Sam Pollard has been working as a feature film and television editor and documentary producer/director for nearly 30 years. He and I worked together on two documentary series for PBS, I'll Make Me a World and Eyes on the Prize. His other documentary credits include Goin' Back to T-Town and the series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow and American Roots Music.
Sam has edited several dramatic features directed by Spike Lee, including Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Girl 6, Clockers, and Bamboozled. For HBO, he and Lee produced and Sam edited the documentary 4 Little Girls, an Academy Award-nominated film about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that claimed the lives of 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. More recently, they coproduced and Sam was supervising editor on When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a documentary about New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Sam is a professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he teaches first-year and advanced film and video editing. We spoke in 2003 and again in 2006, while Sam was editing Levees.
As an editor, what's your role in structuring the film's narrative?
You get three types of documentary producers. The first type will say, "I went out, and I'm doing a film about these four girls who were killed in Birmingham, Alabama. Here's my script, here's my structure, we'll screen the dailies together, and I want you to follow that template."
Second type of producer says, "I went out, I shot this footage about four little girls who were killed in Birmingham in 1963. I filmed their parents, their nieces, their cousins, I talked to ministers in the community of Birmingham, I also talked to Andrew Young and other people involved in the civil rights movement, because Dr. King went there in 1963. I think the story is going to be not only about the girls, it's also going to be about the historical event of Dr. King trying to break down the walls of segregation in Birmingham. That's my story. I haven't written anything down, but that's the idea." That's the second approach.
Third approach, the producer comes in, says, "I shot all this footage about the four girls killed in Birmingham, I'll be back in eight weeks, you let me see what there is—create something." I've done all types of documentaries, all three types.
In the case of 4 Little Girls, Spike was like the third producer. He basically said, "I've got to do this story about these four girls; it's been in me about 15 years, I need to do this story." And he went down and he shot. He never really figured out what the arc of the story was, but he'd been carrying this story around with him so long—and his aesthetic is so artistic. He just knew he didn't want to make an ordinary-type documentary. Just not his style.
He came up with a list of people he wanted to interview, and after he shot for a month the family members and people involved in the movement, we went into the editing room. For about three weeks, from 7 to 11 in the morning, we would screen dailies and talk. I came up with the idea of trying to do the parallel story. On one track we have the girls' lives unfolding; on the other we see the movement as it moves into Birmingham, and then they collide with the bombing of the church. And that's how we basically approached it.
One of the strengths of the film is the stories and storytellers, particularly Denise McNair's father, Chris.
They were good stories. But you know, it was interesting. I was on that shoot when he did Chris. This was like a feature shoot. Spike had a truck, he had tracks, he had dollies, he had all these lights. I said, "Jeez, what's all this equipment?" And Spike had done a lot of research, but when we got to the interview that day, he didn't have any questions on paper. I was sitting behind him, and I had my own sheet of questions. And I swear, I thought he was so haphazard in how he was asking questions, his style is, to me, so indirect, I thought, "He's not going to get anything good out of this guy." But Chris really connected with Spike; he was able to convey emotion and was such a good storyteller. Mrs. Robertson [Alpha Robertson, mother of Carole] was also a good storyteller. They'd been living with their children's deaths for so many years, and they had stored so much, probably, things they wanted to say. And they all trusted Spike.
From your own experience, how do you think filmmakers establish that kind of trust? I'm thinking, for example, of Big Black (Frank Smith), a former Attica inmate you interviewed for Eyes on the Prize.
You know, it's a funny thing. Sometimes when I interview people, there's a kind of connection where I feel like I'm with family. I feel just very open myself. I don't feel couched; I don't have anything to hide. And I think people feel that and connect. Sometimes, I don't feel that comfortable with the person I'm interviewing, and it comes through. I interviewed Nell Painter for this Jim Crow show. I didn't feel I had done my homework in terms of what questions to ask, and I never connected with her. Everything was very stiff.
What if you're interviewing someone whose views you strongly oppose?
You still try to be as human as possible. For The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, I interviewed this white gentleman in Florida who, when he was 16 years old in Georgia, saw four black people killed. At first I said [to the other series producers, Richard Wormser and Bill Jersey, both of whom are white], "You want me to do the interview?" Because this guy was 70 years old, he's still a redneck; you can see it, he still carries that baggage. But somehow, when I sat down and interviewed him and really touched on some areas that were so painful for him to remember, and really understanding his ambiguous relationships with black people—this guy opened up to me.
The only person that we knew I wasn't going to interview was in northern Georgia, this gentleman named Gordon Parks [no relation to the filmmaker]. He tells a story in Bill Jersey's show, in show three, about how when he was 15, his grandfather took him to a lynching of a black man. And even now he's unrepentant. I mean, he's surrounded by young white guys who are Klansmen, he's still a Klansman, so they knew that one I wouldn't do.
How do you feel about projects where the footage is handed off to an editing team and the initial connection is lost? Someone like the old man in Florida could be treated very badly.
Mutilated. I've been fortunate enough to not yet have someone else take the footage that I've shot. I feel it's my responsibility to be the one to help shape their story, and tell that story in the editing room. If somebody in Jim Crow says, "Well, I never said it like that," then I'm the one they're going to have to deal with. It's a delicate thing. You have to make editorial adjustments, sometimes, to try to get the story across clearly, concisely—because it's always about trying to be concise. The problem is that most times when people do their interviews, they don't quite understand that they're going to be edited. I've had it happen so many times. Someone will look at the interview and say, "What happened to what I said? I talked to you for two hours and you used two minutes?"
How much of a story do you work out before you film?
With T'Town, I did a treatment, and then when I got back, before I gave the footage to [the editor], I worked out a complete structure, a 20-page template. With Jim Crow, basically, I had a 40-page script from Richard Wormser. When we went into the editing room, I followed the script, and when we looked at it, it was terrible. Slow. Meandered. And then we went back and restructured, and then we looked at it again; it looked a little better. It's a process. He went and reshot; we put a whole new element in that was never in the script.
But the thing is, it's always better to have a foundation, a template. So you know you have something there in front of you. Most documentary filmmakers, even the students, go out and shoot and they don't have a clue what the story is. I mean, I'll do it. I've been trying to shoot something about my father, and even though I know I'm not doing it the right way, I'm still just going out and shooting. But I don't have any money, no deadlines, I don't feel constricted. When someone's paying me, before I start editing I will always write down the structure.
Do you look for a story arc?
I usually do. A transformation of a state of being. Sometimes I don't have to have a character take me through. And sometimes I can feel there's a sense of artifice. Part of me with Ali [a story about fighter Muhammad Ali, in Eyes on the Prize] always felt that—even though Ali's a great character, even though it's his real story—it feels a little jerry-rigged. It doesn't feel like it quite unfolds, it feels like you see the hands of the filmmakers moving the pieces. And that always throws me.
4 Little Girls begins in a cemetery, with Joan Baez's "Ballad of Birmingham" on the soundtrack relating the tragedy that's about to unfold. How do you feel about the need for a "hook" at the start of a film?
I have two feelings about it. Sometimes you've got to give them a hook right up front, like the bombing. Years ago, I did a film about Langston Hughes. We basically kill Langston off at the beginning. "He's a wonderful poet, but then he died." Then we backtrack and tell you the story. I always kind of liked that, that old movie thing. But I thought it was a mistake in retrospect; it underwhelmed the whole film, dramatically. Sometimes if you give them the hook up front, then when you build up to it again, you say, "Oh, I already know that." Sometimes the hook can be detrimental. In 4 Little Girls, it wasn't. The reason we started with Joan Baez was because the song was so great. And Spike had had Ellen Kuras [director of photography] shoot the cemetery footage in that very weird style. He didn't know it was going to be at the beginning, but he shot it.
How do you approach issues of balance in your work?
Even when we were doing Eyes, I always questioned that, having to get the opposing point of view to give you the balanced perspective. I think the word shouldn't be "balance." I think that if you interview people that have contradiction, that to me gives it a more textured perspective. In 4 Little Girls, people said we took a cheap shot at [former Alabama governor] George Wallace. Well, I don't think so. He was not in the greatest health, as we know. But it wasn't like he had just been thrown the questions and didn't know what to say. He knew. Before he even consented to do the interview, Spike had to send him all the questions. And when
I look at the outtakes—I put the whole outtake of the interview on the DVD—I really didn't cut that much out. So I didn't think we did him a disservice. It's a funny thing about people. Part of the reason George Wallace did the interview, I think, is because Spike Lee wanted to interview him.
What are the biggest storytelling issues your students face?
The biggest pitfall is understanding what their film's about right from the beginning. Before they sit down to write a page of the narration or script, what's the theme? And then on the theme, what's the story that they're going to convey to get across the theme?
For me, the theme of Jim Crow is how a people of color who were given their freedom in 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation, had to struggle mightily against tremendous odds to be able to find that window of opportunity, and the things they had to do on all levels to move themselves forward. Richard and Bill may have a different approach, but that to me was what it was always about. So the next step was to find the stories that were going to help convey that. What I liked about Jim Crow is that there's an ambiguity in these real-life characters. Look at Booker T. Washington. On the one hand, he's this great man who starts this wonderful school [in 1881] to help black people. On the other hand, he basically says to black people, "Don't try to go but so far; take it to a certain level but don't rock the boat." None of this is simple. I always believe that nothing is black and white, that it's textured, shades of gray. To me, if that comes through, we did our job.
How do you evaluate story ideas?
What makes an idea great for a documentary is if you're introducing me to a world I've never heard about, and there's some story within that world that's going to be new and attention-grabbing. A student of mine who's Muslim came to me; she was down in Trinidad one summer and shot all this footage, so she wanted me to take a look at it. When you say Trinidad, my assumption, the first thing I think of is, Carnival. People in costumes dancing, having a good time; everybody's trying to do a film about Trinidad and Carnival. So I figure this is what she's going to show me.
She puts the footage up on the TV, and it's about a Muslim sect in Trinidad that's been in conflict with the government about being able to have freedom of choice in their own mosque, their own communities. Their government feels that they're like a terrorist group and they've been clamping down on them. There's been violent struggle, shootouts. So all of a sudden I'm saying, "Wow, this is interesting. I never knew there was a Muslim sect in Trinidad. I didn't know there was all this tension that's been going on for about 12 years." It's very interesting material for a documentary. Her problem is, she just went out and shot. Her father's Muslim, he knew about this group, introduced her to some people. Now she has no clue how to put the film together. What I said to her is, it's like doing the homework in a backwards way. You have to sit down and write down on paper, "What am I trying to say? What's the arc of this film?"
As a filmmaker, do you work to ensure that your storytelling is inclusive, that it covers voices and experiences that might not be readily available in archival material or secondary research?
I met filmmaker St. Clair Bourne in 1980, when I did his film about the blues in Chicago, Big City Blues. He basically became my mentor, in making me understand, as an African American, that the voice of "the other" is an important voice that has to be conveyed because you rarely hear or see it. Since that time, I've always believed strongly that, be it films about African Americans or Native Americans or Asians, women, it's important to be involved in those films. And if you're involved in a film that doesn't have that, you try to find that in the material.
Bennett Singer came to me a few years ago, wanted to do a documentary that I'm now executive producer of, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. That to me was important. Not only because Rustin was so active in civil rights, but because he was a gay man who wasn't afraid to say that, no matter what the consequences. That probably drew me more to it than the fact that he was the main cog for the  March on Washington.
With any documentary, music is an important part of the storytelling. At what point do you start to think about it?
All the time. I love music. You have to be a little careful because sometimes music can overwhelm the storytelling and undercut the drama of just letting the images play. Years ago, when we were doing the Eyes show, you were opposed to a piece of music,
"Keep on Pushing," that we put in at the end of the Ali story. You thought it was going to detract from just listening to Ali and the narration. And I argued with you, "No, no, Sheila, you're wrong." But in retrospect, you were right. I watched that show recently— the music was too specific, too on the nose. You've always got to be careful about how you use music. I like it to be a little more indirect now, as I get older.
Tell me about your most recent collaboration with Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke, which premiered on HBO in August 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina. How did this film come about?
We were driving downtown [in September 2005], and Spike says, "You know, Sam, I've got a great title: When the Levees Broke. I want to do a documentary about New Orleans." So that night, I did some research on the Internet and wrote some notes. And the next day, I said, "We could do a doc that looks at the complications and the evolution of the hurricane and the personal stories of the people who were there." So Spike called Sheila Nevins at HBO and set up meeting.
When was your first shoot in New Orleans?
Thanksgiving. We went down with this mammoth crew of 25 people. Normally when you shoot a doc, it's you as the producer, camera, an assistant (if you're shooting film), sound, and maybe a PA [production assistant]. But when we flew out of Newark the day after Thanksgiving, it was Spike, me, a line producer, three cameramen, four assistants, and six graduate students from NYU. Then, when we got to New Orleans, we got a location manager with his four location people, five vans, five drivers, a camera loader—I mean, it was like an army. And Spike gave us our assignments: This crew goes to this parish, this crew goes here.
Spike returned to New Orleans several times, and also filmed evacuees in New York. I've read that there were about 130 interviews in all, some 200 hours of footage. I'm curious about your role, not only as supervising editor but also as coproducer.
Basically, my charge is to figure out how to make this thing a film. As with 4 Little Girls, I'm given a task of combing through all this material and trying to figure out a structure to make it come to life.
Spike will come in and critique it and want changes, but I'm trying to build it, trying to tell a story and figure out how to make it exciting. And I've got about 18, 20 weeks to make it happen.
When did you start to edit?
I brought three assistants on in February 2006 to start logging and digitizing the interviews, and they were all transcribed, and the assistants went through the transcript books and wrote down the time code numbers. Then I figured out what I call subject bins, such as The Days before the Hurricane; The Day Katrina Hit; They Thought They Had Dodged the Bullet. If anybody talked about one of those particular subjects, the assistants put that bite into that bin. And then when I started, on March 6, I started going through each bin, putting together all the interview bites and whittling them down, shaping them. I don't go but so far, because I know that as soon as I start to put footage in, which is the next stage, it'll change.
Do you draft a script on paper before you cut?
I don't usually do a paper cut, I'm more instinctual now. But I will write out a structure—where I want to start, how I want to get to the end. I sketch out scenes and what the order should be. Then I start adding footage and stills, assembling edited sequences. What happens in this process of building is that I'll see things from my paper structure that aren't working, so I start to move things around. And I'll go back through the transcripts sometimes, like when I need a way to transition to certain footage. And then when I show Spike a cut, he'll ask, "How come you didn't put this in, how come you didn't add this sequence?" So I'll go back and look at the material and rebuild.
Do you find that your subject pulls—those bins—stay intact as sequences?
Not always. For example, initially I had a Superdome subject bin. But I've opened up: One sequence is about when people first got to the Superdome, another is about people dealing with it after they were there for four days, and another is about people evacuating the Superdome. So it's broken up into different sections.
With 130 storytellers, isn't there a risk that the film will be a long montage, and not a coherent story that carries viewers through an experience?
That's the challenge. Everybody's got different pieces of the story, and someone who might be good at the beginning is not so good when it comes to talking about the evacuation. Someone who doesn't say much in the beginning is great when it comes to talking about the flooding. So I'm trying to find the rhythms of these people, to create a journey, an arc. I've noticed in a lot of sequences where we've tried to intercut people telling the same story, I've gone back and I've taken out some voices, to allow one person tell the story. If you find the right characters, the right interviews, they can give you a visceral sense of immediacy, of being there, so you feel emotionally connected to it. When this man tells you about finding his mother's body under the refrigerator, because she hadn't gotten out... .Or this woman whose daughter went to stay with her father in the Ninth Ward, and she couldn't find her and was having dreams that she was falling, falling, falling, and then a few months later they found her daughter's body That's powerful. You try to get out of the way, not to condense too much, edit it too much.
You also have a unique challenge in that the four-hour film will be shown in various configurations—as a four-hour special, in 2 two-hour blocks, and as individual hours. How do you make each of those presentations feel complete?
I have a beginning, middle, and end for each hour, and we're also doing it by acts—my first hour is Act One, the second hour is Act Two, and so on. The first hour begins pre-Katrina and ends on people who were in the Superdome, who do anything— songs, games—to keep their spirits up. Act Two looks at the city in tremendous chaos, and the evacuation of people, and ends with all of these dead bodies. Act Three picks up with where the people landed, and what happened when they arrived there, and builds to the question of staying or coming back. And also deals with the psychic and emotional toll of the hurricane. The fourth act gets into what happened when people did come back, and rebuilding.
If each of the hours is an act, what is the overarching story?
A people under siege. One and Two are chronologically driven; Three and Four [edited by Geeta Gandbhir and Nancy Novack, who started in April] are more thematically driven.
How do you think your experience editing dramatic features impacts your work in documentary, and vice versa?
What we're involved in, always, is trying to tell a story. Before I became a producer in documentaries [in 1988, on Eyes on the Prize], I had edited a lot of docs, but I wasn't always thinking about how to tell a story and have it escalate dramatically and emotionally. That's something I learned from the irascible Henry Hampton [executive producer of Eyes, a series that used a three-act structure to tell historical stories.]. And then right after, Spike called me about cutting Mo' Better Blues, and I've worked with him since on a series of narrative fiction features. What I've learned from both is to always make the story dramatic. Get the characters up a tree, how're we going to get 'em down? I apply three-act structure to everything. I don't always adhere to it as closely as we did on Eyes, but it's always in the back of my mind.
Last question. Given their cost, which is money that might be spent elsewhere, why do documentaries matter?
Being documentary filmmakers, I think part of our responsibility is to be able to make people aware of history: social history, racial history, economic history. Nine times out of ten, people can only deal with that history when it's in the past, 30 years, 40 years. Sometimes you've got to jolt people a little. Because if you don't deal with what's happening now, you're just going to repeat the same problems, which we can see now in New Orleans. I think, because of Spike, that this film will have tremendous impact. It will reawaken people's outrage and frustration at what happened last year in New Orleans. It's present history, that needs to be considered, needs to be evaluated.
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