Documentary Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on Structure, Editing, and Sound

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: We don’t censor ourselves more making the film. We don’t say that’s going to be too expensive, that’s going to be too hard to get. We just try to get every single thing we possibly can and then we try to figure out how to pay for it. If it really gets bad, you know, we go crying to the broadcaster. You know, you don’t want us to cut this deal.

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S3: Hello, and welcome back to working, I’m your host, Karen Hahn, and

S4: I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.

S3: Hi, Isaac, so good to record with you again.

S4: I know two weeks in a row,

S3: it’s our it’s our power hour, so I know that you are a Stanley Nelson fan, but I am unfortunately not that familiar with his work, so I was hoping you could introduce us.

S4: Absolutely. So yes, as you said, that was Stanley Nelson we heard at the beginning of the episode, and he is an incredible documentary filmmaker, really at this point, kind of almost like an elder statesman of the form. Some of his recent films include Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool, The Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution and Freedom Riders. My actual favorite film of his, which we talk about in the interview itself, is Jonestown Life and Death of the People’s Temple, which is an incredibly intense documentary about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple and both their political work in San Francisco and the kind of mass suicide that they committed in their compound in South America. And it’s one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen. He has a new film out now on Showtime co-directed with Tracy A. Curry called Attica, which tells the story of the Attica prison uprising.

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S3: And just as a little tease, what do Slate Plus listeners have in store for them this week?

S4: Slate Plus listeners have a very special treat in store. It’s actually probably some of my favorite stuff from the interview ended up in Plus this week. We talk about the very beginning of Stanley Nelson’s career when he apprenticed with William Greaves, who’s maybe a somewhat forgotten figure now, but he was a truly incredible documentarian. He made this a bunch of really amazing, more straightforward documentaries, but he also made this unbelievable experimental movie called Simba’s Psycho Taxable Plasm Day one, which if you happen to have a Criterion Collection subscription, you can stream right now and should it’s bonkers. But anyway, we talk about that, and then we had a very funny conversation. I asked him whether he was nostalgic about working with film at all now that he purely makes movies digitally, and he had a very pointed and very funny series of answers to that question.

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S3: Having listened to that segment, I will say it is really wonderful. So listeners, if you are not a Slate Plus member, you can sign up today at Slate.com. Slash working plus it’s one dollar for your first month and Slate Plus members get zero ads on any Slate podcast. Bonus content on our show and other shows like Slow Burn and the Culture Gabfest, and you get full access to the articles on Slate.com. So that means no more paywall for you. Last but not least, you’ll be supporting the work that we do here on working again. It’s $1 for your first month, and you can sign up today at Slate.com. Slash working plus. All right. Now let’s hear Isaac’s interview with filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

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S4: Stanley Nelson, thank you so much for joining us today on working.

S2: It’s my pleasure.

S4: You’ve done documentaries on on a wide variety of subjects. Jonestown Sweet Honey in the Rock, Miles Davis, The Black Panthers. Your new documentary is about the Attica prison uprising of 1971. I have to ask, how do you choose the material or the stories you want to tell?

S2: I kind of look for stories like that that I can tell. You know, the stories that you know, I have people around who we can interview or footage or pictures or diaries or something to start out with so we can tell the story, you know, because we can’t go and cast Denzel Washington, you know, and just make a historical film. So. So I really want to make films that I can make.

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S4: Yeah, is there? I mean, I assume there must be periods of time where you’re working on more than one project at once. You have it sort of on parallel tracks, maybe, and then one of them kind of takes over. Is that sort of like when you’re in the period between projects? Is that kind of what it looks like?

S2: Yeah, I mean, I think that that for us, maybe five or six years ago, you know, as documentaries started to take off, you know, with, you know, Netflix and Hulu and ESPN and so many other platforms that didn’t exist when I started, you know, we met as an organization and I say we met, you know, as like three people. But but, you know, we started talking about, you know, whether we wanted to kind of pursue multiple projects or we wanted to do one at a time because until then, you know, we would do Freedom Riders and then it would be done and we would do the Black Panthers, and then it would be done and then we do the next one. You know, we might be working in between on raising money or developing, but really, we were doing one project at a time. And I think that what came out of those conversations, we said, you know, let’s go for it. You know, one, you know, it’d be kind of fun and interesting to see see how it would work to do multiple projects. But to, you know, we could put a lot of people to work in that. And that’s part of of our mission. You know, that, you know, we run Firelight Films, which is an a for profit company and Firelight media, which is non-profit and the real mission of Firelight media, is to put more people of color in the business.

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S4: When did you start working on Attica? How long ago did you begin on it?

S2: Maybe three or four years ago, we actually began that Attica was part of the process. You know, when we sat down and said, OK, you know, let’s develop stuff that what have we always wanted to do? What’s always been in the back of our minds? Let’s let’s let’s come up with four or five or six projects and go out and pitch them. And Attica was was one of the ones that that, you know, we’ve always wanted to do. And so we went out and we were able to raise a little bit of money from first look to kind of produce a trailer. And we produced a trailer and then went out and saw that. And lucky for us, you know, Showtime, you know, picked it up and have been a great partner.

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S4: Do you remember what the initial spark was that drew you to wanting to tell that story?

S2: You know, it’s a number of things, you know? I mean, one, you know, I felt that the story has never been told. One, I felt that it was almost 50 years on. And so if the guys were 20, 25 years old that were in prison in the yard, you know, they’re going to be 70 or 75. And I think that’s, you know, still a good age. You know, you know, you can find people who who are really lively. You know, as my parents say, one time my mother and father were talking and, you know, they were in their 80s and they were like, You know, home in your 70s are OK, but your 80s are a bitch. So I’ve always, always thought about that. So, you know, so so I felt that they were there people in their 70s, you know who who could talk. You know, there were a thousand people in the yard. There must be a bunch of people that were still alive. And then, you know, from time to time, you know, in different films, you know, in the news, I had seen footage, so I knew that that there was a certain amount of footage. And you know that, you know, along with having witnesses made me feel that the not only the story that hadn’t been told and needed to be told, but a story that really could be told.

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S4: Yeah, I mean, you mentioned the the inmates in the yard. One thing about this film is it’s, I think, entirely primary sources, right? I mean, every single person you interview is actually part of the story. We’re not getting a historian or a prison sociologist or, you know, whatever a Nixon biographer, it’s only people who were there. And I feel like that’s a hallmark of many of your films. Can you talk a little bit about your why you rely specifically on primary sources or what you get out of that?

S2: Yeah, they’re better, you know? I mean, I just think that, you know, if you can, I mean, you know, in a number of films, you know, we have we’ve had a lot of heads who will buy, but we have historians in there and sometimes, you know, historians are great, you know? But I think, you know, it’s different, you know, well. When we were shooting Attica inside to edit Attica, you know, we did an assembly and we we had filmed one historian and, you know, we had planned to film another couple of historians and we had an assembly. We had him cut in and it just didn’t work. You know, he would be cut up against, you know, somebody who had been shot, you know, and had been out in the yard for, you know, five days, you know, sleeping in the mud or whatever, you know, and he’s, you know, in it. And this guy was great, but he was very academic. You know, he was looking at it in an academic way and it just felt like like, you know, maybe we don’t need that. One of the things that happened is that, you know, Heather Thomson is one of our advisors, and she wrote the book Blood on the Water about Attica. And, you know, she won a Pulitzer Prize and she was one of our advisors. And, you know, we were we were gearing up to shoot her and she was excited and it felt to me to make the phone, call the heather and say, You know, you know, Heather, I think that we’re not going to interview you because I don’t think we need historians in this film. And, you know, Heather was great. I mean, that that was the one thing. I mean, you know, I was like all up in my head and I said, Oh, now if you don’t need me, you know, that’s fine. I mean, you know, I totally understand. And so we went that way, and I think it really works for the film.

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S4: Yeah. I mean, another sort of similar only relying on primary sources is you don’t use reenactments, which are a very popular tool in documentary filmmaking today. I don’t think have you ever used reenactments? That’s just not your thing, right? You’re not.

S2: I think we try not to do reenactments if we don’t have to. You know, I I learned, you know, from the first time I ever did reenactments and a film about Marcus Garvey to kind of wait, you know, until the end to do the reenactments because, you know, you can shoot a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t need, you know, and afterwards, you know, you don’t need me mean, like, Oh God, why did I hire that actor? Why did I get those costumes? And why did I do all this stuff? Because I really don’t need it? You know, when we did Jonestown the life and death of People’s Temple, we thought we would do kind of kind of reenactments. Not really, but, you know, go down there to to get on and, you know, film palm trees blowing in the wind or whatever. And, you know, film, you know, where, where they had their their encampment and we ended up not needing it. You know, the footage was just so incredible that we didn’t need it. Yeah.

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S4: Just to return to Attica was tracking down your subjects. Was that a challenge? I mean, you know, many of them are older. I assume, you know, some of them have passed away. They’ve returned to civilian life. I mean, part of what you do requires finding all these people right.

S2: That was not not easy. You know, Tracy Currie, the co-director and co-producer of the film, really tracked all the people down. And you know, we had help, you know, Heather from writing the book. Heather Thompson really helped. We hired Judy Clarke, who’s a prison advocate as a consultant, and, you know, she knew all those, a lot of people involved in different things, and she really helped. And then it’s just a matter of convincing people, you know, as Tracy said, you know, a lot of people would just be like, You know, who are you? You know, calling me, you know, out of out of the blue, you know, some some woman and, you know, talking about Attica. But slowly but surely, you know, we started to get people committed. And, you know, people have in some ways stayed in touch. So, you know, people would then tell other people, you know, Hey, these people are OK. And then other people would commit and then more people and you know, we got we got incredible people. You know, what was really surprising to me, though, is that there were so many people of what was called the observer committee. You know that that the inmates at Attica asked that people come in and observe the negotiations. And, you know, these were kind of third parties, and there were so many of those people that were still alive because by and large, those people weren’t really young, you know, they were established. People like Clarence Jones, who was the publisher of the Amsterdam News and, you know, others who who were pretty established people in their professions, you know, and there were a bunch of them that were still alive.

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S4: Hmm. Right. You know, you interview people about very important and sometimes incredibly difficult parts of their lives. You know, your Jonestown documentary. People talk about the deaths of their families, for example, and here in Attica, they’re talking about abuse they’ve suffered or seeing their friends die. And I imagine that part of the work is is gaining people’s trust so that they’ll they’ll tell you that stuff so that they’ll talk to you, so they’ll open up to you. How do you do that?

S2: It’s a multitude, you know, process, you know, and especially with a film like Attica, you know, first, we want to just talk to people, you know, and a lot of times, you know, I’ll say to people, Look, can I come talk to you in person? You know, I’m not going to bring a tape recorder. I’m certainly not going to bring a camera. You know, if you don’t want me to, I won’t even bring a. And, you know, I just just I just want, you know, we can if we meet and and just talk and, you know, with Attica like Jonestown, we said to people, we’ll just talk to you and then you can make the decision whether you want to be part of the film or not. And we won’t try to go into our producer mode and tell you how good it would be for you to, you know, get this off your chest. And it would be great for you to talk about it for your own self because, you know, sometimes it wouldn’t be great. You know, who knows? But that that let us talk to you. Let us talk about what we want to do and you think about it and make a decision, whether you want to be part of it or not. I think one of the things the strange things that might have helped, you know, is the internet because, you know, now people can, you know, they get off the phone while you talk and you know, you’re clicking in the background, you’re looking you up. And you know, so that the past films maybe helped convince people that we’re not trying to exploit them.

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S4: Were there particular questions you had about the story going in at the beginning or maybe ideas of kind of what the story was?

S2: Yeah, I mean, I think that we knew or we thought that that we wanted the film to have a day structure. You know, so there was a five day take over and we wanted it to be day one day two days, really 45. You know, that’s what we thought. You know, I mean, and if it didn’t work, we were perfectly willing to change it, right? And we also thought that going in that that the death of the guard, Quinn, the death and when he dies on day three, that that that’s really a changing point in the story. And that also worked for us.

S4: What surprised you the most about this story as you reported it out?

S2: You know, I think everything was surprising. I mean, we got such great people and you know that that the footage is just so incredible. I mean, you know, I had thought that I had seen footage of the actual takeover. I thought that I had seen that. And then we got the footage from New York state. It belongs to the state, and I think it was evidence in the trials or something. And and, you know, they just sent us like everything, you know, I mean, they just sent us like, OK, here’s here’s here’s everything we got. You know, and they sent us everything. And then I think the first cut of the film and the first kind of assembly, we didn’t use as much. And then, you know, I looked at everything and I looked at every single frame of footage and all that stuff. And I realized that the New York state surveillance guys had left the Mike open the whole time. So you can hear him talking, you know, and and you know, they have one thing where they say, and they’re looking through the lens and they’re like, Oh, that’s the biggest, blackest, ugliest guy I’ve ever seen, you know,

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S5: and they’re ugly, black and they grow gentlemen I’ve

S4: ever seen in my life.

S2: And then they they say, you know, in the audio, you know, now we’re going to shoot through the rifle sight shooting now through the

S4: 270 rifle

S2: so that we have a telephoto lens. And they put the they put the lens of the camera up to the rifle site and they’re shooting through the rifle site. So that now allows them to get a lot closer with the video. But it also puts all the inmates in crosshairs, you know, like that. I mean, that’s real. I mean, so the inmates now, you know, they’re panning across the yard and stopping at guys in the crosshairs from their rifle sight. So all of that stuff, you know, I mean, I didn’t really realize at that, you know, in the beginning that it was like just so much and just so good. And then I told this whole other story, you know, while the inmates are in the yard and doing what they’re doing there, there’s people up on the towers that are looking at everything they do and talking about it.

S4: Yeah, you know, there’s two kind of main I mean, there’s a lot going on in the film, but it seems to me that there’s there’s two kinds of main threads, almost storytelling wise. There’s the tick tock of those five days, you know, from beginning to end. And then there’s also, you know, every now and then we zoom out to get the broader context, whether it’s the broader context of the town, which is wholly economically dependent on that prison or the kind of law and order period of Nixon’s presidency and the transformation of the nation towards law and order. And I’m just wondering about how you felt about switching between those two things because one side of that story could very easily overwhelm the other, it seems to me.

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S2: Yeah. I mean, I think that part of our biggest decision was was when to leave the yard, you know, when to leave the prisoners in the yard and when to go outside and when to come back and how to do that. One of the things that we wanted to do was just, you know, just start out, you know, you know, it starts out, you know, with the guy hitting the guard and the sirens going off. And that’s a. We started about 17 minutes in or so we flashed back to kind of, you know, what caused the riot and we kind of we have this whole section of what caused the riot, the prison conditions, the town and that was the one section. And we, you know, we moved it at the beginning and it didn’t work. And then we moved it five minutes in and it didn’t work that we moved in 10 minutes in and it didn’t work. And, you know, and we just kept moving it around. But, you know, a lot of times I’ve learned from films that, you know, a lot of times, you know, you film and you talk to a lot of people about the set up for the film, but it kind of doesn’t work to set it up, you know, because if you’re making a film about Attica, you want to see Attica, you know, you don’t, you don’t want to mess around. So I finally, you know, we found it in the incredible transition where, you know, L.D. Barclay says, you know, you know, the conditions. The riot here was just not spontaneous. You know, there were things that caused this riot.

S6: It seems to be a little misunderstanding about why this incident developed here at Attica in this declaration here will explain the reasons.

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S2: And then we go back to tell you what caused the riot.

S4: You mentioned there, you know, taking us outside the prison. One of the things you do is provide the perspective of the families of the hostages who are often well. Some of them are quite hostile to the prisoners and their demands, and others are not. Actually, others are somewhat sympathetic. Can you talk about the decision to kind of include that voice and to kind of flesh out that other part of the story?

S2: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s something that we wanted to do from the beginning. You know, we wanted to talk about the townspeople. I mean, the you know, you know, I mean, not to give away the story, but you know, they were murdered too, just like the prisoners, you know, and they were caught up in this situation, just like the prisoners. And so they were really part of the story and we wanted to tell their story. And that was in many ways, especially for the families was was too tragic, you know, just as in many ways, just as tragic as the prisoners. So it was essential for us to tell their story. And luckily, you know, I mean, the big question was, what are we going to find people to talk? Because, you know, the town of Attica is still 50 miles from New York. It’s in upstate New York, in the middle of nowhere. If anybody has been up those kind of places that there like you, you’re in Alabama or somewhere, you know, they’re as racist as as the deep south and. But but what we found people to talk. You know, part of the reason, maybe, is because in some ways they identify with the prisoners because their loved ones were in many cases, killed. And the same as the prisoners were killed. And so their animosity towards the state is almost as great as the animosity of the prisoners.

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S3: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Stanley Nelson after this. Hi, listeners, we want to hear from you, whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem or tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three work. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now, let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Stanley Nelson.

S4: Many documentaries these days get released as a miniseries or structured as a kind of six episode or eight absurd thing, whether they should be or not, it seems like a lot of stuff gets pushed in that direction. I have to ask, was there pressure to move this into this realm that you had to resist? Was it always going to be a feature or is, you

S2: know, it was always going to be a feature? You know, I think I’m just kind of stupid, you know, because I, you know, I went to film school and I and I look at these things as films, you know, and I think that’s on one hand, it’s really great because, you know, I don’t look at them as news and I don’t look at myself as a journalist. I look at myself as a filmmaker. I’m trying to make a film, you know, hole on. The bad part of it is, you know, I’m not getting the big money because, yeah, I’m making six hours or eight hours yet, but I’m going to start now. But, you know, I think that we always thought of it as a film. I think that that look, you could definitely play it out, you know, you could definitely do a lot more and extend it out. But as you kind of hinted at, you know, so many times you know you’re watching these series and you’re like, Oh man, they just get to the point, you know, it’s they just seem to be circling around, you know, circling around the dollar.

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S4: At what point are you beginning to edit material together into kind of drafts of what the movie or parts of the movie might look like?

S2: So as we do the interviews, we get transcripts of the interviews like right away, you know, next couple of days and we’re marking the transcripts as we go. You know, so that we’re marking, you know, we would do we just pulling stuff, you know, and we’re pulling some very liberally, you know? So, you know, the interview is, I don’t know, two hours long. You know, we want to pull half hour of that material. And finally, in the film, you know, five minutes of it, you know, ten minutes will make will make the film of any one interview. But we do try to as we as we’re going, we try to, you know, read the transcripts and cut it down, you know, and and also, you know, we can tell kind of, you know, some stuff that’s really good and then we can try to ask other people questions. So they kind of play off that. You know, we want to we try to get the footage as soon as we possibly can so that we can ask questions about the footage, you know, so that people can talk about the things that they see, you know, in the footage, you know? You know, for example, you know, we shot the hostage families, you know, outside the prison walls, you know, and they’re just waiting for five days, you know, and they’re what happened. And you know, and we have somebody describe that, you know, that they’re outside and they’re crying and weeping and just, you know, like like, look terrified. And they’re just, you know, they don’t know what the hell’s happening inside the prison. But you know, that goes along with the fact that we knew that that footage existed so that, you know, it’s all kind of, you know, simultaneously, we’re doing a whole bunch of different things.

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S4: You’ve done a couple of documentaries about musicians. Do you think of editing musically? Is that about rhythm to you or?

S2: Yeah, yeah, it’s all about rhythm. One of my greatest collaborators is the editor in Louis Erskine. Just passed away in, I think, May or June. And you know, he he started out as a music editor and we both were huge music fans and would trade music with each other and stuff like that. And and, you know, it’s all about it’s all about rhythm. You know, we had an assistant editor on a on a project, you know, and I would constantly say to her, you know, like just get with the rhythm, you know, like, I mean, like, what are you doing? You know, it’s like, you know, can you just feel it? You know, I mean, you can feel you can feel when you’re out of rhythm, just like, you know, if you go into a party and somebody dance and off the beat, you know, you’re like, what?

S4: Well, it’s interesting because you know, the the film does use both original, composed music and licensed music from the time. How do you approach scoring your films and how you want to use music as it goes along?

S2: I think, you know the different films, you know, hopefully, you know, we think about very differently. You know, I think we only have two songs in Attica from the times, you know? But one of the things we did, you know, Attica happened in 1971, so we got the the Billboard chart of pop music and of R&B from like, 1969, 1973, 172, 73. And we had a great associate producer, Regina. And she put together a playlist and we just listen, you know, I would listen to that over and over again. Most of the song, you know, we ended up not using. But, you know, it was great mood setter and great to think about.

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S4: You know, we had a music supervisor on the show a couple of months ago. So I also know that licensing those tracks can be its own form of hell.

S2: Yeah, it’s hell and double hell because it’s hell. And then you got to pay for the you got to pay for hell, you know? So my feeling is is for everything, you know, all the archival music included. You know, we we don’t censor ourselves when we’re making the film. We don’t say that’s going to be too expensive. That’s going to be too hard to get. We don’t we don’t do any of that. We just try to get every single thing we possibly can, and then we try to figure out how to pay for it. You know, if it really gets bad, you know, we go crying to the broadcaster and say, you know, you don’t want us to cut this deal. But you know, we’re so in. I don’t know. You know, 40 years making films like maybe two or three times, we’ve had to cut stuff because it was just it was just ridiculous. But but most of the time, you know, we can we can figure out something and how to pay for it.

S4: There’s also subtle but immersive use of sound effects in the films. When they talk about the sirens going off, we hear the sirens going off. In the nighttime footage, we hear crickets, which I assume is a sound effect put in. How do you approach that? I mean, because you could go too far with it right in such a way that it sticks out as opposed to kind of bringing us into the world? How do you how do you find that balance?

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S2: Yeah. I mean, I think that for me, I try to, you know, limit it as much as I can. You know, I really try to give a feeling of it. We try to to give it some ambience and but be really subtle. And sometimes I mean it just it just really just really, really works, you know? You know, just little things, you know, I mean, there’s there’s a shot where, you know, early on the the National Guard and then law enforcement are like, you know, in in the prison, you know, and I mean, outside the prison and and these guys are lying on the ground just waiting for something to happen. And he’s beating his. His kind of stick against the concrete, you know, OK? And it’s just, you know, really low. And you know, most 99 percent of the people won’t notice it, but it’s nice. You know, it’s it’s just it’s just nice. You know, when you hear some of the crickets are really low because, you know, that’s the scene if any of you get own dog. You’re treating them better than we have been treated. Well, the lab. And, you know, the sound editors, what they do is they’ll put it, you know, we’ll say, OK, you know, like just put it where you think it should go and then and then when, when we mix, you know, we say, you know, like, you know, we’re really 90 percent of what we’re saying is, take that out, you know, take that out. Take that out. Lower it. Lower lower. Take it out. Take it out. Oh, that’s good. You know, maybe a little more, but take that out, you know, so it’s a lot of adjusting in the mix. And you know, we were working with the same sound guy for years. And, you know, I really trust him. You know, he says something is too loud or, you know, he knows what he knows, right? What I’m going for.

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S4: It sounds like a lot of your process is kind of putting in as much as possible and then looking at it and then taking out everything that you feel doesn’t belong like, you know, from the assembly to the next cut or with the sound effects. Or you mentioned having a historian in that you then pulled out. It sounds like that’s an important part of how you work.

S2: I think that the process for me of editing a film is taking stuff out and cutting stuff down. Right? That’s the process. You know, we don’t want to go back, you know? And how could you go back and put this in now? You know, that happens. That happens a lot. But really, the process is, you know, you start out here, you cut it down to here, you cut it down to here, you cut it down to here. You’re like, Oh, okay, good, we’re done.

S4: You’re Jonestown film is very important documentary to me, actually as a as a writer and journalist. And, you know, I just I just think it’s a it’s a total, I don’t know, it’s an incredible film. It is also very difficult film to watch. I think I was kind of really almost physically upset for days after it. It may have even featured prominently in a therapy session. And, you know, Attica obviously a very difficult story. The injustice these men face, the efforts they go to overcome it, they’re literally, you know, slaughtered by the state, which never admits wrongdoing. What is it like to I mean, you have to live with this stuff for so much longer than your audience and you have to pore over these clips and these stories again and again and again. I’m just wondering how the kind of emotionality figures as part of your process and how you kind of, you know, protect yourself so you can get your work done.

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S2: I think I just go into filmmaker mode, you know, and I’m just trying to make the best film I can. And you know, I’m I’m making a film, you know, I’m friends with a filmmaker who made a very, very, very, very personal film a long time ago. You know about herself and her mother and other other things, and she referred to herself as the protagonist, you know? And that was the way she got through it. And in some ways, I disconnect. You know, I’m just really trying to to make a film. I think that the, you know, Jonestown was really extra hard because so many people lost their families, you know, and because we were speaking to people, it meant that they were the ones that survived. And so many people blame themselves for their families becoming part of Jonestown. And for some reason on that on that day, they were they would they just weren’t there. But their families were and their families perished and they didn’t. That film was really, really hard. And I think that this film, you know, we’ve we’ve done some things to protect ourselves. You know, when we we screened the film two nights ago at the Apollo, you know, for like our premiere and we had a psychologist there. And then we announced that we had a psychologist there for anybody, you know, who needed to talk as part of it. But you know, after the screening, you know, we had a reception and we were talking and somebody said, You know, I don’t even know what to call that. It’s like, it’s like not a film. It’s like an experience, you know, like, that was a good description, you know, because it’s really, I don’t know. It’s like, it’s really an experience.

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S4: Well, Stanley Nelson, thank you so much for joining us on working this weekend to give us the experience of talking to you about your process.

S2: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.

S3: Isaac, that was such a great interview, and I’m so excited to get into it with you now. I loved what Nelson was saying about making things that he can make and like not being able to hire Denzel Washington and stuff because I think it’s something that a lot of creatives, at least in my peer group, have to think about because we don’t necessarily have access to the kind of resources that would be required for a blockbuster movie or something giant in that way.

S4: Yeah, totally. And you know, I don’t think it’s just your peer group, Karen. I mean, I think in almost every creative endeavor, you wind up having fewer resources than you think is ideal, you know, whether it’s money or how many people are working on it with you or time or whatever, you know. And for me, this was particularly true when I was directing, you know, low budget theater in basements or whatever. A lot of the real creativity comes from how you take those limits and turn them into strengths. You know, like, how do you make it look as if the limitations that you have were actually chosen by you and are totally intentional? And this is in fact its ideal level of resources, you know? That, to me, is where a lot of fun lies.

S3: Do you remember a specific example of something that you did in your work like that?

S4: Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, all of my work was not all, but a lot of my a lot of my work was kind of like that. But you know, I did this show at Under St. marks a wonderful small, low budget theater, and we had really almost no money. And, you know, is a play about children, and it sort of had this very childlike point of view. And one of the really fun things was working with the designers to create something that felt like a storybook, because not only did that give it an aesthetic, but that also meant that you could like basically make the sets out of painted cardboard, and it would actually work because it would look like it came out of a children’s make-believe world. You know, it’s a lot of stuff like that.

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S3: That’s awesome. One of the things that Nelson talks about or that you talk about in your interview is the difficulty of finding a topic to focus on, which I feel like is not usually something that’s easy to do. Like even talking to me last week, I felt kind of the same thing. You’ve written two books now, both of which have pretty, I think, like straight ahead topics in terms of like you can pretty clearly define what both of your books are about. How did you decide on those topics? The things that you wanted to devote yourself to?

S4: That is a really great question. I asked this question of a lot of guests. I’m working, particularly novelists, because it’s like, how do you know that this is an idea that’s worth spending two to three years of your life on, as opposed to one that should be a short story or an essay or a poem or a play or, you know, whatever. And one thing that really helps in nonfiction book writing specifically is that you have to write a proposal almost all the time before you get the money to make the book. So by the time you’ve done that, you’ve already spent a few months deeply engaging with the subject matter. And you probably know by then whether you’re going to get sick of it or not, and whether there’s enough juice to keep you going. And you probably have some idea of what the overarching story is. And that’s really helpful. I’ve written proposals for books that didn’t sell. I’ve thought about doing books and looked into them and then abandoned the idea with the world only spins forward. You know, Dan and I realized it was a book because there was just so much more good material than we could put in the original article that we wrote for Slate The Oral History of Angels in America that we did. You know, the first draft we turned into Forrest Wickman, who’s the culture editor at Slate? I think it was like 40000 words long or something bonkers like that. And so a few of us, you know, Dan and Forrest and a couple of other people and I, we worked to trim it down to like 15000 words. And we didn’t even get to report on everything we wanted within that 40000 word. So to make the cutting easier, you know, we were just sort of yelling at each other, it’ll go in the book, you know, as we were cutting stuff and then it to happen that we did sell the book with the method. You know, that was something I had been fascinated by since I was in high school, but hadn’t gone super deep into before I thought to write a book about it. And then once it became clear that the scope of telling the methods story would take a full century, you know, on two continents, and that it was going to move from theater in Moscow to theater in New York to the movie industry in American pop culture. Then the struggle became, is it too much for one book? And that’s fun. Actually, that’s a much more struggle than do I have enough material for a book.

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S3: You just were saying that in the process of writing a proposal, you sort of get an idea of how you’re going to structure the final work, which is something that Nelson talks about as well, like figuring out how to structure all this documentary footage that they have. I will say that I’m usually someone who puts everything who needs to have everything in order from the start, as opposed to being able to look at a bigger jumble of things and then putting them in order. What is your general process like? Like, do you? How much change is there when you get into the actual work of it? What is the process? Of creating a structure to work within.

S4: I have a couple of different answers for that actually, because I think it kind of depends on the project, but I will say that I’m always trying to get to the place where I am starting at the very beginning and moving forward step by step until I get to the end. You know, like that’s like the thing that you’re talking about is really the ideal for me. I I know other writers who are like, Well, you just start with whatever the wherever the juices, you just start there and then you assemble a bunch of fragments and then you connect those things together and boom, you go. That’s just that’s just not me. You know, particularly for something like the method where it’s a history work. And I’m citing a lot of stuff and I’m consulting hundreds of sources. And, you know, I’m quoting things and I want to make sure I’m not plagiarizing. You know, the chapters had to be worked out pretty carefully before I actually started writing them. And so they were outlined pretty carefully, and I also knew the story was going to move forward in chronological order, for the most part. And so I would outline each chapter before writing each chapter, but I did move through the chapters in the order they appear in the book with the world only spins forward. That just was impossible because we were interviewing people when they were available to be interviewed and there were two of us and we were sort of dividing and conquering the chapters. So in that case, we assembled almost all of the material. We weren’t quite done with the interviews when we started writing it, but we were close to done with the interviews and we had thousands of hours of stuff or whatever. And then Dan and I hammered out what each chapter was going to cover and what it was going to be about and who was likely to be in it. And then we, you know, went into that huge bundle of material and started giving it up.

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S3: One of the fascinating things about the Nelson interview and also what you’re saying about working on your books is having to take things out and figuring out what you can cut out in a way where the story won’t suffer for it or like what’s not necessary, even if it is something that you personally find interesting or valuable that you want to keep in that process is the worst.

S4: I want to hear you on this for a second because it sounds like it’s a source of some pain for you whenever you have to be like, Oh, God, got to cut.

S3: Usually, it’s when I’m trying to figure out what I have to lose or keep in an interview. Because when you’re talking to someone creative, most of the time, if you have done an interview that requires cutting, it means they’ve been very generous with what they’ve told you. And in those cases, it’s the worst to be like, Oh, I don’t like, I don’t want to cut it. I don’t want to cut this story. Like, there’s a there are a couple of interviews that I’ve done where like they’ve told like an anecdote that just hasn’t been relevant to it, for instance, like the movie that they’re promoting or whatever. And that has got to been cut for basically a word count in the end, which I always like sort of hate because it’s like if people are on this page, they’re going to read it anyway. Or at least that’s my impression of it as someone who’s not an editor. But yeah,

S4: yeah. No, totally. I mean, the first time that I interviewed Errol Morris for Slate, he’s in.

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S3: He’s a wild man.

S4: We should also say that Karen and I met for the first time in person because we were both interviewing Errol Morris on a junket and we had back-to-back interview slots. And that is actually when we first met Errol. But, you know, the first time I interviewed him was for Slate, and he wasn’t promoting anything. It was just about like true crime. I just wanted to talk to him about the phenomenon of true crime. And our interview wound up taking two days to do because we didn’t get through all my questions. It was like, Well, just call me tomorrow. At the same time, we’ll talk some more. And so obviously, like half less than half of the things he said is in that interview. And now that was, Oh, I agree, interviews are really hard to me with the book or with a larger project. One thing that I take from the film world is, you know, I start with an assembly, right? It’s like you start with here is everything that could possibly go in the final project that I think is useful and interesting. And now we’re going to look at all of that. And it’s like, when do I get bored or when is this not actually serving the point or whatever? And you and the editor start to work that out? I find when I do that, the cutting gets less painful. That doesn’t make it not painful, but when you start to develop a clear idea. And so you have a sort of rubric of why something stays or goes, then it, then it gets better. But also, you know, Twitter is also really fun for, you know, posting the screenshots of stuff you cut, right? Like I remember, I interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson, and he’s a huge Philip Glass fan. And so at some point we just started talking about Philip Glass. I knew that was never going to go in the eventual slate piece, right? Yeah. Like, I just wanted to talk to him about it. Yeah, and stuff like that, that’s great.

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S3: And kind of on the end of the equation. Nelson also talks about getting outside pressure, whether it’s from, I guess, studio execs or higher up creatives. Basically anyone who. Has the say over money? I think it is the bottom line. Have you ever had to deal with anything like that? Because I guess we all have to sort of deal with it within our own like jobs and lives, but this is in a creative field. It’s definitely like slightly different.

S4: I mean, I have never had a studio exec come to me and say, we are spending millions. If only I had that problem. Studio Exact coming to me and being like, We have given you millions of dollars and now it has to be that way. I mean, that would be great. But I will say that as a freelancer, has this ever happened? You care, and sometimes an editor reaches out to you because they want you to make a specific argument in their magazine or website or whatever they actually have. The they kind of have a pretty clear idea of the opinion they want you to have, and they’re shopping around trying to find a writer who has that opinion already so they can get that piece. That’s a really dangerous situation. I find what I try to do in those situations is be very forward to be like, Hey, this is actually my position on whatever it is. It’s not exactly the same as yours. Are you cool with that? If not, no worries. And usually that clears the air, but sometimes they’ll accept it anyway and then in the revision, try to push it more towards their original idea. I had to actually pull a piece about nine months ago because that was happening. So wow. So like, that’s my most unpleasant experience of it. But I will also say. You pitch an interesting idea or a big piece, it’s always going to be a little bit of a negotiation with the editor about what the final thing is going to look like because they have to make sure that people are going to click on it and they’re not running a charity. They need people to click on it and they need them to read it from beginning to end and then they need them to share it. And that has certain those are priorities and those are real and those are legitimate, and we shouldn’t be too contemptuous of that. Like Dan Quayle asked me to review the Broadway play. Network director Ivo van Hove, which is an adaptation of the Paddy Chayefsky film from the 70s, and I think I have too long to prepare for it or something because I just did a lot of research and that I went totally rogue on writing it and I sent a I sent him a four and a half thousand word piece. So like almost three times what he asked me to write. And it was like a meditation on the rise of the news media and the news anchor and the politician and network, the original film and then and then its relationship to the Broadway show and and on and on and on and on and on. And it was actually like a good smart, interesting idea for a longer piece. I think Dan very kindly said, Hey, this is great, but this is just not going to work for Slate. Like, this isn’t right for us. This is where our readership, it needs to actually start here about halfway through. So can we just like ditch this first half? Let’s look at the second half. Let’s rewrite it. Let’s focus it. You know, let’s work on it. And you know what? He was right. He was absolutely right. That piece would not have done well or been right for that environment. And some of the stuff that got cut wound up in the method years later. So, you know, nothing’s nothing’s ever lost.

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S3: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve had exactly the equivalent experience I’ve I’ve been, I guess, more lucky in that regard like I have had when I was freelancing a few years ago. To be clear, I am freelancing again now, but I’m talking about a past experience where an editor re chopping like, Hey, like we want like this kind of story slash explainer, like, would you be able to do this? And luckily, I was like, Yes, somebody needs to say this. And so I was willing to do it. But there’s also been cases where, like in a previous job, an editor like one editor didn’t like a show that everyone else on the site liked. And he was like, Somebody should write that like, this isn’t very good like this. This should be taken down. And he was like trying to convince people to write it. And we were all like, we all like the show. Like, none of us are going to write this amazing. That is our show for this week. Thank you so much for such an enlightening conversation. I feel like I have almost asked you to do your own secondary interview now in a more intense way. Yeah, totally. If you enjoyed the episode, as much as we enjoy taping it, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcast and then you will never miss an episode. And now let me tell you how awesome a Slate Plus membership is. Slate Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Full access to all the articles on Slate.com. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and How to Do It, and it’s only $1 for the first month.

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S4: Thank you so much to this week’s guest, Stanley Nelson, and thanks ever to our splendiferous producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with Oliver Burkman, author of 4000 Weeks Until Then, Get Back to work. Hey, sleepless listeners, this is Isaac Butler, thanks as always for all of your support for everything we do right here on working and at Slate in general, we’ve got a little bit extra for you today from my interview with Stanley Nelson. It’s a really fun part. It’s actually my favorite parts of the interview are just for you. So enjoy it this week. So I noticed in your bio that you began your career apprenticing with the great William Greaves, I love his movies, particularly nation time and symbiotes psycho Toxoplasma. So. So I just have to ask what was that apprenticeship like? What was he like as a mentor to you?

S2: It was an incredible talent. You know, it was my first job. I went to film school and City College in New York, and it was my first job at an out of film school and I actually moved in with his family. They had a little, not a little house up in the country, in in the Catskills, in New York, and they had converted the garage into an apartment. And so I moved in there and would work five days a week. And then Friday I take the bus home to New York and spend the weekend in New York and in Sunday night, and I’d get on the bus and go back up there and work with Bill.

S4: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. Do you feel like there’s certain things about his work that have sort of passed into your own or parts of his legacy that that you continue in yours?

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S2: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the one of the main things I actually learned from him was maybe not about film, but you know, he he was an independent filmmaker, you know, and he was supporting his family and he had an office in New York and a house up in the country. And you know, I said, OK, well, this is doable, you know, and he was a black man, and so am I. So I kind of said, you know, this is doable and I watched, you know how hard he worked. You know how, you know, kind of, you know, everything was was about the work and that, you know, if you had to work on Sunday, you worked on Sunday, you had to work late at night, you work late at night, but you did anything you could get the films made. And I think that was one of my main lessons that I learned from Bill.

S4: Your career spans, you know, the film era and the digital era, you know, now that you’re editing on computer. Does that make your life easier or more difficult because there’s more options and you can just very easily revise something and, you know,

S2: easier

S4: easier. OK, yeah. Because I mean, some filmmakers say, you know, they like the limit or whatever,

S2: or, you know, you have to understand that with film like you have an hour long reel, you have to rewind it by hand. You know, you have to either take it off the machine and rewind it or you can you can have the machine rewind it, which might take, you know, I don’t know, five minutes, 10 minutes or something, you know? And then then this, then the film breaks and starts pulling all over the edit room, you know, and it’s like four o’clock in the morning and you’re like, What the f you know? And let go, guy, and you put your head down like, want to cry? You know, I mean, no, it’s in no way in no way that I can think of. Is it harder? I don’t know. Only the fact that that may be, you know, it was so slow that they had a chance to kind of think about it. But no, it’s it’s, you know, all this stuff makes it makes it so much easier to to do everything. You know, I remember when, when when computers first came and we were working on on the black press and and you know, we had a guy who actually did effects like right, right next door. And we, you know, say, you know, do it, you know, zoom in on this or spin this newspaper around and he would he would have to render it. And, you know, we’d have to come back the next morning and look at, you know, what he had done. And before that, when you doing it on film, you had to send stuff out enough to the lab and you had no idea what it looked like, you know, and it would be like, you know, you do it affecting me like, Oh no, it’s too slow. OK, send it back to the lab. And they would if they were good, they would get it to you the next day and you say, Oh no, now it’s too fast the way you know?

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S4: Yeah, yeah. So, so the digital editing suite is a is a godsend for you.

S2: Oh yeah. I mean, I started I started out with Bill, with Bill Greaves. I was an assistant editor. And then and then the editor quit. And so he’s, you know, like in Bill’s, he’s like, I was standing. When he is going to finish the film, you edit it. So I started out as an editor, you know, with with Bill. And, you know, so I know, you know, I, you know, know it’s so much, so much faster and so much easier. And and you know it, you can have you can implement your ideas because it’s quick, you know, and you have to like the old days are like, Oh, should I do this because I’m going to now, I’m going to have to send it out to the lab and I going to take a week. And I was like, Oh, you know, hey, do this and do that, and let’s see it.

S4: All right, that’s it for this week. We’ll catch you next time right here on working. So.