'Mike Wallace Is Here' Filmmaker: Doc Tells a "Bigger Story" About Broadcast Journalism
With unprecedented access to CBS archives, director Avi Belkin turned Wallace's hard-hitting interview style on the famed host, piecing together a documentary that invites reflection on the state of media today.
Armed with two film ideas and a friend's contact, Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin flew from Tel Aviv to the United States and started knocking on the doors of Hollywood. This was 2016. One idea became Mike Wallace Is Here, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters July 26, while the other grew into docuseries No One Saw a Thing, premiering on SundanceTV on Aug. 1.
"It's crazy, looking back now … because it started with this idea and I didn't know anybody here," said Belkin.
Sitting at home in Tel Aviv a few years ago, he became fascinated with the rapidly changing landscape of broadcast journalism. Belkin delved into research and kept coming across the legendary CBS reporter Mike Wallace. Wallace, who died in 2012 after a long and storied career, was known for his gutsy, tough interviews on CBS' 60 Minutes. "Not only was he very charismatic and engaging in his interviews, he also seemed like a character, which is what you want if you are doing a film," Belkin said. "I had this idea of doing a portrait of Mike … and tell a bigger story about broadcast journalism."
Belkin got a meeting with CAA. An agent there set him up with Blumhouse TV and with Rafael Marmor of Delirio Films. Blumhouse TV produced No One Saw a Thing, while Delirio brought Mike Wallace Is Here to fruition. After getting permission from the Wallace family, CBS opened their 60 Minutes archives for the very first time, allowing Belkin to sieve through thousands of hours of footage. "This was, for me, the best archives in the world — over 50 years of interviews with every important figure of the 20th century," Belkin said. The film features Wallace's interviews with a staggering cast of public figures, from politics to entertainment: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, Ayatollah Khomeini, Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey, among others.
Spending around a month at the CBS headquarters in New York, Belkin digitized and sorted through the archives. He emerged with more than 1,400 hours of footage and spent about a year editing the film with Billy McMillin and his team.
The film juxtaposes segments of Wallace interviewing others about family life, work and depression, with later interviews of Wallace himself admitting he struggled with similar problems. "I was looking at where his character was revealed, where his subconscious was showing, by doing this back and forth between him being interviewed and him interviewing," Belkin said.
Belkin unearthed a short clip of Mike Wallace interrogating a young Donald Trump, then just in his late 30s. When Wallace asks about his future plans, Trump replies, "A fertile imagination and a good fertile mind — it's really amazing what can be thought of." Wallace probes further: "Politics?" to which Trump quickly responds, "No, not politics." There were many other moments in this two-hour interview between Wallace and Trump that Belkin had come close to adding to his film, but Belkin ultimately settled on this one short clip. "It revealed how acute and sharp Mike's senses were. Trump was 37, nowhere near politics back then. But Mike had this sense, this premonition about politics."
The film screened in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures. Chris Wallace, Mike Wallace's son and current Fox News anchor (whose interview with Putin last July earned Fox News' first ever Emmy nomination), was in attendance and watched the film for the first time. Belkin added, "Chris kept getting asked in Sundance what Mike would have thought about the film. I always liked his answer: 'A 90-minute film about him? He would love it.'"
Belkin's other project, No One Saw a Thing, is a docuseries that explores the unsolved July 1981 killing of a town bully in Skidmore, Missouri.
On what connects his film projects, Belkin said, "I'm interested in the backstory to understand how things came to be the way they are today. … I [feel] like we walk this earth without really getting the full picture, the full story."