william gazecki: the interview

Part 1, the truth and a pile of facts

Interview by Jason W. Ocker
January 14, 2002

Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning documentary film maker William Gazecki got his start in the music industry, where he helped produce albums for such talents as the Doors, Bette Midler, Joe Cocker, and Leo Sayer. He then went into television, where he won awards for his production work on shows such as “St. Elsewhere,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “thirtysomething” before finding his passion as a documentary film maker. Recently, besides his ongoing film projects, Mr. Gazecki has been involved in starting a new documentary production company called OpenEdge Media. I sat down with Mr. Gazecki (in the modern sense of the verb, i.e. Alexander Graham Bell-ing it between the coasts) for about an hour and pretended to know what I was doing as an interviewer while Mr. Gazecki imparted some of his thoughts on the nature and value of the usually overlooked genre of the documentary film.

TiC: Originally you worked in the entertainment industry, both in the arenas of music and television, before moving into the realm of the documentary. Now as a documentary film maker, do you still consider yourself a part of the entertainment industry?

WG: Well, I certainly consider myself to be part of the media industry, which is the industry of communication, and it has a very broad range. There’s so many new niches now with all the new forms of media that, you know, I think we’re still sort of adapting in our terminology, so to speak. You know, it wasn’t that long ago that all we had was television and movies and radio. And now we sort of have this confluence of media that are coming together and interacting with one another. So, I don’t consider myself to be solely a person who creates things for entertainment value, that’s for sure. My motivation, I think, probably has as much to do with how I would categorize my products as anything, and so my motivation is to communicate.

TiC: One of the reasons I ask that, and you’ve already hit on it, is that there is more or less only two places to watch a documentary, either on the television screen or the movie screen, and right now in our culture there is usually a certain mindset that goes along with those media on the part of both the audience and the producers, namely entertainment.

WG: Well, you know, I think that learning can be entertaining. I’ve always been an avid learner, and have always enjoyed the process of learning and discovery. I think that one of the things that motivates people in general is their curiosity, which I think is sort of an innate human trait. So, you know, I think that part of what I find challenging and what I’m interested in is creating documentary products, documentary films that are “entertaining,” and in that sense what I’m saying is I think there are things that inspire people to want to pay attention. They inspire people to want to know more or to want to feel more included in sort of the overall process of life.

TiC: Besides what you’ve already stated, is there anything specifically that drew you to the documentary form as opposed to a regular, and more popular, story-type movie?

WG: Well, yeah, I somehow at some point managed to discover that real stories, real life, can be as compelling as anything that we can make up or fantasize about, that we can imagine. We have a tremendous capacity to imagine stories and to imagine events and situations, but a lot of these things that we imagine are modeled after real life. There are a lot of movies that have been made that are modeled after people’s real lives. You know, there’s Cleopatra, things like that. You know, that’s not a documentary, but it’s not a complete work of fiction either. There are a lot of instances like that, and I think at one point I just found that I personally identified more strongly with real stories that were also compelling.

TiC: You just mentioned how many movies are based on real events and real people, and it seems to me the point of such a basis is to over-dramatize those situations and people, to make them more interesting. It seems like one could also do that in a non-fiction, documentary movie, and that while in a story movie you’d want that, you wouldn’t so much in a documentary. Are there any safeguards that you set up to keep from doing that in your films?

WG: I maintain my integrity. I mean, one of the things that I think keeps me tied to the documentary genre is that, you know, the real facts of the story and the real coincidences and the real conundrums and paradoxes that people find themselves in in their real lives are – if you manage to really dig enough to find all of those little gems, those little pieces of information, you generally end up with something that is just as compelling as whatever you can imagine in a narrative situation, in a dramatic film. So, no, I don’t really, I personally don’t concern myself with the dangers of over-dramatizing. I think that’s, you know, something that perhaps people need to do because they can’t find enough interesting material to work on or something. Do you know what I’m saying?

TiC: Sure, I think that’s a good point.

WG: So, you know, I think it’s a, what do you call it, something that you can be distracted by, is the tendency to want to over-dramatize. But that’s not a big concern for me.

TiC: Could you tell us that about any documentaries that might have influenced you in your career, or not necessarily influenced you per se, but that you find a lot of value in?

WG: Yeah, I haven’t been terribly influenced particularly by documentary film makers. I’m really a fan of the film genre in general. You know, the cinema is a very complex art form and a very sophisticated art form that includes so many different sub-art forms. The visual aspect, the story telling, the writing, the music, all of those things combined together I feel quite enamored with, so I’m really a student of all film making. I will say one of my favorite film makers, one of my favorite documentary film makers, is Ken Burns. I really admire him a lot, and I really admire what he’s done, and the reason I admire what he’s done is because he is able to take fairly conventional subjects and marry them with what I consider to be really authentic human qualities. I think Ken is a very insightful film maker, really does an excellent job of bringing in passion and humanity into his stories in a way that is very accessible, and I admire that. Another film that has influenced me, I like the Woodstock film a lot, because it’s a very honest portrayal of an event in time, and I think that it successfully portrayed a certain moment in terms of history in a fairly heartful and accurate manner. So I, you know, sort of have a soft spot for that.

TiC: If I remember correctly, one of the more intriguing aspects of that film is that there is no, or at the very least little, narration in that film.

WG: I don’t think there was any.

TiC: There are just connected images of what was actually going on.

WG: Yeah, and I think it communicates that moment in time very well, you know. Another piece that I like a lot is The Trials of Nuremberg, which is certainly not Woodstock, but again, it’s history. It’s letting us know what really happened, and who was really who, and what’s the story behind the story.

TiC: You’ve probably already answered this, but if you can add to it, what do you think the ideal value of the documentary film itself is either within the context of film in general, or maybe even within our culture, or, heck, even life?

WG: Well, I think that there are a number of stories that are available to be told that are important stories, that are pivotal moments in time or pivotal moments in history or even in contemporary or current times, that can show us more than we might be exposed to on a day to day basis about who we are and how we operate and what motivates us and things of that nature. I think there’s value in that. I think there’s value in seeing things that are true that aren’t necessarily commonplace and that are indicative of some aspect of our collective character.

TiC: Now, I’ve seen in other places where you’ve mentioned and put a lot of emphasis on what you term “human experience” in connection with your work, is that tied into what you just said about collective character?

WG: Yes, it is, as a matter of fact.

TiC: Well then if you could just elaborate, if you would, on exactly what you mean by phrases like “collective character” and “human experience.”

WG: I think it’s interesting that you mention that. You know, human experience determines to a great degree how we view the world, what our worldview is. And similarly, any individual’s worldview, any individual’s set of morals, ethics, values, standards, you know, the fiber of their character, so to speak, has a lot to do with what they do in life, what decisions they make, what actions they take, which I think ties in with sort of the general, you know, superstructure of laws and morals and values and all that. There’s a lot of talk these days about family values and morality and this and that, and I think a lot of this is tied to what we experience, you know, how we experience life. So my, I like to play in this arena, I like to play in the arena of actual and real experiences. And again, it ties into what I was saying before about exposure to things that aren’t common, things that are maybe out of the ordinary or are in some way suppressed or hidden. Waco was about a suppressed story, for example. I think people, I have found so far, that people who have a chance to learn more about these kinds of experiences benefit. They take a little piece, you know, people identify. They identify with a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I think people find value in that.

TiC: Before we move into your film on Waco more fully, I would like to ask you one, sort of a technical, question. Since the documentary is a visual medium, since you are presenting facts, viewpoints, what you’ve summed up as the “human experience” in a visual form, what do you believe are the strengths of that kind of presentation, as well as what might be more of a weakness in having to present these things visually?

WG: Well, again, we’re kind of getting into some similar concepts. You know, facts, the tendency to perceive documentaries as about facts kind of implies that facts are in and of themselves not dramatic, you know, that there’s no drama to facts. And, you know, there’s a difference between the truth and just a pile of facts. The truth often involves conundrums, paradoxes, uh, confusing facts, facts that don’t necessarily agree with one another, contradictions. And these are things that aren’t necessarily, you know, dry. They can be quite fascinating. They can be quite, quite mysterious. And as far as the visual element of that goes, I think that one of the things that I rely on in my films is character. So, visually we may be looking at a talking head, but character-wise and emotionally, if we are connected to the story, if we are engaged and involved in what the story is saying to us, then there’s something there to grab onto emotionally. It’s not just a talking head, it’s a person that has a certain character that we identify with in a certain way, or we don’t identify with, we dis-identify with. So I rely a lot on character, as opposed to glamorous visuals. You know, it’s true we live in a very visually sophisticated environment right now as far as the medium is concerned. There’s a lot of visual tools out there, and I actually like not being sort of forced to be committed to sophisticated visual work, you know, special effects, creating whole universes that are completely artificial, it’s technically very demanding.

TiC: Well, what I meant by presenting things visually is not like special effects, or what do they usually say, “visually stunning,” I think is what they always put on video box covers. What I mean by visuals is as a visual medium, as opposed to books which use the printed word and plays which use live dialogue.

WG: Right, right. All these things have to do with the consumer, you know, and how the person who is consuming the product, or who is your audience. It all has to do with the audience. If the audience is involved internally, if they are connected with what they are seeing, hearing, sensing, I rely a lot on how is my audience going to react to this little sort of interplay, say, between a couple of characters, much like a play. You know, a play is dialogue. At the same time, there is something that transcends just what you hear or just what you see or just what people are saying. It’s that next level up, again, of human experience. It’s how people experience things. That’s what I like about the film medium, is that it’s experiential. More so than writing alone or audio alone, you know, sound alone. It’s a very effective medium for getting people’s attention and getting them to be involved with something. And to me the critical factor is how involved is my audience, is what I’m saying. How much do they become a part of it.

TiC: Okay, you just answered my next question, which was why you chose the form of film to present non-fiction situations, as opposed to, say, a book.

WG: Yeah, I think there’s much more of an opportunity to put your audience in the moment. One of the one things that I keep focused in my mind while I’m making a film is the moment when the lights have come up, and the audience is walking out of the theater. Where is my audience participant going to be at that moment? What are they going to be feeling? What are they going to be thinking? Most of the time, what my goal is, I want them to want to talk to whomever they’ve come to the theater with about what they’ve just seen. You know, that’s one of my primary objectives is will people be motivated to talk about what they’ve just seen with each other once they get out of the theater.

TiC: Moving now to Waco: The Rules of Engagement, the film for which you are probably the most famous for, it seems to take a definite side on the issue, or to attempt to make a point, compellingly I might add, as opposed to, say, an objective, journalistic dissemination of cold facts. Is that how you feel the documentary should be, or is that just your style?

WG: Well, see, I view Waco as nothing but a dissemination of cold, hard facts. You know, there’s no opinion expressed in that film. If you go back and view it, there isn’t one opinion given in the movie. What’s given is a lot of conflicting facts. There’s a lot of information in that film that’s presented, I mean, a lot of that film is testimony before Congress. When I made it, I wasn’t really looking for anything more than what I just said, how are people going to be affected when they walk out of the movie theater. Not so much how, but are, if they’re going to be affected. So the only objective that I held in my mind as I was making it was, I want to get through to people. I want them to understand what happened. And because it was so politically sketchy, you know, tentative – when we were making Waco, most people thought, you know, why are you doing that? Why bother? Everybody knows what happened there. That was the general response that we got. Now, of course, working on it as deeply as I was with my partners I knew there was a lot more that happened there than most people knew. And my job was to present the facts, what happened. And it goes exactly back to what we were talking about earlier because it is a compelling story. It’s a real human drama. It’s a real, actual, compelling, set of circumstances. And that’s just what it is. I didn’t create the story, I just told it.

TiC: That’s actually a rather amazing statement. In my own watching of it, as I just said, I thought you were certainly taking a side. Many of the reviews I’ve read also seemed to think something along the same lines in that you were taking somewhat of the Branch-Davidian side in presenting the story. I think it would be interesting, in re-watching it, to keep conscious of what you just said, and see how that comes out.

WG: Well, I wasn’t so much on the Branch-Davidian side as I was on the side of information that was generally not available, which happened to be, which a lot of what the film is is things nobody else knew. You know, I personally like the little moments when somebody says, “Ah-hah” or “I didn’t know that.” And, that’s just a reflection of what my own process is. I was not a student of the Waco incident. The idea of making the film was really introduced to me from, you know, a friend of a friend. He came by the studio one day and said he wanted to make a documentary about this, that’s all. I didn’t know a lot about it. So as I was learning about it, in the process of making the film there were many times when I went, “Ah, I didn’t know that.” So I just made it a point to include those moments in the film, because I thought what I found interesting I thought other people might find interesting.”

TiC: That was certainly me all the way through that film saying, “I didn’t know that.”

WG: Yeah, for me, that’s basically documentary film making: “I didn’t know that.”

TiC: Now, your Waco film, that was definitely a heavy, affecting experience, especially toward the end, obviously. I watched the whole thing with my eyebrows drawn down. How does that fit in with what you’ve already talked about concerning the human experience, or, maybe I should say, what does that say about the human experience?

WG: In terms of the Waco film, I think you have to actually look at the Waco incident. That incident involved, you know, thousands of people, five, six, seven hundred on site while it was actually occurring, and the film is really intended to be an honest reflection of their experience. I mean, Waco’s a heavy story, heavy-duty, and so no wonder, the fact that the film affects people as a heavy story is, tells me I did a good job in telling the real story, you know. It was not a story that needed, with Waco in particular, I had to tone down my own emotions severely and stay away from any feelings that I might have and just tell the story.

William Gazecki is an American film director and former sound mixer best known for his documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which earned a News & Documentary Emmy Award and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

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