By Francine Taylor
From the opening narration by Amy Goodman, Stephen Vittoria's One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern doesn't pretend to be anything but what it is: "'American politics will never be the same again,'" intones Goodman, "George McGovern's clarion call to the American people. And for a short time, too short, the long awaited honest man, the prairie statesman was right."
"I think Amy is the hardest working true journalist in America today," says Vittoria. "I wanted somebody who was incredibly relevant to the progressive, anti-war movement that is happening now and I don't think there is anyone better than Amy. The narration for me was an overt political essay. I think this idea that documentaries are objective is one of the great myths and fallacies of filmmaking."
Vittoria's film, winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2005 Sarasota Film Festival and opening in Los Angeles this weekend, features interviews with Dick Gregory, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, Warren Beatty, Howard Zinn, Ron Kovic, among others, and of course, McGovern himself.
When asked about his own participation in the film, George McGovern had to admit he was "somewhat skeptical" of the project at first. But the more he talked to Vittoria in the couple of weeks they spent together, the more McGovern saw that they had the same values. McGovern quickly caught onto how "perceptive and imaginative" Vittoria was and how much Vittoria had understood about his campaign, even though Vittoria was only 15 years old when he campaigned for McGovern during the summer of 1972.
What struck me after seeing the movie was the sheer number of interviews and how much work it must have been to cut your first assembly.
I shot almost 80 hours of interviews. Two cross-country trips. Every interview was at least two hours long. The interview process for me is part of the research, part of the writing. I didn't write anything but an overall treatment before I interviewed anybody. Wrote a bible of questions. Some people got all the same questions - others got more specific questions as far as their expertise or experience. We shot 75, 80 hours and then I had everything transcribed and, with these three-ring binders I took myself away for about ten days. Put myself up in a little hotel up in Cambria, California on the coast by myself. And I just wrote, pulling from the transcript, and building narration in and around what I had and what I didn't have. I was building the blocks to tell the story. The first script was about 200 pages long, but I knew it was long. You never know what's going to happen in the editing process. So I wanted to have more with that first cut than less.
It also lends itself to the magnitude of the project.
I wanted the film not to be an episode of Biography. In fact, I used to have that sign hanging up in here for myself and my editors: "This is not an episode of Biography." I wanted it to be living, breathing, relevant, lively, entertaining. There is a part of it, yes, that is journalism. Yes, it's historical, but you're also trying to entertain people. You want to find those funny moments, the really sad and serious moments.
You go back and forth a lot in the film between '68 and '72. It's not a completely linear structure, so there is something thematic running through the film that has nothing to do with chronology.
I hate linear. I really do. As a storyteller, certain elements have to be linear or your audience is completely lost, but I thought that this would be an intelligent audience and I think it is. I wanted to raise the bar. As a filmmaker, I find this especially when I'm working on gun-for-hire kind of projects: producers and clients are always trying to dumb everything down.
Well, it's kind of in our culture.
Yes, exactly. I just rail against that. I've been influenced as a writer and by Norman Mailer and his work is so exhaustive when it comes to drilling down and getting beneath to the details and the nuances. I wanted the film to be complete. You know? I just got back from a screening in San Francisco and people are always asking me, "Why don't you put this in? Why don't you put that in?" The film would be ten hours long. For two hours, I think it's right there. And from a structural standpoint, I tried desperately to be more thematic with the narrative than with trying to tell it like, "He was born and he was raised, and he went into the army," and that kind of thing."
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