Interview

 
 
Place: New York

Andrew Rossi, Director of “Page One: Inside The New York Times”

Art Categories:  Film

Film director Andrew Rossi’s third feature documentary “Page One: Inside The New York Times” opens on the printing presses of the factory of The New York Times, one of the most known American daily newspapers, then the camera goes into the newsroom: the sanctuary.  Mr. Rossi follows four different subjects living in the shifting media for a year; the charismatic veteran journalist David Carr, new generation Brian Stelter, having a turning point of life Tim Arango, and the Media Desk Editor Bruce Headlam.     

Because of the appearance of Twitter, Wikileaks, and other online-based entities, the base meaning of journalism has changed, and many major newspapers have gone bankrupt.  The New York Times isn’t exceptional.  They have been facing lay-offs and have started to charge for online subscription to survive in a transformative time because even though newspaper is dead, news is still alive.  And Mr. Rossi opens a door to the inner sanctum of news and captures compelling scenes in the moment.  This is a story of ‘The New York Times.’

COOL interviewed the director Andrew Rossi and discussed one of the most intriguing films of the year.

 

I would like to introduce you to our readers, and I read that you went to Yale and Harvard Law School, so could you talk about your background in filmmaking; What kind of films inspired you and how did you start to get involved with film? I always wanted to go into film; I sort of fell in love with the independent cinema of the ’70s: movies like “Three Days of the Condor”, “Manhattan”, “The French Connection”, movies that were really smart, character-driven pieces but still riveting to watch.  I did practice law for two years, my parents wanted me to have a stable job compared to documentary filmmaking [laughs], but always knowing that I wanted to go into film.  When I was able to purchase a small digital video camera and realized that you can make a film using equipment that you’re able to purchase yourself, I made a transition.


So far you have directed “Eat This New York”, “Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven” and “Page One”.  It seems like you are interested in things that are changing or transforming.  Could you talk about the things that intrigue you? That’s a really great point.  I’m attracted to institutions that seem to be impenetrable in a way, to which access has rarely been granted and to try to find a way through human stories to illuminate what goes on behind them.  So although the Le Cirque film and “Page One” are quite different in the themes that they deal with, in another sense there’s something similar:  the passing of one generation to another and this painful transition from the old guard to the new.

About “Page One”, this film is about media that is changing and we are able to see what is happening in one of the most sacred newspaper companies in the world.  How did the project begin? It actually began with David Carr, who I met in 2006 and always thought that he had the cinematic breadth of character and emotional ups-and-downs to play the protagonist of a feature film, to really support a film around him.  I was interviewing him for a different project about new media and the benefits of web 2.0, the utopian dream of web 2.0.  It was right around the time that people were saying, “You know, as part of the digital revolution there might be some dead bodies on the side of the road — The New York Times being possibly one of them.”  It struck me as a very curious position for a lot of smart people to take because the original reporting that happens in The Times seems to be a value and we wouldn’t want to lose that.  So I basically was interviewing David and we kept talking about what the place traditional print media would be in that digital future.  I guess the light bulb went off in my mind and I thought, “What about making a movie about you, David, and about the Media Desk?”


You chose four different subjects for your story.  Could you talk about your choice of subjects to tell the story?The Media Desk contains fourteen journalists.  At the time I started shooting there were fourteen journalists and David Carr was always the primary figure; and Brian Stelter is another great character that we cover because he was a blogger who was hired right out of college; and Bruce Headlam emerges as the Editor.  You know, I wish that we had been able to include a woman, a female writer.  Actually only two of those fourteen were women and they both declined to participate, unfortunately.  But I also think that Tim Arango is a fantastic character because he makes the transition to Baghdad, which really drives home that The New York Times is providing that boots-on-the-ground reporting all over the world.  

What was the approach to infiltrate The New York Times? and how was it being there? My process is observational documentary, which is to say that I don’t go in with a specific agenda or a point to prove; I just really wanted to provide viewers with a front-row seat to the journalism that’s being practiced within the four walls of The New York Times.  I think on those terms Bill Keller, who’s the Executive Editor, felt comfortable with how his journalists would appear, and so he said, “I’m proud of my writers and I’d like the world to see them.”


The opening scene of newspaper factory is quite impressive.  Why did you want to begin your story with that scene? There’s almost this ritualistic process to those trucks taking out the newspapers.  There’s something really impressive about the muscles of the institution, which David refers to them as later, producing the paper.  There’s something anachronistic about seeing that; we live in a digital world, maybe the expectation [when] you’re seeing a movie about the media would be to see fiber-optic cables delivering internet, electrodes all over the place, and so it’s to remind people that the world we’re about to enter is dominated by the printing press.

Since you talk about Wikileaks in the film, I would like to ask.  There is nothing more shocking than to see actual things like video.  What kind of characters are required to be newspaper journalists today? Mainly it’s endurance, drive to keep working on a story [when you] have people not wanting to talk to you, and keep pushing to get a story told accurately.  I think its very possible for people to comment on other stories that are out there, but breaking news stories require a lot of dogged devotion and never giving up.  

In the film you mentioned, “When technology changes, media changes always,” and now people are able to access a lot of variety of information pretty much for free, but media has started to limit the information that they give out.  Do you think things are getting better overall? Well, I’ll tell you this:  I think that the threat to traditional journalistic institutions, like newspapers which have been going bankrupt, is very troubling.  But I also think that the tools of the insurgency: Twitter, the ability to amplify the message or just reporting in the story on Facebook, all that social media really is quite exciting.  And I think whenever the dust settles and institutions that have been in peril for the last couple of years figure out the way to monetize on these new platforms so they can stay alive, then we are looking at a brighter future, yes.  

More and more media outlets are being bought or funded by major corporations, for example:  AOL acquiring The Huffington Post earlier this year, and of course, a corporation has its own interests and agenda.  What do you think about the state of objective journalism now and in the future?There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful: the journalists who are producing original objective reporting, not just opinion, not just commentary or aggregation off of other things, are doing amazing work and there’s reason to believe that they will continue to do so.  I think on a macro level the market for newspapers has stabilized a little bit.  But it’s still important for the reader to consider the source of the information, and that’s actually the tag-line for the film: “consider the source.”  If you see something, think about the accuracy of it; where did it come from?  But often you may read something embedded within a story and not realize that if it were not for the Associated Press or The New York Times or somebody else we wouldn’t even know the basic information.

I think The New York Times or other major newspapers are still important to exist as outlets of information.  What are the reactions or opinions of journalists that you have interviewed to sustain newspapers? We premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, we played at South by Southwest, we’ve had a robust regional screening schedule and across the board people come out of the movie feeling invigorated, feeling a renewed sense of being conscious of what their news diet is and caring about it.  People also gravitate to David Carr as a person and his story is human.  Maybe he’s tapping into people’s feeling of alienation or dislocation in a culture that is… it’s his phrase: there’s a cacophony of short-burst communication out there that everyone is consuming.  Even beyond the future of The New York Times, the movie seems to be tapping into some broader cultural sense of “wait — what’s happening in the world? I’m losing track.”


Your films are all filmed in New York City.  What do you see in New York? There’s a remarkable confluence of people of different classes, of different ethnicities, of different backgrounds; it’s this intellectual hotbed of ideas and people really engaged.  Movies are about ideas, but they’re really also about people.  New York is a city people come to reinvent themselves, it’s a place people come to operate at the highest level.  I’m sure someday soon I’ll do a movie that doesn’t take place in New York, but it’s a city of a million stories.

 

 

 

text by Taiyo Okamoto & Joseph Reid