Andrew Rossi Lays Out Page One: Inside the New York Times

One of the most highly anticipated documentaries of the year, Page One: Inside the New York Times delivers exactly what its title promises, offering a revealing, fly-on-the-wall look within “The Gray Lady” during a tumultuous 365 days. Falling circulation and ad revenues, major layoffs, reporter scandals, mass media turmoil, the threat of free news on the Internet, Wikileaks and more—that’s a lot for a documentary to cover. But director Andrew Rossi (along with writer/producer Karen Novack) does an expert job delving into the drama, by capturing the activities in and around the newsroom with the editors and reporters who work in the paper’s bustling media department.

Hot-shot blogger-turned-journalist Brian Stelter and levelheaded editor Bruce Headlam are featured, but the film’s  main focus is on David Carr, the Times’ sarcastic, whip-smart media reporter, a former crack addict, tireless crusader and best-selling author who finds himself in the middle of many of the major stories facing the paper—and the rest of the media—during the year.

Rossi, who previously worked on Control Room, a documentary about Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, and directed the documentaries Eat This New York and La Cirque: A Table in Heaven, recently made a stop in Philadelphia, where he talked to MovieFanFare about Page One: Inside the New York Times and other things of interest to movie fans and media followers.   

MFF: While Page One is specifically about the New York Times, do you think the problem faced by the newspaper in the film are similar to what other newspapers are facing?

Andrew Rossi:  I do think it’s a movie that’s treating the crisis in the newspaper business, in that my primary goal was showing people what’s happening inside the four walls of an organization that takes as its mandate original reporting. So it could have been done at the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer or the L.A. Times. It did not have to be the New York Times. But one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Times is that David Carr lives there, and he proves to be this really remarkable guide through a lot of heady stories and theories about what the future of journalism could be.

I think the lessons that I take away the most from what the film presents is that if the brand promise is what these organizations do—to maintain quality journalism and original reporting—stays true, than that economic sort of viability will be figured out by the suits,  by the corporate business side. And I think that model can definitely be applied to other institutions.

MFF: What got you interested in making this film?

AR: I was working on developing a project for HBO about Web 2.0. The idea was to tell the story of the second wave of internet startups that have come to be known as Web 2.0. A lot of lessons were learned from the first boom and crash, and social media was the lynchpin of internet companies. HBO wanted to follow an entrepreneur and their startup. It was contemplated as a sort of sequel to (the 2001 documentary) In the process of researching all of these startup companies and all the arguments why social media was going to save the world.

MFF: I assume David Carr gets involved at some point?

AR: I went to interview David Carr who was in my last film on Le Cirque and the Maccioni family. It was after Michael Hirschorn wrote the article “End Times,” speculating about the escalation of the newspaper crisis in the wake of the financial collapse and the freezing of the credit markets and the advertising market totally tanking.

So the interview with David was ostensibly about him talking about the benefits of social media and the new media future. He was all hot and bothered about that article, and we kept talking about what the role of traditional media would be in the Web 2.0 future. Then this light bulb went off in me: “Instead of telling this story about the future and Web 2.0 through a startup company, wouldn’t the stakes be higher and so much more poignant from the perspective of a newspaper and somebody like David, who is reporting on this digital revolution while his own house is crumbling, or seemingly crumbling—at least according to Michael Hirschorn?”

MFF: How did you approach him about your idea?

AR: I said “David, what about a movie about you and the Times and the media?”  He said “That’s interesting. Why don’t you talk to my bosses?”—assuming they would say “no” out of hand and it would be over.

MFF: One would imagine the New York Times didn’t open the door for you and your crew immediately.

AR: It took a long time. It’s one of those institutions. Things like this happen at a glacial pace, so six months of meetings and phone calls—and ultimately I didn’t do that much persuading, just described my process. I don’t go into a project with an agenda, other than just give people a front row seat to what’s happening through an observational documentary approach.

MFF: How much footage did you shoot?

AR: We shot 250 hours.

MFF: You certainly had no shortage of stories to follow. How did you decide which stories would get spotlighted in Page One?

AR: We followed these stories and focused on the ones that would illuminate about what is happening to the media and what the future is, and the ones that had the most dramatic and comedic possibilities. Some had to be included—you had to include Judith Miller, you had to have the Tribune Company because it’s such a morality tale and cautionary tale of what’s happening in the newspaper business. And of course, Vice Magazine and CNN partnering tells you a lot of how bad it’s gotten in cable news and how CNN is trying to figure out a way to reinvent themselves for younger viewers.

MFF: David Carr is obviously a charismatic character, but do you think he showboated for the camera when you were filming Page One?

AR:  I think David showboats when he’s making eggs in the morning for breakfast.  He is naturally that way. You don’t need to have a camera on him. He’s just naturally funny. That comes through, and perhaps it’s because of the perspective of one who has gone through addiction and come out on the other side and faced all this adversity. He just has this real f–k you attitude to things that he doesn’t believe in or things that are attacking him. He doesn’t take B.S. from anybody.

MFF: You have an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard Law School. So how did you become a filmmaker?

AR: It’s something I’ve always been interested in. I paid my dues to my parents who always wanted me to have a stable career. So I practiced for two years, corporate law. It was a great learning experience, but I knew I wanted to tell stories and make films. I picked up a digital camera in 2001 and I loved being behind the camera. I find the documentary film to be so visceral just from the craft perspective.

MFF: As a lawyer, you served as a consultant on the documentary, and then worked as an editor on director Jehane Noujaim’s documentary Control Room, about Al-Jazeera. What impact did this have on your own projects?

AR: She (Noujaim) came back from Egypt with a six hour cut of it. I had a week to tighten it up for the Sundance Film Festival. For one week, we worked 24 hours a day. And that was an inspiration for making Page One.  I was shooting for 14 months overall, but I knew we wanted to submit it to Sundance because I wanted the film to get out to viewers at a time when this debate was as current as it is now. So we had to shoot and edit it simultaneously and in the last stage we had to have the rubber hit the road to get it done in time.

MFF: Do you have another film in mind right now?

AR: I don’t have a project that’s teed up and ready to go, I’m just focusing on the release of Page One and its campaign.

MFF: It seems like you like to concentrate on stories involving the media in some way—the Internet, cable TV, newspapers. Even your documentaries Eat This New York, about novice Brooklyn restaurateurs, and La Cirque: A Table in Heaven, involving the famous New York eatery, touched on the media in some ways. Do you think your next film will explore similar themes?

AR: I am attracted to stories that go behind the scenes of an institution or a place through a human vehicle that brings that idea or place into a focus which counters expectations. (I wonder if) there’s a reason why we haven’t had access to this place or thing. We haven’t had access to it, and we have a lot of different ideas about it, and I want to find a way to get inside. That’s generally what I gravitate to, but I am not sure what object of that will be next.