Provoking and Inspiring
An Interview with Nicholas Wrathall, Director & Producer — Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
As a long time friend of Burr Steers, Gore Vidal’s nephew, Director and Producer Nicholas Wrathall was granted unique access to Gore for his documentary – Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. Arriving in 1925 and departing in 2012, Gore Vidal is arguably one of the most outspoken, political intellectuals of the twentieth century.
Nicholas’ first, feature-length documentary premiered in the Spotlight Section of the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2013, and has been greeted by full houses and appreciative audiences since. Playing in festivals across America and Europe, including the London Film Festival and also here at Australia’s Melbourne Film Festival, last month the film also won the audience award at Palm Springs.
Interviewing Nicholas it becomes clear how he “strives to use filmmaking as a tool to inspire people to question media representation and reignite the art of critical thinking.” Working in documentary and commercial fields for more than 15 years, he spent his childhood in Australia and Canada, making his first film while attending Sydney University.
Aged 22, Nicholas moved to New York where he began to make his way as an Assistant Director and Producer for music videos and commercials shot around the world, including Madonna’s Frozen, which won the 1998 MTV Award for Best Music Video. He was first recognised for his direction of the documentary Abandoned: The Betrayal of America’s Immigrants, which was featured on PBS Independent Lens and won the 2000 Alfred I. duPont Columbia Award for Broadcast Journalism.
I ask Nicholas how his latest film came about, and when he realised he was making a documentary. “After 911 – I was living in New York at the time –Gore was very outspoken about the Bush administration and their rush to war. I guess I really started paying attention to him again then when he put out these pamphlets like Blood for Oil and Dreaming War. At the time, these seemed to me like the sanest reaction to what the Bush Administration was up to. [In 2004] Burr and I proposed to him [the idea of] doing some interviews…I don’t think we saw it as a full documentary at that point.”
Nicholas went to interview Gore, then living in Ravello Italy, and about to move back to the US “and that was the beginning of the making of the film. The film slowly, organically grew up out of there as we started to do other pick up interviews with him and then I started doing all the research on the archival side…it was quite a long process…yeah it was an amazing journey.”
Promotional material for the film references Gore’s novel The City and the Pillar stating it “counts among the first explicitly gay novels in the history of American fiction. Gore suffered the consequences of bringing a gay novel before a wide audience in 1948, with his next five novels dismissed by the mainstream press.
“Beginning in the 1950s, Gore published occasional essays on politics and literature. A collection of 40 years of his work in the essay medium, United States: Collected Essays 1952-1992, won the National Book Award in 1993. The award confirmed Vidal’s status as the greatest English language essayist of the 20th century.
“In this collection he wrote about homosexuality, about the French fiction, about such important American figures as William Dean Howells, Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Wells, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tennessee Williams, most of whom he had actually known. His unique presence on the scene of history lends his essays a feeling of authority and intimacy.
“In the 1960s, Gore became a leading spokesman for the New Left, an iconoclast who was willing to debate William F. Buckley on television and write scathing essays about Richard Nixon. In Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, he drew stunning parallels between the persecution of homosexuals and Jews.”
Nicholas explains his motivation for making the documentary: “My real interest was…painting this picture of an outspoken American critic, a man…from the centre of American culture and politics in DC, but who was sort of almost like a class traitor…speaking out against his class, and always critiquing, and criticising the American Government policies. I kept it very much on the social-political commentary and him as [a] public intellectual. Obviously we’ve also interwoven the biographical story a bit in there…and we also touch on different aspects of his work, his writing, his novels, his plays, his essays.
Nicholas continues: “[The] theme that runs through a lot of Gore’s work [is] about the American Empire, about America going from Republic to Empire and the whole sort of downfall of the idea…that the empire – in a sort of Roman sense – is winding down now.
“There are lots of other tangential stories. I mean the man had an incredible life that I would have loved to have told, but you couldn’t include everything in a 90-minute film, especially about his personal life and the people he knew…there’s so much there…the ‘who’s who’ of the second half of the 20th century. He sort of knew everyone. And we touch on a lot of that, but it’s impossible to go into all those stories.”
The film features a cast including Christopher Hitchens, Tim Robbins, Sting, Mikhail Gorbachev and Norman Mailer to name a few. “The main person I wanted to interview was Gore. In the beginning, I actually didn’t want to interview anyone else at all, I just wanted to interview Gore and have it be entirely him.
“And then, when we were doing the first pass of the edit I…realised there were some things that he would avoid to speak about and…so I really just based the interviews around a few people that we thought would be really interesting.
“I didn’t want to have a film with lots of talking heads and lots of people saying how great he was. I just didn’t see the point in that, I really wanted it to be mostly Gore. Then I had the opportunity to interview Christopher Hitchens and he just brought another dimension to it because they had an interesting relationship and Hitchens was at an interesting point in his life too.
“A few other people came up through being with Gore, like he did this conference with Gorbachev so that’s how he ended up coming into the film. And then at the very end we needed a few people to speak to…I interviewed Gore’s sister Nina, and she just seemed like a logical choice because she was very close to him obviously [from] growing up [together], and knew him from a different perspective.
“There were just a couple of people we picked up interviews with at the end to add a little bit of perspective and fill in a couple of gaps; like Bob Scheer, a political journalist and commentator, and Tim Robbins…who’d visited him in Ravello. Really, when you watch the film, the interviews are the smallest part of the film…it’s really all about Gore.”
With so much material to draw upon, I ask Nicholas if this was a difficult film to edit. “It was a really difficult film to edit…the editing took about a year, with different editors involved at different times. We had an enormous amount of archival footage to choose from and also tonnes of interviews and other things that I’d shot with Gore, travelling with him…at his different homes.
“We sort of built it chronologically…following Gore’s biography and also following the second half of the 20th century in terms of the historical, linear sort of past. We did end up using that as the spine of the film…it took us a long time to get there because we tried many other things, and we were constantly mixing up the structure, trying to find the best possible structure.
“The film starts out in an interesting way with Gore standing over his own grave, which wasn’t in the original plan at all…[it] was an interesting choice one of my editors put to me…and when we tested it and I thought it was so surprising for the audience that we used it.”
Nicholas cites both the film’s financing and editing as the most difficult aspects of the documentary’s production – at one stage using Kickstarter to find additional funding: “In the end we were accepted off the rough cut for Tribeca…and managed to get another investor on board to pay for the post production, the music…the sound and the finishing costs.”
The most rewarding part of the project? “…just seeing audiences really enjoy the film…doing a Q&A with a really engaged audience that love Gore. Luckily Gore’s a really sharp, witty, funny man and that really punctuates the film…that’s why audiences find it very amusing, because he’s so cutting in his remarks.”
And will there be a personality to pick up where Gore left off? “Many people have asked me that in Q&As. I don’t think he saw any real…big characters who were going to pick it up in the way he did, and his generation did…comedians and talk show people, but I don’t think he saw them them as…really radical enough. I know that he was inspired by Occupy and things like that…when he saw young people in the streets really motivated to try and make change. I think those kind of things really thrilled him…”
With a “lifelong interest in politics and social issues”, Nicholas himself is clearly passing on the baton that is Gore Vidal’s legacy both through his documentary and personally: “I’m inspired by how clear he was in his mission to be outspoken and be this brave truth teller…and his sticking to his guns with that ideal throughout his life really inspired me. I think it’s pushing me to go on and do that as much as I can in my own life.”
This is a documentary which uniquely captures Gore Vidal in his final years, his views on our world as it enters the 21st century, highlighting “his enduring global impact on art, politics, and everything in between.” And of the surprises found in between, Nicholas says: “Ah yeah there were lots of things actually…one of our conversations was actually about Australian politics, and I was very surprised to see that he knew a lot about Australian politics…I was also really surprised that despite his harsh and prickly exterior…his, you know, sharp wit…that he was actually a very kind, generous person with his time and in speaking to people and around his family…he was a very loving person.”
Reflecting on Gore’s answer to a question about his legacy at the film’s opening – “I couldn’t care less” – Nichols is insightful: “I think he really did care and that’s why he spent his life on writing about the subjects he chose…I think he cared very very deeply…I think that was [the] sort of off-hand remark that he liked to make. He was a courageous man who was not afraid to speak truth to power, I think that’s what he based his life on.”
Interview by Geoff Jaeger
Recently purchased by Australia’s ABC and the BBC in the UK, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia will screen as part of Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival on 15 February 2014.