AFI FEST Interview: ALAN PAKULA: GOING FOR TRUTH director Matthew Miele
Producer/director/writer Alan J. Pakula created some of the most emotionally penetrating, culturally significant and artistically brilliant films of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. AFI FEST 2019 will celebrate the master filmmaker with a tribute featuring three of his all-time classics: KLUTE, SOPHIE’S CHOICE and THE STERILE CUCKOO. Filmmaker Matthew Miele’s insightful documentary ALAN J. PAKULA: GOING FOR TRUTH is also a part of the tribute. The film includes interviews with Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Tickets to all of those screenings are now available.
AFI spoke to Miele about Pakula’s life, making his new doc and what’s on the filmmaking horizon.
AFI: What was the first Alan J. Pakula film you ever saw, and what was your impression of it at the time?
MM: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. I saw this in school alongside ABSENCE OF MALICE. What struck me was the power of journalism, but also the deft hand of Pakula who made that profession and pursuit-driven storytelling resonate. It made me want to become a storyteller because, as a teenager, it was the first serious film I watched that made an impression on me that wasn’t tied to a cheap thrill from a 1980s comedy like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, or the wide-eyed wonder of watching INDIANA JONES or STAR WARS. The impression it made stayed with me. I could clearly understand the power of storytelling from sides both journalistic and humanistic — the power of a well-told story to change the paradigm on multiple levels of society.
AFI: What drew you to create a documentary about his life?
MM: I wanted to meet Alan one day and thank him for guiding me toward becoming a storyteller. He died tragically before I could meet him. I thought for sure over the years someone would come along and make some sort of valuable film that deeply examined his craft and the instruments he used to get to the underlying truth of people and the human condition. But no one ever put the spotlight on him. So I decided to do it based on my inherent immersion into his work from my own life, but also reaching out to nearly 100 people whose lives both he and his films equally touched on a deep level.
AFI: How did you go about securing Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and the other interviewees?
MM: I reached out to Hannah Pakula first. I wanted to insure the family was onboard with my going down this road as I would likely need their help, not to mention the sensitivities around telling anyone’s life story related to people still around. Hannah was quite gracious in helping to send personal letters to Redford, Fonda and Streep, which got the ball rolling. I was so honored to explore Alan with these people because they are storytellers in their own right, and to hear their phrasings and truths learned about Alan and his methods was not just memorable, but also imprinted on me in a profound way that I hope comes across in the film for others to experience.
AFI: Why do you think Pakula never became a known auteur despite the popularity of his films?
MM: Simply because he put story first. He was determined not to be the story in any way, and not to reveal himself or soapbox any style or messaging in the film. Despite admiring Hitchcock and other auteurs, he seemed to respond to old school filmmakers like Stevens, Wyler and Wilder, who didn’t put forth their signatures on their films, but rather just told the story. I am not against auteurs and their signatures; in fact, I am a fan of several and find those touches valuable toward getting audiences to see the work of people like Tarantino and Scorsese. But allowing the story to stand on its own without the tricks and style carrying over from film to film is a testament to Alan’s ability and confidence in just telling the story and the power within that on its own.
AFI: There’s an archival moment in the documentary when Dick Cavett is introducing Pakula to his TV audience, and he says something like, “We don’t talk about there being ‘A Film by Alan Pakula.’” Cavett is not being critical of the director’s work, rather just that he is not a household name like other better known directors. Do you agree with Cavett or do you think there is something distinctive about a film by Alan Pakula and, if so, what would those recognizable elements or overall effect be?
MM: He is not a household name. That is because his style, or lack thereof, was based on anonymity. However, I think the one thing that is distinctive about a Pakula film is his confidence in the power of a master shot. We are so accustomed to cutting and opting for closeups or quick cuts to alt angles that we fool ourselves into thinking that these types of moves will keep an audience engaged. Perhaps it does because we are now so consumed by the rapid fire cell phone flipping and thumbing of content, but I think not. I think if you put up a well-composed shot that engages based on the story happening and progressing within that frame, then people will stay with it and it will imprint on them more fantastically than multiple angles and cuts.
AFI: In the AFI FEST Tribute to accompany your documentary, we are playing three films that catapulted the careers of their female leads: KLUTE, SOPHIE’S CHOICE and THE STERILE CUCKOO. What do you think it is about the characters Pakula offered these actresses or his style of directing that produced such complex and rewarding roles?
MM: Pakula did one thing that all people want, perhaps more women than men even, and that is simply listening to them. Pakula deeply listened to women and allowed rehearsal to not be about learning lines or staging, but, rather, about subtext, about a deep dive into the character the actor would portray and using the psyches of the actors to inform those characters. He brought about inner truths from these women. A perfect example is Jane Fonda and having her go to the morgue in the city and look at the women beaten to death before tackling that amazing scene at the end of KLUTE. This clearly spoke to her because Alan sensed she was becoming “Jane Fonda” after leaving her first husband, becoming radicalized during that chapter of her life, and finding her voice to express her championing of women. He knew looking at those women would deeply impact her and knew that because he listened to her and understood her inner voice.
AFI: Do you think there is a thematic thread between the topics you choose to focus on in your documentaries?
MM: Yes, they are all born from my childhood experiences. My first great memory was going to see the holiday windows on Fifth Avenue. It was tradition, and it made me want to tell the story of the one store that did it better than any on the block, Bergdorf’s. Tiffany’s was born out of my early crush on Audrey Hepburn and discovering what it was about the store that made her so smitten, and Capote obviously as well. Carlyle, simply because old hotels I used to be pulled into as a kid, were sensory experiences of scent and sound more than anything…and the people you see all had their own stories and lives, and the simple brush by them in the lobbies or elevators spoke volumes to me. Harry Benson because the images on LIFE magazine I would see on the coffee table in my house were transportational. My imagination would run wild living in those photos and Benson brought home the greatest photos from his journeys. And Pakula because of his films as I mentioned above — films that make lifelong impressions. You don’t forget a Pakula film when he is at the top of his game, whether as a producer on MOCKINGBIRD, during his paranoia days with KLUTE and PARALLAX, or his most immersive works like SOPHIE’S CHOICE, STERILE CUCKOO, and PRESUMED INNOCENT.
AFI: Can you talk about which projects you are working on now?
MM: Yes, again, they are totally born from my impressionable years as a kid. I am working on a fully authorized doc on Bob Mackie, whose costumes were always exhilarating and populated my childhood on television as he did many. Mackie is in our subconscious in many ways, and unlocking him and his work is profound and a current delight. I’m also working on a doc about Paddy Chayefsky because his writings and messaging were so profound and have stayed with me and many others up to today because his themes are so relevant and prophetic. Not to mention, he is an enigma on his own and uncovering him is a terrific journey down many rabbit holes.