“Trust Is the Coin of the Realm”: The Documentary Roundtable
The makers of films about Mr. Rogers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Quincy Jones and more real-life subjects open up about celebrating icons, tackling the Trump factor and riding the doc boom in The Hollywood Reporter's Documentary Roundtable.
Documentary films are having a moment — a big one. This year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a portrait of the enduring kids’ show host, Fred Rogers, directed by Morgan Neville, 51 (an Oscar winner for 2013’s 20 Feet from Stardom), grossed $22.6 million domestically. Fans of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg flocked to RBG, on which Julie Cohen, 54, worked, as it collected $14 million. And even though Three Identical Strangers has no “names” — the film by Tim Wardle, 40, tells of the stranger-than-fiction tale of three brothers, triplets separated at birth — it intrigued audiences enough to gross $12.3 million. In October, the filmmakers, at THR‘s invitation, came together to compare notes — along with Rashida Jones, 42, whose Quincy documents the life of her father, Quincy Jones; Bing Liu, 29, whose Minding the Gap follows three skateboarders as they learn what it means to be a man; and Chai Vasarhelyi, 39, whose Free Solo defies gravity as it follows climber Alex Honnold up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. What do they all have in common? Suggests Wardle, “Emotional truth is what we’re striving for.”
In the age of Trump, everything seems political. Did any of your films get audience reactions you might not have originally expected because of that?
MORGAN NEVILLE Without a doubt. It changes the perspective on everything. We have these conversations as filmmakers about: Are we preaching to the converted? And I felt like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was this rare opportunity to make a film that would play for people who I didn’t agree with. And it’s done that. And that’s the thing that’s actually given me the most optimism. There are people who I don’t agree with politically who have loved the film, and maybe in that way we can have some common ground we can build upon.
TIM WARDLE We had a similar experience with Three Identical Strangers. There are things you never plan for. So suddenly border separations are happening and people are saying, “Oh, isn’t it awful, families being separated,” which is the central theme of my film. But where the Trump thing is interesting is, it plays to the success of documentaries this year. It’s just a sense that the real world is such a crazy, bonkers place at the moment that fiction can’t match anything that’s happening in the world and it seems natural to turn to documentary, to kind of make sense of the world.
RASHIDA JONES I had always intended Quincy to be a deep dive into [my father’s] life, but it started to morph because we did film pre-Trump and then we finished recently. The big culmination of the movie leads up to the [opening of Washington, D.C.’s] Smithsonian African American History Museum. That was a real celebration in October 2016, right before the election. And it felt like, “Oh, wow, we’ll finally reckon with the deep, dark shameful past of this history.” And my dad’s life really maps out every single decade of what it’s like to be black in America. And the movie became, because of what’s happened in this country, a treatise on race and the fact that we haven’t really faced the pain that’s been caused by the racial inequalities in this country. But that became way clearer once we knew what kind of world we were releasing the movie into.
CHAI VASARHELYI Free Solo has got nothing to do with politics, so to speak, but [I think] audiences are responding to it because we give people an opportunity to see someone who has this vision and actually does something. The film was released the day of the Kavanaugh hearings — and getting up to do those Q&As and looking at the audience when all I want to do is look on Twitter and see what happened was really emotional for us. But then it also was a respite from what we were living and an inspiring story of courage that we can all have this vision and work really hard and do something.
JULIE COHEN The metaphor of your film fits really well right now. To a certain extent we’re all just pushed up against a wall.
WARDLE Clinging on.
COHEN We are clinging on by the skin of our fingers with just a little bit of chalk to keep us from falling off. Obviously, I feel like RBG is at the pinnacle of films that feel extremely relevant at the time they’re released without obviously any intention on our part. We started this film in January of 2015 and ended up releasing it not only into Donald Trump’s America but also into an era of #MeToo and Time’s Up and the whole question of women fighting back against discrimination in a way they never had before. That made it feel really different even to us than the film we thought we made — just hearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quiet but super-steely, determined little voice fighting, arguing back to, at that time, nine Supreme Court male justices who were kind of towering over her and at times condescending to her on the question of women’s rights under the U.S. Constitution. It just felt like it had this whole added layer of emotion.
Morgan, were you surprised by how big a hit Won’t You Be My Neighbor became?
NEVILLE This is my 25th year of making documentaries, and when I started making documentaries there was nothing cool about documentaries. I remember five years ago at this Roundtable, there was debate with people wanting to get rid of the word “documentary” because it wasn’t cool enough. What a difference five years makes. I think part of it is the filmmaking is getting better and better but also we’re making films that other people aren’t making, adult films that are asking real questions, that are engaging with the real world.
Do you think nostalgia had a lot to do with the movie’s success?
NEVILLE No, I hate nostalgia. It’s the fast food of emotions. Nostalgia literally means going home. It’s inherently a regressive idea that doesn’t ask much from an audience. I felt like this film was inherently a progressive idea. How do I get Fred Rogers into 2018? Who is a better advocate for these kinds of crucial issues we have in our culture right now about civility and neighborliness and kindness? There’s no kindness lobby in Hollywood or anywhere in America these days. Fred Rogers was kind of the closest thing I could come up with and I was just trying to amplify that message. I was born six months before the show. Outside of my immediate family, it was the first adult relationship I really had with somebody. Making the film was like 10 years’ worth of therapy rolled into one production. It was very cost-efficient in that way.
Rashida, you must have had an even more intimate connection to your subject. Growing up, did you ever feel you were sharing your father with the world, and did that play into the decision to make this film?
JONES Absolutely. Me and all of my siblings, and anybody who has ever loved him, shares him with the world, and that’s part of loving him. The reason I wanted to make this is because he is [so] well documented, there’s extensive pieces on him. But he is so accomplished that you never get to actually spend time with him in any of those pieces because you have to cover the decades of success that he’s had. What they’ve missed is the reason he’s had that success. There is something inherently personal about it. The complication with knowing your subject is that they’re going to have some sort of micromanaging control over the story you tell, and he did not do that at all. And that’s probably the only reason I did it.
Julie, your film is about a sitting Supreme Court justice, and justices don’t usually allow this sort of coverage. How did you convince Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
COHEN We approached her in early 2015 and said, “We’re going to make a film about your life, what do you think?” And she said, “Not yet.” And we just ultimately made it happen by our seriousness of purpose, by persisting and moving forward. We sort of decided, “You know, she didn’t say no.” So we basically got her to allow us to start doing interviews with other people and they were reporting back to her that we really wanted to take a pretty deep look into her career, into some of the pretty intense sexism and discrimination that she had faced. Ultimately she started to participate in it. At one point, several months into filming, her assistant actually sent us a list saying, “Here’s 12 things the justice is going to be doing over the next year that she thought might make interesting filming opportunities.”
Tim, your movie is about three brothers, triplets who were separated at birth, who learn as young men that they’re related. And they had been through a lot of media attention and kind of got burned by it. When you showed up, did they take convincing to sit for a film?
WARDLE Yeah. It took four years. I got engaged, married and had a child in the space of time it took us to convince them to take part in the film. So it was pretty hard going because of the trauma that had been inflicted on them and the sense that they’d been let down by so many people in the past. I think it helped actually [that I’m] British. Sometimes being an outsider can be really useful. But really it’s just a process of earning trust.
Bing, did you face something similar? Because your film explores the lives of these young men who come from the community you grew up in and they’re very exposed in the movie.
BING LIU It was like a four-year conversation. At times, it felt like this meta-conversation on camera: “I just filmed you abandoning your apartment, [and I’m asking] ‘How do you feel about being in the film now?'” Most of the time they felt so included in the process that I think they felt comfortable.
Chai, in your case, I assume you knew the climber Alex Honnold. How did you know this was the right time to do a film about him?
VASARHELYI Jimmy [Chin], who is my directing partner, had known Alex for 10 years, [but] I did not know Alex. So when the idea came up, Alex and I kind of had a date. At that point we were just interested in a character portrait about Alex, and he brought up [the idea of climbing] El Cap, and when I told Jimmy, he’s like, “No way.” We thought it was too risky. So a different sort of convincing began to happen because we had to really sit with that debate if this was something we were comfortable with. People say, “What happens if you caused him to die?” And there is no get out of jail free card for this. Nonfiction is unexpected, you do not know what’s going to happen next, but clearly we trusted him to make the right decisions and trusted ourselves to do a good job. If Alex died, we would’ve had the horrible task of making a film with that fact.
WARDLE Do you think there would’ve still been a film?
VASARHELYI I think you would have to, because he trusted us to make a film. Clearly, we’d never have done it if we thought Alex was going to die.
WARDLE Those ethical questions are really interesting — when you have footage and [have] to confront characters about things that other people have told me. Should I do that? We had that to a degree as well. You’re learning things about these guys in my film, their past mental health issues and their past genetic backstories. Where does my duty as a filmmaker end and my duty of care to the contributors — where is the line? It’s always shifting.
JONES I definitely struggled with that because I have my dad in the hospital. He almost died, and Al [Hicks, my directing partner] and I talked a lot about not putting that footage in the movie because I’m protective and also a family member. But there’s no story to tell without that, I felt.
In documentary filmmaking, you have Frederick Wiseman — who just records what he sees, doesn’t offer narration or any guidance to the viewer — on one end of the spectrum, and Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, who put themselves at the center of their films, on the other. How do you decide what role you’ll play — as a character in the film or as a narrator? Rashida, you kind of stay out of frame a lot of the time.
JONES That was by design. Originally I thought about [making] a film about a father and daughter, but then his life is too big and there’s too much to cover, and I also didn’t want to be a subject in the film. So Al and I decided together to have me introduce the audience into the world so they feel like they can use me as a lens if they need to, but then to get a little bit lost in his perspective and the largeness of his life and his accomplishments.
Bing, you do something similar. We hear you often, but even in some crucial moments, like when you confront your own mother, it seems that you don’t want to take center stage in the film.
LIU Those moments where you hear me or you feel me off-frame, that happens pretty much in every documentary. It just happened to become useful in hindsight later when I did decide to be in the film. There is one moment that was a catalyst for making that decision. It was when one of the characters revealed to me this abuse that was happening in a relationship. I had to have a long conversation with myself and my team about what gives me the right to go ahead and keep telling this story. And ultimately I chose to go back into my own backstory to do that.
COHEN Wow, so you weren’t going be a character in the film as you initially conceived it? But you’re one of the greatest characters.
LIU No. I wanted to go for this more Wiseman-esque end of the scale where it’s like I’m going to make this observational film. And then of course [as] in a lot of documentaries, something happens and you have to reconfigure the whole story.
WARDLE That’s what works really well in your film and Rashida’s film. You sense that this isn’t an ego trip, that you don’t want to put yourself there — you’ve kind of come to this position as the last option.
Morgan, in the case of Fred Rogers, who is no longer with us, did you still have to make decisions about what vulnerabilities to show?
NEVILLE Absolutely. Mrs. Rogers, Joanne, who is an amazing woman — when I explained to her that I wanted to make a film about his ideas, not about his biography, she said, “Well, that sounds like a good thing because Fred always said if anybody made a film out of his life, it would be the most boring film ever.” I said, “I don’t necessarily agree with that.” But when she gave me her blessing, because she had to give me complete control over the film, she said, “Don’t make him into a saint.” One other thing that really hit me making this film — because we often make films about other people and other stories, people don’t think they are about us as filmmakers. For years, when I would make films with a subject, I would say to them, “This is going to be like therapy for you.” Of course, each film is therapy for us, too. We’re all investigating part of our own lives in making these films.
WARDLE There’s this kind of interesting paradox. Very few documentary filmmakers I know would allow themselves to be the subject of someone else’s documentary, but we spend our entire lives trying to convince people to be in our films. It could be seen as hypocrisy. And it’s just an interesting thing that I kind of wrestle with all the time.
NEVILLE I don’t think any of us underestimates the power we have over our subjects. Trust is the coin of the realm in documentary.
What’s it like to show your film to its subject for the first time?
WARDLE My guys, they were pretty sophisticated because they’d been through that kind of media scrum before. But a lot of time had passed. I showed both the brothers separately, and that was lovely. They both got up and hugged me afterward, and it wasn’t about liking the film. It was like, “You did what you said you were going to do.” And I realized at that moment, they’d been let down so many times by so many people that just the act of literally following through on what I said I was going to do was a huge moment for them.
COHEN Obviously showing Ruth Bader Ginsburg the film that we had made about her life was incredibly nerve-wracking. Her first time seeing it was at the world premiere at Sundance. We did not want to show it to her in advance because we didn’t want the public information apparatus of the court involved in trying to make any changes. And actually, she never asked to see it. She just said, “Sure, I’ll fly out to Park City.” It was the most nerve-wracking 97 minutes of our lives. Betsy and I were like four feet away from her during the screening and we’re just staring at her through the entire film. And we could hear her comments because we were really close.
She’s a movie talker?
COHEN She talked and she whispered. The classical music starts at the top and she’s like, “Ooh, I like the music.” And as it goes on, she’s laughing at her own humor as well as that of others.
Rashida, did you show parts of the film to your father before it was finished?
JONES No, we didn’t show him until we were pretty much locked, which was also very nerve- wracking because (to Cohen) you could never talk to Justice Ginsburg ever again, but I have to deal with my dad. But he loved it; he laughed, he cried. And the first thing he said was, “I wish I could live forever,” which sums the whole thing up.
Bing, the two other young men in your film, I assume they had never seen themselves on film before …
LIU They had been around cameras. Part and parcel of what it means to be a skateboarder is you’re being filmed. Skate videos are the throbbing heart of the skateboarding culture, so they grew up with it. But at the same time, they saw themselves in moments of celebration all throughout their childhoods because [that’s how those] edits came out. So they weren’t prepared for what was going to be in the film. But at the same time they were, because they were there when we filmed all those dark moments. Ultimately, I think it mattered more to them that they had a voice. It felt like their lives were validated.
Your films often take years to make and there’s often so much footage involved, how do you pace yourselves? Morgan, for your other film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about Orson Welles, you actually watched all his movies, including the new one, The Other Side of the Wind.
NEVILLE That’s the fun part — particularly the archive docs where every bit of footage you look at is a surprise. You find these nuggets that make your week or your month. I had many of those experiences on both films. But I loved that part of it. You just feel like there’s always that new thing you find that is going to make your film work. It’s really leaning into that process; it’s not drudgery. In fact, my favorite part of the process is the editing. That’s where documentary films are made, — they’re written in the edit room.
WARDLE I’m interested in Bing’s film because, having made observational films before — which personally I find one of the toughest types of documentary to make — just how much footage did you have? How many hours?
LIU I never really calculated it. Maybe 200, 250 shoot days.
JONES I had 800 hours, but that’s more. And we had 2,000 hours of archival stuff. It was tough to get through. But it was also great because I saw all this stuff I had never seen before. And also there is stuff that my dad hasn’t seen in years that was in the film, so it was nice to see him respond to it.
What was the biggest surprise, some moment you discovered that you just thought, “Wow!”?
JONES We found some really great footage from never-aired-before French documentaries, and I thought that was really cool. And we found a lot of stuff, like Frank Sinatra talking about my dad, Ray Charles talking about my dad. That kind of stuff really made it feel intimate for him as well as the audience.
Julie, in the case of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you had Supreme Court audio, but, of course, no video. How much of a challenge was that?
COHEN The challenge was really just the psychological challenge of saying, yes, we’re documentary filmmakers, a visual medium, but we are not going to let the fact that there aren’t pictures here scare us away from using substantial chunks of this audio, because it’s really powerful. For us, the coolest find was the home movies of young Ruth and then of her husband, Marty, when they were at her college graduation and when they were first together. Friends of hers, family members from her husband’s family, had saved them, and her biographers had tracked them down 15 years later. Justice Ginsburg didn’t even know they existed anymore, and so when we showed them to her, she thought we had some magic — like, “Where did you get those?!”
Each of your documentaries, for very different reasons, prompt incredible emotional responses. How conscious are you when you’re assembling your film of eliciting an emotional response from the audience?
VASARHELYI With Free Solo, we knew that the climb was going be terrifying. And I will say that we did become immune from editing and editing, but it was also always about, how can we manage that for our audience? When we began making this film, Alex was online dating and setting up dates in every stop of his book tour. So our great surprise was when he brought a woman home, Sanni. And it just really provided this opportunity for us to make the film about a connection and modulate how the climb went. So it was about climbing but it was actually about connecting and falling in love. But, yeah, I didn’t understand what sort of experience it would be when we made this film. And then watching it with the first audience — people’s hands get clammy.
WARDLE For me, emotional truth is what we are striving for in documentary. There is this school of thought that documentary should be very dispassionate and a just-the-facts kind of thing. You can have that narrative fidelity, but if you don’t have a kind of emotional truth to your storytelling, then the audiences aren’t going to connect with it. And that’s part of what makes it cinematic — eliciting that emotional response. With the brothers in Three Identical Strangers, I wanted the audience to go through what they went through. I wanted people to experience the highs and the lows. People talk about the reveals in the film. There are a lot of twists in Three Identical Strangers, but it’s very much just from the perspective of the brothers. You learn information as they learned it. And so you are very much on that journey with them, and that was really, really important to me.
How important is the role music plays in your films? It’s not just an afterthought, but is really part of the fabric of these movies.
JONES Well … (Laughter.) I feel so lucky because I had this incredible catalogue available to us that we should have used and did use. I mean, none of the music in the movie doesn’t somehow lead back to Quincy. And so to have somebody who has created music that expressed a certain emotion, and then to be able to pair that with an emotional moment in his life is a real huge blessing. That being said, it spans so many decades, and there are so many different types of genres. And so the music selection became essential to the storytelling because, you know, it can be anything from the Sanford & Son theme song to Soldiers in the Rain, which is this really emotional piece that he did.
Bing, how did you go about getting the score for your film?
LIU There was a period of time where it was like, “Well, this film should work without any music at all,” so I started editing with that mindset. And then in the final year, when we were really trying to dial it in, temp music became really important, temp music that would really mimic what we wanted the composer to do. And then there were two needle drops. Originally, I wanted the end credit song to be “Old Man” by Neil Young, but he just outright said no. So we got a song that actually ended up being something that was really close to me growing up, that helped me survive. It’s called “This Year” by The Mountain Goats.
How much of a challenge is getting music rights?
JONES The licensing and the music rights were a huge battle. There are so many people represented in the film, and huge, important people who have their own estates and all that stuff. There was a lot of conversations, a lot of negotiating, a lot of begging.
NEVILLE At least you had some connections.
WARDLE We had this crazy thing. My editor put this Billy Joel song in the film where the lyrics of the song directly reference two characters from the film. We actually thought at one point it was about those characters. It just ends up it’s a coincidence even though he was around at the same time. And then the record label wanted crazy, crazy amounts of money. So we had this great music supervisor who said, “Just try writing to him.” And I wrote, we didn’t even have an email, I wrote a handwritten letter to Billy Joel, and he came back and he let us have it for like a thousand dollars or something for worldwide rights. So I’m now the biggest Billy Joel fan ever.
JONES You just made it so every single documentarian is going to write a letter to Billy Joel. That’s so cool.
A couple of you also have original songs at the end of your movies.
COHEN Our end song, our theme song, Diane Warren wrote it for the film. It actually came in after our Sundance premiere, and Jennifer Hudson agreed to sing it. Our amazing composer, Miriam Cutler, was friends with someone who was a friend of Diane’s, and somebody showed her the film. She said, “I have to write the song.” She is super-fast, so she wrote it in two weeks.
One theme several of your films share is that of aging. What did you learn following Fred Rogers and Ruth Ginsburg and Quincy Jones?
NEVILLE The thing is, as a parent, I realized first of all how much I got from Fred Rogers. And that when he was teaching us about kids, he was actually teaching us how to be parent. He was always making the show not for the child watching but for the parent on the couch in the back of the room, modeling how we should talk to kids and respect children. I’m still learning how to be the best parent I can. I feel like this film taught me so much about how to grow into that role, because we’re not born with those chops.
JONES I’m sure you’ve had some experience with this too, but watching the pain of [my father] losing friends every year, every month. When you’re in your 80s, and you’ve succeeded at living, the simple fact is that you just lose friends all the time. So, it’s this constant mirror of the inevitable. Quincy is an anomaly in the sense that he pushes himself to the brink, decade after decade, whether it’s with health scares or mental health scares, and he keeps bouncing back. And having friends die so often is this constant reminder that you can’t test mortality that much. Not to be grim, but I think so much of what he does is about continuing to transcend and push and push and push. And I think he’ll do that for the rest of his life.
WARDLE For a documentary filmmaker, time is a great antagonist and it always has been. You think of the great docs, things like Hoop Dreams or like the Seven Up series. If you stretch the timeline long enough, anyone’s life becomes just the most compelling study of all kinds of things. We’ve got six decades in our film. But even with Alex [Honnold in Free Solo], having to climb before the end of the climbing season and having to make it all before he gets too old to attempt it. Time is kind of a central theme of all the best docs, I feel.
VASARHELYI That was a central idea to our film, that you only have a finite amount of time. And that was really important to Alex. And it actually made me think a lot about how much time I have and what I’m doing with my time.
JONES He says so simply in the film: You can die at any time. And there’s this illusion that that’s not the truth, and the fact that he does what he does is just a constant reminder, which is a constant reminder for us.
COHEN Obviously, aging is a big part of RBG, the film and the Supreme Court justice, whose lifespan a lot of people in America are quite focused on these days. I actually think there’s some pretty big comparisons between the way that (to Jones) your dad and RBG have dealt with not only being in their 80s but also dealing with really serious health issues. Both of them kind of have approached their aging with this unbelievably kick-ass determination. There’s a sound bite that I love in our film where Justice Ginsburg says, “The good thing about having colon cancer and pancreatic cancer is it’s really given me such a great appreciation for the joys of being alive.” And that’s a profoundly wise thing to say. It’s sort of a Mr. Rogers-level wisdom. That’s a pretty good way to look at life.
A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.