Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Andrew Rossi Q&A

Who's up for a little chat with the director of "Page One: Inside the New York Times"? Not only was Rossi engaging, I learned something about postmodernism. And he wiped out the memory of that day's train ride to Philly, which featured two meth addicts on the verge of collpase.

Working on scheduling an interview next month with an indie film darling. Who is it? Start your guessing.

This article previously appeared in the July issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Yes, documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi did read the print edition New York Times this morning on the train ride from New York to Philadelphia. But the presence of a cell phone and some kind of smart phone—I'm not enough of a tech head to recognize the brand—suggests that Rossi stays informed in other ways.

That dichotomy is at the heart of Rossi's terrific documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times, which profiles the paper's media desk. The staff of 14 covers the changing media world, including the famed newspaper's own struggles. Through the personal and professional developments at the Times, Rossi captures the evolution of journalism mid-stream. It involves more than advances in technology and the growing influence of social media. People's careers are on the line.

In a 25-minute interview, Rossi, an associate producer on another splendid newsroom documentary (Control Room), talks about Page One's "script," what the recent resignation of Times' executive editor Bill Keller signifies, and offers job advice to a worried interviewer.

Page One opens July 1 in Philadelphia.

Pete Croatto: It took six months of negotiations for the New York Times to agree to be involved in this film. When did the breakthrough occur?

Andrew Rossi: One of the more important meetings was with the journalists of the media desk. I came to the meeting [with] pink eye because my young daughter was sick and I got it from her. So I came to the meeting with red, puffy eyes. I told them, "I thought if I was crying during this meeting you would decide to be nice, and say yes."

I probably had one of the most tense meetings in the whole process. A lot of the journalists were concerned that while I was shooting, how could they trust that what I would capture would not compromise sources. There was a lot of talk about process. I just very frankly and deliberately explained that my process is in this tradition of Cinéma vérité: to shoot and collect materials that render an accurate portrait of what I'm shooting, of what my subject is. It's a relationship of trust, so that, of course, I'm not going to sneak a shot of something and put it on YouTube and try to compromise people's sources or embarrass them.

Instead, what I'm doing is I'm trying to give viewers this front row seat inside the four walls of an institution, which could be the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times for that matter—anywhere that has original reporting as its main base—and let people be themselves. And let viewers then decide: Is this something that's very archaic and seems bloated and is a waste? Or rather are we seeing vital conversations and truth squadding going on to create a paper every day that is contributing to our understanding of the world. I think the fact that I wasn't going in with some agenda other than just to capture what was going on there, it resonated with them.

PC: It had to be weird for them because the reporters are used to being the profilers, and now they're the subjects. Did you sense any discomfort on that end, that they couldn't control the final product?

AR: I found with [media desk editor] Bruce [Headlam] and [media columnist] David [Carr] and [reporter] Brian [Stelter] a real sense of pleasure to engage in conversations that challenged the stories that they were writing, challenged their own conclusions, and almost provided them with an outlet to think more broadly about some of the stories that they were reporting. I had to be a real student of their own work and try to tease out the stories that are most emblematic of what's happening to the media landscape and constantly be aware of what their schedules were and what they were planning to write on.

PC: You were essentially a one-man crew. How hard was it to chronicle the media desk but also the editor, the reporters, and the paper itself?

AR: It was extremely challenging, but I was very lucky to have a co-producer and co-writer, Kate Novack, who I was able to call on while I was shooting. I'd schedule to do an interview with [Times' executive editor] Bill Keller and then say, "OK Kate, go to talk to him about the Afghan war logs being released this morning. Can you help come up with questions? Somebody mentioned x, y, z. Can you do some research on that?" And then Kate was also in the process of compiling a list of and researching people outside the Times that we could speak to as a counterpoint. Then in the down time moments from shooting in the building, we would then assemble and do these other interviews.

PC: You mentioned how Ms. Novack was the film's co-writer, which I find odd since this is a documentary. It's not as if there's scripted dialogue. Why is there a "written by" credit?

AR: We did actually cull David's columns and produce a sort-of narration, a voiceover that comes in and out of the film, so we did do that. I was shooting for about 14 months, but in order to structure…we viewed it as a play within a play. All of the different stories that the writers are producing are these little vignettes or scenes that illuminate some aspect of the media landscape. Then there's this macro-, meta-play, which is what's happening to the paper itself and to their own personal trajectories there. Ordering all that material, Kate and I sort of wrote that. We decided what the order should be and how one thing relates to another and when we needed to go out to David Remnick [editor of the New Yorker] to provide some insight or [media journalist/author] Sarah Ellison.

PC: How hard is it to coordinate a script that was so complicated?

AR: It was joyous. It's a thrill.

PC: Really?

AR: Yeah. It's physical. It's intellectual. It's a real fusion of many different muscles—both mental and physical.

PC: So, as a filmmaker, there's a creative challenge in putting this together?

AR: There is, but there's also a sense of like, put yourself in the right place at the right time. The other layer of challenges was that there was an urgency to complete the film in a timeframe where it could sort of enter the broader cultural conversation and have an impact.

PC: The fact that newspapers are dying has been talked about for years. In making this movie how did you make that debate current and attention grabbing?

AR: So, people have been trying to make a "newspaper movie" for years. I was, in fact, developing something for HBO at the time when I started on this. I was told that a new producer was coming to HBO every week with an idea about doing a newspaper movie. As you say, this crisis in the newspaper business has been gaining increasing urgency for like five years. But when I looked at the problem is when it reached the front door of the New York Times.

I had a pre-existing relationship with David Carr and it seemed that this idea of focusing on the media desk while giving this intimate portrait of, in a Cinéma vérité format, what people do at the New York Times, which has this incredible brand, could tackle some of the largest theoretical debates in the question about the future of journalism. But [we'd] also have this fascinating character with a great sense of humor and a real poetic take on the media that I think also taps into something even larger than newspapers—society's general ambivalence about digitization.

PC: Was it always the plan to have David Carr as the guy up in front, or did that happen as filming progressed?

AR: He was actually going to be the sole protagonist, initially. Then we broadened out to include the entire media desk and it became more of an ensemble. Even when we transitioned to that structure, David was always what I called the Virgil character, from Dante's Inferno. Virgil is taking Dante through the various [circles] of hell.

PC: Is that what the Times is going through right now, that it's on this tumultuous journey that has a destination but before it gets there, a hell of a lot is going to happen?

AR: I would say, to continue with this analogy, that they're in purgatory. I think Bill Keller stepping down last week really crystallizes this idea that an era of crisis at the Times has abated, come to a close.

PC: Really? Because in the movie he has that great line where he says that it feels like he's wearing a bloody butcher's smock. You think his leaving is more about things being resolved, but couldn't it be fatigue? He's been executive editor for about 10 years.

AR: I believe that his decision to step down was made on the basis of him feeling that the paper was in a more secure position than it was when he assumed the role [after the Howell Raines-Jayson Blair scandal], and that he was able to see the paper through the Great Recession, through two rounds of layoffs, corrections in the reporting that Judith Miller did on WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). Also, on his watch, he had so many journalists killed or kidnapped. It's been a very tumultuous period in American life. You take any two or three month snapshot, with the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, he's had a really full plate in addition to this other unforeseen layer of economic disaster and calamity in the newspaper business.

The fact that now he, along with the publisher, has sort of assessed that he can step down and hand off a paper to Jill Abramson that has preserved his promise of providing quality journalism—to me, is a very hopeful event. But the challenges all remain. I think the movie kind of takes on a whole other level of significance.

PC: You've mentioned the movie's themes and sub-themes, but in the process of filming day after day for 14 months did you think to yourself, "Where are we going with this?" Or did you have a game plain laid out?

AR: At the risk of sounding sort of pretentious, I'm an admirer of postmodern theory in addition to [screenplay teacher] Robert McKee, who is the author of Story. So I view my process of telling story as a fusion of bricolage in the sense of [French anthropologist Claude] Lévi-Strauss, the notion of combining found objects to create meaning. So then everything that I'm collecting in the vérité sense are all these little elements that can be put together within a set of genre expectations about three-act structure and McKee's idea of plusses and minuses and scenes turning in a way that a film audience can [appreciate].

PC: Doesn't this style go against your status as a Cinéma vérité director?

AR: I think it goes back to this notion of [the film] being a play within a play. When we're following Brian Stelter reporting on this video that WikiLeaks has released with the Reuters journalist, and then Bruce Headlam is trying to have Brian finish the story so he can pitch it to the A1 meeting. And then Bill Keller and [editor] Ian Fisher and Bruce are debating the accuracy of the video and whether WikiLeaks is an advocacy group or a journalistic group. All that material is being collected in a classic Cinéma vérité manner, meaning that I'm really trying to be, as much as possible, a fly on the wall. All of that gets presented in that scene. There are a couple of tangents into comparisons with the Pentagon Papers, but for the most part that's 10 minutes just on the reporting of one story and one day, which is not necessarily so common in most reality-influenced documentary films or television that we see.

There's this wonderful line where Bruce Headlam is asking Brian for his article and Brian is sort of equivocating, and then Bruce turns to the camera and says, "He's lying." To me, that's a classic vérité moment, it's true to the moment. That's not a sit down interview with someone like, "What was it like to write the story?" That's really capturing the scene in the newsroom unfolding.

PC: So it's organized reality?

AR: I view it almost like literary journalism, but with picture instead of words.

PC: You do interview Gay Talese, who's a legend in the genre.

AR: That, and the New Journalism that he was a pioneer of, is such an inspiration to me. And The Kingdom and the Power, specifically, I think is a breathtaking work.

PC: If the Times fails, what do you think is the ripple effect?

AR: I think the ripple effect would be devastating. "Consider the source" is the tagline that Participant Media [the film's co-distributor] came up with. I think it's really important because all the stories that are linked to [online]. I think there's a New York Times article tweeted every four seconds, stories on Facebook, stories that get aggregated or just referred to all across the net or get embedded in news reports that we watch on television. The New York Times is one of a handful of organizations that's doing original iron-core news reporting like [writer/author] Alex Jones refers to.

PC: I'm a journalist. It used to be, as media desk reporter Tim Arango says in the movie, that if you got to the New York Times you had a 30-year career. Where do people like me go now?

AR: You're at The City Paper?

PC: Actually, I write for ICON, it's a monthly A&E pub. But I also write for newspapers, magazines, Web sites. I'm just curious, where is that new stability?

AR: It sounds like you're already living a sort of challenging, professional life.

PC: I'll show you my checkbook.

AR: Unfortunately, it's probably more of the same.

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