Friday, October 20, 2006

AL FRANKEN: GOD SPOKE—The Evening Class Interview With Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob

Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob have been partnering with documentary legend D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) since the 1970s, turning their handheld cameras on diverse subjects ranging from politics to rock and roll. The trio recently codirected HBO's Elaine Stritch at Liberty, winning two Emmy awards for their work. Hegedus was awarded the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentaries for (2001). Doob has shot a number of Pennebaker-Hegedus films including Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), The War Room (1993) and Only the Strong Survive (2002). Earlier, in 1979, he traveled with Murray Lerner to China and shot the Oscar-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart.

Al Franken: God Spoke screened earlier this year at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival. During its recent commercial run in the Bay Area, I had the opportunity to meet up with Hegedus and Doob at the Chancellor Hotel to discuss their profile of the obstreperous Al Franken, commencing with his highly-publicized feud with Bill O'Reilly to his relentless campaign against George Bush and the Right Wing in the 2004 election. Doob and Hegedus were granted entré to Al Franken's world as he fearlessly confronts pundits and politicians, blurring the boundaries between political satire and impassioned citizenry.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I have to admit right off that I feel somewhat fraudulent sitting here with you two today—certainly I hazard coming off as a complete fool—because I'm not really very much of a political animal. I'm not very good at formulating ideas about socio-political themes; but, I do think of myself as an average movie goer and hope you will bear with me as I try to articulate a response to Al Franken: God Spoke. Karen Larsen encouraged me to watch your film—she knows my limitations [they chuckle]—but she encouraged me to watch it. I enjoyed it very much even though it's not a film that I would have gone to see on my own. So I guess the obvious question is: who is this documentary for?

Nick Doob: Everybody who goes to see it—I mean, we sort of sit there trembling in the back watching the film as other people watch it and we sort of watch when people go out to the bathroom because you're thinking, well….—but, we don't lose anybody. That's sort of one of the great things. Our audiences are—once they're there—they're really great. But I think there is—what you're saying—why do you go there in the first place.

MG: Because it's so polemicized.

Nick: Yeah, that's offputting to people. What we'd like people to know is that it's a funny film. It's a funny film with a definite political side to it but it's an entertaining film.

MG: I'm not sure "offputting" is fair to yourself. The documentary is polemicized, but, the only drawback to that would be that people probably come to the film with such sharply etched attitudes that nothing's going to change or, rather, they think nothing is going to change within them when they come to see the film. Liberals will be liberals and conservatives will be conservatives and will not be swayed one way or the other.

The image that struck me, however, after watching the course of the documentary—which seemed to build up to this moment—was when Al Franken wept at John Kerry's concession speech. That was when—as your husband D.A. Pennebaker has described—we saw the leopard grow his spots. Franken suddenly seemed very frail and human to me at that moment and that's when I finally and truly entered the film. Until then, for me the film was a spectacle of argumentative polemics. Did Franken have any problem with his vulnerability being shown like that? You obviously had his unbridled cooperation . . . .

Chris Hegedus: No. Al says he'll cry at a commercial with children in it. He has his emotions on his sleeve.

MG: And yet that doesn't really come across at first in the documentary. Some criticism I've read against the documentary has said, "Here you give us so much Al Franken but we never really see Al Franken." What you see is his comic mask, his bravado. I think that's why that image of him crying affected me so much because I finally caught the person, the human being.

Chris: You see him turn the corner there. That's the moment where he's motivated to really do something, to step out of the comic shoes, and take the other road, the road to committing himself to some kind of a more serious political life. I think you see it in that moment when he's upset about Kerry and then afterwards he's watching Bush. His eyes could drill daggers into that television set because it's the time to do something.

A lot of people who are actors and comedians and who like to be on stage, that's what their personas are like. We get that criticism sometimes on this film but people who know Al, that's what he's like. People who like to have an audience when they speak tend to be on stage for a lot of their life in all different situations. But I think you see the other Al. You see the bungling Al. When we showed the film to Al and his wife Franny and his daughter, they loved [certain] scenes … like there's a scene right before on election night when everybody thinks that Kerry's going to win, and it seemed like Kerry was going to win for almost everybody. Al and his team are considering what to do for the next day's show and how to gloat about the win that's going to be happening several hours later. So you see Al gloating and then afterwards it's almost like the karma police come and get him. He goes to walk away and he gets his backpack all caught up in the chair. He's just such a bungling human being, which is the other side of Al, so I think you do see many sides of him. But he is a person who's on stage a lot.

MG: Because I saw that human side, and what I would now say to my readers and why I would encourage them to go see Al Franken: God Spoke, is this film is not just about confirming who you do or do not like or what your political point of view is on specific hot button issues; this is a film that shows a very human trajectory. This is a film that shows a man who reaches a point in his life where he—as you say—can enter a new field, a new arena.

Nick: That's exactly what this film is, much more than anything else.

MG: I think it is but, somehow, it's not being sold that way . . . .

Nick: I know, I know.

MG: . . . And that actually is what it is. I like to confirm my ideas because—as I said—I sometimes feel insecure about them. But I became concerned for Al Franken. Because I'm not sure—and you suggest this in the final scene of your documentary—what will he give up to win?

Nick: That is exactly right. That's just dead on about what it is. I feel concerned. We do. Al seems so innocent in some funny way.

MG: In the first part of the documentary I could admire him, I certainly thought he was hilarious, but I would never have the courage to do what he does. I could never walk into a room of my enemies and confront them with such biting humor.

Nick: It's unbelievable.

MG: It's unbelievable but it also seems hazardously naïve. It's not enough to say these people are liars—they know they're liars—and they really don't care they're liars. Yet he cares. He cares that they're liars and he cares that he's telling the truth. That's what concerns me. I feel like he's going right into something I'm not sure that's where he's supposed to be.

Chris: Our film shows part of that, but people who follow Al and people who watch the film and get motivated to listen to his radio show, he does more than pointing at the lies; he really tries to get at the truth and what they're doing and where it's going and I think he does that pretty comprehensively every day on his radio show. You see bits of him trying to do it in the film too with Michael Medved, trying to take apart how the facts that he's presenting from the speech the night before by Governor Zell [Miller] are being distorted. But it is a very tricky game and for Al it's his personal quandary on whether he does better what he does now or whether he'll be able to stay true and be as effective as a politician. He's searching for this and exploring this right now in his life. But I think anyone who steps into the political realm, you're going to give up a lot. Are you going to be the human being who can stand up to the corruption of power in Washington? That's another aspect to it even beside being true to yourself.

Nick: But you have a point. His opposition is very effective and you're scared for him.

MG: I'm scared for him. I was reminded also of this new vehicle that's coming out with Robin Williams where Williams plays a comic who's running for the presidential race. Do you think there was any borrowing from Al Franken's story?

Nick: I don't think so just in terms of timing. I didn't realize it was that close.

MG: I get the sense it's about bringing humor into the political arena as a humanizing tool or strategy, which is what I feel Al has done.

Nick: Somebody asked us that question but I didn't realize why they were asking it; but, it's really that close?

MG: The similarity, the resemblance, struck me immediately, though it might be sheerly coincidental. Again, I consider myself a typical person in my reaction to politics. I'm extremely disillusioned with bipartisan politics in the United States. It's hard for me to put one foot in front of the other to go to the voting booth because I just don't believe it affects anything, and yet I know I have to believe that somehow voting will make a difference. Regarding the 2004 re-election campaign that you monitored in this documentary, I remember the lines to the voting booth were unlike anything I had ever seen in my adult life and they gave me a momentary rush like, "Oh, we're actually going to make a difference!" Then when it didn't, the disillusionment was so steep and that's why I think Jonathan Marlow, when he interviewed you for Greencine, said your film was depressing. But I think it's past that.

Nick: I think it's past that.

MG: Maybe I already knew what Al wanted—in terms of questioning the media—even before I listened to what he had to say on the subject. I don't listen to mainstream media. When President Bush was first elected and gave his state of the union address and started talking about the axis of evil, I just got so mad. I got cold and mad and I turned the t.v. off and I decided then and there that I just could not watch him anymore. I refuse to watch him and his ilk. And that's where your documentary was probably good for me, because that's not really the best response. I know it's a dangerous response that might give power away. I appreciated the documentary because you profile all these conservative personages who I've avoided becoming informed about and, quite frankly, I find them a bit stunning for being so conservative.

Chris: Same for me.

MG: Ann Coulter! It's my understanding there was incredible footage with Ann Coulter that you were not allowed to include?

Nick: There was a debate.

MG: There was a debate. In online circles, snippets of that have come out. Anthony Kaufman has admirably disregarded admonitions not to repeat what was said and has published a sampling of some of Coulter's comments at his site. ["When a moderator asks the two nemeses which historical figure they would be, Coulter says she'd be Franklin D. Roosevelt so she could prevent the New Deal. Franken says he'd be Hitler so he could prevent a little thing called The Holocaust.' Point: Franken."] Was there a legal issue involved?

Chris: The Forum where we filmed the debate had an arrangement with the performers that we could not put out material from that debate without their agreement to it.

MG: How unfortunate.

Chris: [Coulter] decided not to do it. We were hoping we didn't have to do that because there were press there and news there covering it at the time but—because of the nature of theatrical—we didn't fall exactly into the news category so we had to go specifically to her in the end and she said no, which was too bad. But I think with what we added to the film in some other way brought it in another direction, not having seen that. But most of the stuff that we had in, if you read any of the articles about that night, they almost describe verbatim what we had in. So you can get it online.

MG: Well, I want to say you guys are subtle but you're not! [They laugh.] The footage you have of Ann Coulter getting into her car—all bones and butt in a tube mini-skirt—is hilarious. It's amazing what a simple image will get across. That's why I depend more upon images than ideas; I think images carry ideas more effectively than just in themselves.

Chris: I hadn't known who she was or many of these people either because—living in New York—you tend not to listen to the radio as much and I just wasn't aware of them and it was appalling actually to see the language that they use.

MG: It was appalling and it reminded me of caricatures from The Simpsons or something. [They laugh.] I mean they look like characters from The Simpsons. You think, "How can this be so obvious and yet nobody does anything?" What do you hope the documentary's going to achieve?

Nick: There's this whole idea of preaching to the choir that you're not supposed to do; but, if it does sort of energize a certain sympathetic base, that would be good in this election. That's one thing we're really hoping it will do in the mid-term election, is that it will help people get more interested in voting, period. As depressing as the 2004 election is to some people, there's a kind of new optimism now about the mid-term.

MG: Well, there needs to be.

Nick: Well, there is, I think.

MG: We had a huge protest rally here in San Francisco yesterday—I don't know if you know about that?—down in Justin Hermann Plaza. I keep telling myself you need to remain vigilant, you need to remain mobilized, you cannot allow defeats like the 2004 election to stop the good work.

Nick: That's the thing. If Kerry—just speaking in selfish terms about the film—if Kerry had won the election, we'd have another kind of film. That was the thing that I find stirring about the film, was that Al—you can see it in his face—that he knows there's things he has to do. You can't just sit down and cry about it—he did—but he has to go beyond that and do something about it. There's something really wonderful about that.

MG: The risk he has to take—which is the one I'm concerned about—is the risk we all have to take.

Nick: That's a really wonderful way to put it.

MG: It's what I'm feeling. It's what I felt when I saw your film. Your film inspired me to think, "Okay. Maybe you don't really believe in voting so much. But there's still things you can do. At the very least, you've got to be jester in the king's court. At the very least." And that's what Al has done so brilliantly.

Chris: He has.

MG: Had you known much about Al before you started on this documentary? I understand you were actually on another documentary track first, the "other" Al documentary?

Chris: Right, the Al Sharpten documentary.

MG: Then this one came into fluorescence?

Chris. Right. I didn't really know a lot about Al before. I mean, I knew him from Saturday Night Live. I think I barely knew the Stuart Smalley aspect. In a lot of ways making these films we get to drop into peoples' worlds and really learn about them. That's why in a lot of ways our film is for somebody like you. Because we're not overtly political people. We're not issue people. There's films like The War Room, they're not issue films, they're about history I guess, they're about people at a certain point in their lives. We try to do them about people who are trying to do something good too as opposed to take on the enemies or make a film about Rumsfeld or something like that. What I saw in Al—in what he was trying to do with his book—right off was somebody who was trying to get at the truth in a bad world. It's an experiential film. I hope it motivates by action in the same way that in literature action creates character. By watching Al and seeing these villains that he comes up against in the media, it will motivate you by way of his action and his belief.

MG: I like how you express that documentary film-making "drops" you into the lives and experiences of other peoples' lives. Myself, I used to work for an Associate Court justice for the State of California who has since gone on to be a Supreme Court justice. The work was spirit-killing. I had to move away from it. I became sick because of it. The whole nature of law enforcement, the power of that kind of language and its self-referential rhetoric, became troubling and problematic for me. Film writing and interviewing film personalities is all new for me and it revitalizes me because I want to know what peoples' lives are really about and how others are recording them, not how others are trying to control them. Larsen Associates has a strong focus on documentary film-makers and the work they're doing and documentaries have become so validated, I would say, in the last decade especially. Have you noticed a shift like that?

Chris: Sure, having been in it for decades.

MG: Does it make it easier for you to do your work now?

Chris: It's the same thing. For the interest that I've had for all these years, we're looking for characters and stories and people that are passionate about something and ready to take a risk; stories that have a dramatic arc, the same as a fiction film. But you still need the same thing: you need a good character, you need a good story, you need access, and you can't create those like in a Hollywood film. You have to find those and be taken into their lives somehow. So it's not easier in that respect. It's cheaper. It used to cost us $400 for 10 minutes of shooting; now, it costs $6 for an hour. It's an incredible difference that the tools have been put in the hands of the people, which is very exciting for me because people can tell their own stories now in a way that they couldn't. It was always like some other culture being looked upon by these few people that had their hands on the equipment. Now they can do their own. So that's very interesting. It's a fascinating time for documentaries.

Nick: There's a lot of good films being made now. There are really smart, good films being made now. Probably there's much more of a market now. There seems to be much more of an audience for it. [Documentaries] don't have the life that Hollywood movies do but they do have a life and there seems to be a new reception for this kind of film-making.

MG: Some of the films you have made have had quite a long life. Some of the early documentaries that your husband made, the rock documentaries, were true templates of a cultural moment in time, which strikes me as what is one of the goals of a documentarian, isn't it?

Chris: Yeah, if you're lucky.

MG: You catch the atmosphere?

Chris: Yeah.

MG: Another scene in your documentary that blew me away was to see Al Franken impersonating Kissinger to Kissinger! How does somebody do that?! [They laugh.] How would you have—well, the talent number one—but, the courage to do that? That just seems so irreverent to me that you have to love Al for it.

Chris: He just does it so well and it's so appropriate right now with everything that we're hearing about Kissinger.

Nick: He couldn't keep himself from doing it. It's not as though he's getting up his nerve; he just couldn't not do it. He knew that Kissinger was in the room. That happened after that closet scene. There was a little waiting but he found his moment and you could tell, it was like he was drawn to a magnet.

MG: Reiterating what we were discussing before about Al's unguardedness that—if he goes into political office—he might forfeit. Like you were showing in the last scene, he can't crack that joke? What does that mean? What will he lose, like we were wondering before.

Nick: I don't think he even knows. That's the thing. He says, "I can be true to myself and not tell that joke." But I don't know if he knows what that means; it's really interesting.

MG: For yourselves, as documentarians, who were in Al's wake—because he did have access to these corridors of power, or at least these cocktail parties of power—what was that like for you being among these people? Do you interact much with them or do you keep away?

Nick: You don't keep away. You keep eye contact. That's important. There's no bullshit about whether you're there or not, you're there. In fact, at that Newsweek party, the camera had to be really close just to get the sound. That's maybe more important than anything else, that you're straightforward about how you shoot and that the person sees who you are shooting. You are, you're keeping eye contact. That's the great thing about these new cameras is that they're little and you're not behind this big machines, you're next to the machines.

MG: Can you speak a little bit about that technology? When you say these cameras, what are you talking about?

Nick: We shot with little cameras.

MG: Are they digital?

Nick. Yeah, digital. They're not real little, but they're about a box like that, and you can hold them down like this, or up to your eye, and they're much less threatening to somebody who's being shot. It looks a little bigger than a home movie camera. And everybody's got them these days. Everybody on the street is shooting movies so it's not too different. I think you put it a good way, that we're in Al's wake. There's something that people like Kissinger, and whoever else, they sense that they're walking into a little arena that Al is creating around himself, they're entering a proscenium….

MG: The Al Zone. [They laugh.]

Chris: Of films that we've shot, following Al Franken was one of the more fun films to do because you're always waiting to see what Al's going to do. You just don't know when you're following him.

MG: I was waiting to see when he first woke up if he was going to crack a joke right off; but, at least he said good morning first. So what is next on the horizon for the two of you now that this film is off and it's had its festival run and is now opening commercially? What's your next project?

Chris: We don't really have a next project yet. We're waiting until we give birth to this baby here. Going around the country doing an independent opening of a documentary is a lot of work for film-makers, especially if you don't have a major studio behind you. You have to help it along; help it have a life. It's a lot of work.

MG: When you're making a documentary film like this, obviously you've shot hundreds of hours of footage, right? I'm intrigued by that openendedness, that aesthetic that you really don't know what the story's going to be until it unfolds. You were saying if Kerry had won it would have been one documentary; but, the fact that he didn't win engendered this moment, which really was quite profound and as dramatic as anything I've seen in any feature where they're striving for a moment like that. It was a genuine moment of transition and transformation for Al Franken. The timing and the placement of that moment towards the end of the documentary seemed choice. The documentary had pretty much run its full course and then this moment arrives and suddenly my perception of the film went off in all directions, and started grabbing different scenes from throughout the documentary to make sense of this moment. That was a powerful recapitulation. How do you decide editing-wise between the two of you? Is there a strategy you've developed? Is it project by project? How do you effect that?

Chris: For this film I felt when Al turned the corner we had the end and part of it was the scene that you're describing after the election and part of it was when he goes back to Minnesota and takes a life-changing decision and works it out in front of an audience and then decides, "Can I really do this or not?" Then I felt we had a film and a story there; but it's waiting through it because, for me, I didn't know who Al was in the beginning outside of Saturday Night Live. I wanted to make the film so that—I always think, "Can my kids understand it? Will they know who Al Franken is?" Or this and that. I want it so that people understand who the person is and where they came from and what the story is.

MG: How have audiences reacted at the various festivals you've attended? Has the reaction been favorable?

Chris: Yeah, we've had amazing reaction. The hard thing—as you say—is getting people to understand why they should see this film. Once they get in there and see it, they've been incredibly moved by it. We've had great reactions. The other day when we showed it, Al was at that screening, and the audience was very moved and said, "What can we do now?" Al said, "Well, actually if you really want to know what you can do, there's this candidate in Minnesota that I'm raising money for, that I can't give any more money from my pack to him but he's a school teacher, he's a great candidate, and his name is Tim Walz, W-A-L-Z, Tim Walz." The next day he gets a call from the Walz campaign saying, "What's going on in New York? We got all this money!"

MG: Excellent. So it's nice to know there can be an effect.

Chris: Yeah, so there can be.

MG: So you don't have a specific project lined up, do you have a dream project? Any figure you've been wanting to monitor? Researching your work, you have a strong focus on the arts, which is admirable.

Chris: A lot of times we wait until people walk in the door and say, "We've seen this film and we think you'd be great at this other subject that we know about." This being individuals, it's not like you're a news organization and you have feelers out all over the place of where the stories are. So a lot of the time we rely on people coming to us. Then we're also waiting—I don't know if we'll do more with Al if he actually takes the jump.

MG: I was going to ask you if you thought he would. We don't actually know if he's going to do it yet?

Nick: I don't think he knows. I truly don't think he knows. I don't think he's being coy about it. Apparently, there's no other Democrat that's really out there right now. Somebody said he's maybe sucking the air out of any other Democratic person that might be thinking about it. [Senator Norm] Coleman would be a rough [opponent]; it would be a touch race. As much as people like Al—people really do like Al in Minnesota; he taps into this thing called "Minnesota nice", people really like him—but Coleman's got a big machine behind him. He'd be a tough candidate. He was ahead of [Senator Paul] Wellstone for a good part of the campaign. Wellstone had just gotten ahead of him towards the end.

MG: Wellstone was another personage that I appreciated learning about from your documentary. I wasn't familiar with him. Again, that's the value of your documentary. If you can get people to go out, not only will they be entertained—because they will definitely be entertained—not only is there this spiritual risk taking that we've been talking about; but, there's this kind of current who's-who of who's lately been involved in these bipartisan debates.

Chris: There's that chilling moment where Wellstone is addressing about the Gulf War, where he's saying that—if we go into it—we'll set off the entire Arab world. It's so chilling almost.

MG: It is chilling for being so prescient. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate you at least pretending I know what I'm talking about.

Nick: Look, you're so dead on about the film. It's validating to hear this. It's nice to hear someone who really gets it. Really. The way you've been seeing it, is the way we've were hoping people would see it.

Chris: We made it for people who aren't super-political. People who are super-political in some ways find fault in it because it's not political enough for them and that's not really what we were trying to do. It's not an issue film.

Cross-posted on Twitch.


peter said...

shelly palmer from the producer's guild of america recently interviewed al franken on the subject of media and politics and, of course, the midterm elections.

the video from the interview is available online @

Unknown said...

Download it here:

Chus said...

This is what I think: Al Franken