John Heilemann, along with talent behind five other doc series that are Emmy hopefuls, reveals how they crafted series that delve into food, culture, crime and politics — and what they had to leave out to make their stories work.
Now in its third season, this documentary series gets behind the scenes of Washington headlines.
I’ve resigned myself to the notion that we can’t literally be everywhere at once. But when Trump makes big news, he tends to make it on Twitter, so it’s not like we’re going to the presidential bedroom to shoot him in his bathrobe tweeting.
The biggest challenge is always to try to shoot events that are widely and highly covered but shoot them in a different way, more cinematic and in a way that other people don’t get. If we could shoot in the Lincoln Bedroom with Trump, that would be the best. If we can’t, can we be in the kitchen with him while he’s eating a hamburger?
The Trump administration is more chaotic than any administration I’ve ever covered. Every administration is more chaotic on the inside than it is on the outside. But whatever your wildest imagination of chaos in the Trump administration, take that and multiply it by six or nine — then you get what it’s like on the inside. I think we’re headed toward more turbulence rather than less.
This four-part series lives in the newsroom of The New York Times, chronicling the daily grind of the press under unprecedented levels of scrutiny.
It was a crazy year in newsrooms in our country. It was like rolling with the punches, being there at the right time with the right reporters.
Unpredictability for us was a huge challenge, just figuring out how to allocate our resources. We probably shot between 500 and 600 hours to make a four-and-a-half-hour series. So that floor in that cutting room is pretty big. And of course there were gems and there were things we loved that we didn’t use, and that’s always a little heartbreaking.
But I think the even greater challenge was at the heart of what we were doing, which was working with journalists and making them feel comfortable while they were dealing with confidential sources. The series is called The Fourth Estate for a reason. A free press is a key ingredient to a functioning democracy. That’s why we’re making this film, and I think that’s why The Times let me. I was a real pain in the ass for them, but showing how they do what they do, how careful they are to get it right, even if that means losing a scoop — Trump tweets about them or disparages them, they go about their day. Nobody takes it personally or gets offended, they go about their jobs.
The opioid crisis gets a full airing in this five-part series looking at cartels, users and law enforcement.
I like to keep an open mind, and I think that’s the most exciting way to make documentaries like this, letting the story dictate where you want to go. It’s constantly evolving and constantly changing as the realities on the ground constantly shift, especially when you’re dealing with a subject like the opioid epidemic and looking at this issue through these three lenses: cartel members in Mexico, addicts in the U.S. and law enforcement in the U.S.
You’re dealing generally with people who don’t necessarily want to be filmed. It took a long, long time to get access and gain the trust of our subjects. There are certain storylines that we started filming that didn’t ultimately arc or get fulfilled in a way that made sense for the show. When you’re dealing with addiction, despite loving families, despite community support, despite whatever it is trying to help you get out of the cycle, it is really, really tough to kick. So many of the addicts that we filmed we thought perhaps were on a path to recovery, but then they relapsed, and this is very commonplace.
We need to stop thinking of this issue as a war that we can fight. The idea that we can put up a wall and this issue will be fixed is laughable. It’s basic economics, supply and demand. As long as there’s a demand for drugs in the U.S., there will be supply coming from Mexico and South America. So, we need to view this less as a war and more as a health-care crisis.
Burns and Lynn Novick co-directed the 10-part account of the conflict, which includes interviews with civilians as well as Viet Cong soldiers.
It blew up any assumptions any of us had about the Vietnam War.
The challenges were logistical. How do you interview North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrillas and South Vietnamese soldiers who are still speaking only Vietnamese? And corralling the archives from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City — hundreds, if not thousands, of archives we drew on for this production. But that’s always our job, being a detective and finding the material.
There were wonderful scenes that didn’t fit just because it didn’t work in the arc of the episode or the arc of the entire 10-part series: the shooting of a water buffalo and the realization they have just taken away someone’s livelihood and most likely driven them into the hands of the Viet Cong, regrets on the part of some demonstrators about things they said to returning veterans. With documentary, a filmmaker makes the decision about what lives and dies almost like a triage doctor.
War brings out the worst, but it also brings out the best. I’m drawn to war. This is what human beings do that does not commend them as the most intelligent species, but there are also pockets of humanity, fellowship and kindness and sacrifice and love that take place in war at the same kind of heightened degree that the bad stuff happens. So, when you study war, you study the best and the worst of us.
Star chef David Chang takes viewers around the world in an eight-part food series that has more on its mind than cuisine.
The show is really like a cultural debate show masquerading as a food show.
I usually make movies and shows about culture, but food is the most prevalent part of culture. Everybody has a relationship with food. Everybody has an opinion about food, whether or not you watch food shows. Each episode started with an idea, not food. That’s a very different way of doing a food show. It’s not just top down, and it’s not just bottom up. It’s everything. It’s not just the Michelin star restaurants that tell you something about food or street food that tells you about food, but fast food tells you about food and — everything, whether it’s mac and cheese at the Sizzler or whatever — also will tell you something about culture. Everything is open for discussion.
Through food you can talk about politics, immigration, economics, authenticity, appropriation, all kinds of questions that are all over the culture. It’s asking a lot of big questions about food and not necessarily telling you the right way.
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to put this stuff together because what we did was sort of insanely ambitious. There was a scene shot at this fish sandwich place in Tokyo that was amazing and that didn’t make it because it didn’t fit in one of the episodes. The thing we all wanted to do was to be more like a documentary show. It was the idea of all of us trying to be in the moment and learn whatever we can because I like the feeling of this as a show that’s loose; it gives it a different kind of energy. I think it opened up a lot of new ways of telling stories.
Dramatic scenes, interviews and archival footage are employed in this genre-bending account of the mysterious death of Cold War military scientist Frank Olson.
I’ve always looked at my films as experimental in nature and that I should always be trying things that are risky.
I know that I was blessed, I don’t know how else to describe it, with such a wide variety, such a diversity of material. We produced a lot of archival materials, stuff that I’d never seen before. When you’re really doing research, it’s a constant surprise. Do we ever have total information? Of course we don’t. We’re always putting together a partial picture based on fragments. This is certainly true in Wormwood. Originally, I wanted there to be a lot more drama. But we had to cut, really, 40 pages from the script just because of budgetary considerations. There were scenes we never shot. We used everything.
Did I learn something? I learned an enormous amount, if only that I learned I can work with actors. Actors like me and I like actors — we work well together and I’d like to do more. To work with actors and create actual drama, not re-enactment but actual drama as part of Wormwood. I have wanted for some time to incorporate drama into what I do. Someone asked me why I make movies, and I answered, “Well, I make movies so I can make more.” You do one, you finish it, and then it’s time to make something else. I call Wormwood “the everything bagel,” but I’d like to do more everything bagel projects. So more projects that use drama. In fact, I’d like to use it even more extensively but also use interview and archival material and home movies and the kitchen sink, if you like.
This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.