What are your feelings heading into Oscar week?
Tia (Lessin) and I have been to the Oscars before. We were there with Bowling for Columbine. We were at the Cannes Film Festival with Fahrenheit 9/11. Weve really seen the power that film, and documentaries in particular, have to influence a national conversation. Those films did it in grand fashion. But its a completely different story with this film. This film is a labor of love, something weve been fighting for from day one.
The last year has been something of a whirlwind for everyone involved.
Its been a heck of a year. We started at the Sundance Film Festival, where we showed it to an audience for the very first time with Kimberly and Scott Roberts and our families. To see the response there Its an indescribable experience. It was a heck of a night, to see people embracing the story, the film and Kimberly and Scotts experience was incredibly moving.
I hadnt realized Kim got a director of photography credit on the film.
When it was clear that she and Scott were not going to able to leave the city, she had a creative impulse to pick up the camera. What she captured in those few hours the day before, and the day of the storm until her battery died is really an amazing document.
Did you conceive the structure of weaving her footage into yours during post-production, or was that the idea all along?
A lot of that happened through the editing process. We shot a good 200 hours of footage and went through another 200 hours of archival footage. We didnt always know exactly where we were headed, but we were very compelled and drawn in by Kimberly and Scott as characters, and by their story and their generosity, and tried to stay true to their demand to not sanitize what they were telling us, to keep it real lets depict a real experience of so many people who were left behind during Katrina.
We didnt really start editing until a year after the storm. It was July of 2006 when we finally had the funds to put an editor to work. While Kimberly and Scott spent all of their time with us on the other side of the camera, it was when we got into the editing room that we understood that this home video really would enable us to tell the story from the inside-out. And we made a choice.
We had an amazing editor and co-producer, Woody Richman hes got quite a body of work. He was one of the editors of Fahrenheit 9/11. With him, we decided the most effective way to incorporate the home video was to go back and forth in time. We grounded the film in the present, in that moment where we met in the immediate aftermath of the storm in central Louisiana. And then every time we went back to that home video, it was sort of a touchstone, and we knew that we were back at that point of view. We also worked really hard to maintain that point of view throughout. Where there wasnt video footage, we tried to incorporate other material that gave us that point of view. So you always felt like you were right back there.
How difficult was it to document the story without involving yourself too much in what was happening around you?
We worked hard to be in the moment. We realized very early on that as much as we thought that we understood what had transpired, and what was going on When youre there with the camera, youre sort of automatically part of the story. Youre a participant in that action thats being documented and being filmed. Theres no way of gauging the impact of your presence. That said, we tried to step back and listen a lot. I hope you agree that we approached it without a real heavy hand.
Much of whats been written about you and Tia starts with the Michael Moore caveat Despite having worked with Moore then recognizes the wonderful job you did letting this story tell itself.
We tried to. Working with that amazing 90 minutes that Kimberly was able to shoot, of which we selected about 15 minutes for the first part of the film; that, combined with 400 hours of material that we were wading through, trying to extract out of that what we felt would be the most compelling story to tell.
Has it been hard getting the film out there without a major distribution deal? The last year looks something like a rock n roll tour, with all the limited engagements across the country.
It has been difficult. Its a privilege and a pleasure to be able to support this film and bring it into so many different communities. Our theatrical distributor is very passionate and dedicated to cinema, and theyre also very small. Lately, weve had more one-off screenings and shorter runs. I think thats a credit to them for not giving up on the film, and creating as many opportunities as the exhibitors will allow for people to see it.
Do you have plans for DVD?
Theres an advance version of the DVD thats available for community groups and schools, an educational copy that people can get in advance, and it comes with a limited license for small groups (up to 50). In April were going to have a broadcast premiere on HBO. We were dedicated to giving people the opportunity to see it collectively, in a theatrical setting; now, well be working with HBO. Even though people will be seeing it in their living rooms, were working hard to organize group viewings, particularly around the opening, so people can not only view the film, but engage in some real meaningful discussion afterward. The DVD will be available commercially following that broadcast, probably sometime in the summer.
What experiences have you cherished most about promoting the film?
Its been having the ability to present the film to so many different audiences in so many different cities either myself and Tia alone, or Kimberly and Scott alone. Lots of Q&As. Together weve been to a dozen cities or more, presenting the films and doing the Q&As. Danny Glover has been very much committed, giving a lot of his time to support the film in that way. And its really gratifying to see how deeply the film resonates with audiences all over the country. Because its not just a story about Katrina or the Gulf Coast.
It has something very powerful to say about how governments prioritize and interact with the people theyre supposed to serve.
Thats very well put. Were really happy with the results in that respect.
For the Oscar, it looks like a dead heat between you and Man on Wire. I was taken with the parallel personalities of both Kimberly and Philippe neither are trained actors, but both take to the frame easily and almost dominate their movies.
Thats a great observation. There are a lot of parallels between Petit and Kimberly. But there are also some stark differences, because Man on Wire, the story of Philippe Petit, is the story of a guy who, while he comes from working-class roots, he sort of had this attitude that he could do whatever it was that he wanted to do, no matter what. Are we breaking the law? Lets break the law. Lets bring a wire up between these towers and do it, because he had the artistic impulse to do it. Kimberly, on the other hand, comes from a place where you didnt get that kind of encouragement. She wasnt always told that she could do whatever she wanted to do and be whatever she wanted to be. And she did it anyway. And so theyre similar and different.
Do you expect to win?
Weve already won. Honestly. We feel so blessed to be where we are. It really doesnt matter. I think its going to really gel the moment that Kimberly, Scott, Tia and I step out on the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre. What a journey that has been. Its something you couldnt have written, and certainly none of us ever would have predicted. As far as were concerned, the attention this is bringing to the film, the validation of Kimberly and Scotts personal story, the validation of the film as a piece of art, weve already won.