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“I Didn’t Want to Leave Any Stone Unturned”: Questlove, Todd Haynes, Liz Garbus and the THR Documentary Roundtable

Whether following Jacques  Cousteau into the sea or Julia  Child into the kitchen, these filmmakers — including Jimmy Chin, Robert Greene, Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Betsy West — faced unique challenges in making their award-contending films.

In the middle of an extraordinary year — 2020 — they were at work on films that charted other resonant histories. In Becoming CousteauLiz Garbus, 51, chronicles an emerging environmentalist; in Summer of Soul, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, 50, confronts the erasure of Black stories; in The Rescue, which he directed with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, 48, depicts the challenge faced by a group of unlikely heroes; in The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes, 60, chronicles a literal band of outsiders; in Procession, Robert Greene, 45, enables a group of trauma survivors to reenvision their own backstories; in Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 40, animates a refugee’s tale; and in Julia and My Name Is Pauli Murray, both of which she directed with Julie Cohen, Betsy West, 70, acquaints audiences with two groundbreakers. This fall, at THR’s invitation, the filmmakers came together to compare notes on creating a safe set, crafting their films amid the pandemic and persisting when they keep hearing “no.”

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Liz, Jacques Cousteau did not like the word documentary. He wanted his movies called “adventure films.” Are documentaries officially cool now?

LIZ GARBUS Documentaries are officially cool. I remember an early Sundance that I went to when people were writing, “Oh, the documentaries are the best thing in Sundance.” And then they kept saying that year after year and noticing that there was all this incredible work happening in this field, as if it were some revelation anew. I think we finally caught up to that, where there’s a real appetite and audience for docs. For Cousteau, he rejected the word documentary because he defined documentary as a person who thinks they know more than you giving you a lecture. And if you look around this table, that is not quite how we’re using the form. So perhaps today in this collegial field, he would appreciate being called a documentarian.

Ahmir, I’ve heard you call yourself a reluctant leader in your music career. Does that apply to you as a filmmaker as well?

AHMIR “QUESTLOVE” THOMPSON After completing this film, I’ve accepted that, OK, I have to be a leader. Oftentimes because I come from a culture that only celebrates youth, no one’s really rushing to become [of] the old wise age. There was a point where younger rappers started calling me OG, and I was just like, “Wait dog, I’m not even a G.” Taking on this film was more of a personal challenge for me and my life because I tried to duck it. But inherently, I knew deep down inside that my level of nerd-dom, the abyss level of deep rabbit holes that I can dive into with music films — or just with music, period, my passion for it — that I should be the one to tell this story. But this also taught me a lot about being a leader, communicating with people. I come from a place where I’ll joke for days that “You sang a bad note” or “What kind of solo was that?” You can’t do that to your photographer, your boom, you can’t. So it’s just a whole other world of communication. So, yeah, I’ll say this is actually teaching me to be a better human being and a leader, yes.

What does leadership look like on a documentary?

JIMMY CHIN What we all share is that you’re being trusted with a story and the pressure to be really clear on and accurate about what story you’re telling. In documentary films, there are so many different stages of what you’re doing, whether it’s producing, directing, but one of them is probably just staying calm in the chaos. Because there are so many challenges, and oftentimes they feel really impossible to overcome. “How are we going to fix this? How are we going to get that footage?” And a lot of it is just persistence, dogged persistence.

When the stakes are really high on a shoot and there’s potentially a lot of risk, that’s a really interesting place to be because you’re also responsible for the safety of your crew. And you’re really evaluating the different levels of risk. Establishing a baseline of everybody understanding what the risk threshold everybody’s willing to take before you go into the shoot is hugely important. That’s part about being a good leader, and communicating that, and having your team be able to communicate with you if they don’t feel like it’s a safe environment, but it’s also about building the team that you feel like is on the same level with you.

TODD HAYNES For Robert’s film … you’re pushing into really treacherous places in people’s histories and private lives, personal lives. I’m just wondering how that element of risk and navigation of risk played into your experience?

ROBERT GREENE Procession is about these six guys who are all survivors. They’ve been abused as children by Catholic priests, and we work with them, and they create scenes and come together as a brotherhood, a family. The film was cast by a lawyer, Rebecca Randles, who had been working with the guys for many years. The first risk assessment is her saying, “These guys can do it and should do it,” which are two huge questions. From that point, we knew we were working within a trust zone. Every room had a door, and you could always walk out of that door. “Do you want to do this? Do you not?” Eventually, maybe a third of the way through the process, they start grabbing the bull by the horns and saying, “OK, well, I’d like to do this.” And then they start seeing that they’re actually in control. That’s the most powerful thing. The fear of retraumatization is such a real thing, but here’s the trick, and I actually had a screening just a couple days ago, and there was a therapist in the room, and she’s like, “You cannot retraumatize when you give power, because trauma comes from taking power away.”

Jonas, you’re also dealing with a really vulnerable subject. Can you talk about the lead character in Flee and how you navigated his emotions?

JONAS POHER RASMUSSEN The difference is that I knew my subject since I was 15 and had this curiosity about his past for more than 25 years. It was a very fragile situation because we were friends as well. There’s a huge responsibility for me as a filmmaker, but also as a friend, to tell his story right. For the first year or so, we’re just trying things out, and he always had a space where he could say, “OK, I’m not ready to talk more today,” or, “We can’t do this film at all.” And then slowly, when money came into the project, I had to know if we were actually going to do it. And at some point we look at each other in the eye and say, “Are you OK doing this?” And he was like, “Yes, I’m ready.”

Todd, with your background, presumably you could have made The Velvet Underground as a narrative movie. Why did you choose documentary?

HAYNES The project was offered to me as a documentary from David Blackman at Universal Music Group, after having spoken to [artist and widow of Lou Reed] Laurie Anderson, who was turning over Lou Reed’s archive to the New York City Public Library. I’d never done a documentary. Part of the attraction and the excitement is that this band doesn’t exist in any of the places that most subjects of a rock documentary would in terms of live concert footage, or promotional footage, or anything like that. It was going to be about diving into the avant-garde filmmaking of the 1960s. The Velvet Underground are most associated with Andy Warhol’s cinema, but they had relationships with many other avant-garde filmmakers, and cinema was part of the world that they entered into as a band. So it was an invitation to try to use that material. How do you visualize the music? How do you visualize the time and place?

GREENE It’s like you’re making archival films with subject matter where the people are such great storytellers in the footage itself, which is kind of phenomenal.

THOMPSON It almost equally occurs to have too much information. I could survive off of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch until I die. But, realistically, after my fourth bowl, I’m like, “I’ve had enough.” And looking at 40 hours of footage, because I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned, I think we used less than 15 percent of the footage. I almost imagine that having little to no information and having way too much information could almost be equal.

For those of you whose films are predominantly archival, was there a moment where you found something and said, “This is my movie?”

BETSY WEST Pauli [Murray] had become an Episcopal priest, the first female identified African American Episcopal priest. A number of people had interviewed Pauli, and every time people would come, Pauli would have a tape recorder and push a button. So there are 40 hours of that, which was pretty cool. And then my partner, Julie [Cohen], was at the library and basically stumbled on a video that had not been digitized. When we digitized this video, it was pretty amazing. And that’s what we open the film with. It’s a shot of Pauli Murray with the priest collar on, with the amazing smile, and then the quality is crummy, and then Pauli is reprimanding the dog, getting ready for the interview, “Get down, get down,” and typing away. When we saw it, we thought, “Oh, that’s who Pauli is.” The smile and the warmth. That was when we thought, “OK, we can really do this.”

THOMPSON When we were looking for Black people’s reactions to the moon landing, CBS News archives gave us all this footage. Now, the way that they work is that if it never aired, they won’t clear it. So, of course, there’s this crazy sequence in which you had Black people responding, “Look, there’s poverty here on Earth, that’s a waste of money as far as we’re concerned.” And when we went to clear it, CBS was just like, “Oh no, we can’t clear that.” And we’re like, “Wait, you’re the only documented source of this response. We need it.” And it was back and forth. It was one of the hardest things, more than clearing Beatles songs. I just had to level, “Look, Black erasure is such a major component to this story. I know you have to follow the rules, but you need to understand that I’m telling the story of Black erasure, and for you to just say that, ‘Well, because it didn’t air, I can’t let you have this footage’ — history demands that you show this footage.” When we got that first rejection letter and the second, and the third, and the fourth, we were insistent that this has to be included.

CHIN In The Rescue, we’d only heard rumors about this footage that the Thai Navy SEALs had. There was hardly any footage from inside the cave because no civilians were allowed to film in the cave, and we negotiated for two years. All these 4 a.m. calls with the admiral of the Thai Navy SEALs. It wasn’t until [Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi] got her second [COVID-19] vaccination, flew to Thailand, did her two-week quarantine and literally went to the Thai admiral’s house and knocked on the door and made her case. I still don’t know what she said to them. Because I was 100 percent convinced, “There’s no way they’re going to give us this footage.” And they didn’t actually give it to her; they sent a delegation of Thai Navy SEALs with the hard drives in a briefcase.

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Whether following Jacques  Cousteau into the sea or Julia  Child into the kitchen, these filmmakers faced unique challenges, battling COVID-imposed restrictions while searching through archives, conducting sensitive interviews and displaying never-take-no-for-an-answer persistence. Photographed by Charles W. Murphy

Jonas, you used animation in order to show things that you couldn’t get to with the camera. How did you come to that decision?

RASMUSSEN It was kind of the only way to do it because, first of all, he really wanted to be anonymous. This is the first time he shares his story in the film here, his real voice, telling the story for the very first time. And also because the film takes place in the past. So it was really about how to revitalize his childhood home in Afghanistan — what did Afghanistan look like in the ’80s? And placing him there, but also because it’s really a story about memory and trauma, with the animation, it really enables you to be more expressive and go more into his emotion.

How were all your movies changed by COVID-19?

CHIN In The Rescue, one of the biggest challenges for us was just all the interviews we had to do with people who are all over the world, Australia and Thailand and the U.K. We’ve always found the most important part of interviews is when you’re not interviewing them [but] when you’re having breakfast or dinner, getting to know them and building that rapport, because you’re about to ask them a lot of very personal questions and get them to open up and trust you. So it was just this exhaustive process of building that rapport on Zoom, which is just a lot harder than meeting them in person.

GREENE So imagine you’re working with these six guys, and they have been denied justice. We’ve been working for years to get to this point; March 15th is the scheduled final shoot. We’re going to go back to Joe’s spot. Joe’s one of the six guys. He had this one last thing he needed to do, which was go to the original place where his abuse started, and Joe’s ready. We’ve been building him up for it. And then it just gets shut down. For the guys, it was excruciating. I just didn’t want to be yet another thing that they were set up for that didn’t come through.

WEST I felt a little guilty actually. Especially to be making [a film about] Julia Child because everybody is in their kitchens, everybody is cooking. And here we were dealing with the seminal figure, the woman who really turned us on to food, and we had done all of this high-end food photography. So to be working with that material during this time was really wonderful. Similarly, even though the Pauli Murray story is a tougher story, Pauli Murray was such an optimistic person who overcame so many challenges that I found working on that also pretty inspirational. I just felt so lucky to be able to do this while there was so much suffering going on.

THOMPSON Imagine not only having to deal with the COVID issues but also in the middle of the biggest civil unrest that this country has seen in 50 years. This totally 100 percent changed the narrative of the film because going into it, all my concern was matching the historical canon of great soul music films. And even though we’d spent two years on preproduction, we were saving up our big guns for March 15th, 2020. And then it came and I went, this is the universe telling you, “You shouldn’t be directing this film, and it’s over,” and I was just like, “OK, we’re shutting down.” Thank God for my production partner, Joseph Patel, who really homed in on me, like, “No, we have to stay on the path.”

And then it really got turned up a notch once Black Lives Matter protests started happening in the streets. This was too much history. I was already handed a boulder of history to take, but then it’s like, “Well, we’re kind of living in history right now.” But now that the smoke is cleared, there’s absolutely no way I would’ve wound up with the product I wound up with if it weren’t for what we went through in 2020.

HAYNES It feels like we’ve been through a real trial, and that’s why the ’60s were being brought up a lot, even before COVID, in the Trump era. One thing that I felt as a gay person was that we forget about a band like the Velvet Underground and all of the advances that we’ve made in the LGBTQ communities. We forgot a kind of stand outside the mainstream that queer people, particularly pre-Stonewall, exhibited. That’s why it took 20, 30 years for this band to catch up to the canon, the canon that accepts and finally says, “Yes, this is a major band of major influence.”

How did you know when your movie was done?

THOMPSON When Stevie Wonder finally answered my phone call.

GARBUS They’re never finished, they’re just abandoned.

THOMPSON I don’t know if it’s ever done. In the music world, Kanye West sort of set a precedent where even if it’s released product, you can change verses. We discovered, right after Sundance, there was a shot, a picture that we discovered of a father and son at the festival that was really, really touching. I was like, “Yo, how come we didn’t use this?” And I know the rule is once you do final lock, that’s it. And …

GREENE That’s not the rule. That’s not the rule.

THOMPSON But then I thought, was it morally wrong to switch this last photo? Because we already got Sundance, so should this be the film that people see? And then I just went back to the Kanye West thing, like, no, everything is changeable.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.