Interview: Avi Belkin on Figuring Out the Right Questions to Ask in “Mike Wallace is Here”

True to its subject, “Mike Wallace is Here” wastes no time getting to the point. Opening with an interview between the legendary “60 Minutes” anchor and Bill O’Reilly in which the latter suggests he’s replaced him as the toughest interlocutor on television, filmmaker Avi Belkin would seem to be asking if Wallace opened Pandora’s Box decades earlier when he reimagined the interview format from the genteel exchanges with celebrities and world leaders that dominated the airwaves during the 1950s to combative Q & As that may have yielded immediate results but coarsened the discourse to the point where future generations saw confrontation as the goal of any conversation to entertain rather than actually getting to a discussion of facts that could inform.

Armed with unprecedented access to the entire CBS News archive of Wallace’s work, Belkin doesn’t only use the raw footage to let audiences see parts of famed interviews with the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini that they haven’t before, but in shrewdly breaking into a split screen format at certain points, actually puts viewers inside the trappings of a Mike Wallace interview, feeling the heat of the lights and the intensity of the questions. However, “Mike Wallace is Here” goes a step further in slipping under Wallace’s thick skin in a way that’s unimaginable to anyone who grew up watching the intrepid reporter, tracing his rise from someone who wanted to break into television any way he could and constantly feeling he had to prove himself when his days as an actor and a cigarette pitchman were at odds with being considered a respected journalist. Belkin, restricting himself to archival footage, builds a profile out of interviews Wallace gave to others while revealing how he’d often use his own interviews to figure out things in his life, from the untimely death of his son Peter to his private battle with depression.

As lively and engaging as any of the interviews Wallace conducted himself, the energetic biography arrives in theaters this week following a celebrated run on the festival circuit that began earlier this year at the Sundance Fi̇lm Festival and during a recent stop in Los Angeles, Belkin spoke about why he came to tell the story of one of America’s Most Trusted Newsmen from growing up in Israel, how he constructed a way for Wallace to essentially interview himself and gaining access to the archives necessary to tell the story.

How’d you get interested in Mike Wallace?

This started roughly four years ago. I was still living in Tel Aviv back then and this was before Trump got elected, but journalism was already very much in a problematic situation, so I just started asking myself, “How did we get here?” I’m always attracted to genesis stories. When I’m working on a film or something, I’m looking for the history of it — I was a history major in school, so [when] I wanted to do a backstory on broadcast journalism, I knew you can’t do it boring, so I was looking for someone I could tell it through, like a Forrest Gump character that was in all the right places. Mike Wallace had this unparalleled career, over 60 years of just doing everything from radio to television to “60 Minutes,” and I had this thought if I’m going to do a portrait of Mike Wallace, through that portrait I could tell the whole story of broadcast journalism, so I bought a plane ticket and here I am.

CBS News had never opened their archives before. What made a project like this even seem doable?

Yeah, it’s undoable [especially when] I’m living in Israel. I don’t know anybody in America and you need CBS to get you all this stuff, so it definitely felt like an undoable project, but it also felt like a very, very good film, so when I came here, I started knocking on doors and trying to get meetings. I got a meeting with Rafi Marmor at Delirio Films, which is the production company, and he really loved the idea and he approached the family. He approached Chris Wallace first and they approved and then they approached CBS and CBS opened up their vaults for the first time. I think they did it because they liked the approach I had for the story, [which] was right from the beginning, I wanted to do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace. Obviously, Mike was dead, so I wanted to do it through the archives and they just went along with it. It felt very timely right now and here we are.

What was it like to structure the film? I understand there was a massive script that was built like a Q & A from all the footage you watched before you could even start piecing the footage together.

It was a fuckin’ tough situation. [laughs] There was over 1400 hours of archive – we counted it – it’s insane. Like I said, this is going to be a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace, based on his technique and his mentality, so that was half of the film, taking all the interviews he gave as an interviewee and building a script and an interview that I’m doing from the archives of him and then the second part was identifying where he’s interviewing other people, but it’s really themes that are personal to him. Once I had those two storylines aligned, you watch the materials through those lenses and just pull stuff, playing with them and a year after, you have a film.

That last part makes it sound easy now.

It was not easy. [laughs]

It was striking when you see that interview with Rod Serling, for instance, talking about the long hours on the job that you can see his preoccupations and anxieties emerge. What was it like to realize those things after you had the context?

When you start doing a documentary, you start researching the subject, and when I researched Mike, I read a story in Vanity Fair where Mike says that he knows his weaknesses very well and when he goes into an interview, all he has to do is frame those weaknesses in questions to others. So in that case, I thought all those interviews are very revealing because you can see a lot of his personal themes in those questions. Rod Serling is a perfect example because you see [Wallace] basically attacking Rod Serling for having only time for work, sacrificing his family life for that, and that is exactly the story of Mike Wallace. He was married four times and an absentee father by his admission, so very much the lines correlated beautifully. I understood if I put the right questions he would ask people, it’s basically questions to himself.

It also seems like the interview Morley Safer conducts with him became a real backbone for the film. How did that come into the mix?

Mike retired in 2006, and they did four interviews with him for his retirement that were with all his colleagues – Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft, Ed Bradley and Morley Safer. Every one of them interviewed him for an hour and the [eventual “60 Minutes”] show had like three minutes of interview, but I got the raw footage, so I got the entire hour. And very early on when I saw the Morley Safer interview, it became very clear that Morley knows Mike better than Mike knows himself in a way. When they were talking, it seemed like Morley has the inside scoop on everything that Mike ever did, so I felt that would be a very good thing to build on. Plus, those two worked together for 40 years, they had such an amazing relationship and I just felt like it was very interesting to see those two journalist icons really talking, like personal conversations.

How did the split screen idea come about?

That’s a happy accident. Every interview back then was shot with two cameras. You have Camera A for the interviewee and Camera B for the interviewer, so they can cut between it in editing, and every time you get raw footage from archive, you get it in two cameras. The assistant editor just put it together in split-screen so I could watch it more quickly and the first time I came into the edit bay, I was like, “That’s it. That’s the language that I wanted to use” because it felt like a duel. You had these two closeups against each other and Mike always talked about how when he goes into an interview, he sees it as a ring [where] these two heavyweight champs go at it. Obviously, it’s a battle of the mind, not a physical battle, but I just saw that imagery of two people looking in close-up in the same screen and I [thought], “This is the language.”

Is there a piece of footage that you come across that changes your ideas about what this could be?

All the time. For example, the opening scene of the film is Bill O’Reilly. I didn’t get that material until about midway through the production, so at the beginning, I had a different opening for the film completely and then you have this interview that finally came and I was like wow, this feels like a changing of the guard. These two people from different generations, two different schools, are going at it and it informed the whole energy of the film. It’s the same with the Arthur Miller ending scene. When I saw it, I thought this is clearly going to be the end scene, so you shape the film as you go along in documentary, especially when it’s all archive film. It’s like a puzzle. You have all the pieces, but you need to figure out how to put them in the right kind of form to create something, so it was just a lot of trial and error until you get to that working movie.

One piece of footage that’s truly remarkable in the film is Mike attending the funeral of his son Peter, who died climbing mountains in Greece in 1962. It doesn’t seem like something that would be in a news archive, so where did you get that footage from?

That’s like the biggest mystery of this film right now is where is this footage from? Nobody knows. I’ve tried in every way to find out. Chris Wallace, his son doesn’t know, he was there. It’s just like a mystery. Either it’s a local cinematographer or some news channel in Greece. Maybe Mike ordered them, but I don’t know if it makes sense for Mike to invite a crew to shoot his son’s funeral. But you have three minutes of film footage of 1962 of Peter’s funeral in Greece, which is amazing and it really sets the tone emotionally for that moment, which is the most devastating moment you can think about. I mean, Mike found his dead son’s body in Greece after he went to search for him after he disappeared, so to have that footage again is just unbelievable luck. What we got was an excerpt from a movie that A & E did about Mike called “The Grand Inquisitor” that was a very old biography doc they did on him and in it, there was 52 seconds of this footage spliced, and the holy grail was to find the original film reel that supposedly had minutes of that event and who knows what else? But we never found it. So we found the 52 seconds that was aired.

What was it like to show the family the film?

We premiered at Sundance and we only finished the movie five days before — people don’t know it, but movies get done like a minute before the first screening, like you rush into the theater with a copy in your hand — so Chris [Wallace] came from Washington to see it, and I was obviously a nervous wreck before that, but Chris loved it. He came to Sundance with us to support the film and he thought Mike would’ve loved it as well.

Was documentary always something you were interested in? Your early shorts were narratives.

I started film school much more oriented with the scripted world, and then three years into film school, I started doing a documentary about an old janitor who lived under the ground in this passage in Tel Aviv, and I felt documentaries are like the Wild West. There’s no laws. You can do a film in any language you want. You don’t have to have a very tight script. You don’t have to have actors and shooting days, so I thought it was a very interesting medium for me to explore, and I got sucked into it. Now I’m doing mainly documentaries, but I’m going to be back in narrative some day. I have a six-part doc series [“No One Saw a Thing”] coming out now, August 1, with AMC, and we did a lot of recreations, so it was a little bit of a return to a narrative world. But people ask me what’s an Israeli doing in America telling a story about Mike Wallace? And it’s like, “It’s a story.” At the end of the day, it’s storytelling and stories are all the same. They’re universal. And this is what we do. I’m telling stories. It doesn’t really matter the topic or the subject as long as I’m obviously finding it compelling enough to tell.

“Mike Wallace is Here” opens on July 26th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark at 57 West. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.