AFI DOCS 2019: Interview with Director Avi Belkin of “Mike Wallace Is Here”

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE director Avi Belkin with Christopher Llewellyn Reed at AFI DOCS 2019

On Sunday, June 23, at the 2019 AFI DOCS, I interviewed director Avi Belkin (Winding) to discuss his new documentary Mike Wallace Is Here. The film offers a comprehensive portrait of the life and work of the great, titular television journalist who, among many other achievements, was a founding host of CBS’ seminal news magazine program 60 Minutes. Using only archival material, director Belkin walks us through the major milestones of his subject’s career, including his origins as actor and product pitchman. Though initially considered something of a lightweight by other reporters, Wallace eventually became known as a hard-hitting interviewer, equally feared and admired across the globe. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Film poster: “Mike Wallace Is Here”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: Mike Wallace died in 2012. Why make a film about him now?

Avi Belkin: Three years ago, I was living in Tel Aviv. This was before Trump got elected, but already journalism was feeling very much like it was in a cluster-f*** situation and I found myself obsessing about the questions, “How did it get there? How did journalism find itself at that tipping point?” And I was starting to do research and Mike Wallace kept jumping out at me from all the research, doing interviews with this guy, being here and there. He felt like a kind of a Zelig-like character, intersecting all the right stops and places. And I had this idea of doing a portrait of Mike Wallace and through him kind of tell the bigger story of broadcast journalism, to use him as a microcosm for that journalism story. So I bought a ticket to L.A. and three years later, easy money, we’re here.

Chris Reed:  So, the title – Mike Wallace is Here – is that derived from this notion that we wouldn’t be where we are now with broadcast journalism without him?

AB: He never left. 100%. The name is derived from … that was kind of a statement back then that if you’re coming to the office and someone would say, “Mike Wallace is here to see you,” those were the most terrifying words you could hear in the English language. So that’s the original idea behind “Mike Wallace is Here,” but I really felt like he never left.You and I were talking a second ago, before we started the interview, about that opening scene where Mike is interviewing Bill O’Reilly. That interview took place in 2004, and not only did I see it as a sort of changing of the guards but also it felt so relevant to today. Mike is dead, obviously. O’Reilly’s kind of dead. He’s been out of the water for a while now, but it felt like what they are discussing and that back and forth is so relevant today. It’s like, Mike never left. His influence is all over the news today.

CLR: Yes, although he balked at the comparison between himself and O’Reilly, which I found interesting. I also found the comparison interesting because I hadn’t really thought of it that way but then his reaction … because O’Reilly’s not wrong …

AB: Not wrong, but not right. 

CLR: Exactly, yes.

AB: Which he often is. He’s not wrong, because there’s definitely some Mike in there, but I mean, O’Reilly took it to an extreme and Mike kind of calls him out on that. He plays a clip of O’Reilly just shouting at someone and he says, “That’s not an interview. That’s a lecture,” and that’s kind of where they differ, I feel, that O’Reilly, he’s basically just yelling at people, giving a lecture about what he believed, where Mike was really about the answers. He really wanted those answers. His tough questions were not just to evoke sensationalism. He really wanted to get behind this thing to understand what’s going on. I don’t see any problem with the tough question as long as it’s really to the point where it tried to evoke some honest response.

CLR: I wish that in his interview with Putin it had been the younger Mike Wallace with tougher questions. 

AB: I thought that he did well with Putin.

CLR: I think that it’s probably virtually impossible to get Putin to talk about anything. I thought he did OK, but I would have liked the 1950’s version of Wallace to be there.

AB: That moment where it shows him rubbing his fingers together, saying that to get anything done in Russia you need money … that was a beautiful moment.

CLR: Sure. So, your choice to do this as a strictly archival film is interesting, as well, because there are people you could have interviewed today but you chose not to. Why? 

AB: You know, let me go back. There’s a moment in the film, another moment which may be my favorite, which is an interview with Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist, a very famous one. They go at it back and forth and she’s kind of a female version of Mike Wallace, in Europe. Mike tells her, “How do you see yourself? You’re an entertainer? What’s your role?”And she says she’s an historian. She says that journalists are historians that document history the moment it happens and that it’s the best way to document history. Mike tells her that he doesn’t see it that way. He sees historians as people who see things 20 years after or 50 years after and they say in retrospect what happened.

I’m on the Oriana side of things there. I felt like if I’m going to bring people in today to kind of talk about Mike’s legacy in retrospect it would turn into a, “Oh, Mike changed the game” et cetera, et cetera.” By staying only on the archives I’m giving that moment in time all the floor, you know what I mean? Then I felt like that’s a much more interesting way to approach things, just seeing how it played out in history without dissecting the importance and relevance on how it matters to people today.

Still from MIKE WALLACE IS HERE ©Magnolia Pictures

CLR: Right, and then the film becomes more about them and their recollections, and memory can be a faulty thing, intentionally or unintentionally. That’s interesting. Again, I really like the fact that it was archival. So, you were making this for three years. It must have been quite a monumental task to find things. Was there anything, by the end of it, that you wanted that you couldn’t get?

AB: No. I feel like Mike was so much in the eye of the media throughout his career. He had a 60-year career. That’s unparalleled. I don’t know anyone close to that magnitude of career and volume of interviews as an interviewee, and not just an interviewer. I really felt like I got the story completely. I would have loved to sit down with Mike, you know what I mean, but Mike was dead when I started this project so obviously that was not possible.

But, out of everybody who is an interviewer – you interview people, I interview people – I think Mike was just the Muhammad Ali of the interview world. He was really amazing. I watched the rough footage of his interviews. It’s amazing to see him. He’s really, really good. That’s not a joke.  I would have loved to go, you know, with the champion one on one, kind of go at it with him, try to get him to admit some stuff but I really feel like the movie kind of captures him well. 

CLR:  Well you have that interview, also in the beginning, with Morley Safer asking him why …

AB: Yeah, “why is he such a prick?” First of all, he probably was a little bit of a prick. Listen, human beings are complex, right? A lot of people who are very good at what they do, who are driven, have to be sometimes a little bit edgier, a little bit, I would say, not pleasant. And Mike was definitely a very ambitious, hard-driven character. He definitely ruffled some feathers while he was working. I don’t hold him accountable to that. I see Mike as being a very complex human, a flawed person that had a lot of bad sides to him and a lot of good sides to him.

But he and Morley had an amazing friendship, a love-hate relationship I would say, and it’s beautiful. Later on in his career, Mike gave him the true confession of his life in an interview with Morley where it was the first time ever that he admitted, after years of denying it, that he tried to commit suicide. I felt like that was almost like a present he gave to Morley saying, “You are the journalist that I respect the most and want to give this moment in time to.”

Veteran “60 Minutes” co-host Morley Safer announces Mike Wallace’s 2012 death ©CBS

CLR:  It is a very powerful moment, yes. So, how many different archives did you have to go into? 

AB: It’s unbelievable! We started with the CBS archives. For the first time ever, CBS opened up the vaults of the 60 Minutes archives which are, for me, the best archives in the world.

CLR:  How did you negotiate that if it’s the first time?

AB: That’s why you get a producer and then they negotiate it, but I think that very early on my pitch to CBS was, “I want to do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace through the archive materials that exist.” And they really liked that approach. So they opened up the vaults and they’re in Jersey. There’s a warehouse the size of two football fields. I went there and just started pulling film reels, old stuff. We digitized them and I sat for months, just watching materials for hours and hours. I was taking notes writing, “this is a great moment,” “this is the moment …” and stuff like that.

And very early on, I had this feeling that when you interview people your subconscious is kind of showing in your questions. You know what I mean? We pitch questions that are interesting to us, you know, and you kind of basically reveal yourself in the questions that you ask. I felt that like if I’m going to find those moments where Mike reveals himself, I would kind give a portrait of Mike through those interesting questions and answers that are going back and forth.

CLR:  I did not know the early history of Mike Wallace as a showman because by the time I came around, Mike Wallace was already at CBS as a newsman. I didn’t realize that they didn’t take him seriously when he showed up.

AB: I was shocked, as well. 

CLR: Because, to me, he was the quintessential newsman.

AB: It’s true, but it’s beautiful to realize that even a man like him had this chip on his shoulder, you know what I mean, like this insecurity about his credentials in a way and those Fluffo commercials, man … crazy, yeah.

CLR: That is crazy. And the cigarettes. You bring them back a number of times … Parliaments.

AB: They were the star of the show back then, you know. When Mike started those interviews, and you see it in the film, in black and white, the cigarette was the number one prop. He would stop in the middle of an interview to give kudos to those sponsors. Then, at the end of the film there’s the scene where we see Jeffrey Wigand, who was the basis for the film The Insider, where Mike is fighting those tobacco companies so it’s kind of a full circle, which is cool to see.

CLR: Indeed. I like your aesthetics of those Q&A’s, the split screens that you did. When did you decide on that, because you don’t do it throughout, but you do it at some choice moments.

AB: Yeah, that’s kind of a perfect happy-accident situation where we were starting the digitizing of the materials, and there were two cameras when you did an interview back then. We just put one next the other so I could see it easily when I watched the materials and then the first moment I saw that I remember I was like, “Wow. This is like a duel. This looks like a battle of the minds, one close up against the other.” I was like, “This is the language” and very early from there we took it.

CLR: From an archival perspective, you said that these were all stored on film reels?

AB: Yes. 

CLR:  Had a lot of these interviews been shot on film? Some of the early stuff we see, some of it looks like it was shot on video.

AB: Until the ’90’s, I would say, roughly, 60 Minutes held onto film. They held onto it much later than most of the channels and it just looks beautiful. Film is like a 2K-equivalent resolution. Back then there was like a decade of DV and MiniDV kind of materials which looks like s***; it’s really bad. So it’s beautiful to see it and it ultimately makes it cinematic. You know what I mean? When it’s shot on film it looks so big, you know, the characters look big. But I also like to see the transition, because it also reflects journalism in a way for me, going from a much more cinematic-looking kind of journalism to more sensationalism, yellow, hard-core journalism, which again, as a cinema maker I’m kind of looking for those subtle changes and stuff.

CLR:  Sure. So, although you don’t interview him, Mike’s son, Chris Wallace, is of course at Fox News, where O’Reilly was. Did you talk to him at all in the making of this, or have you shown this film to the family at all? 

Sundance film poster of “Mike Wallace Is Here”

AB: There’s a moment, a short moment in the film where Chris interviews Mike for Fox News, towards the end. That’s the only moment where he’s present. Yeah, well the first person we approached was Chris and Chris gave his blessing. Then we went to CBS. But Chris had no creative control. He didn’t see the film. Then we got into Sundance and the film was, as is always the case, only finished a week before Sundance. So we brought Chris, five days before the film was screening, to L.A. to see the film for the first time. It was nerve-wracking, man. We were sitting in this screening and I’m showing his son the film for the first time and I was really anxious about what he was going to say, but he loved the film. He really felt like we captured Mike. He felt like we didn’t hold back on Mike which Mike would have approved of. He came to Sundance and he’s fully on board with the film and he really feels like it’s a good memory of his dad. 

CLR: What do you think, then, about the state of journalism today? Are there people who are perhaps truly the heirs to Mike Wallace’s tradition without being the bombastic interviewers or haranguers that Bill O’Reilly is? Do you think we have anybody out there of that caliber who is not a pedantic lecturer?

AB: That’s a good question.  I’ve thought about it a lot and I really don’t think there is because Mike was a movie star. There is no one like that. In a way he was like a … he kind of reminds you of Obama, who was, you know, much bigger than a politician. He was just a movie star, in the charisma, in the presence, in the way he knew how to handle the media. Mike was the same way. Mike was a bigger star than the one he was interviewing. He was the star of that show.

I don’t see anybody today, with that kind of equivalent, that level, but there are a lot of people who are very good journalists today and I feel like his legacy’s alive and kicking. A lot of people are doing the Mike Wallace interview even without even knowing that they’re doing the Mike Wallace interview because he was the first guy to ask those tough questions. He basically shaped and informed all of us on how to do that interview. I remember growing up in Israel. We have news-magazine shows that look like 60 Minutes, you know what I mean? Without even knowing who Mike Wallace was, in retrospect I can tell you that was a Mike Wallace imitation back then. So, I really believe there’s no one quite like him, but there are a lot of successors. 

CLR: And as your film says, “Mike Wallace is here.”

AB: He’s definitely here.

CLR: Well, thank you, Avi. I really enjoyed the film.

AB: Thank you!

The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, where some AFI DOCS screenings take place

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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