Matt Wolf is a filmmaker in New York. His critically acclaimed and award-winning documentary films have played widely in festivals and have been distributed internationally in theaters and on television. Matt’s features include Wild Combination about the cult cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell, Teenage about early youth culture and the birth of teenagers, Recorder about the activist Marion Stokes, who secretly recorded television 24 hours a day for 30 years, and Spaceship Earth about Biosphere 2, a controversial experiment where 8 people lived quarantined inside a replica of the planet. (Image by Wyatt Garfield.)
I didn’t set out to be a documentary filmmaker, but when I started making my first film, Wild Combination — about the cult cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell — I began to interview people. I had a knack for it, maybe because I’m drawn to psychologically intimate and expansive conversations, and while I insisted to my collaborators that I wasn’t making a “conventional documentary,” I kept interviewing. I stumbled into documentaries by accident, really, and I realized that with interviews, I can simultaneously bring to life idiosyncratic characters and grapple with big ideas.
My most recent film, Recorder, is about Marion Stokes, an activist who recorded television 24 hours a day for 30 years on multiple networks, to protect the truth. She started in 1979, during the Iranian Hostage Crisis — now considered the birth of the 24-hour news cycle — and ended on the day of her death, as news of the Sandy Hook Massacre played on television. Marion was rightly concerned that important information was being lost as the production of news accelerated, and she recognized that public opinion was being molded by the predilections of television’s producers. Now in this era of so-called “fake news,” Marion’s prescient project has enhanced urgency.
Recorder isn’t just an excavation of Marion’s monumental archive, it’s also an emotionally intense family story. In her absence, Marion’s only son Michael Metelits is the primary storyteller, and he sensitively reconciles his mother’s interpersonal shortcomings with her political convictions. My seven-hour interview with Michael is the emotional and intellectual core of the film, as he resurrects Marion’s secretive life, and reanimates the forgotten history she bore witness to. My goal with Recorder, and really with all filmmaking, is to get audiences to have an emotional connection to ideas. Longform interviewing is my best resource to achieve that.
It’s interesting to me that over the years, as the conversation about artistry in documentary filmmaking has expanded, interviews are often discounted as stodgy and uninspired. Collaborators often ask, “How can we do something different with the interviews?” Certainly, there are superficial ways to distract the viewer from the artificial construct of somebody speaking directly to a camera. But I’m of the mindset that conventions stick because they work. This essay isn’t a defense of interviews in documentaries — indeed, many films egregiously employ forgettable experts to lifelessly convey information — it is a reconsideration of the artistry of interviews.
I believe that a dynamic longform interview can be a movie unto itself. The interview subject establishes a cast of characters, and as the protagonist of his or her own story, they walk us through their life. The particularities of their personal experience may be compelling, but an exceptional subject tells a story that’s larger than themselves. Shirley Clarke’s arresting 1967 film Portrait of Jason is a touchstone of this premise. The film is a 105-minute interview-cum-monologue by a black gay hustler and performer named Jason Holliday. Clarke met Jason with her boyfriend and collaborator Carl Lee at the Chelsea Hotel, and they interviewed him over one long evening in her apartment. Their finished film is edited, but it has the feeling of an uninterrupted confession. Jason vacillates between flamboyant posturing and devastating honesty as he’s goaded by Clarke and Lee. They break down his cool persona into a harsh picture of an outsider’s social reality.
While Jason’s singular interview and performance carried Clarke’s entire film, most documentaries rely on a collection of individual perspectives to shape a dramatic story or to frame a sprawling topic. The success of these films relies on interview subjects being rendered as multidimensional characters, whose composite insights and biases illuminate larger themes. Arthur Dong’s 1997 film Licensed to Kill quite literally changed my life because of its masterful interviewing. I saw the film as a teenager late at night on PBS’s POV, and the next morning I came out.
In the 1970s, Dong was attacked by a group of gay bashers in San Francisco. Twenty-seven years later, he set out to find meaning in his own assault by interviewing men convicted of murdering gay men. These shockingly even-tempered and honest conversations from prisons are illustrated with brutal crime-scene imagery. There are no expert commentators and we’re not given the point of view of the victims. Instead, Dong creates an unflinching portrait of homophobic violence, which in turn holds a mirror up to the society that breeds it.
One of the most disarming interview subjects, Jay Johnson, lucidly recalls his alienation from the gay community as a biracial man, the guilt he endured from his highly religious upbringing, and his desperate reaction to an HIV diagnosis. The film does not simply force the viewer to empathize with these murderers, but instead it points to myriad issues of race, class, religious fundamentalism, neo-conservative politics and mental illness behind an alarming pattern of violence that has escalated in the subsequent decades. Often the greatest artistry of documentary filmmaking is observation. While Licensed to Kill has no vérité scenes, observing the frank, broken and sometimes chilling gaze of these prisoners speaks volumes.
I was thinking about Licensed to Kill when I saw Dan Reed’s recent film Leaving Neverland. I feel that the artistry of this film has been overlooked because of its sensational subject matter — the harrowing stories of two men who endured childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson. While the film does suffer from an over-abundance of clichéd drone shots, the extraordinary interviews with Wade Robson and James Safechuck are its heart. Over the course of the film’s four-hour runtime, Reed conducts psychologically forensic interviews, and with immense sensitivity, he allows his subjects to recount their love story with Michael Jackson. Only in the last act of the film do Robson and Safechuck recall the adulthood surfacing of trauma, and the devastating consequences of their abuse. I respect Reed for allowing his subjects to speak freely, without deflating the disturbing details of their experience with moralizing commentary.
If Reed had taken the traditional path of interviewing dozens of eyewitnesses and journalists, to create a march of talking heads, Leaving Neverland would easily have been the salacious exposé that we have all seen before. Instead, he has made a film that isn’t so much about Michael Jackson as it is about the allure of power, and the condoning of abuse. The films discussed here aren’t the lightest fare, to say the least. They’re stories that require a certain psychological intensity that can’t be observed in real time. To understand these subjects’ pain and to honor their dignity, the filmmaking is best served by interviewing in an unvarnished and direct way.
When I was making Wild Combination, I found a large archive of films from the legendary BBC arts program Arena. These documentaries are mostly portraits of epoch-defining artists, shot plainly on 16 mm with key figures from cultural history. While these television films aren’t radical in their approach, they employ innovative sound design, creative music choices, and artistic treatments of archival footage, which render the creative points of view of varied artists. When I first discovered these films, I considered them to be “classical,” whereas I wanted to be “experimental,” and to break formal ground in my films. However, as I continued interviewing and procuring archival footage for my first film, I realized that sometimes the most subtle interventions into a convention have the strongest artistic impact. I gave myself permission to be conventional in service of unconventional goals.
Whether it’s O.J.: Made in America or Jane Fonda in Five Acts, there are incredible films being produced that create complex psychological portraits and masterful interpretations of history, through seemingly conventional means. These types of documentaries may not resemble art house films, and critics may often discuss them solely based on content, but interview-based films are long overdue for artistic reappraisal.