THE POPCORN REEL POLITICAL FILMS IN OCTOBER FOCUS                                    

The seasoned documentary filmmakers on their latest venture, "al franken: god spoke"

                         Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus at the 49th San Francisco Film Festival during a Q&A in April 2006.  (Photo: San Francisco Film Festival)

October 2006
by Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel


They've sat for many, many interviews.  Lately, documentary filmmakers Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus have criss-crossed the country to promote their latest documentary.  They squeezed in some valuable time to sit down with Omar P.L. Moore of The Popcorn Reel to discuss "Al Franken: God Spoke", a documentary that has had U.S. audiences laughing uproariously.  The film follows the comedian-turned-political satirist-turned possible candidate for U.S. senate in Minnesota around for a year and a half, as Franken does a nationwide book tour for his highly successful 2003 book "Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them."  Currently making its way around the United States, "God Spoke" is a film that will make you think, reflect and laugh.

Nick Doob has been making films for three decades and he has shot such films as "Elaine Stritch: At Libery" and "The War Room", which Chris Hegedus directed with her filmmaker husband D.A. Pennebaker.  Hegedus also directed "" (with Jehane Noujaim), and "Elaine Stritch".  The road to chronicling Al Franken took a diversion.  Originally, Doob and Hegedus had been training their cameras on the Reverend Al Sharpton during his run for U.S. president in 2004.  "Somebody else within his campaign wanted to do the same film, and it had been somebody who had been documenting a lot of the stuff that the National Action Network [Sharpton's organization] was doing . . . he just felt that he should be doing it," Hegedus said.  Companies like United Artists had great interest in Sharpton's story.  "In the end we thought it was better [that Sharpton's friend did the film]", although Hegedus admitted that "we were very disappointed.  Reverend Sharpton was a very interesting person to follow around and hang out with, incredibly intelligent, very witty." 

"Al Franken: God Spoke" began filming in October 2003, and at that time existed a strong feeling about Senator John Kerry winning the 2004 U.S. presidential election.  Similarly, Doob sensed something about the rapidly-moving and energetic subject of his documentary: "It was clear that Al was in the middle of Democratic politics and all the candidates who were running at that time for the democratic nomination knew him well and called on him for help.  He seemed to be kind of the court jester of the Democratic party, a wise one at that."  To the degree that challenges presented themselves to Doob and Hegedus in making "Al Franken: God Spoke", any challenge that existed was born out of maintaining a flow of energy.  The "challenge really was to keep up with Al, because Al didn't help us make this film in any way-- and I don't mean that he was antagonistic to it -- he was quite the opposite.  He trusted us."  The filmmakers were also weary of making the documentary a political cheerleading campaign commercial for Democratic politicians, and understood that Franken was in search of something to shake the gravitas of a politically polarized but increasingly frustrated American public.  "He let us free.  He didn't get involved in the editing [which took five months] . . . but that also meant that he wouldn't tell us things that were coming up the next day . . . so we always had to keep on our toes and keep our ears open," Doob said.  Despite the spontaneity and improvisation needed to keep the film moving as its subject did, Doob seems to concede that it was a bit of a mixed blessing:  "That [technique] was good for the film in the end, but it sort of meant extra work for us."

 Premiere: Rev. Al Sharpton and Al Franken at the New York screening of Lions Gate Films' Fahrenheit 9/11
The two Als: Sharpton and Franken at "Fahrenheit 9/11"'s New York premiere in 2004; in "Al Franken: God Spoke"; in a shot for Air America Radio.  (Photos: Wire Image; Balcony Releasing)

There were other challenges, such as the debate that featured Ann Coulter, the conservative personality who draws the ire of many in the liberal camp of American politics for her incendiary and many say insensitive and callous reactionary rhetoric.  Coulter and Franken debated each other  in Connecticut and the filmmakers Doob and Hegedus had cameras in place to capture the event.  The holders of the debate said that any video of the debate could be shown only if both participants granted permission.  "Ann said no," Hegedus said.  Even so, Coulter's declining of assent only made the filmmakers' push for a good filmmaking effort stronger.  "In the end we found other material that we probably wouldn't have even thought of."  In line with that, Hegedus observes: "you have to be adaptable I think, if you're filmmakers.  There's always something that happens and I think that every film I've done in the past six years, I've had to take out music or something like that . . . because it's a very litigious world right now.  You just have to be careful."  To illustrate just how adaptable Doob and Hegedus had to be for "Al Franken: God Spoke", Doob explained that they were literally "gathering stuff until about a month ago" because of the Coulter sequence adjustment.

For this project just like in numerous others when people make films, stood one or two key foot soldiers who did some of the things that help make a documentary a key success.  For instance, Doob gave praise to the film's associate producer Walker Lamond, saying he was "fantastic" at gathering the endless hours of archival footage from places like C-SPAN and the Fox News Channel.

The title "God Spoke" seems like a satirical take on Pat Robertson's statement a couple of years ago that God told him that George W. Bush was going to be president.  In addition, a few years ago the president himself was asked in an interview whether he consults his father, who was U.S. president from 1989-1992, in times of crisis.  He revealed that he instead consulted a "higher power".  Hegedus intimated that some people in places like New York City, a place not known for a work-week  drive-time culture, weren't necessarily aware of the proliferation of conservative voices on talk radio (such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly) who say things that aren't shall we say, accurate.  Some people don't know "how much they just distort the truth constantly and how they pretend they're news people, and they're not.  I think that's an eye opener to a lot of people, so we felt it was important to put [the episodes of right-wing talk radio hosts] in the film."  The opportunity to include O'Reilly's verbal feud with Franken at the Book Expo in Los Angeles in early 2003, was too good to pass up.  Fox News had sued Franken for using "fair and balanced" in his "Lies and the Lying Liars" book's subtitle: "a Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."  The suit, recalled in a recent Popcorn Reel interview with Al Franken, was literally laughed out of a New York court.

Documentary filmmaking is, Doob reveals "always a process of exploration and discovery"and posited that what he and Hegedus do is "try to find meaning in day-to-day events."  Doob describes Al Franken as a "fantastic character to follow" as he soldiers his way around different political circles seamlessly and effortlessly, with a wit and charm that some in the Republican/conservative camp warm to, and find disarming.  "We are doing a cross between observation and detective work where we kind of follow a story around and try to figure out where it's going and where its character is leading," Hegedus said.  She added they do the same thing in the editing room.  "We show the film to our subjects as we always do, not to edit the film, but just to make sure that it's accurate," Hegedus said.  "It's their film too."  Hegedus always makes a point she says, of filming people who are trying to do some good and "then show that to the world."    "I think that's what Al's trying to do, he's trying to get out the truth."  Hegedus could just as well have been talking not about Franken, but about a third Al -- former  vice-president Al Gore -- who is also featured in "God Spoke" in an amusing segment with Franken's Saturday Night Live sketch character Stuart Smalley.  Gore was a foot soldier of sorts on the big screen in North America this past summer in the hit film "An Inconvenient Truth", in which we traveled the world to implore and inform people about the need to heed the dangers of global climate change by changing their ways and resisting fuel consumption.

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"We shot something like 500 tapes" of digital video footage, which amounted to over 20,000 hours of taped footage, Doob said.  "When you're doing this type of editing, you're kind of trying to smell out a film as you go along."  Doob and Hegedus were also raising money to make the documentary film as they went along.  "We would make a trailer, which kind of informed us of what we had and where the direction the film was going," Doob continued.  "In some ways editing is shaping a story and in other ways it's like sort of weeding a garden."  The things that remain from the editing process suddenly become more important and have a shine to them, Doob reflected.  To that extent, Hegedus added, what "really emerged in this film was watching Al kind of turn corners in his life . . . from starting in comedy, and writing books that are starting to really affect people, and then going on to Air America and then trying to make a really big jump in his life into politics."

One scene that stands out to Nick Doob as he is asked about the film is when Franken's confidence in a Kerry victory is at an exuberant state.  "There's a scene where he starts gloating before the end of the [2004 U.S. presidential] election, and you feel for him, you want to say to him, 'Al, stop it.'  And then the karma police sort of get him.  He gets his knapsack trapped in a chair . . . it's one of the funniest scenes in the movie."  Hegedus, when asked about what Al Franken himself thinks of "Al Franken: God Spoke", said: "I think he really likes the film a lot, and I think there are certain parts that are very moving to him.  I know he always gets very moved by the one scene where he goes to a high school in Boston, and explains using math on the board to them the distortion that Brit Hume [of Fox News] did" in reference to how many U.S. troops were dying in Iraq and how many were being murdered in California.  "He makes it seem like the Iraq war is nothing and his math is totally off, and it's a big lie, and he proves it to the students."  Even so, Hegedus points to the much more compelling side that comes out of the funny and ridiculous parts of the comparison of a nation and a large populous American state.  "It's a very serious moment because of the kids dying in Iraq . . . and you see these faces of these kids [in the Boston high school] . . . and I know that moves him each time he sees that scene."

Whether you like him or not, "he's really a fun person to be with," Chris Hegedus says of Franken.  She has spent time with other highly entertaining and fun people she says, such as James Carville (the Democratic political strategist and campaign manager for former president Bill Clinton), whom Hegedus chronicled in her 1993 film "The War Room", and Elaine Stritch, the Tony-winning entertainer Hegedus documented in "Elaine Stritch At Liberty".  "Al's commitment is something I'll always take with me," she says as she speaks of his boundless energy he displays as he works hard at what he believes in. 


"Al Franken: God Spoke" is making its way around North America in selected cities right now.  Enormous thanks to Karen Larsen of Larsen Associates for her tireless efforts in making this interview possible.



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