Alison Bailes was born in the United Kingdom and grew up in Ascot, Berkshire. She attended Oxford University where she got a BA degree in French and German Literature. At Oxford, she also received a half-blue in rowing. Since moving to the United States in 1989, Alison has worked at a number of TV stations, always focusing on the film world.
She started out at CNN working for their daily entertainment news show Showbiz Today. Then she worked for Ha!—one of the original comedy channels—for a brief period as a fact-checker on a game show. In 1990 she moved to VH1, where she went from associate producer to senior producer of the weekly film magazine show Flix. In 1996 Alison started At The Angelika for IFC. Besides writing and producing this program, she also served as host. This became At The IFC Center when IFC took over the former Waverly Cinema in the West Village. At The IFC Center was a monthly look at the independent film scene with interviews with actors and directors. Since July 2006, Alison has been co-hosting a Saturday morning talk show with Jeffrey Lyons called Reel Talk for NBC.
Alison also attends and reports from the major film festivals around the world. She does live hosting of the Cannes Film Festival in France as well as reporting from the Sundance, South By Southwest, LA and NY film festivals.
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Michael Guillén: Alison, you received a B.A. in French and German literature from Oxford. What precipitated the shift from literature to film coverage?
Alsion Bailes: There's not much you can do with a B.A. in foreign language, frankly. I was always a film fan. I found myself living in the States and I just wanted to get into … y'know, just sort of my hobby versus my school career, I guess. I always loved films.
MG: Why, when you decided to cover film, did you elect to go on-air rather than in print?
Bailes: Well, I didn't. I started off as a t.v. producer. I was covering films. I worked for six years at VH1 producing a show they had there called Flix, which was a movie preview show. It wasn't really a review show. We did interviews. It was more of just a preview of upcoming films. I produced that for about six years and then I realized that I really wasn't so interested in Hollywood films so I got the job at IFC. We were looking for a host for that show, which I was to produce, and by one of those long stories I ended up hosting that show.
MG: What are the essential distinctions between on-air and print? Can you identify any distinguishing factors?
Bailes: I suppose it depends on the publication, but I think in print, obviously, you get a little bit more respect. There's reasons for that. When you write for television, we never have a lot of time so you have to reduce everything to concise—sometimes glossing over things—that's my problem with t.v.; I feel we never have enough time to get into the nuts and bolts of the film, why certain things work, why others [don't]. What I'm told is that when people turn on television and they see a reviewer, they just want to know thumbs up or thumbs down. They just want to know good-bad, should they go or shouldn't they go, and I'm not sure that there's so much interest in the nuances of a film. My problem is often that I've seen a film but it's not a great film; but, you can't say that. People want to just know if they should go see it or not. I think that's really the problem on t.v. You're forced to do everything in a short amount of time, make it simple, and get the message across. You can't afford to dwell on the intricacies of a film.
MG: So you're forced to play the consumer advocate and help people decide whether to put their money down on a film or not?
Bailes: Yeah, I think so. You hope that people will find your opinions valid enough that they just want to know if you liked it or not rather than whether the film had good performances but a weak script or something. People often just don't care about that. We're told that a lot. Like on the show I do now with Jeffrey Lyons, we don't have a rating system and I think people would rather we did so they wouldn't have to sit and listen to us! [Laughs.] They'd rather just know if we've given it four stars or two thumbs up or what have you.
MG: Admittedly, one of the reasons I'm intrigued by all this is I've been offered an opportunity to do on-air film reviewing and your expressed reservations are exactly why I'm ambivalent about accepting that offer.
Bailes: The critic that I most respect and admire is A.O. Scott who writes in the New York Times. I often read his reviews after we've done our t.v. bit on movies and I often agree with him but I also often feel that he manages to get across all the points that I didn't have time for or I forgot to say. Because when you do it on t.v., we really don't have a lot of time. We just do it once through and as long as no one really messes up, that's it. We do it once. It's done. It's not like we rehearse it over and over until we have it pitch perfect.
MG: That was one of the questions I was going to ask you, is how much rehearsal goes into the pieces? Do you screen questions with your guests beforehand so they have a sense of how the interview will run?
Bailes: No. Occasionally you'll meet someone who wants to approve the questions beforehand. That happened with Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat, you have to submit questions for him. But no, no, no, you never do that, with interviews no, you just go for it.
MG: That's interesting about Sacha. I'm a contributing writer to a Toronto-based film site called Twitch and earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival where Sacha made an appearance with the screening of Borat, there had been some talk about the Twitch writers being plants in the audience to ask Sacha (as Borat) pre-written questions. It ended up not happening but it was an interesting proposal.
Bailes: Well, Borat is an act, so that makes sense that he would want to rehearse stuff.
MG: In terms of choosing the movies that you review, how did that work at IFC and how does it work now at Reel Talk with Jeffrey Lyons? Do you and Jeffrey have pow wows to decide what to cover?
Bailes: With Jeffrey Lyons it's a weekly show and there's probably—I don't know—between six and ten movies that open every week and that's like between the big ones and the obscure indies. So we do six a week. Generally, we do all the big ones. Often a film like Saw 3 is not on view for critics so, right there, [we] wouldn't do that. So it's pretty obvious. There's no real discussion of what we do. It's like which movies are coming out that are going to screen for the critics. Now and then I'll see an independent film or a foreign film or something that I really like and I'll go to the producer and I'll say, "We have to do this. Can we please do this in the show?" and he'll find a space for it.
MG: Is this quite different for you to be working for a producer rather than producing the show yourself?
Bailes: No, I love it. He gets to do all the things I hated to do. He gets to do the things like timing out the show, he talks to a lot of the publicists—although I do that too—no, no, I'm very happy doing what I do now. But it was neat to produce the IFC show too. I'd sit in the editing room with the editor and we'd create the packages and I do miss that a bit because that's very creative. I miss that. But I'm so busy that I haven't had much time to miss it, to be honest. And I like the writing. I'm sitting here right now trying to come up with my ten best films of the year and I'm mulling that over. I enjoy the writing.
MG: Among those ten, by any chance is The Queen on that list?
Bailes: It actually isn't, no. I thought The Queen was good but not great. I've got too many. I've got like 15 without The Queen and I'm trying to get it down to 10. It's not easy.
MG: No, it isn't easy. I circumvented the problem by choosing my ten favorite interviews instead because I felt I had more of a handle on that. I'm impressed with the breadth of your coverage: you're on television on a major network, your IFC interviews were sometimes transcribed online, with Reel Talk you're providing video streams of your interviews, and you even offer podcasts for Ipod access. You're obviously accessing a wide audience. Can you define who your audience is and what you feel your responsibilities are to them, if any?
Bailes: Hmmmmmm, that's interesting. Because I'm not the producer, I don't know if I can give you such a good answer on that. I know the demographic for WNBC who produces [Reel Talk] here in New York is more male than female; but, I'm not sure. The goal for the show is to go national later next year and I guess we'd like to become as familiar as other t.v. critics. I would hope that people would look at me as someone with … y'know, like any critic wants, you want people to think you have good taste. You just want to find enough people who agree with you, I suppose.
MG: What captured my attention when I first became familiar with your work for IFC at the Angelika/IFC Center—and why I kept returning to watch your show—was your remarkable poise. Have you ever been nervous interviewing someone?
Bailes: There are very few people who make me nervous. There have been a few but, of course, it's all completely blank now. It's always really surprising people who make me nervous. Never the big stars. [Though,] I had to do this thing with Tom Cruise for the Mission Impossible 3 premiere and there was so much hype about it. It had to be cleared by so many people and he had so many handlers. It was such a huge deal. I had very nervous producers around me for that show who kept telling me that I had to nail it and that made me nervous. But other than that, I tend to go into interviews with … I mean, most of them aren't live, the Tom Cruise thing was live, so that added some more pressure. But the interviews I do either in junket or the NBC studio, I just try to think that they're just people. Yes, they may be famous people, but at heart they're just people who are there to talk about a film and how hard is it to talk about a film? Everyone loves to talk about films. So that's what I tell myself if I'm ever getting nervous.
MG: I certainly agree with you. I love talking about films. I find it's one of the easiest things and it's been something of a second career for me. It's almost effortless.
Bailes: Unless I dislike the film. Then it's hard. But I try and avoid interviews if I haven't liked the film because I just don't think it's fair. I'm not going to tell them I hate it so then I feel two-faced if I do an interview.
MG: Exactly. Each person—and each interviewer especially—owes themself a little discretion. If a young person were to want to enter the field of on-air film coverage, do you have any suggestions about how they should go about it? Or what you have learned from your own trial and error process?
Bailes: Well, obviously I didn't go to school for it or anything. I know a lot of people these days do communications for college and I have no idea if that's a useful degree. My advice—because I guess I'm a stickler for process and understanding how it's done—is to do what I did, which is I started off working as an intern at CNN and I learned t.v. production. I've met people who manage to get an on-air job but they've never produced anything for t.v. in their life and it makes them very difficult to work with as on-air talent because they don't understand the nuts and bolts of t.v. production. So for me that was certainly the way into it, to work on several shows as an assistant associate producer and work my way up to be able to produce first. That's probably the only advice I would have.
MG: One of your jobs on the way to your current success was to be a fact-checker on a game show on Ha!, one of the original comedy channels. What does a fact checker on a game show do?
Bailes: [Chuckles.] After I was an intern at CNN—and we're going back a few years now—my first paying job was as a fact checker on Ha! Do you remember that game show? I think it was called Clash. It's a really long time ago. It was on Ha!, which was MTV's comedy channel before they merged with HBO's comedy channel and became Comedy Central. Those two channels merged. It's for a channel that … I don't think many people remember the Ha! Channel. Yeah, I was a fact checker and then when we were in production I was the scoreboard operator.
MG: I find that very amusing for some reason.
Bailes: Well, it was nervewracking because we would do live-to-tape, which meant that—unless you mess up—you would go straight through it. So, no, you didn't want to mess up. I had to subtract and add the scores as we went along and then push the buttons to make the scoreboard [reflect the outcome]. You'd think it was done somehow automatically but some poor fool was sitting there subtracting and blah blah blah to get the numbers right. That was me.
MG: Well, you've certainly paid your dues. I understand that along with your great film coverage, you're a triathelete? You train extensively? At Oxford, you received a half-blue in rowing; what's a "half-blue"?
Bailes: If you do a varsity sport at Oxford or Cambridge you get what's called a blue and if you're—I think the equivalent here would be [Junior Varsity]—you get a half-blue. It's just a sporting honor basically. If you hear that someone from Oxford is a blue, it means they did their sport for their university. I haven't done triathletes in a couple of years because I have a child, but I did run the New York City Marathon this year. I try to keep active and fit and fight the flab and all that.
MG: Speaking of the child, I think I hear Agatha Violet in the background. How old is she now? Is she going to grow up to be a film commentator like her mother?
Bailes: Oh gosh, I have no idea. She's 21 months. It's a little bit early to tell. I think, if anything, she's going to be more of the athletic type.
MG: Alison, thank you so much for taking the time. I truly appreciate the information and your friendliness.
Bailes: Did you get what you needed?
MG: I did. I'm focusing on film culture in general and, along with interviewing actors and directors as you do, I'm fascinated in all the various ways that film is brought to the public.
Bailes: Well thank you for watching so loyally.
MG: You bet.
Cross-posted at Twitch. My sincere thanks to Alison Willmore who put me in touch with Alison Bailes to conduct this brief phone interview. Photo courtesy of WFNY-Free FM and The Doghouse With JV & Elvis.