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Though Dr. Anthony Fauci became a national icon during the COVID-19 pandemic, the first major, theatrically released documentary profiling the infectious disease specialist is the result of a conversation dating back nearly three years.
Director Janet Tobias (No Place on Earth, Unseen Enemy) was working on an AIDS vaccine project when she initially approached the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 2018 with the idea of doing a film that would be a sort of “biographical portrait” of a longtime public servant, she recalls. Filming began in the fall of 2019; “and then of course the pandemic happened,” changing the story and complicating production. Help arrived in the form of director John Hoffman (Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, The Antidote), who reached out to the National Institutes of Health in February 2020 looking to do his own film on Fauci. The NIH suggested the two filmmakers team up, and by the end of March, they began collaborating. Their combined vision for the film paired on-the-ground footage of and interviews with Fauci (Tobias moved to Washington D.C. for the film) during the onset of COVID-19 with a look back at his career and role in the U.S.’ response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Fauci, which released in theaters on Sept. 10 and debuts on Disney+ on Wednesday, argues that Fauci’s experience during HIV/AIDS, when he learned to work with activists, shaped his approach to outbreaks that followed: “What we began to watch was a man forged in one pandemic tested in the second great pandemic of our time,” says Tobias. And it traces Fauci’s trajectory from his childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to a formative fellowship at the NIH to his emergence as a public health leader provoking polarized responses as he tackled an unprecedented global health crisis starting in 2020.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, co-directors Tobias and Hoffman discussed how they developed trust with Fauci, the COVID precautions they took when filming with him and at the NIH and Fauci’s belief that “what COVID reveals is how much we need to heal things in America beyond COVID.”
Did you have any idea at the start of production together, at the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., how severe COVID-19 would become and how pivotal Fauci would be in the process, or did the scope of it all end up taking you by surprise?
Tobias: I’d done a film with my group called Unseen Enemy that aired in 2017 and it was on the 21st-century threat of pandemics, so it sort of looked at this question. We actually started it before Ebola and then Ebola happened, so I jokingly say to people, “Wow, I’m a little afraid to start projects about viruses now.” But because of that, I think our group was really tracking [it] in January because you never know. When they shut down Wuhan, I think we intuitively knew from all that work that there was something incredibly serious happening. We didn’t know how it would play out in the world, but that it was obviously serious. And John and I talked end of February-ish and by then, of course, the virus had come to the United States and in March we moved to lockdown.
Hoffman: It’s important to stress that from the beginning we knew we were making a portrait of a public servant who had served us through multiple outbreaks and most importantly that his character was forged in the HIV crisis. So this was going to be a film that would tell the remarkable story of this man, Tony Fauci, that [the public was] now becoming aware of but has this incredible life story that in so many ways is defined and shaped by the HIV pandemic, and now, a year and half later, the two pandemics of our time. We had this remarkable access, it’s true, and we’re so fortunate that Janet was able to move down to Washington to be there to be filming at so many critical moments during the pandemic. But the film was going to be a portrait of Tony Fauci from the beginning, so the public would understand the whole story of this figure that they had no reason to really know about until now.
Tobias: John and I were both fascinated by one of the longest-serving public servants in the government: He served seven presidents, innumerable Congresses, he’s testified in front of Congress more than any other living human, and that was all the case before COVID. I think that was our initial approach, to understand this incredible public servant and then what we began to watch was a man forged in one pandemic tested in the second great pandemic of our time.
You were in production at the height of the pandemic, and Fauci is now an 80-year-old man. What COVID precautions did you take while filming and were there particular limitations on filming him in person?
Tobias: We had a very tiny, tiny group in what I call the “bubble” in Washington for filming around him during the pandemic. We went down as lockdown was happening in New York and before it had happened in D.C., so a DP and I lived together and then we had a third person who was sort of a jack-of-all-trades — sound, second DP — who was in Washington and who self-isolated. We basically lived in an isolation bubble and then the only contact outside was filming with [Fauci]. Over the year we kept greatly to a very strict protocol: Because I was at NIH, actually physically working there on a daily basis, I was tested five days a week on the NIH campus. We were incredibly careful within that bubble and in the summer of last year, I came back to New York for some stretches and obviously was tested, but I did not come back for either Thanksgiving or Christmas last year [for] the first time in memory for me, because I was not going to put an 80-year-old man at risk. And the [security] detail was very clear about the standards they wanted us to live by and so we did.
Hoffman: Janet and I are both DGA, this is a DGA film, and they did a very, very good job at establishing guidelines and protocols for production, including documentary production, and that was relatively early on, so we adhered to all the DGA guidelines. We interviewed Dr. Fauci and a good number of people in person [but] many, many interviews were conducted remotely, either with crews in Africa or Ireland, with Dr. Mugyenyi, with Bono, with Bill Gates in Seattle, so we were able to also adapt as so many productions were adapting and figuring out how to shoot remotely.
Both of you knew Dr. Fauci beforehand and he had already bought in to this idea of a documentary. That said, to what extent did you need to develop trust to get him to open up for this film?
Hoffman: That process is at the core and is foundational to any good film. You don’t have a documentary unless you have a trust relationship between the filmmakers and the subjects. Because Janet and I both knew Dr. Fauci, we were starting at a really good level of trust and experience, and the NIH, same thing, because they respected Janet’s work so much and they had worked with me so much, they were really glad that the film was in our hands and that it was going to be for National Geographic. Added to that, I have a long history of HIV-related work: In the mid-’80s, I created a nonprofit that made a large number of HIV prevention films and the first nationally-broadcast prevention film that Ron Reagan hosted when his father was president. For two years I was the director of Cornell New York Hospitals’ HIV outpatient and inpatient program and in those dark years that Dr. Fauci talks about, when there were no effective treatments for AIDS, I was there. So in that first interview when he does become emotional talking about the blindness of this one patient and his inability to stop this man from becoming totally blind, there had already been a conversation and Dr. Fauci was made aware that I’m speaking to him as someone [who is] not a doctor, not as someone who cared for patients directly but was there and was a firsthand witness to those traumatic times.
Fauci is someone who is media-savvy and has been very careful in his remarks over the course of the pandemic. Were there any moments of candor that Fauci allowed you to film that caught you by surprise? Were there areas in which you wish you had gotten a little bit more candor?
Hoffman: With regards to the interviews, it is the emotion that he was willing to show. I had been overseeing the work with the editors on the archives, and I think that I watched a thousand interviews that Dr. Fauci had conducted over the 40 years that he has been running NIAID. And never once did he break form and reveal any kind of grief or sorrow and occasionally he would get frustrated, as you see in some of the clips, with a display of intolerance and he calls out that inappropriate view. But he had never shown sadness or grief, [so] for him to cry and to really almost lose the ability to continue for a moment caught all of us by surprise because we had never seen it before. It was clear to me because he did not stop, because he was willing to go further, and then there are other points in the interviews where the same thing happens, that Dr. Fauci knew that this interview was fundamentally different than any other that he had ever conducted. And it had to be, because he had to be completely honest in front of the camera. This was not an interview which was about guiding the public health of a nation. This was about him and his character; it’s a portrait of him.
Tobias: I would just add that he wears his heart on his sleeve, so in the process of filming with him on a regular basis in D.C., he was emotional a number of times. He describes himself as a doctor first and he feels deeply about what is going on. [We] would also obviously have access to his frustration. He views the virus as all of our common enemy, and I think as a scientist and as a doctor there’s this frustration, because it affected so many people, of why that was so hard to communicate sometimes to people. And I think he is a huge bridge-builder. You could watch him do that repeatedly during COVID, which is obviously something he has in him but also clearly learned.
And of course you always wish [for more]: I think John and I asked at the very beginning [for] access to the Task Force, and we never did get access. It quickly became not possible. It seemed like for a moment at the beginning that might be in limited ways possible, but then it became way too polarized.
You spoke about how it was important to show how Fauci’s character was forged during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. What lessons do you think can be learned from comparing the two crises — COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS — and Fauci’s response to them?
Hoffman: Looking back at the ’80s, it’s striking to spend a lot of time in those years, looking at countless clips. It does seem like a really less polarizing time even though you have these angry, ugly protests from the religious right against the gay and lesbian community and the HIV-positive community. You just know that you can see your foes, you can see the people who are attacking you. But now you don’t know who is acting out against you on social media. These times are so qualitatively different. So when Dr. Fauci, in another emotional moment, is struggling to answer that very question that we ask him, and he says that the research community and the HIV/AIDS community were able to “clap” together, come together, and he says, “I don’t think the two sides can clap together [now],” it’s [like] the dismay of so many people in this country that we are deeply polarized and we don’t know how we’re going to get out of this.
One thing that is the same is that when leadership struggles to respond to a public health crisis, as Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times says in the film, it is convenient for leaders to scapegoat groups as a way of distracting from their failures to control a pandemic. She draws comparisons between the Reagan and Bush [Sr.] administrations and the Trump administration, and I think she’s very astute and it’s an important moment in the film.
Tobias: I would add to that that I think there are a number of parallels between the two epidemics and they walk through what Tony does. In both of these epidemics, the toll has just been huge. Tony is aware of that and one my favorite moments in the film is you can hear his voice break when he is asked about how he wishes he could go faster because he knows that if he could go a little faster, more people would be alive. I think both pandemics emphasize how important science is, because after years and years of working we found triple therapy in the case of AIDS that was a Lazarus-like treatment when everyone went from dying to surviving, and the [COVID] vaccine has been an incredible scientific achievement, so you have the parallels of how science helps us get out of it. You also have the parallels of communication, which is that ultimately epidemics are not just epidemics that are biological, they’re epidemics of fear and they disrupt society in all sorts of ways and that happened with stigma in AIDS and then, in COVID, it happened in a different way.
One thing we left on the cutting-room floor is that Tony said that what COVID reveals is how much we need to heal things in America beyond COVID, and that’s the optimist in him speaking [to how] it is possible to build bridges. I’m a terrible optimist, but I will say it took years and years and years to get triple-therapy for AIDS and years to overcome the stigma and as long as this pandemic seems, we are only, really, a year and a half in. And so we all have work to do. Tony gets up every day and goes to work at 6:20 or 6:40 in the morning and is working to try and communicate, lead through science and always remembering that he’s a doctor first. We all have work to do to get through this pandemic and heal in ways that go beyond COVID.
With the pandemic continuing with no clear end in sight, how did you decide when to end production?
Hoffman: It was a hard decision but we felt that this is a portrait of Tony, it’s not a story about the COVID pandemic. And so [with this] being a portrait of Tony and how he’s been defined by these two pandemics, we felt we had really captured that. Every film needs to come to an end as [the considerations] of budget, timeline and delivery start to become more and more important. We conducted our last interview in July of this year and really felt that we did everything to make a film that we thought people would see as a great portrait of him.
Given that you both do films on public health, any plans for a follow-up on the pandemic or Fauci?
Hoffman: I think we need a little bit more time to get that perspective.
Tobias: In terms of the pandemic, I have a group that’s called the Global Health Reporting Center, it’s a nonprofit and we are always working on things to do with the pandemic, so that work continues for various people, but for Tony I think, as John says, we’ve landed, and hopefully people will see this portrait of him and get to know him a little better. I love that we got his family to participate.
Has Fauci seen the film yet, and if so, how did he react?
Tobias: He saw a version of the film in June with Dr. Grady, his wife, and then his daughters saw it about two weeks later with their mother. And I love what he said, which is that he was happy with it but he turned to us and said, “I’m glad you didn’t make me perfect, because I’m not perfect.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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