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Hard Times - Andrew Rossi on Making Page One

by Ali May

Page One follows journalists at the New York Times over an tumultuous year in the newspaper industry. The film charts the explosion of Wikileaks and Twitter, and the collapse of some of the largest newspapers in the United States, leaving journalists at the Times to ponder – what’s next for print media and the future of journalism? Director Andrew Rossi talks to DFG's Ali May about the excitement of filming as a one-man crew, convincing the New York Times to let him in and how often the key to success is perseverance and just being in the right place at the right time.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what you had been doing in the lead up to creating Page One?

Page One

I started making films in 2001. I had actually practiced as a lawyer for a couple of years first and then in 2001 it was sort of the time when you could buy a digital camera for a couple thousand dollars that was broadcast quality, so I picked up a camera and started shooting on a friend’s film set and made a short film about what it’s like to make a film. It was my first experience behind a camera and I just fell in love with the process of vérité filmmaking - even though it was only my first experiment with filmmaking it really excited me so I quit my job as a lawyer. I decided to make a movie about restaurants and specifically about two friends in Brooklyn, in New York opening a new restaurant and contrasting their experiences - going through every single mistake and the challenges they experienced in opening a restaurant  - with people who had already succeeded and were these legendary chefs and restaurateurs in New York. That was called Eat This New York, and it was released on the Sundance Channel in 2003 and had a festival tour and did very well. That was my first real filmmaking experience. From there I went on to work at MTV and New York One News, and did a whole bunch of short films and other gigs and experiences and then I made my second film for HBO which was actually also related to the restaurant business and was called  “Le Cirque – A Table In Heaven” which is about the Marccioni family who owns the restaurant Le Cirque in New York.

Page One turned out to be a fantastically interesting piece of documentary but did you worry that from a visual point of view, in their office environment, journalists who essentially sit behind computers tapping keys for a living, might make rather difficult or boring subject matter?

I had worked as an associate producer and additional editor on Control Room, which is about Al Jazeera and it followed journalists in Qatar during the beginning of the war in Iraq. It really taught me a lesson that when the stakes are high for journalists, even if they’re just sitting around in a conference room you know they’re smart animals who like to walk and talk and think about their existential sort of situation and so I knew that if you can capture journalists in highly dramatic situations you can have a story, you can have a movie, so that was the premise for shooting Page One. David Carr to begin with is someone who has a wicked sense of humor, and really no filter but when you take a personality like that and put him in the middle of a burning building which is basically what the NYT was like in late 2009 and 2010 you’re gonna get that character in a very dynamic position and you’re probably going to get good material.

Your film has been described as fly on the wall, but to me it seems much more intimate and involved than that, how did you gain that level of intimacy and the trust of the people at the New York Times?

Ultimately it's just about being there for enough time to get people to get to know you and to be willing to be present even in moments when there’s not that much going on and I think it’s just that over time people come to forget the presence of the camera and become comfortable with it.

Andrew RossiWith about 14 months worth of footage, can you talk a little on how you go about creating a narrative?

Well it [Page One] was always conceived to be a play within a play, which means that each of the stories the writers were creating, either about Wikileaks or the Tribune company's bankruptcy or the decline in the coverage of the White House etc, would be their own mini narratives. These would be assembled throughout the film to create some sort of arc... of the story of newspapers and print media contracting and what the implications of that are. So you know it was a question of diving into it and beginning to capture as much as possible and then taking a step back later with my co-producer and co-writer Kate Novack and our three editors and saying – alright how can we assemble some stories, not necessarily chronologically but in a manner that enhances the emotional response from the viewer, is entertaining and also develops an analytical point of view?

And at what point did you decide to take that step back?

I would say it was about a third of the way or half way through. I was watching the dailies, I would watch what I had shot pretty much on a weekly basis but then after about three or four months we started to try and put the stuff together and see what it was that we really had.

You filmed Page One as a one-man crew. Can you tell us a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of this type of filmmaking and why you chose this sort of approach?

Well I’m used to that approach and I can say that it can be a nightmare when things are not working well, that’s exactly what it is – a nightmare! But no, I think that when everything’s working smoothly equipment wise, it’s really a very exhilarating way to shoot and it’s one that creates a great deal of intimacy with the subjects, it allows a great flexibility especially when you’re shooting subjects and you don’t know what exactly you’re doing that day, you’re just so mobile - you can really move with your subject and follow them anywhere they may go and that’s what I was able to do. I think that I really only see up sides to it you know, the only thing that could be really good would be if you’re following multiple characters having multiple camera people who can shoot simultaneously on any given day but I think that a one man crew creates a very visceral image.

How much did you generally shoot?

I would say that it was roughly about three full days a week on average and in certain cases, especially when we were covering Wikileaks, it was pretty much every day for a certain amount of time and then later when we worked deeper into the edit, shooting and editing concurrently, it became kind of less frequent.

Can you talk us through how you convinced the New York Times to let you in to film them? How did you go about embarking on a project this large?

You know, I made it independently. I was developing a film for HBO and then after that ran its course I started making this, and my objective was to try and film it and put it together in time for Sundance 2011. Then with our sales agent we sold it to Magnolia and Participant Media but we basically developed the whole thing ourselves from the beginning. I think, especially for this kind of film, that it was very helpful to be able to work with a very clear independent perspective.

So you approached the New York Times and told them what you wanted to do and they just said yes? Or was it a bit more complicated than that?

Well it required about six months of conversations, meetings and discussions, and people voiced their concerns, I mean some of the journalists were afraid of their sources being revealed or compromised. I think the fact that I was shooting by myself and that my footprint would be quite small, made people feel better about the project and then it was a question of just starting to shoot and seeing how it would go. Bill Keller the executive editor of the paper said “I’m proud of my journalists and I would like the world to see them” and I think that he felt comfortable that in a cinema vérité setting or context, that his journalists would be able to render themselves as natural and not be sort of manipulated or otherwise rendered untruthful. That’s also all I really promised, I mean I didn’t really promise anything per se but that’s what I proposed, that I wanted to give viewers a front row seat to the kind of journalism taking place at the Times and to let them see what it takes to put together a story.

Page One certainly raises issues about our consumption of “free” information and news.  How useful do you think documentary can be in helping influence change and was this ever an aim you had when making the film?

Absolutely. The tag line of the film is “consider the source”, so it’s a movie that I think has a role in sparking conversation about these questions; where will we get our information from in the future if all our sources of reporting are suffering? So it’s a movie that has a desire to be part of a conversation about that topic and I think the paywall that the New York Times has launched is one step in the direction of reversing peoples’ habit of thinking that everything they find online should be free.

Page One is released in the UK by Dogwoof, screening in selected cinemas from 23rd September. Read Ali May's review here.


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