss the movie at all publicly when we were filming,” says Taksler. “One of my crewmembers was beaten up for his footage.” Amid threats and fears for his family’s safety, Youssef never dilutes the jokes. Once, Stewart is flown in as a secret guest and escorted onto the set with a black bag over his head. “Satire gets you into trouble,” Youssef says, to which Stewart replies: “It doesn’t get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into.”

  • 'Wasted! The Story Of Food Waste'

    A film about garbage that somehow whets viewers’ appetite to cook a delicious meal? Directors Anna Chai and Nari Kye wanted to avoid a grim tone in their doc about food waste — in hopes of making it an appealing learning experience. “It doesn’t gross you out, and it doesn’t freak you out. That was a big goal of ours,” says Kye.

    The film reveals that one-third of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Ninety percent of American food waste ends in landfills, where it oozes ozone-destroying methane.

    “Once you know some of the statistics, it’s hard to throw food away,” says Chai. “Everybody’s guilty of it. So it’s one of the few problems in the world that you can influence individually.”

    Star chef Anthony Bourdain produced the doc; it was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which aims to cut global food waste in half by 2030. “Chefs really hate wasting anything,” says Kye. “Tony [Bourdain] was saying, ‘Hey, can we shame people into not wasting food?’” 

    But instead of shaming, the filmmakers offer a gentle nudge, highlighting programs throughout the world that are making a difference thanks to innovators like chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill in Manhattan. Barber creates restaurant delicacies from parts of food plants — stems, flowers, leaves — that are normally thrown away. At an elementary school in New Orleans, kids grow vegetables and compost organic waste. There’s a beer called Toast that’s made out of unwanted bread.

    “Everybody who sees the movie wants to run out and get a compost bin,” says Chai. “It is a hopeful story.”

  • 'Operation Odessa'

    Tiller Russell says the making of his documentary Operation Odessa was “as insane as the movie itself.”

    “A narc I know called me with a tip,” says Russell, who writes for such TV dramas as Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. and directs docs about cops and crime. “He said, ‘There’s this Russian gangster named Tarzan who had a strip club in Miami. He tried to sell a $50 million Russian submarine to the Cali drug cartel. This dude is locked up in a Panamanian prison right now, and he has a BlackBerry. Do you want his phone number?’ I said, ‘Hell, yes.’” 

    The result is a comedic doc about mobster bromance that took Russell and his crew all over the world, from Miami to Brooklyn to Moscow.

    Tarzan is Ludwig Fainberg, a Russian who worked in the blossoming 1980s drug trafficking scene in Miami. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Tarzan began selling Russian motorcycles and military helicopters, eventually connecting with a mysterious Cuban man known as Tony, who said the cartel would be interested in a Russian submarine. The FBI, DEA and others were listening via a task force named Operation Odessa.

    Russell flew to Panama to meet the imprisoned Tarzan, “this giant, sweaty Russian bear of a man,” the filmmaker says. “Then he opens his mouth, and it’s this loquacious, charismatic mobster who felt like he jumped out of a Scorsese movie.” But Russell says the Russian mob had been tipped off, and Tarzan was afraid to talk.

    Years later, Russell got an email from Tarzan with the subject line “Jailbreak!!!” He’d busted out of Panama, caught a boat to Cuba and landed in Moscow. “He told me if I could get to Moscow in five days he was ready to start making the movie,” Russell recalls.

    “All these crooks are huge movie buffs,” the filmmaker explains of his subject’s eagerness. “They think, ‘My story is worthy of being part of that gangster movie canon.’”

    This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.