Five-year retrospective - Film
We pull back the curtain on memorable interviews.
I had been working for Time Out for only two weeks when I interviewed author James Ellroy (TOC 81: Sept 14–20, 2006), who was in town to promote Brian De Palma’s film version of his novel The Black Dahlia. Or as he put it, he had flown to Chicago “to put asses in seats.” It’s rare to interview someone who so openly disdains the publicity-tour process—or is so blunt about why he’s happy with the product he’s promoting. (“I’m gonna be getting checks off this fucking thing for years,” he said, although he emphasized that he was pleased with the movie.) For sheer entertainment value, I still haven’t topped that interview, not even when I interviewed De Palma himself a year later (TOC 142: Nov 15–21, 2007), and the director took me to task for my negative blog post on his film Redacted.
The most revealing interview I had was with Charles Burnett (TOC 127: Aug 2–8, 2007), whose restored 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep was about to open at the Music Box. The surprises began when my contact simply gave me the director’s cell-phone number and told me to schedule the interview myself. We met at the University of Chicago, where Burnett had just given a talk to a group of students, and proceeded to chat for almost an hour; he had no intention of leaving until I was finished asking everything I wanted to ask. Known for being marginalized in Hollywood (and rumored to have been pressured into recutting his film The Glass Shield), Burnett, it became clear, isn’t an aggressive self-promoter. There’s a reason some of the most successful directors are complete assholes; Burnett is brilliant, but he’s perfectly happy to let others control a conversation.
My biggest interviewing regret came after I spoke with master documentarian Errol Morris (TOC 166: May 1–7, 2008) for Standard Operating Procedure, just a few days before the news broke that he had paid his subjects—a journalistic violation so extreme that it’s amazing anyone thought to ask about it. Morris’s response to this revelation has been consistent, if evasive of the central issue: He issued a statement saying that his subjects, the “bad apples” at Abu Ghraib, had “asked to be paid, and they would not have been interviewed otherwise.” Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have an incentive to tell him what he wanted to hear.