Interview: Nicholas Wrathall from "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia"

Photo Credit: © 2014 - IFC Films
June 6th, 2014

Director Nicholas Wrathall’s new documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” has already won several awards in film festivals around the world and will be playing tonight (6/6/14) at the Nuart in LA.  This is a powerful documentary about one of the greatest writers and political minds in American History, and documents what were to be his final years in this world.  Nicholas was gracious enough to tell The Movie Network about this wonderful project.

Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: I just got to watch your brand new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, which it comes out in LA on Friday. Is that right?

Nicholas Wrathall: Yeah, it's coming out at the Nuart this weekend on Friday (6/6/14). And it's coming out in New York, and then it's rolling out across the country in Landmark Cinemas over the next week or two, and it's also on VOD, pay-television right now.

TMN: Well, it's a fantastic documentary and I congratulate you on it.

Nicholas Wrathall: Thank you.

TMN: When I first got asked to do this and to watch the film, I was like "Well, I don't know how dry this is gonna be about Gore Vidal and things." And you made it really enticing to watch.

Nicholas Wrathall: Good. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I mean, I feel like a lot of people probably know only a certain know amount about Gore and just remember him as a sort of cynic, old critic. But I hope that people will discover him again through the film, and that he's got so much to say and he's actually very funny and entertaining and obviously very intelligent.

TMN: Well, let's start with the big question here. How in the world did you condense the massive career of Gore Vidal into a 90-minute documentary?

Nicholas Wrathall: Well, I guess the short answer is you don't. There's so many things that we had to leave out, and any kind of deeper, really deeper analysis and examination into his writing and his essays and his novels, it's hard to do in a film. Especially, if you're trying to contain the film to 90 minutes. So, there's certain things that we sort of touch on. Some of his work we just touch on to give people a glimpse into what he was writing, and hopefully inspire them to go and read it. It's impossible to encompass it all in 90 minutes. I did my best to sort of balance his biography and his work with also what I was mainly focused on is his critique of American politics and culture in the second half of the 20th century. That was something that I was really motivated by to show his political analysis. I think it's still very current and feels very topical today to see the debates that he had in the '60s and '70s and the same subjects are still at issue today.

He's talking about, at one point, talking about the government monitoring people's credit cards and tracking you, and you just think immediately of Edward Snowden. Then he's talking about the 5% and the 20%, and you think of the Occupy Movement. I just felt like the important thing was to get out his sort of ideas and the spirit of his ability to speak, to analyze politics and speak truth to power and talk about the corporate nature of American politics today. He's been there, and he's been a fierce critic of it for a long time, and I think it shows people, especially younger people maybe that don't know him, that these arguments and these debates have been going on for a long time. That was my motivation in making the film. I think there are a lot of other aspects to Gore's life that we could have explored more, but you just don't have time in 90 minutes, and you've got to make choices.

TMN: I almost feel like you could break this up into five-minute sections, the entire documentary, and do another documentary about every five minutes almost, you know?

Nicholas Wrathall: Yeah, I agree and we had a much longer cut of the film only a month before we took it to the Tribeca Film Festival last year. But we just really wanted to make something concise, and hopefully, people see that all those other elements of the film that could be explored much more and all the information's there in his writing. So, it's just how do you make a film about a writer? It's a tricky thing.

So, I focused on him as a commentator and a public intellectual and obviously included many references to his writing. But, to explore that, you've got to do the reading. You've got to do the homework.

TMN: Now, how much of the film is footage you went through, and how much was your own footage that you did of him?

Nicholas Wrathall: I haven't broken it down and figured out exactly percentages, but I'd say it's probably about 50/50 between the archive material that we researched and pulled from TV appearances and interviews he's done in the past, and about 50% that I shot with him traveling around with him in his homes and all of the interviews I did with him and other people. It's probably 50/50. I'm not sure exactly.

TMN: How was he personally to you on a personal level?

Nicholas Wrathall: He was generally pretty generous with me, let me come back many, many times, and he enjoyed the process of being interviewed, that's something I think he did throughout his life and really reveled in. He was always such a good on camera subject for me and I think you can see that in the interviews from the past. He really knew how to work the camera, knew what he wanted to say. He was very witty and sharp and so it enabled sort of good television and good interviews, and he always had a funny sound but yet had a very serious take on the subject so that was great. There were times when it was tricky and he was getting older and he was moody and often dizzy and then he started to kind of decline in health towards the end. So it was in fact of keeping him interested in the project. It took quite a long time to make the film.

TMN: I couldn't even imagine trying to have a conversation with him, I feel like I would bring nothing to the table. [chuckle]

Nicholas Wrathall: Well, you know, I just tried to be prepared and have good questions worked out, and luckily, he sort of knew that. He was often the smartest person in the room and he was generous in the way that he liked to get out his stories and his knowledge, to get into a serious debate with him would be hard. I don't think there are many people that can stand toe-to-toe with him. He's an incredibly smart man, and I didn't try and go there in that sense. There were times when we'd have deep discussions on things but for me, it was a learning experience a lot of the time.

TMN: Right. After seeing his bebates with William Buckley in th film, I would never ever try to argue with Gore ever. [laughter]

Nicholas Wrathall: No. Well, that's a great scene and is actually probably like two hours of those debates, because they did several nights of television debates at the both Democratic and Republican Convention in 1968, so there's a wealth of material there. It's almost like you can make a whole film about that debate.

It's a really interesting piece and I actually wanted to include a lot more of that in the film, but I think what we used gets across, their argument, their falling out, and also the high level of debate that was going on at the time between them. So yeah, I loved that stuff and going through all the archival material was really interesting to me, because I can look at all these television appearances and debates he'd had on many subjects, sex, politics, homosexuality, history, religion, current affairs. He loved that, he lived to sort of be that critic and to be sort of provocative argumentative figure in the media.

TMN: How did his passing in 2012 affect the film?

Nicholas Wrathall: Well, I guess it really affected me deeply, because it made me realize how long it had taken to make the film, and I always thought Gore would be around when we finished the film, and he'd be there at the premiere, so I was very disappointed in myself, in a sense. And what it did was pushed me to get the film finished and made me go out and find extra money to finish the film and to sit down and work six, seven days a week to get the edit done and it really just pushed me into finishing the film. Of course, it affected the mood of the film and the end of the film, but we were a fair way along with the editing at that time and the film was sort of basically thought out, not fully structured. I think it did affect the structure of the film a little bit and makes that scene at the opening of the graveyard a lot more poignant, knowing that he's already dead. So it affected the structure more than anything and made us, look at, re-examine the way we started and finished the film in particular.

TMN: Tell me about some of the amazing and interesting people you got to talk to about Gore in the film.

Nicholas Wrathall: Initially, I actually tried to make the film or started out with the idea that it was just going to be Gore, so I focused on him and did a lot of interviews with him and followed him around to various events and speaking tours and then researched all the archival material and did a first pass of the edit before I'd interviewed any of those other people. So it was only then that I realized there were some things that needed threads that he wouldn't bring and that it would be interesting to have another perspective or a few other perspectives on certain aspects of his life, especially his personal life.

And that's when I went out and interviewed his sister and Jodie Evans, who knew him and Howard very well and then Tim Robbins who had spent time working with Gore and as his friend in his various homes in LA and in Rivella. And he was amazing, Tim was a huge admirer of Gore, but also a good friend and saw him in an interesting way, in that, his family going to visit Gore and who lived this very isolated kind of gay lifestyle but still saw him as a close, close friend. And I guess one of the most interesting people was Christopher Hitchens. I really tried hard to get him to come to the table and eventually he did. And just the fact that they'd been friends and then had this falling out over Hitchens' support the Iraq war made a really interesting dramatic turning point in the film.
I was really keen to get, and eventually Hitchens came around and I think it makes the film a lot more interesting to have his perspective.

TMN: Yeah. I actually really liked how you did that. I'm sure Gore has made enemies in his life.

Nicholas Wrathall: Yeah, absolutely.

TMN: And it's nice to see at least a little bit of the other side.

Nicholas Wrathall: Yeah. I mean that's why Hitchens is so great in the film. I mean it would have been easy to go out and get lots of people from the right wing that maybe don't agree with Gore, and don't like him, and have them criticizing him. But I was trying to make a very intimate film with Gore and that wasn't really the point of the film whereas Hitchens was someone that was close to him in an intimate way and they were friends, and he saw him as a bit of a mentor. So that really added a lot to the film, to include him.

TMN: Throughout the film there is several times where a quote is brought up to the screen. Were these quotes personal to you that you chose or was this stuff that Gore wanted?

Nicholas Wrathall: No. I mean he wasn't involved in that. They were just quotes that I researched. I had a huge list of quotes that we just had on the board on the wall in the editing room. And I was always trying to figure out a way to include some of those quotes, and it just worked that they were almost like chapter breaks in a way. There were some points when they could either emphasize in a funny way what was going on in the film, or refer to a point that Gore just said, or sort of change direction a little bit so that we could move into a new moment of the film, a new political idea, or a new time frame.

So we just sort of picked and chose the ones that really seemed to fit with what was being said. I think we used about a dozen of them in the end, and there's probably another 20 that we could have included that are really interesting, and funny, and sharp quotes. But hopefully, it again inspires people to go and read. If you just Google Gore Vidal quotes, there's like 30 that are amazing.

TMN: The film was great, you did a really good job with the timeline and everything, it was easy to follow, and I think a lot of people who might not know that much about him are really gonna get a nice lesson about who he is and what he believed in. And congratulations on the film, and I hope it does great this weekend and at all the festivals. I know that it won two awards already or been nominated at least for two awards.

Nicholas Wrathall: Yeah. It's won a couple of awards, one Audience Award at Palm Springs and won a couple of smaller awards, and came second and third in a bunch of film festivals. So people seem to really like it, and I hope they get out and see it. I think the film apart from being a serious subject is really interesting and funny as well. So I hope people rediscover Gore through the film.

TMN: And the bittersweetness of him passing away makes the film so powerful to watch.

Nicholas Wrathall: Great. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, I feel like bittersweet is probably a good way to characterize the emotion there, because you do know he's dying at that point, but there's so much going on still with him that he feels like his spirit can carry on, and I hope the film inspires people.

TMN: Yeah. Well, thank you very much, Nick. I really appreciate it, and I wish you the best.

Nicholas Wrathall: Thanks very much. Good to talk to you.