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Filmmakers Forum: Nicholas Wrathall On Getting To Know Gore Vidal and Creating His 'United States of Amnesia'

By Nicholas Wrathall | /Bent May 22, 2014 at 10:56AM

This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. In this edition, Nicholas Wrathall talks about "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia," the documentary he directed about the iconic American writer and public intellectual. The film hits theaters this Friday, May 23.
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Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. In this edition, Nicholas Wrathall talks about "Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia," the documentary he directed about the iconic American writer and public intellectual. The film hits theaters this Friday, May 23.

My inspiration to make this film came from reading the pamphlets that Gore put out after 911: Dreaming War, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Imperial America. At the time, he was one of the only intellectuals speaking out against the rush into war in the Middle East in the mass media. It was then that I started rereading his older work. A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet him in person through my good friend, his nephew Burr Steers. In our first conversation, we bonded over Australian politics, which he was very interested in and actually knew many key players personally. He saw Australia as an outpost of the US system, like a Roman state on the outskirts of the empire. In my opinion as an Australian, this is true in many ways as Australia is always ready to rush into America’s wars.

The filming process started when I visited him in Ravello, Italy on the weekend he was packing up to leave his house. I rushed out there at his invitation when I heard that he was closing the house up permanently. The film slowly developed from that initial shoot. Filming continued on and off between 2005 and 2011 when he was available, but I think this extended period allowed me to get closer to Gore and understand him better.

I feel that it was a great honor to know Gore late in his life. He has become an inspirational figure to me, and spending time with him was a true education. His impact reaches beyond his achievements in politics and the arts to the very way he lived his life. In my opinion, one of his greatest attributes was his courage to speak honestly about power. He had grown up in as the grandson of a senator and so he understood power and the motivations and machinations of those who wielded it. He was not afraid to confront it head-on or to expose the lies that help maintain it. He also understood the media and with his wit and intelligence was able to position himself as a public intellectual by appearing on talk shows over many years and doing hundreds of interviews. He was a go-to person for many journalists to get a comment on politics and culture. The state of the nation was always his favorite subject, and he was often scathing in his assessment. 

Having listened to Gore speak both privately and publicly many times, I do think that this film represents the Gore I witnessed in his last great act. The issues he was focused on in his final years are in this film: his concern for the Constitution and the loss of habeas corpus, his concern about the voting process, his dire warnings about the US focus on empire building and war mongering, his disgust during the Bush era and his warnings about the elite agenda and corporate control of America. He was horrified by the direction this country is headed and especially about the acceleration of wealth and lack of concern for the poor. He did, however, hold out some hope that things could change through the action of the citizens and was a supporter of the youth and protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street.

I feel very strongly that this film needed to be made to remind people, especially young people, of the courage and intellect of Gore Vidal. I feel like even though he was a man of a different generation, his spirit and ideas are as current today as they ever were. He was always ahead of his time. The same issues he was addressing back in the 60s and 70s such as cooperate control and inequality are even bigger problems today. 

The process of making the film started with me getting to know Gore, spending time with him, doing interviews and simply following him around to his many speaking engagements and events. He let me come into his homes in Ravello and Hollywood and was actually very generous with his time. While we were filming, I also researched his past on camera appearances by looking at an enormous amount of archival footage. This consisted of most of the interviews he had done stretched over four or five decades, including talk show appearances and many great moments that I dug out of the archives at the British Film Institute that I don’t think the American public had seen before. Then came the mammoth task of sorting and editing this material, which was really a matter of building a commentary on modern American history through his comments and selecting the most exciting and dramatic moments from his on-air appearances. This was a really interesting process and revealed just how many subjects he addressed over the years. Gore loved to be provocative and his sharp wit made for good television and so talk show hosts invited him back time and again.

After the first pass of the editing, I did even more filming with Gore to try and get him to address his personal life in more detail but on camera he always steered away from certain subjects. At this time I decided that some other voices were needed to fill in the detail. I interviewed his sister Nina and close friends Jodie Evans and Tim Robbins who were able to give new insight to this relationship with Howard Austen. I was also lucky enough to get an interview with Christopher Hitchens not long before he died which added a different dimension to the film as Gore and Hitch had initially been close but then had a dramatic falling out over the Iraq War.

Altogether the editing took over nine months and several different editors were involved at different periods. It was a huge job but I think we got it right in the end. I wanted the pace of the film to be appealing to a contemporary audience. We used many of Gore’s funny and often poignant words to punctuate the film and bridge different scenes and eras. I am very happy with the way the film turned out.

One question that people seem to ask when they leave the film is, “Who will pick up the baton now that Gore has passed on?” I am afraid I don’t really have an answer for this. I hope that the film will inspire a new generation to question the media representations they are receiving in the mainstream press. Gore was a unique and brilliant man with an eloquent and witty manner and I don’t think we will see anyone like him again.  Even in his later years, Gore was never afraid to shine light on the issues most important to our liberties. Our loss in Gore’s passing is one that can never be replaced. 

My hope is that this film will be enjoyed by all Gore Vidal fans and also inspire a new generation to be courageous and speak out to demand truth from those who hold power in our society. His overview of the current state of the Republic and the health of US democracy is unique and incisive. I see it as a call to arms, the last word of a great American provocateur. He called himself a correctionist and he greatly enjoyed speaking truth to power. 


This article is related to: Filmmakers Forum