Fall 2018

11 Questions

Morgan Neville

For the indie documentarian, the style should fit the subject


Morgan Neville is having an unusually productive year. The Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom is behind Won't You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood fame. The acclaimed indie documentary, unveiled at Sundance, is one of the summer's biggest box office success stories, having grossed more than $22 million on as many as 900 screens since its June 8 release—almost unheard of for a nonfiction feature. Next up: They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, a recounting of the unending twists and turns involving Orson Welles' last unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. Both Rogers and Welles were mavericks in their fields: one a soft-spoked minister-by-training who advocated for children, the other a brilliant auteur whose potential was never fully realized. Neville's approach to the two subjects was aptly divergent.

1. Do you have any rules or precepts as a documentary director?

Certain filmmakers like to have a stamp. I'm a believer in letting the subject matter dictate the style and being more of a chameleon. My heroes are people like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Curtiz. I like that idea of each documentary taking on its own personality.

2. How did you handle setups for on-camera interviews?

For Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the talking heads are all speaking directly to camera, which I'd never done before. I used a device called the EyeDirect [Mark II], which is like a little mirror periscope. Even though the interviewees were looking directly into camera, we were sitting knee-to-knee. We were in the same space, so it maintained that emotional connection that I felt would be hugely important.

Fred Rogers always talked directly to camera. I felt like it established this oneon- one connection with the audience that I wanted to honor. I shot 30 interviews and used 14. Even a talking head in a documentary is a character; what I don't like is someone to come on one time and never come back. An interview subject has to earn their way into a film.

In They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, I wanted to blow up the idea of the talking head. I just did audio interviews, and I had a camera-person come and I said, "I want you to move around the room and get different angles, and if I see a shot that looks like a normal talking head, I'll never use it." Having the freedom to experiment is what Orson did all the time.

3. Was the on-screen narrator, actor Alan Cumming, also an experiment?

Orson loved narrators. He narrated his feature films and his documentaries, and the narrator in They'll Love Me When I'm Dead is being a character, not the voice of God. I felt I wanted to honor that because it's what Orson would have done. I based a lot of my documentary on Orson's doc F for Fake; the whole thing is very playful.

Another choice I made, which people may love or hate, is that I didn't identify anyone in the film—I loved the freedom of that. At the beginning we have narration saying the story is being told by people who were there, friends and family, cast and crew. You have to go with it. A number of people you get from context. But that was so freeing, too.

4. What kind of camera and size of crew were employed for the narration segments?

We shot on a 6K RED DRAGON on a Raleigh Studios soundstage. We had a 20-person crew and a day of tests because of the mirror shots (an homage to Welles' The Lady From Shanghai). However, my average for an interview shoot is around six or so, including camera, AC (assistant camera or focus puller), DIT (digital imaging technician), producer, sound, one or two production assistants and maybe a lighting person or grip.

A scene from They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, about the final years of Orson Welles' career. (Photo: Netflix)

5. How do you prep interviewees in advance?

My main thing about doing interviews is to have a conversation and listen really hard. I typically write up a list of questions and then I never look at it. I never want to break eye contact; it's crucial for it to be a conversation, and for me to be engaged, asking follow-up questions.

6. What were the challenges and benefits of collaborating with multiple editors on both films?

I love working with two editors because it's all about ideating. I have an editor come in at the beginning. We sketch and group ideas together and then come up with a list of potential scenes. People don't always think of documentaries as having "scenes." Essentially, documentaries are about characters, story, scenes and acts.

I came up with a list of 35 scene ideas for Won't You Be My Neighbor? and we broke down all the footage and interviews into those groupings. When we would start to cut, we would look at all the material we had on that subject and very quickly see what stood out and what didn't, and sketch it together into a scene.

Often I'll have a second editor who comes in a little later with fresh eyes, and we start kicking scenes back and forth. The continuity is not a problem because it's a constant process of trading scenes, then reels and acts back-and-forth. And you do need editors with kind of a selfless quality, where we all feel like we're in it together.

The process really worked on Won't You Be My Neighbor? Typically on a documentary, you have a mountain of material, you cut it down, and then boil it down. I found that process inefficient. You lose your intent and it's purely reactive. We had these ideas for 35 scenes, cut the scenes, strung them together, and we had 90 minutes. At this point any new thing has to knock out something else and has to be really good. We started with this additive approach, rather than a reductive approach; we found the skeleton of the film first. I always keep shooting while editing because the dialogue between edit bay and footage is ongoing.

7. Isn't that the advantage of nonfiction vs. fiction?

You can only do that with documentary. If I'm thinking about a documentary idea I can shoot the first interview tomorrow, I can test the water. The journey to day one of shooting documentary vs. fiction is night and day. Day one shooting a feature needs cast, crew, financing, insurance, etc.; day one of a documentary is a camera and me. The freedom to actually discover things is part of the process.

8. What was your approach to the films' music?

I think the challenge with a lot of documentaries is, how do you make them a cinematic experience? How you do that is things like great storytelling, animation, score—really trying to elevate the craftsmanship of film so it feels worthy of a theatrical experience. I think score is hugely important for that. Fred Rogers [earned a BA in music composition] and wrote every song on [his] shows. It was not a stretch to make music an integral part of what that film was about. Picking out the vocabulary for that music was so much fun: thinking about instruments like the xylophone, harp, celeste and other instruments that evoke childhood in some way.

We were not on the nose [with period-specific music] with They'll Love Me When I'm Dead. It's about bridging the past and the future, and a '70s future too. The Buzzcocks and Suicide are on the soundtrack, but there's also electronica, mixed with classical flavor and analog synthesizers.

I often ask composers to watch the rough cut and compose a piece—an emotional reaction that feels influenced by the film. In both cases, those became some of my favorite pieces that worked their way into the film.

By the time you get to score, a lot of documentaries are out of money and time, so it gets short shrift. But to me it's one of the most important tools in the toolbox to make a documentary feel bigger.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? aims for an emotional connection with the audience. (Photo: Jim Judkis)

9. How do you manage multiple projects at the same time?

I've been an independent filmmaker for 25 years. I was a journalist before that. A friend of mine uses this metaphor: to have a career doing this is more like a chef. You have to have different things at different temperatures simmering at once. You have to adapt and be flexible as so much is out of your control. In a perfect world, things happen when you need them to happen; occasionally things crash into each other.

I'm much more of a marathon runner when it comes to work. The more I can stretch out any production schedule, the happier I am. I think it makes the films better because they have a chance to percolate.

10. Is it difficult to work with subjects who exist only via archival materials?

With a biopic, you can end up in the Wikipedia trap, and feel like you have to check off boxes on somebody's career, like a résumé. There were many things about Fred's career we did not put into the film, and I have zero regrets. The facts of someone's life does not equal the essence of that person.

In documentary, exposition is your enemy. It's the least interesting thing about storytelling. A lot of it was me figuring out how little I had to say to get the message and the ideas [across].

And the same thing with They'll Love Me When I'm Dead—being able to focus on [Welles'] last 15 years and one film made a difference. He was so free: He thought more like a documentary filmmaker than a feature filmmaker. Later in life, when he did F for Fake, Orson really came to understand the freedoms of being a documentary filmmaker. You can start and stop, edit, revise and shoot, and that suited his process of discovery rather than capturing something that was preordained.

11. Did you find Welles to be incredibly self-aware?

The thing that gave me the confidence was knowing that trying something audacious was the best way of honoring Orson. To me, it's one of the least conventional things I've done in terms of approach. The Other Side of the Wind is a very dense film; he was asking a lot from the viewer; it's something he did all the time. His films had such pace, they were so fast, and they didn't wait for the audience to catch up, and we were trying to honor that.

(Top Photo: Robby Klein)

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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