Sam Green, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, will present his newest “live documentary,” The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, at Cornell Cinema Saturday night alongside rock band Yo La Tengo. The Sun spoke over the phone with Green about the “live documentary” experience, journalism’s decline, The Weather Underground’s Bill Ayers and the magic of Cornell Cinema.
The Sun: A lot of your documentaries have this reporting, journalistic element to them. Would you consider yourself a journalist or a filmmaker now?
Sam Green: Well it’s funny because when I tell people I went to journalism school, they sometimes say, “Oh, are you sad that you’re not still doing journalism?” I’ve always been taken aback by that because I do think I’m doing journalism — I mean, I’m not a daily newspaper reporter, but I’m still using all the tools I learned about research, trying to be accurate and fair, interviewing people … trying to get to the bottom of things and being curious about the world. ... I still use all that, so I consider what I do with documentaries, with the kind of documentary film I make, art journalism.
Sun: You do a lot of live documentaries as opposed to recorded ones. What do you think a live documentary brings to the art that a standard one wouldn’t be able to?
S.G.: Well, a lot of things. I have made a lot of traditional documentaries, and I’m still making [them]. I made this documentary about [the language] Esperanto recently. I got into making these live documentaries a couple years ago, and I love doing them. I’m very enthralled by the form for a lot of different reasons.
One is that if you’re a filmmaker these days, you have to expect that people are going to watch your movies on their phones or on their laptops while they’re checking their e-mails. I watched a movie last night ... on Netflix Instant, and I fell asleep in the middle of it. It’s a great movie, but I ... shuttled forward towards the end of the movie … It’s not the same experience and I’m not being judgmental about it. The Internet is great and it’s great to be able to watch anything you want anytime, whenever you want, but [for] the movies I make, I really like the experience, the kind of theatrical sort of experience, going somewhere to see it with strangers in a room. The lights go down, you turn off your phone, and you give yourself over to this experience. That to me is very powerful, so I wanted to make something that would hang on to that, that would keep people watching things in that context.
So the great thing with live documentaries is that is what they are: You can’t download it later, you can’t get it on Netflix Instant, you can’t see it on YouTube, you got to go. I think that that makes it more special, and especially with this latest one I’m doing, [The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller], with the band Yo La Tengo. They’re a great band, and many people know them and are fans, so you go and see them live, too — it’s more of a special event. If you’re just watching a regular movie these days, it’s sort of like ho-hum in a way.
Sun: And you’ve had a lot of success with the traditional documentary, too, like The Weather Underground. Were you surprised when you were nominated for the Academy Awards given the topic of the film?
S.G.: Yeah, I was definitely surprised by that. When I started making that movie — a movie about a group of young people who tried to violently overthrow the U.S. government — I thought, maybe some actors might be interested and maybe some baby boomers, but not a lot more than that. So the movie was much more of a hit than I thought. I mean, a ‘hit’ is a relative thing, but still, I didn’t think it would become such a widely-seen movie, [or be] nominated for Academy Award ... It was especially great because it’s the kind of thing where my grandmother understands that that’s a big deal. Everybody understands, whereas before people are like, “You make documentary films? Oh yeah, you know, whatever.” But people say, “You’re nominated for the Academy Award?” Almost anybody can [understand that].
Sun: Did you receive any press attention in 2008 when former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers was a subject of concern for Barack Obama and his presidential campaign?
S.G.: Oh yeah, a lot actually. Through the process of making the movie, we became friends with him. I like Bill a lot, and I felt really sorry for him. I saw him at a certain point and I said, “How is it going?” And he said, “Terrible!” What people don’t realize is that if Fox News vilifies you, you will receive a tsunami of death threats, so he was getting death threats all the time from crazy people out there … When all that was happening, I got a lot of offers to go on Nightline and stuff like that, but we didn’t want to engage with it. In a way, the only way to take the air out of a non-issue like that is to not engage with it, so we didn’t do any press. Although, Fox News started using parts of my movie ... They didn’t even put a title [over the footage], so we had to get a lawyer to get them to stop doing that … it was pretty stupid, that whole thing.
Sun: So for Buckminster Fuller, what first drew you to him?
S.G.: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was doing an exhibit about him, and as part of this exhibit, they asked me to make a live documentary … They mentioned that his papers are at Stanford University, and his papers are this enormous collection of papers — the biggest collection of any person ever. So I started to go down to Stanford and look through the papers; the more I looked the more interesting [he seemed]. I really felt like he was a fascinating character, just as a person, [as] this super complex, interesting guy [with incredibly radical ideas]. He was in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s talking about sustainability and resources, so he’s way, way ahead of his time, but the funny thing is now he’s so correct! His message about doing more with less, fairly distributing resources — these are really apt things right now.
Sun: So to touch back on journalism, do you have any opinions about the nature of the media today?
S.G.: I probably think the same thing that most other people think, which is, it’s a terrible time for journalism. Many people probably think it’s a great time for journalism because anybody can set up a website, go online, and report about [his or her] community, and in some ways that’s true. But a hundred citizen-journalists, I don’t think, are a substitute for one truly kick-ass, experienced, real reporter. I think that a real, healthy independent press is hugely important to our society and our democracy, and I think that the market has totally undermined that, and journalism is in the toilet because of that. To me, it’s sort of heartbreaking. Sure, there are … still a lot of great newspapers and radio reporters, but I think the press is definitely wounded, and I think that our crappy politics are a reflection of that.
Sun: Is there anyone you have in mind that you would want to make a film about in the future?
S.G.: That’s a good question. I’ve always wanted to make a movie about the oldest person in the world. The oldest person in the world changes pretty regularly because you know, they all die. But there’s always somebody walking around, or sometimes lying around, who’s been around longer than anybody else on the planet, and that to me is very interesting. I think right now it’s a woman who lives in Georgia who’s 112 years old. I don’t know if that’s going to be the project I rush out and make, but I’ve always wanted to do something about that.
Sun: So you choose your projects spontaneously? Whenever an idea comes up, you pursue it?
S.G.: No, I have always had things I’m interested in ... Right now, I’m interested in trees. I’m reading books about trees, and I like trees these days. So far, I don’t think it’s going to last that long. Something comes up, things that get under my skin and almost become an obsession. That to me is important because a film is hard to make, it takes a long time, so you have to be obsessed with something in order to stick with it and make something out of it. It can’t just be a passing interest.
Sun: I think that wraps it up. Did you have anything else you wanted to say?
S.G.: No. I’m very excited to come back to Cornell. I’ve showed two other movies there, and this might be just totally extraneous for you, but I’m not sure if students there realize what a fantastic institution and resource Cornell Cinema is. Filmmakers from all over the world know Cornell Cinema and admire the programming there. Years ago, there were organizations like Cornell Cinema at universities all over the country, and over time, they’ve gone away, because of VCRs and DVDs and now the Internet. The idea is like, “You can see anything online,” but it’s not really true, and there’s also that thing about the cinematic experience. It’s very different to see a movie in a theater than it is to watch it online. So Cornell Cinema is still around … and I personally am thrilled to screen something there and to come back. I really admire and respect the organization and the curation, and I know many other filmmakers out there who feel the same way.