Avi Belkin discusses the making of ‘Mike Wallace is Here’
By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
For almost 40 years, if the words ”Mike Wallace is here,” were uttered in your office, it was time to start shredding paper. It probably meant that the legendary “60 Minutes“ journalist was on your doorstep and about to descend upon you with a microphone and TV camera.
Premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, “Mike Wallace Is Here” is Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin’s outstanding documentary spanning the career of investigative reporter Mike Wallace. Using only archival footage, Belkin deftly weaves a story of a man who was not afraid to ask difficult questions, while chasing his own demons.
Often using a split screen to demonstrate the counterpoint of an interview, Belkin tells the professional side of the story about the man, sometimes using Wallace’s own interview techniques. But, Belkin is not content to reveal just the man we knew from “60 Minutes.” He travels back to the beginning of his career, where we witness Wallace, not so much as a newsman, but as a game show host and cigarette pitchman. It wasn’t until after the death of his son, Peter, that Wallace decided to devote himself to more serious pursuits.
One of the highlights of the film is segments of interviews you didn’t see when the originals aired. Skillfully, Barbra Streisand verbally spars with Wallace and perhaps bests him. Even watching him hawk Fluffo shortening was compelling!
I spoke with the filmmaker, Avi Belkin, who provided insight into the making of the film, and how he conceived of the title. And, I tried my best not to go Mike Wallace on him.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky: Ma nishma, Avi?
Avi Belkin: (a little laugh) Nice. You pronounced that very nicely.
SKW: Oh thank you. I’ve been practicing. My granddaughters speak Hebrew, but I’m afraid that’s probably all I will say in Hebrew today. So let’s get right into this. The film was riveting, engrossing, captivating and I could go on and on and on with other superlatives. And I promise, as an interviewer, I’m not at all like Mike Wallace. There will be no hard-hitting questions today.
AB: You can try!
SKW: This is a very timely story, so let’s start at the beginning. Why this story? What piqued your interest?
AB: So, you’re saying timely; when I started working on this film, it was roughly three years ago. So, this was before Trump got elected. The truth is that journalism was in a lot of trouble before Trump’s presidency. And that’s why I wanted to do a film about it. I was looking for a story. I always look for a microcosm in a story that can tell a bigger story. And I was looking for an event or a person that I can tell the bigger story of journalism through. And Mike had this unparalleled career of over 60 years in journalism. So, I had this idea of doing a portrait of Mike Wallace, and through that, tell the genesis of journalism.
SKW: So that’s how a nice Jewish boy from Tel Aviv ended up writing about an American journalist. How about the title? Did you ever consider anything else, like “Gotcha?”
AB: Excellent. So, when I started making the film, I heard a story about Mike from the ‘70s. He said basically when you’re going into your office on a Monday and your secretary tells you that Mike Wallace is here to see you, these are the most dreaded words in the English language because you know he’s got the goods on you. I felt like, at the end of the day, this is a very nice final statement to express. But also, I felt like Mike Wallace is here, expressing again, the timely aspect of the story. Mike was still here. The legacy, the thumbprint that he put on journalism is always with us. He never left. And so, I kind of like that. So “Gotcha” is a good title — perhaps the second stage.
SKW: The bottom of the press notes had some Fun Facts. You had over 1,000 hours of footage to sift through. Did you consider making a series instead of a 90-minute doc?
AB: No, it didn’t occur to me. Here are two reasons why. I’m not doing any interviews. I’m not shooting any re-creations. This is an all archival film, and I really wanted this film to kind of tick and move quickly, the way Mike was. I wanted to capture Mike’s spirit. And I showed there was something very strong about a 90-minute film that’s very dense and intense to watch. You know, complex but also very fast-moving. And I felt like if I’m going to spread it out into a series, it will lose a little bit of Mike’s essence. But there was definitely enough material to do a six- or eight-part series. And, that was one of the hardest things to do in this film, to decide what you’re not showing, what you’re not telling.
SKW: How did you settle on which interviews to include?
AB: Very early on I read this piece in Vanity Fair where Mike said that he’s fascinated with people’s weak spots, and I was very interested in that. But also, he continued to say that he is very much aware of his own personal weak spots. So, when he goes into interviews, all he has to do is frame those weak spots in the form of a question. And I felt like, that’s beautiful and that’s very revealing. So, I started looking through interviews, basically looking for moments where Mike is revealing his own character in the exchange. Where there’s the moments Mike is asking a question, but the conversation is about him in a way.
SKW: Well, you selected some interviews that highlight exactly what you’re talking about. It revealed a lot about the man. So, some of the footage, especially from Mike Wallace’s interview show, which launched his hard-hitting style, came from the University of Texas at Austin. Tell me about that.
AB: So, I approached Rafael Marmor, the founder of Delirio Films, with this project, and he felt like we first needed to talk with a family and that was the right strategy. So, we talked with them, and they were very happy and supportive of the end goal. Since all of Mike’s old kinescopes of the “Mike Wallace Show” were at the University of Texas, they were the ones who contacted the university and asked them to help us with the materials. So we got our foot in the front door, and had those shows re-digitized from the original set of film reels. Which is why they look amazing. They are in black-and-white from the fifties, and include interviews with Salvador Dali and Frank Lloyd Wright, people who are icons. And it was beautiful see them again, and present them to the audience.
SKW: Just seeing some of the original logos of CBS with the eye that looked like a camera lens was like a trip down memory lane.
AB: That’s something that I didn’t expect when I made this film. I hear from a lot of people how nostalgic those materials are. I didn’t grow up with those images, but for a lot of people it’s reminiscent of childhood and their early memories of news. So, it’s a beautiful aspect of this film. Right?
SKW: Absolutely! One of the techniques you use is the split screen that was very, very effective. How did that come about?
AB: I read another story about Mike where he said that he always sees the interview as a ring, a battle of the mind where two people go at it. So, I thought it would be so interesting if I used a split screen to tell a story. Close-up against close-up actually looks like they’re dueling. They used to shoot those interviews with two cameras, one for the interviewee and one for the interviewer. When you watch the actual footage on television, you’d never see those two cameras. It’s another element that I added, and I felt it was very interesting to see the other person as well.
SKW: I thought it was very effective, because you can see facial expressions like a raise of an eyebrow that you might not have seen in the original.Although I know you focused almost exclusively on his work, you did touch on his personal life, struggles with depression, his son’s death. I know he was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, by Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who were very strict, but there’s no talk of his religion in the documentary and whether it influenced him or his reporting. Is there anything that you learned while going through his tapes that you can add about this?
AB: He was proud of being Jewish and never, backed away from it. And so, for me, when you said I didn’t cover a lot of his personal stuff it was because, like I said, I chose very early on to focus on his career, the broadcast journalism story. Otherwise it will be all over the place and it would be nine hours. His son’s death and the depression echoed the journalism story I was trying to tell. His son’s death made Mike become a serious reporter. Mike covered the Middle East extensively. It was one of the things that he was most proud of, and it just didn’t really have a niche in the film. But Mike never shied away from being a Jew. Mike had a feud at certain times with the Jewish lobby because he used to cover the Middle East and he would give voice to the other side as well. And a lot of the time, the Jewish lobby felt like Mike was covering it unevenly and more from the Palestinian side, which Mike never felt he did. But that’s a story for the second stage.
SKW: So how has this affected how you look at the news?
AB: Wow, a lot. I mean, first of all, for me it was just amazing to discover how intertwined Mike is in the original story of the news, and how he was the one who was kind of a game changer in a way. But it affected me mostly understanding that it wasn’t Mike that changed the game dramatically into what we see today. It was television that changed the news. The moment television came into the game, news had to adapt and change into a medium that was much more a spectator sport. You had viewers and you had to compete for their attention. We see it even more today with the internet and it just added this element of showmanship and drama into the news that we see today.
SKW: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Avi. Shabbat Shalom. Have a wonderful weekend and I wish you much luck with this project. It deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Thank you.
AB: Thank you. Bye Bye.
“Mike Wallace is Here” opens at the Angelika Film Center, 5321 E. Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, on Friday, Aug. 2. For more information, visit https://www.angelikafilmcenter.com/dallas.