Saturday, 8 March 2014

Gore Lore: Nicholas D. Wrathall on Gore Vidal - The United States of Amnesia

Combining archive footage and brand new interviews, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia surveys the life and writings of novelist, public intellectual and dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast Gore Vidal. Ahead of the film’s Scottish premiere, director Nicholas D. Wrathall explains the film’s origins and shares his impressions of the man himself.

What initially drew you to Gore Vidal as a documentary subject? 
I am friends with his nephew Burr Steers and so had heard many stories about Gore Vidal over the years. I was always intrigued by the man and hoped to one day meet him. I was living in NY at the time of 9/11 and Gore Vidal was one of the few voices speaking out in the mass media against the Bush Administration's rush into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was at this time that I realized that he was still a very important and outspoken critic and I began to read many of his essays and novels from the past.

A couple of years later I had the chance to meet him with his nephew in Los Angeles and proposed doing some interviews with him which he agreed to. I also filmed him moving out of the Ravello house [the Italian villa where Vidal lived for over 30 years with partner Howard Austen] and coming back to live in Los Angeles. It was at this point that I realized that we had to make a film.

Was the aim always to piece together a comprehensive account of Vidal's full life and career, or did you ever consider focussing in on a single period or aspect? 
I was essentially motivated by Gore's critique of American culture and politics and always saw that as the driving force of the film. Obviously that is also what motivates Gore. His biography is fascinating and so was also a big part of the story but what I was most interested were his ideas and the way he managed to get them across in a changing media landscape. What's amazing about Gore is how relevant his commentary from the past still feels today when you look at the archival interviews that we gathered for the film. He was always ahead of his time and very outspoken. For this reason I think he is as relevant now as he always was.

What were your first impressions of Vidal upon meeting him in person?
His enormous intellect and reputation were overwhelming at first [but] gradually I learnt how to approach him, essentially with caution and respect. One of our first conversations was about Australian politics. He knew [former Australian Prime Minister] Gough Whitlam personally and I like to think we bounded over this conversation.

Were any topics off-limits?
He would rarely answer questions about his personal life or about Howard in any great detail and so this part of his life had to be filled in by other people. He liked to concentrate on ideas, politics and his views on the rise and fall of the American Empire. He was also very preoccupied with the travesties the Bush Administration was inflicting on the populace and so didn't like to do small talk on camera.

You open with Vidal disdainfully dismissing a biographer for misrepresenting him – were you ever on the receiving end of his irascible side?
I did get in trouble when we did the interview with Gorbachev for interrupting him. I shot a question to Gorbachev during the interview not realizing that Gore was wanting to control the conversation. I didn't really hear about this directly but his nephew told me that he never forgave me for that.

How did you go about organising and selecting from the archive materials?
It was really a matter of finding the most dramatic material. I particularly looked for material that illustrated different ideas that felt prescient today and showed his courage and consistency in speaking truth to power. We were also lucky to find material of Gore as a child with his father and speeches from his Senator Grandfather who greatly influenced him as a child. The debates with Buckley were also a highlight of the archival research and it was hard to cut this down to the five minutes we used in the film. There is so much great material in these debates it was a shame not to include more.

What do you think Vidal would have made of the finished film?
He did see many of the interviews we did as rushes but not the finished product. Many people close to him from his family and friends have assured me that he would have approved of the finished cut. I like to believe he would like the film. I do believe it captures his ideas and his spirit.

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