Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia sees Nicholas Wrathall make his directorial debut with a new documentary that looks at the life of the opinionated and out-spoken figure.
Using new interviews with Vidal as well as archive footage, Wrathall paints an interesting and complex picture of this man and his view on American politics.
We caught up with the filmmaker at the BFI London Film Festival to chat about the documentary, his time with Gore Vidal and what lies ahead.
- Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is the new film so can you tell me a little bit about it?
It’s a feature documentary about Gore Vidal: but it is also a film about American politics through his eyes and a critical analysis of where America went wrong in the second half of the twentieth century. He was very critical of America’s empire building, as he felt that was actually destroying the country, it was bad for the country and it was destroying the world.
Therefore, it looks at America going through a string of major events and Presidents through Gore Vidal’s lense. I used a lot of archival material that has bee collected throughout the decades, as well as some new interviews with him and other people from his life. I think it creates a portrait of Gore, as well as a warning to the world. I hope that it is quite motivating.
- This movie looks at Gore Vidal and his ideas, like you have said, so where did this project start for you? What was it about this man that particularly interested you?
What was interesting to me about Gore was his ability to see through all of the propaganda in the media and speak to what was really being said and what was really going on. I have lived in America for about twenty years off and on, I am from Australia originally, and as an outsider, you do have an advantage in way as you can… I felt like I could see through some of it as well because I didn’t grow up there with the propaganda of American culture.
So I was very drawn to his point of view, his analysis and his essays and writings. In addition, when I would see him on various talk shows I would find him thrilling.
I guess when 9/11 happened that was when I started to take note as he was quite outspoken about the rush into war: he went on to write these pamphlets about what the Bush administration was doing.
I read all of those at the time and thought ‘finally, here is someone speaking out in a big way about what is going on in the country’. That was when I went back and started re-reading some of his essays and really reading more of his work.
A few years after that I had a chance to meet him through his nephew: he is a filmmaker and a friend of mine. I knew that Gore was his uncle and he often talked about him. He the invited me to brunch and I just had a chat to Gore about Australian politics - which he seemed to know everything about, which I was surprised.
He actually knew the individuals involved and the players. He knew the ex-president of New South Wales, Bob Carr and he was asking me what Bob Carr was doing now he was retiring and if he was going into federal politics? And I was saying that he would even though he said that he wouldn’t - and he did. It turned out that Gore had spent a month with him a couple of years before travelling around China on a book tour. I was just astounded to hear all of this.
I think that is where we bonded, over that discussion of Aussie politics. Then he let me do these interviews, I guess he was comfortable enough to invite me on a couple of trips with him.
- That does lead me into my next question. You have done some interviews with him and I was wondering how you did find your time with him? And how did he strike you when you did come face to face with you?
It was different each time. It was quite nerve-wracking because he doesn’t suffer fools and he is has an incredible mind. So I was always trying to be very very prepared. My first really big interview with him was at his house in Ravello, Italy, just a few days before he was due to move out.
He has been alone in the house for a few days and so he was very reflective and very melancholy that weekend: I think that that is one of the strongest things in the film because you can see the raw emotion.
He did open up a bit that weekend; he is usually quite protective when he speaks on camera. So going there and catching him in that mood was on of the high points for me.
Later when we were back in the State or on a book tour, he was more prepared and he had the public personal that he liked to put forward. He was always very on point and knew what he wanted to speak about; he would mainly speak about current affairs and what was going on at the time. Those are the two sides to him and I do feel that we captured both in the film.
- As you mentioned earlier this film features a lot of archive footage, so how did you get your hands on that footage? Was it an easy process?
No, not really (laughs). I just spent a lot of time researching - I also had an archivist who ordered a lot of material from different news sources and television stations. But I also went through the BFI libraries and through the film libraries in New York.
When I was editing the film, I was able to go through a couple of bookshelves at Gore’s house, which was amazing as I thought I had seen everything at that point. I watched hours and hours and hours of archive footage: that was fun for me as I got to see Gore at all different stages of his life and on all these different TV shows around the world talking about a range of different subjects.
Sometimes I would want to talk to him about when he was a playwright and when he first started writing and he just wouldn’t be in the mood, so I would have to dig through the archives where he was talking about these things: luckily, he has talked about everything at one point or another. It was quite a jigsaw putting it all together.
- I was going to ask you about the editing process. You have all of these archive footage as well as your new interviews, so how did you find the process of piecing it all together?
It was tricky. I had certain ideas about the way that I saw the structure of the film going into it. We did a rough edit that laid out this linear American politics arch and Gore’s life and tried to interweave from there.
Then I went back and did many interviews to fill in a few gaps with people from his life. It was a long process as I probably spent close to nine months editing the film, with a couple of different people at different times. It was a struggle to find the right structure.
The opening of the film I could never have predicted that that would be how the film started: we actually found that in the edit. I have to give the credit to one of my editors who proposed that idea. At the time, I was really taken aback but I realised that it was quite dramatic and I could never have predicted that.
That is the thing with documentaries as you are writing the film and the structure in the edit: that is the most exciting part as a filmmaker. Doing interviews and going around with Gore was exciting too, but I think the film really does come together in the edit.
The structure really fell into place about half way through those nine months: we did change a few things and do some pick up shots. I originally thought him leaving Ravello and coming back to the U.S. was going to be the beginning of the film, but actually, that is towards the end of the film.
- How are you finding the response to the film so far?
Te response has been really great. We premiered the film at the Tribeca Film Festival; we had a lot of good press there and sold-out screenings. Since then it has been on tour at various festival in the U.S. and now in Europe.
Being here in London has been amazing as both screenings were full and we have had a couple of really good press pieces out. Speaking to people during the Q&A’s and after the screenings, they seem to really like the film and have been really enthusiastic. That has been exciting and makes it all worthwhile.
- What has it been like being at London Film Festival? And how important is a festival such as this one as it does seems to be getting bigger and bigger every year?
Yeah, it seems to be massive. I can’t believe how many films are screening here and how many venues there are. This film festival is growing and it is definitely becoming more and more important.
When we got into the London Film Festival, I was really excited because I have always thought of London as a second home for the film: Gore spent a lot of timer here in the sixties and the seventies and had many friends here.
We have already sold the film to BBC, which is exciting. I feel that the British audience is one of the strongest audiences that have seen the film. I was very excited about coming here.
- Finally, what’s next for you?
I am researching a couple of documentary projects, but I haven’t really started in earnest. I am also looking into the possibility of doing a narrative feature film: I am having some meetings about it in the States. I am hoping that that will go forward.
Tagged in BFI London Film Festival