When Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville first started work on “Best of Enemies,” a film about the fierce debates between conservative pundit William F. Buckley and the liberal author Gore Vidal intended to goose the ratings of a down-on-its-luck ABC during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, they were dead set on bringing it out during the election cycle. They just didn’t know which one it would be.
“We thought this was going to be the perfect film for the 2012 election, so we were only off by three years,” laughs Neville, who won an Oscar for another film (“20 Feet From Stardom”) before he and Gordon were able to finish their latest after starting in 2010. “But it’s one thing to believe you have a film, and another to convince the rest of the world of that. That was the other Herculean journey of this film – to convince people that making a film about two old, rich, white guys sitting in a room talking 50 years ago was going to be interesting.”
For better or worse, the subject seems more timely than ever, even without another presidential election on the horizon. Operating from the thesis that Buckley and Vidal’s sparring set the stage for the relentless and often personal attacks that now pass for political discourse on 24-hour news networks, “Best of Enemies” looks back at the series of 10 debates that while never entirely civil, began as a battle of wits between two larger-than-life public intellectuals that devolved into something resembling a slap fight between children on the playground.
With time, Neville and Gordon were able to dig deep into ABC News’ archives as well as speak to a host of sharp cultural commentators ranging from New York Magazine’s Frank Rich and NPR’s Brooke Gladstone to the late Christopher Hitchens — even Vidal gave one of his final interviews to the filmmakers, though ultimately it wasn’t used in the film. The result is riveting and shortly before the film hits theaters, Gordon and Neville spoke about how they became interested in the debates, how they got their hands on footage Buckley thought was destroyed and some of Vidal’s best unused insults.
Let’s start at the end – the final debate is obviously of a lesser quality than the other footage of the debates, and Buckley makes clear later than he thought he ensured it was no longer available, so how did you get your hands on it?
Morgan Neville: It’s a bit of a conspiracy theory on our part.
Robert Gordon: What we think happened based on the [Buckley biographer] Sam Tanenhaus comment in the movie, when Buckley sees it on “Nightline,” [in the] first moment available to him during the commercial break, he goes to find Sam in the audience and says, “I thought that tape had been destroyed.” The reason it’s in black and white is because ABC keeps masters of everything they broadcast, and they have airchecks – a backup copy that’s of what went on that includes the in-studio action and stuff during the commercial breaks – [but in this case] both of those copies were gone. ABC had no copy.
Morgan Neville: They had everything else except that half hour.
Robert Gordon: But there’s a news service in Nashville that records all news all the time as far back as ’68. During that period, they were still recording in black-and-white and this was the first year, I think, that ABC broadcast in color from the convention, so Nashville still had this black and white copy. Buckley didn’t know that this Nashville [copy of the debate] existed, and based on the Tanenhaus comment, we think he had someone go into the ABC archives and destroy the tapes because it captured the moment that he was most ashamed of.
Is it true this whole film was inspired by a bootleg copy to begin with?
Robert Gordon: A friend of mine had a bootleg, the same one that Gore would show in Ravello [where he had a villa]. His cousin had acquired it from ABC and somehow, very slowly like 15 years later, because Gore must have had it in the ’90s, I’m seeing a DVD copy and was immediately struck with how powerful, how fun and how contemporary [these debates were]. I sent a copy to [Morgan] and he had the same reaction.
Did you both think it should be a movie when you saw it?
Morgan Neville: Yeah, because nobody had ever written a book about this, or really talked about it, there was no secondary source material, so we could only go to the people and talk to them, and go back to period press.
Robert Gordon: No one had defined a path, but within seconds really of getting into it, yeah. I think for both of us the affirmation came when we sent out interview queries and Christopher Hitchens says yes, Frank Rich says yes, you’re like, “There must be something here.”
Morgan Neville: What the story was, we kind of made from whole cloth, which was exciting, because sometimes when you do that on a film, you reach dead ends. This was the opposite. Everywhere we got to there was a fork in the road and there were two paths to go down, it just kept multiplying in terms of the material and how rich it was, it was amazing.
Was it easy to keep a distance politically to tell this story? It plays out like a game of chess onscreen, but it seems like it might’ve taken work to be evenhanded.
Morgan Neville: We knew in the beginning we didn’t want to make a film with our arguments. We wanted to make a film about how we argue, and in the same way when you’re writing a story or an actor playing a role, you should never think of your characters as heroes or villains. You have to think of them as people first. That was something we kept reminding ourselves about. At one point, I remember us thinking there’s an intellectual story here, but what’s the emotional story here? Who are these guys, and what defines them and what drives them? That was really informative.
Robert Gordon: That’s where also the distance of time helped because we knew that a significant portion of the audience would not be familiar with these two guys, so we were going to have to put in biographical elements, which allowed us to develop the emotional elements.
This must’ve taken a significant amount of research, but when you base it around interviews and clips as you do here, how does all the groundwork you do become a part of the fabric of the film?
Morgan Neville: It is a tip of the iceberg kind of a thing – that you have to have a wealth of context and information to be able to pick that one thing that actually is going to make it in the film, but that’s true for almost any documentary.
Robert Gordon: What may be exceptional here is the wealth of what’s on the cutting room floor. We could make another film without repeating anything, that would be almost as compelling, almost as powerful, in the interviews, in the archival footage. Everything was super rich.
I know Morgan has said he found a great list of insults in Gore Vidal’s archives that were never used, either by him in the debate or by you in the film since it would’ve taken so long…
Morgan Neville: Actually, I was just looking up some of that list the other day – I think I even have some of the insults that didn’t make it, or the ones we’ve forgotten about on my phone…
Robert Gordon: “If Bette Davis went to Yale, she would be you,” or something like that, that’s the one you see on the screen in ghost lettering.
Morgan Neville: Yeah. [checking his phone] “If Thelma Todd had had a sex change operation, she would have been William Buckley,” That was another one that’s not there. Gore’s references were so interesting – he had this other one that was so crazy, it was like, “As a Catholic, Bill, do you believe in contraception? I see that you have one child, so I suppose you abstain the rest of the time.”
Robert Gordon: That’s Gore going right for it.
Morgan Neville: Then his last line that was, “I assume that one child is your door prize.”
Robert Gordon: Wow.
Morgan Neville: I know.
One thing may not have to do with another, but there is a musicality to these two guys trading barbs as well as the pundits weighing in, and your backgrounds are in music docs. Did you find that helped with the rhythm of how this plays out?
Morgan Neville: The music was hugely important to the film in establishing a level of drama. We say it’s like an opera — these two guys — and we wanted the film to be operatic in that way. The music defined it, but we also thought of it as a sports film. It’s about a heavyweight fight, and there was a rhythm of rounds, starting and stopping that we came to right at the very beginning that really informed the kind of the pace of it.
Robert Gordon: Yeah, that rhythmic sense was there from the earliest drafts. Again, it was so rich, even as we would cut away whole scenes, the movement stayed and over the four years of pre-production, listening for material that might work, I realized all the things I’m attracted to are dance pieces, waltzes and ballet score. I realized it’s because it’s like these guys are in a ring and it’s like how Tchaikovsky would score a Muhammad Ali fight.
There’s a frustration with contemporary political discourse that comes out of the film. Are you encouraged by the kinds of conversations that you’re hearing or taking part in after screenings?
Morgan Neville: It’s totally exceeded our expectation because this was a passion project that took us a long time to get done, but everything we felt was there and was rich to talk about, people are seeing that and then taking it further. That’s what you really hope for in a film – to open up the bigger conversation. And it’s been different types of audiences. Last night, we’re at Outfest, it was a gay audience, and we did [a screening recently] at BAMCinemafest two weeks ago [where] it was a young hipster Brooklyn audience.
Robert Gordon: It’s especially rewarding, teams have come up to us and said, “Wow, we never heard of these guys, didn’t know anything about this history, totally captivating, we want to know more,” asking us for sources and resources, I think that’s great, that people completely unfamiliar with the men are taken by it.
“Best of Enemies” opens on July 31st at the Landmark in Los Angeles and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York before expanding into limited release. A full list of theaters and dates is here.