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AFI Docs 2015: Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon on “Best of Enemies”

“You are doing theatre when you should be doing a debate,” Jon Stewart said to the hosts of “Crossfire,” three months before its cancellation. This archival clip from 2004 turns up fleetingly during the end credits of Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s terrific documentary, “Best of Enemies,” which opened the AFI Docs 2015 film festival last night in Washington D.C., and it encapsulates the film’s message about modern political media. With serious news programs devolving into theatrical entertainment, while the theatre of satirists deliver hardcore news ignored by the major networks, “Best of Enemies” (which opens July 31st) could not be a timelier time capsule. It chronicles the relationship between two brilliant intellectuals and arch-rivals, liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr., who participated in several memorable televised debates in 1968 that culminated in a showdown during the Democratic National Convention that haunted both men for the rest of their lives.

Vidal and Buckley are enormously entertaining to watch as they partake in their withering, ultra-suave verbal duels. They sound a great deal like Cary Grant and James Mason during their confrontation in “North by Northwest,” where Grant sardonically purrs the name of Mason’s character while transforming it into an expletive (“Oh Mr. Van-DAMM!”). Unlike the antagonism of other screen duos—like Siskel and Ebert—that eventually morphed into friendship, Vidal and Buckley’s hatred for one another only grew with every successive appearance together. Eventually, their mannered civility crumbled into primal hostility, with Vidal calling Buckley a “pro-crypto Nazi,” causing Buckley to fire back with the word, “queer.” During a Q&A session following the film’s screening at the Newseum (an impeccable choice of venue, to say the least), Neville and Gordon revealed their conspiracy theory that Buckley had destroyed the master footage of this debate, which is why it exists only in a black-and-white recording from the Vanderbilt Archive.  

Prior to the screening, Neville and Gordon sat down with me for an exclusive, impromptu interview about their collaboration, their favorite modern political commentators and why the Vidal/Buckley debates are more relevant than ever.

My cousin, Jeremy Scahill, was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar the night you [Morgan] won for “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” What was it like getting to meet your fellow nominees during awards season?

MORGAN NEVILLE: We bonded together. When you come to documentaries, the stakes are too low for it to be cutthroat. You’re all doing it for the right reasons. If you’re not doing it for the right reasons, then you’d be dumb to be making documentaries. We’re all there because we believe in what we’re doing. Then when you look at the films that get nominated and get made every year, they’re so different that you don’t feel like you’re in the same race. You feel like you’re all doing your own thing and you’re kind of arbitrarily thrown together, so it doesn’t feel like you’re directly competing, even though you are, I guess. I feel like there’s a lot of sympathy and camaraderie among documentary filmmakers. 

It seems fitting for a film about political nemeses to screen in Washington D.C. at a time of such divisiveness in our nation.

MN: Which our film is about too, in some ways. 

How is your film reflective of the modern political climate?

ROBERT GORDON: I think it anticipates it exactly. You have these two powerful individuals, each with their own point of view. I think that they actually listened to each other, though by the end of the debates, they’re really just engaged in vitriol, which is more what we have now—two sides that don’t listen, they just get out there and preach. Here, there’s a little more engagement, and I’d like to see that engagement come back. 

MN: It’s the double-edged sword that our film is about. On the one hand, the Vidal/Buckley debates came from an era when news media was top-down white, male and patrician. But what that allowed was for people to at least see others on the opposite side of the spectrum and meet with them in the center. You had people agreeing about real facts and then debating those facts. Now we have people who have their own facts and their own opinions and end up in these echo chambers of their own opinions which is, I think, corrosive and dangerous. We can’t even agree on objective truths anymore. That’s part of the slippery slope that this portends. 

RG: There’s a saying attributed to Bernard Baruch and Patrick Moynihan that says, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we all have to share the same set of facts,” and now we don’t. The objective facts are debatable and you can find that through the Internet. You can go from top-down to bottom-up with a lack of authority. Everybody can find a backup, a justification or support for their argument, whether it’s true or not. We’ve lost that sense of what is real.

How did you divide your directing duties on this project?

MN: Making documentaries is generally a fairly lonesome endeavor, particularly on a project like this. It took five years, and we didn’t have any funding for most of them. To share the journey with somebody makes a huge difference. There wasn’t a clear line of who did what, it was more about providing emotional and intellectual support for each other. With that being said, I think Robert was deeply ensconced in the debates themselves and I was more ensconced in the biography and contextual material. Then we met in the middle and wrestled with how much to have for each.

RG: We share the same sense of humor too. We find the same things funny, and it’s good to have company that enables you to find humor in the misery during that five-year journey. It’s also good to bat ideas around. A stone gets more polished as it gets batted back and forth in a grind. We would takes ideas and shine ‘em up.

You’ve both made documentaries about musicians. Was there anything from that past work that you could apply to this film, considering the somewhat melodic nature of the debates?

MN: They’re very operatic.

RG: Our music films used their topics to explore bigger truths, and the same was true of this film. It’s about Vidal and Buckley and how they interacted, but it’s also about a bigger human situation. It’s actually about the present media scene on top of the shoulders of these giants.

MN: To me, our films all fall under the umbrella of culture. Even though this seemingly is a film about politics, it’s really about culture and the culture of politics. Those are stories that I always gravitate towards. Robert and I are both political junkies and interested in all kinds of different issues, so it’s just nice to be able to go in a different kind of direction, but as a filmmaker, it doesn’t feel different. It just feels like another story that you really want to tell.

Was it a challenge to open up the film visually, since so much of it takes place inside a room?

MN: That was one of the big challenges of this film: how do you make a cinematic movie about taking heads? That’s the central filmmaking quandary of it. 

RG: Fortunately, you had two guys who had very televised lives, so there was a lot of material on them. We had so much archival footage that we, for a period, would have archival lunch hours. We’d have sandwiches during the break and watch footage that we hadn’t gotten to see yet. That includes thirty-three years of “Firing Line,” which is just talking heads, but it also includes many, many biographical portraits of the guys where it takes you beyond their talking heads—into their homes and their work habits, into the mountains of Italy.

What was your collaboration like with your editors? 

MN: Docs, in general, are made in the edit bay, archival docs even more so. We had a young editor, Eileen Meyer, who had been patiently working with us for years on this. Then we brought in another editor, Aaron Wickenden, who cut “Finding Vivian Maier,” and he’s amazing. We saw his new film, “Almost There,” which is great. Aaron cut this with Eileen, so it was kind of a team effort. So much of editing is about rhythm. At the end of the editing process, that’s where you find yourself—I’m not going to use the actual term that we use in the edit bay, because it’s impolite to use—but you basically go in there and tweak the tiniest things, frame by frame, to figure out exactly what that flow is. 

RG: It’s musical in that way, which was easier for us in this film because we had cut music so much. We knew what we wanted. Both of these guys are very witty, so a lot of it was about making sure that the timing was right for their humor. The film was packed and we realized that we had to start taking things out. To allow certain things to grow, you have to take out certain elements, but we knew going in that we had a spine in the debates themselves. Our job was to figure out how to build the corpus around the spine.

As political junkies, are there particular commentators in the modern discourse who excite you? Is there anyone close to Vidal and Buckley’s ilk? 

RG: When [Christopher] Hitchens passed away, that was the end of that era. We interviewed Sam Tanenhaus in this film because he’s working on a Buckley biography, and I came away thinking that I could listen to Sam talk about anything. Read the phone book, Sam, and I will listen! I thought he brought a lot of insight into everything he said. 

MN: One of the weird ironies today is that the people who are engaged in the most substantive and deepest conversation about these kinds of issues are satirists. Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and even Bill Maher, I’d say, are having more substantive discussion about these big issues than anybody you’re going to find on cable news.

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