“If people don’t want the truth, then the news won’t give it to them”
An interview with Avi Belkin, director of “Mike Wallace Is Here”
In this brilliantly assembled documentary about 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin skillfully combines clips from Wallace’s most momentous interviews, from Barbara Streisand to the Ayatollah Khomeini, to reveal a sharp and observant portrait of the famous journalist and the rise and fall of the news media itself as it passes from trusted pillar of truth to “fake news.” Composed entirely of archival footage, “Mike Wallace Is Here” offers up a complex picture of a complicated man and his relentless dedication to his work. Belkin talks about what drew him to Wallace, the collage-making of an all-archival film, about the evolution from objective to opinion-based journalism.
So why a film about Mike Wallace?
I stated three years ago while I was living in Tel Aviv, before Trump was elected, but it already seemed like journalism was coming under attack, and I become obsessed with this question of how it had happened. I was looking for a genesis story I could tell. And looking at footage, I kept bumping into Mike Wallace and I realized through him, I can tell the story of broadcast journalism. He was a like Forrest Gump figure, who was at all stages of the history: He started in radio, moved into television, and then invented the form as we know it today, and how to interview people with the tough questions. And then I flew to America and that’s how I got here. We contacted the family, and told them the idea for the movie--my idea was to do Mike Wallace on Mike Wallace, but Mike was dead. So since I couldn’t interview him, I thought if I go through the archives, I can pull interviews of people interviewing Mike, and Mike interviewing other people. I read early on that he knew his weaknesses very well, and all he had to do is frame those weaknesses as questions to others. So if I picked those questions, it could show his subconscious and his own themes. So in a sense: I’m interviewing Mike while he’s interviewing others. Chris liked that idea. And CBS liked the idea. And I spent a month in the CBS archives, going through film reels. Watching the footage was a beautiful experience, picking all the right moments, of Mike and of broadcast journalism.
The film is a triumph of editing. Can you talk about your process and how you put it all together of all of the archival footage?
The editor Billy McMillin did an amazing job. It was just very detailed work. When you do an archival film, it’s like a collage. This is what’s available, and now you have to put it together. You can’t do interviews or shoot anything. This is what you have. I’m an old school guy, so I like to transcribe everything and highlight the good parts with a marker, and then I put all the highlighted material into a script. For months, I watch, highlight, and build the script. And then you make the script. The original cut was 9 hours. Then you start to sculpt it like a piece of clay. And it’s just months of playing with the material. But it was enjoyable because just watching his craft is incredible. When most people see his interviews, they watch 10 minutes. But the raw footage is hours long. When you watch Mike interviewing Putin, you have 6 hours of material, and you see how he approaches the interview, and for hours, he’s on, he’s so prepared and relentless to get to the core of the subject. I may have only used one minute of the Putin interview, but I wish I could have used before. And I think 60-70% of the footage in the film is unseen footage from some of the biggest interviews. It’s not the stuff that we saw on TV, but the raw footage, so it gives a much deeper understanding of Mike.
As you said, the project started with your interest in looking at what’s happened to broadcast journalism over the years. Can you talk about what you think the film has to say about where we are right now?
The movie starts with Bill O’Reilly, because I see this as the changing of the guard. The movie stops in 2006, but obviously O’Reilly and the rise of Fox News is the moment where journalism took a turn and we’re now seeing the rippling effect of that. This interview for me is the perfect representation of the old and the new. It’s like a duel, where they’re going head to head. And O’Reilly says you made me, you invented me, you gave me the platform where I now sit. But I do feel there’s a difference between them. There’s a difference between the original and the copycats. There’s something in human nature that makes the copycats want more ratings and more sensationalism. So today, I see journalism as opinion journalism. It was more about the facts, now it’s about the opinions. That’s the trouble and the crisis today: there’s so many options, and it’s very hard for people to know who to trust. And I think people today are not going to news to get new information, but to verify their opinions. And that’s as much on the viewers, as journalism itself. If people don’t want to be exposed to the truth, then the news won’t give it to them. But I feel like there’s something beautiful about this rivalry, and between objective journalism and opinion journalism.
One of the areas that the film doesn’t go into, which I was surprised given our current climate, is the frequent charges of sexism at CBS and even in the “60 minutes” news room itself. How come you didn’t include that?
At the end of the day, you have to make choices. I had a 9-hour film. So there was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it in: For instance, he went on to have dementia, but I didn’t put that into the film. He also had a very public dispute with the Jewish lobby, but I left that out, too. My prism was broadcast journalism, so I felt like all those topics that were not related to broadcast journalism didn’t belong. The film is about the work, which is broadcast journalism and one of the biggest themes—and you see it in his interviews with Larry King, with Bette Davis, with Arthur Miller—is that all of them are talking about the work is what drives their life, not their friends or family, but their work. And you see it in all of the greats, and there are personal sacrifices that they make along the way. I felt like Mike early on did that: He decided to be the best journalist he could be and everything else was going to fall, so I decided not to focus on the personal details, because I felt his career is his personal life.