'Page One' exclusive: Andrew Rossi helms inside look at 'The New York Times'
Magnolia Pictures’ documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, which premieres June 17 in New York, was one of the big hits at the recent Sundance Film Festival. And no wonder. Forget that it’s the first time that this legendary newspaper has so generously opened a window to the world on its inner workings. Just consider the timeliness of the question it confronts: Can traditional/legacy media survive the wildly transformative digital revolution? Can The New York Times?
Let’s not forget the element of entertainment. Filmmaker Andrew Rossi, who was given a year to comb the corridors of the Times, notches up the drama, getting close access to its colorful and/or intensely driven reporters: David Carr and Brian Stelter on media; Richard Pérez-Peña on the newspaper beat; Tim Arango, who voluntarily moved from breaking stories on the corporate media beat to the thick of Baghdad action; and star financial reporter and columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin. Even Times executive editor Bill Keller agreed to on-camera coverage.
Additionally, Rossi provides insider footage of Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. and insightful and proprietary input from many well-known journalists, media observers and digital-media celebrities. To name but a few: New Yorker editor David Remnick, Gawker founder/owner Nick Denton, Atlantic contributing editor Michael Hirschorn (who wrote a controversial “obit” predicting the Times’ demise), reporter/author Alex Jones and Watergate gatecrasher Carl Bernstein, among many others.
So who’s Andrew Rossi and how did he get such access? And how can one head, however adept (he started out as a lawyer at powerhouse firm Skadden Arps), hold so many hats? He directed, produced and shot the film and co-wrote it with his writer/producer wife Kate Novack, a Columbia University journalism grad. He also did his own sound when circumstances didn’t require miking highlighted subjects.
Rossi and Novack similarly collaborated on HBO’s Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, which Rossi directed, and he’s acknowledged in Sally Rowe’s food-themed doc A Matter of Taste, a yummy Tribeca entry also for HBO.
Rossi also worked on such docs as Control Room, about Arab media outlet Al Jazeera during the start of the Iraq War, and earlier as a consulting attorney while still at Skadden on Startup.com, about a start-up that didn’t because of the 1999 dotcom crash.
Even during his days as a lawyer, journalism and filmmaking were always in Rossi’s sights. After Skadden, he spent a few months at local cable news channel NY1 where, learning on the job, he wielded equipment to capture street news and interviews.
Making his own documentaries was the next step, and technology stepped in to ease that transition. Rossi explains, “I always knew I wanted to be in film and the big realization that it was possible for me was learning that I could actually purchase and own a Canon prosumer camera. It’s what I like to call ‘a tool of the insurgency’ that made filmmaking accessible to everyone. For just $3,000, you can make a movie.”
For Page One, Rossi used a Sony high-def camera (Xdcam EX-1) because audio capability is built in. “For many scenes, it was just me with a shotgun mic attached to my camera. I was a one-man band.”
Rossi says the idea for the film stemmed from an interview he did with Times media reporter David Carr. “In the process, we began talking about the future of print media. It was at this time [spring 2009] that people began speculating that The New York Times would go out of business. Suddenly the stakes for him were extraordinary, as he was covering a transition that put his own home in a vulnerable place.”
So how did Rossi get the Gray Lady to flash her bloomers? Was the Times’ cooperation some kind of move of desperation? “Not at all,” he responds. “I went through six months of meetings and conversations about this film I wanted to do. [The Times] was even predisposed to say ‘No’ because a segment on ‘The Daily Show’ hadn’t gone well as it made fun [of the paper]. But I pitched it as an observational doc and was able to communicate that I had no agenda, so they felt the cards weren’t stacked negatively against them. The turning point was Bill Keller, who told me, ‘I’m proud of what my journalists do and I want the world to see this.'"
As Page One makes clear, there were plenty of negative sentiments and doomsday notions about where the paper might be headed. Rossi’s film covers Hirschorn’s Atlantic article discussing the hypothetical death of the New York institution, NYU professor Clay Shirky’s observation of a revolution afoot in media, and Arianna Huffington’s testimony at a Congressional hearing where, criticizing those who lament the possible death of print, she makes the point that every so often there are great generational shifts in news that make it foolish to defend the “dinosaurs.” Take that, New York Times!
Getting The Times to accede to this unprecedented exposure was a real coup, but attracting powerful social action group Participant Media to the project wasn’t automatic either. “Participant Media stepped in late, as we first had to rush to get the film done for Sundance. We had begun shooting in November 2009 and by November 2010 were accepted [into the festival]. That whole year we were shooting and editing simultaneously.”
An important member of Rossi’s team was sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine, who also served as the film’s producer. His title, assures Rossi, isn’t just nominal: “Josh was often in the editing room providing input.” Also important was the fact that Braun connected with Participant, which took notice of Page One at Sundance. Notes Rossi, “The reception at Sundance was great, but there was still room to refine, add material and sharpen our focus. This is when Participant officially came on board and funded this process. They are also funding the social-action campaign for the film and came up with the tagline to ‘consider the source.’”
This message, articulated in the tagline but subtle in the film, is, of course, a plea to cherish the intelligence, drive, hard work, experience and on-site reporting of a long-respected newspaper in the new frenzied, free-for-all media environment where anyone can be a reporter and anything can be reported.
The documentary would go through “many different iterations,” reports Rossi. “Our original intention was to attack the vast subject of this paper with a focus on the media beat, but the film also focuses on this great revolution [in media]. Most crucial was to be able to show the journalists at work.”
Inside the paper’s hallowed headquarters, Rossi films not only the likes of Times-men Carr, Stelter, Sorkin and Arango chasing stories, but also—in perhaps his most impressive access coup—captures some of the paper’s twice-daily “Page One” conference-room meetings where reporters compete and pitch editors on the stories to run the next day. Says Rossi, “I’d clear this with Bill [Keller] and he’d say ‘Yes’ if there were a big story in the works.” Recalling those meetings, he observes, “The intensity in that room you can cut with a knife.”
Could these journalists really be comfortable with Rossi and his gear hovering over them for almost a year? Answers Rossi, “One of the most important things I do is establish relationships of trust. I had no publicist from The Times walking around with me. I’d just arrive daily, go up to the third floor and ask what they’re working on today and can I follow you. At first many were shy, but over time I remained patient and waited for things to happen. I’m like a reporter as I try to collect information and make a story.”
And Rossi gets many key moments, including Carr, Stelter, Arango and Sorkin honing in on leads or breaking news. But there was also the big story about The Times itself, the paper’s dire need to downsize by offering many staffers buyout deals. Rossi actually got a number of the downsized vets to participate as talking heads. The interviews provide this otherwise energized, upbeat doc with emotionally wrenching moments.
The Times, says Rossi, had no control over him or veto power, but “during the actual firings [of those who refused the buyouts and needed to be eliminated because of the quota to be met], they asked me to leave.”
Besides the punishing layoffs, Rossi touches upon other Times’ blemishes like the downfall of Judith Miller, who famously and erroneously reported Iraq’s so-called “weapons of mass destruction,” reportage that helped drive the U.S. into a much-maligned war. Every bit as sensational was reporter Jayson Blair, who wrote many phony stories under mentor and then executive editor Howell Raines, who was subsequently fired and replaced by Keller. Miller and Blair both make appearances via archival footage.
Have Times staffers seen Page One? Answers Rossi, “Carr really likes the film and is very supportive. And those on the media desk were very impressed with it as a story. Keller thought it was a little long, but he hasn’t seen the latest cut.”
The paper’s star media columnist, the colorful, energized, motor-mouth Carr almost steals the show as the doc’s shiny, sinewy character thread and BCF (best camera friend). Page One makes no secret of Carr’s past troubles and Carr himself shares generously: He’s recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction, has been arrested and was on welfare as a single father of two. Might Carr be a movie unto himself? Comments Rossi, “He has the cinematic breadth of a true star and initially I was going to focus mainly on him, but he didn’t want this. He just didn’t like the sun shining too hard on him.”
Still, Rossi captures much of Carr as he cajoles or drills for a story or vehemently defends The Times on a panel determined to skewer the paper. He lands one zinger at Michael Wolff that leaves the media entrepreneur and Newser founder speechless.
But Carr, surfacing throughout, is only a fraction of the material, as Rossi wrangles a host of famous media people to weigh in (mostly favorably) on the status of the paper and the environment it struggles in. Bête noire media competitors and controversial collaborators like Gawker founder Nick Denton or WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who leaked so much secret government material to the paper (in addition to The Guardian and Der Spiegel), also get screen time. Does Rossi think that Assange is hero or a villain? He mulls the question and offers, “For me, I believe the jury is still out on him personally. But I think the WikiLeaks information made a significant contribution to society’s understanding of how government operates.”
Asked if he believes The Times’ new pay model will work, Rossi replies, “The debate is still out. Maybe 100,000 [subs] have signed up so far. Times Select was their previous experiment and that failed with 130,000. But we are in a rich environment for breaking news and the iPad might have a positive impact on their bottom line. On the other hand, there is this proliferation of platforms that deliver more and more news, but this provides a good opportunity to think about how to make an even better product. An example might be a format delivering news not retrieved by a click but sliding across so it can embed advertising whose ads will know about you. And that allows a content provider to more profitably charge an advertiser.”
But there are other ways to monetize content, and The Times is trying just that per its recently announced agreement with Emerging Pictures for pre-show vignettes in cinemas. Rossi calls the move “great” because “the future of The Times will continue as a multi-media content provider able to find new ways to get value from its content.”
Page One and its year in the making suggest that Rossi has some great material left over for the eventual DVD extras. Says Rossi, “There’s a ton of stuff such as more of Bill Keller, when, for instance, he’s in a car on the way to a Columbia University panel. He’s meditative and talks about the burdens of putting out a daily newspaper. And people like [media maven] Ken Auletta, who was in an earlier cut… Ken had some pithy things to say about whether newspapers should get out of the ‘dead tree business.’”
As things happen so blazingly fast in media and it looks like The Times’ new pay-wall may prove to be a working model, one can imagine a Page One sequel. But Rossi says he has other ideas for projects. “I’m attracted to stories in which I can give audiences access to a world that is not frequently seen and via a set of characters who can humanize this world. I’m thinking now about the education space or intelligence space, whether it’s the government or private security.”
But, if buzz is to be believed, maybe Hollywood will offer an alternative for those who crave more of the Times story. Reports have surfaced of studio interest in a star-studded adaptation of the doc and names like Jeff Bridges as Bill Keller, Susan Sarandon as Maureen Dowd and Robert Downey, Jr. as David Carr have been floated.
But what are Rossi’s ideas? "Playing it straight, I would suggest Jim Carrey for David Carr and Jesse Eisenberg as Brian Stelter.”
Correction: A comment mistakenly attributed to Times editor Bill Keller (regarding his decision to provide access to the filmmakers) was removed on May 24.