By Elias Savada.
The Kimpton Hotel Monaco is just 9 blocks east of the White House, the work place of Stephen K. Bannon, a friend and strategist of the Commander in-Chief until his banishment from official duties in 2017. He still haunts the Capitol Hill neighborhood where he lives and works, but moviegoers will spot quite a few close-up moments with the arrival of a new documentary The Brink, which covers his shenanigans for a year after he left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
On a clear, spring morning in Washington, Alison Klayman and Marie Therese Guirgis, respectively the director and producer of the film, are about to embark on their sole press day in DC promoting its arrival. Amid the hotel’s bustle of tourists and business folk scattered about the lobby area near the main entrance sits the p.r. rep for Magnolia Pictures, the film’s distributor, who is refining her entourage’s agenda on this clear, mid-March day. I’m the lead-off batter. The ladies have already checked out of their rooms and were sipping on morning brews as we re-located to a back corner, although the din of a hotel staff’s vacuum cleaner picking up dust from the carpet was a minor nuisance. We settled on a comfortable couch from several large chairs which resembled the palatial throne seen at the start of the Academy Award winning Green Book.
Below is a transcript of my conversation with Klayman and Marie Therese Guirgis, edited for clarity.
Elias Savada (ES): Welcome back to Ground Zero, United States of Armageddon. Before talking about the film, do either of you recall a moment in your lives that pushed you towards where you are today? I remember certain places and certain times that landed me where I’m at today. Was there a certain screening or event or meeting?
Alison Klayman (AK): I feel like a lot of those things for me feel like both serendipity and intuition. Kind of mixed together. And I think it’s the moments when there are maybe other things that were more a sure bet. Instead I decided to do the thing that seemed harder, and I would count this film. I would also include my first film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. My father reminded me the other day, that I had an offer to make a video for the Ford Foundation office in Beijing. To go travel somewhere with Weiwei, who I’d been filming him for a while, with getting funding as we went. And my dad was saying “If you had listened to me, you would have made like a little video and not Never Sorry. Sorry that’s not super specific, but there were just a lot of small things put together.
ES: I was curious about the time before you went to China. Were there life-altering repercussions that pushed toward being a filmmaker?
Sometimes those events come from failure. As a college senior I had applied for different grants and fellowships. I got interviews for most of them and I got nothing. I had breakfast with my friend Julia Liu, who actually a director of photography on The Brink. She shot t a lot of the DC B-roll role. That was in this film. At that breakfast at Louis [pronounced Louie, a family restaurant near Brown University] in Providence (Rhode Island) I said her “I don’t know what I do, but I just want to go somewhere.” Julia said that her family really wanted her to go stay with my aunt in Shanghai. She really didn’t want to go if she was just going to be dragged around by her family. said, what if I came.
ES: Yup, that’s the moment.
AS: I asked, “Do you think they’d mind?” They turned out to be the most generous people ever. My Chinese last name is like their last name that they gave to me.
Marie Therese Guirgis (MTG): How long did you stay with them?
AS: We were there together for five months, but we stayed in their place for two, then we stayed with her other family in Taiwan. We also traveled. I hooked up with my friend Ari, who was staying with family and friends in Beijing. So I moved to Beijing. It’s not so much that I had courage or foresight. You amble around like “Oh , maybe I’ll do this, or maybe I’ll do that.”
ES: But that is the (extended) cosmic moment.
AS: And it’s by intuition, too There were there were clearly other choices to be made and that was the kind of choice that I would make. So, yeah.
ES: And you?
MTG: I have I have a very classic kind of light bulb moment. I do have a very specific moment-time-place. I grew up I grew up in New York City with much older parents who had me in their late 40s. I grew up seeing classic Hollywood movies as a kid because mother took us to the revival houses on the weekends. So I grew up loving movies, but just never thinking of them as something to study or remotely as a profession. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted be an actress. In college I was lucky enough to take some classes, but didn’t major in film. And then I was lucky enough to study for a semester when I was in Paris and took a film class with a French film professor who was very ornery. Very sour. Just a cliché from central casting. I think he felt better than he was teaching American students in Paris. He had an attitude, but he’s very, very smart. And he taught us. He taught us about French films from the 1950s on. He was probably one of the best professors I ever had. I had this moment in a class once, when he was screening Providence  by Alain Resnais. I definitely thought I was smart. I was always the one with the hand up and good at film analysis. When he asked me a question about the film, I was really arrogant and said something like “the film doesn’t make sense. Is a waste of time.” And he got so angry. I mean not screaming at me, but it was the first time someone really challenged me in that way. He said, “You’re were watching this film like an American. You want this stone to fit a formula because you’ve spent your entire life seeing a certain kind of formula. And this film does not fit that for you and you’re watching through the lens of American eyes. You have to just let go and let the filmmaker tell you what he wants to tell you. Stop trying to make things make sense.” And I remember he then showed us the film again. It was like one of those moments where I suddenly got it. I got the notion that you could go on a journey with a filmmaker. The film didn’t have to make sense for me—just surrender yourself and say, “Hey, just surrender and you don’t have to put things together.”
ES: Godard does that to me.
MTG: So really, that was a moment where I think I understood that film could be something different than either an entertainment or just something to kind of study in a very conventional way. That there’s a whole realm where I could expand my mind and my horizons. Then I spent the first half of my career actually distributing films like that.
MTG and AK: Ok, now that you asked us, what was your moment?
ES: I started in engineering school at Cornell, where my dad received his electrical engineering degree. He never used it professionally, but always tinkered in his basement workshop. Three days into school, I realized I had made a mistake. I started floating over to the Arts and Sciences college, where I took a introduction to film history class, which students affectionally called “Flicks for Kicks, because lots of jocks took it for an easy grade. I didn’t take it to be easy (at least that’s how I remember it). I saw the film Freaks and it changed my life. It was a 1932 horror film from Tod Browning, famous for the 1931 Dracula. I was just blown away. Years later I would remember that I used to watch horror films on Million Dollar Movie on New York City’s Channel 9 station. They showed Frankenstein, Dracula, The Crawling Eye, King Kong. I started researching Freaks, driving up to Rochester’s George Eastman House [a great film archive], where I met George Pratt. He knew more about silent film than anyone I ever knew, and I was fortunate that he became my mentor. While visiting GEH one day, George introduced me to Frances Jones, an editor visiting from Washington on behalf of The American Film Institute Catalog project. With George’s insistence, I worked for the AFI on loan to George during the summer of 1972. I was invited to be a full time AFI worker in DC and moved down here that fall. Been working in film ever since. If I had stayed in the Engineering school, I wouldn’t be here today. I don’t know what I’d be doing today. That’s the moment that I look back on for my catharsis.
ES (back on track): You both met on The 100 Years Show [a lovely 30-minute short about artist Carmen Herrera, available on Netflix], I assume?
MTG and AK: Yes. Yes.
ES: This is another “year-in-the-life” like Never Sorry and The Brink is. What attracts you to the cinema verité style?
AK: To me it’s really the best way to get best access and that access is what I think makes me feel like I’m going to get something that no one else has. It feeds my curiosity in the best way. I’ve also made films that are not like that [2018’s Take Your Pills for Netflix]. I’ve also done branded kind of my shorts. I have more experience doing things with bigger crews, too. [With The Brink, I’m curious and I really love to not be controlling what’s happening as much as possible and to. It’s very meditative for me—experiencing it through my framing. Yes, I’m obviously making a lot of choices, but the fact is I just really want to be there. I think it comes also from studying history like the notion of just being able to be there and see what’s happening. And as much as possible that it’s like that I’m not changing what’s happening because I’m there and I think. I think it produces a great film because of that. It also just is more interesting for me personally, than to come in and set up lights and create the mood.
ES: You end up making multiple choices, even though you are the proverbial fly-on-the wall. And you don’t say anything. Just observe. I remember reading in the production notes that you were clenching your tongue at points in the filming.
AK: Like my eyes going wide just how I feel when I watch the movie. I like watching people and letting them reveal themselves.
ES: You’ve worked with Ilan Isakov [music] and Jen Fineran [editor] on many films. How did you guys meet and how do you work with them on each particular project?
AK: Ilan was one of my closest friends and my high school boyfriend. [Everyone chuckles; Marie didn’t know this piece of trivia.] We have remained really close. I think he’s super talented and sensitive and understands. He was there from my first short film about Ai Weiwei. He works alongside and really tries to be both organic to the subject matter and has no ego. He’s really there to make the music work, and sometimes that means the music is not front and center. He’s just always delivered the right kind of score for the film. So we keep working together. On The Brink and other films he’s lately been collaborating with other musicians, or with other composers. On this film, since everything was such a Herculean effort to finish, our solution was sometimes to double up on the talent, so he worked with another composer, Dan Teicher. I was pleased with the marriage that we made, and might continue to work together with Dan, who was someone I knew from college. And then Jen. Jen ended up being a consultant on this film really as she was busy on another picture. Unavailable from an availability standpoint. I think our writers Brian [Goetz] and Marina [Katz] again doubling up because it was a Herculean task. Yet, we did an amazing job. I met Jen when I came to New York to edit Never Sorry. When I first started filming Never Sorry it didn’t even occur to me that I would need an editor. I’d always edited my own shorts. Just from a resource standpoint. I quickly understood that I needed help. I think it’s really great to have someone outside of you. She experienced the footage in a new way. She also often let me co-edit or be very, very involved, and I think that’s sometimes helpful. With Never Sorry it was also helpful because of the language. I was able to be a really good assistant editor because I. could understand all the Mandarin being spoken. They were slow to put subtitles on everything. I interviewed with tons and tons of editors because I really didn’t know what was doing to be honest. I didn’t know what I was specifically looking for or anything. Jen and I connected. Truly. When I’d watch films, it was hard for me to understand what was the editor’s choice and what was the director’s. It was not always clear to me. With Jen, it was all about the personality connection and the respect she showed me. A lot of condescending people were a little bit like “OK honey, you did a good job so far. You’ve never done this before.” And Jen just didn’t have that air about her, but she was also very confident and I felt like she respected my work. Our collaboration has always been really good and we always we can be totally honest. We don’t walk on eggshells around each other when we talk. So to me it’s like that relationship is really good. She has experience in promos and television. I like people who have all of those tricks, like editing trailers. Editors can do stuff that really truly I cannot do. I think you need that because I like my films to also be entertaining.
ES: At one moment in The Brink, Steve Bannon comments that he believes he was doing the Lord’s work—handling Trump’s White House (claiming there’s “a bad karma to it”). Is Steve Bannon on the right side of history?
One of the things I learned by spending time with him is that this is a whole world view. What he’s part of is not just him and his singular ego trip. There is a whole world view taken by all those people [seen in the film]. They can look at the same events and the same things, and it’s totally informed by one world view. I don’t share that world view. I think it is the wrong side of history and I and I hope that it’s a losing world view. One of the takeaways of the film I hope is that this world view is beatable, but also it’s not a given. You know there’s nothing given in history. He doesn’t think he’s going to lose. He doesn’t think he’s on the wrong side of history. You really have to like not just turn away because of that, right?
ES: Toward the end of the film, you show Democratic women candidates winning their elections against Steve Bannon’s picks. It reminded me of the coda used by Spike Lee at the end of BlacKkKlansman, with current day Charlottesville footage.
AK: The women’s voices are playing Bannon’s line at the end of the midterms evening, where he says that this town’s going to be very different. And we had been using the device throughout the film. We’ve been using the device of layering both news stories and other voices underneath the D.C. kind of footage. These were literal voices that are taking the mantle, at least for the next two years in the House or Representatives. When we first tried to edit this, it had produced for all of us such a visceral reaction, because you suddenly realize I’ve been siloed in this one world view. In Bannon’s world view, he is at the center and ascendant. The edit allowed us a reminder that there is another there is another view out there. And it is not a coincidence probably that a lot of young women’s voices are not those represented in Bannon’s milieu. We purposely chose things where they were talking about specific policies that they want to put forward that, in Bannon’s parlance, are intended to help the little guy. To me it’s also a reminder of what he has offered, except The Wall.
ES (to Marie): In the lead up to the film’s segment on the 2018 mid-term elections, Bannon wonders to the camera how Hitler’s famous Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl would cut a scene. Do you think Triumph of the Will is on Bannon’s top ten list.
MTG: [chuckling] Well, I have a little insight into that. When I was it was at Wellspring [a short-lived art house distributor run by Bannon], working for him and he was making his Reagan documentary [In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004)]. I had to give notes on it. And I actually think I was the first person that talked about Leni Riefenstahl with him. He knew who she was—I mean he’s quite cultured. I had said to him, sort of sarcastically, because his film was so over the top, “Steve, wow, you know you’re really gonna be the American Conservative Leni Riefenstahl.” He’s a provocateur. I think that she has a place in film history. I think that Bannon, as someone who very confidently and proudly views himself as a propaganda filmmaker, Riefenstahl was one of the best. So I think he probably does admire her from her propagandistic artistic standpoint. I don’t want to say he’s a Nazi. I mean I think that’s a complicated question. I will say that he likes tough, strong women. He has a thing for that. So I believed he would I think she was fascinating and cool and everything.
ES: What’s your process for archiving the materials used in your films. Where do your outtakes go? Do you take any measures to insure the project you are working on today will be available 10, 20, or more years from now?
AK: I’m doing that right now. It’s so shameful (or maybe not shameful), but what I’m doing now for my Never Sorry material. I have HDV tapes in a box, double backed up hard drives, but, like you said, it make me feel secure. We’re doing an LTO tape backup of not just the film, but also of the core footage. Seeing it as a historical document, [and hopefully heading to a film archive!]
MTG: One of my last acts at Wellspring before it closed was donating as prints as possible to archives, including the Museum of Modern Art.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).