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“Tension and Fluidity”


Nick Broomfield asks questions for a living. A graduate of England’s National Film School, the 55-year-old filmmaker has made his name by pushing formal and political boundaries concerning documentaries, as well as occasional “buttons,” in his explorations of equally difficult and fascinating subjects, from Courtney Love to Aileen Wuornos to, in his 2002 film Biggie & Tupac, Voletta Wallace and Suge Knight.


Broomfield first caught attention for Who Cares (1978), a documentary on urban redevelopment in Liverpool, eventually used by the British government in a reassessment of policy. Since then, he has been prolific, his films ranging in style from vérité (the award-winning Chicken Ranch, a 1984 study of legal prostitution in Nevada) to satirical documentary (Proud to Be British in 1979) to fiction (Dark Obsession/Diamond Skulls, made in 1989; released in the U.S. in 1991).


He has long worked with producer-director-cinematographer Joan Churchill, beginning with Juvenile Liaisons (1975), a study of police working with youthful offenders, which inspired a follow-up in 1990, Juvenile Liaisons II. Their 1990s documentaries have been increasingly deconstructive, in the sense that they pose more questions than answers, and don’t even pretend to be objective. His films have become increasingly popular, as well, including Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Kurt & Courtney (1998), and last year’s Biggie & Tupac. His newest film, co-directed with Churchill, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, will premiere in the States at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2003.


The occasion for our conversation is the April 2003 DVD release of Biggie & Tupac, by Razor & Tie. An investigation of the investigations into the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, Broomfield’s movie considers the intersections of the music industry, police corruption, gang affiliations, and organized crime. He’s especially keen on bringing the cases into the media spotlight again, in hopes of encouraging serious efforts to solve them. We begin by discussing the end of the film, in which Broomfield and his film crew return to the home of Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother.



PopMatters:

How did you decide to return to Voletta at film’s end, rather than finishing with the rather spectacular Suge Knight interview?



Nick Broomfield:

I felt that Voletta was the heart and soul of the film, in the sense that I think she’s what an audience will really remember and relate to. I think if the case is going to get solved, it will come from those emotions. Voletta and the Christopher Wallace Estate are bringing a lawsuit against the L.A.P.D., and I think that will have an effect in creating the momentum to solve the case. So, Voletta represents the future, in that way.



PM:

You think the case will be solved?



NB:

The case has been reopened, and when I spoke to Russell Poole last—and I don’t know if he’s being unduly optimistic—he said he thought it would be solved this year. The investigation is in motion again, witnesses are being re-interviewed, and there seems to be a renewed vigor to come to terms with what happened.



PM:

It’s not so often that films can affect the “real life” they reflect.



NB:

I think the film is part of a group of forces, including Randall Sullivan’s book [LABrynth], and the lawsuit, all bringing attention to the case. And there has been embarrassment in the Los Angeles Police Department, for the new Police Chief [William Bratton] who has just arrived, and he wants to show he’s not connected in the way that [Bernard] Parks was. I think Parks’ own family, his daughter and granddaughter were involved in gang behavior. His daughter knew David Mack quite well, and was arrested in Las Vegas herself for cocaine possession, and the granddaughter was shot in a gang shootout, and killed. So I think Parks was sort of involved. A lot of people were saying he was trying to shield his daughter. This was another reason why David Mack had not been more vigorously investigated.



PM:

I know that you started this film in part because of [producer] Michele D’Acosta’s work on a Tupac piece and your own interest in the Rampart scandal. How did you come to structure all of these many stories into a manageable film?



NB:

I used something very simple, which is that it went back to his friendship between Biggie and Tupac, that all these forces served to break up. It’s all about how you tell the story, and it can be told many different ways. I wanted to find a way to tell it in a personal way, which I thought would be more engaging than making it a political analysis, like a head-on analysis of the Rampart scandal. I suppose all of these stories are about the same thing: the position of black Americans has not moved enormously from the Civil Rights days. Although there are no signs saying “Whites Only,” the less overt racism has the same effect when it comes to justice, educational possibilities, and the rest of it. That’s ultimately what the story is about, any way you cut it. I thought that if you came out and said that too blatantly, you’d alienate some of the audience.



PM:

You mentioned your interest in making the film “personal.” Certainly the Biggie and Tupac and Voletta stories are very personal, but your presence in your films make all them “personal” in specific ways.



NB:

I think that’s very important. I just finished another film about Aileen Wuornos, after her execution. In this new film, I’m subpoenaed as a witness. I think that when I just filmed her, and there’s a lot of her in the film, it’s hard to have empathy that’s required. And I think that if the filmmaker is involved and affected, and forms personal relations, it becomes a way for the audience to do the same thing. This makes the subjects accessible.



PM:

And it also makes documentaries more marketable, in a way, as they struggle just to be seen.



NB:

It’s very hard. I remember when I was doing the film for HBO, about fetishes in New York [Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandora’s Box, a 1996 profile of an S&M sex club], the more personal I made it, the more involving and more tolerable it became for the audience, maybe neutralized it in a way. I think it’s a more compelling way to tell a complicated story that hasn’t got an inherent structure. I came out of doing observational films, cinema vérité, and in a way, Biggie & Tupac is like a detective story, and a lot of its elements are disparate. Without a thought track connecting them, I don’t think the audience would follow it. The easiest thing is to use what’s there, which is one’s own journey, one’s own perception.



PM:

Your films tend to take a particular form, the “quest,” with driving shots, the boom mic in the shot, the doorways entered. And they also undermine the idea that there’s a Truth with a big T.



NB:

I think it’s all about raising questions, about making the audience think about their own position, their own ideas. I went to a film school where the emphasis was on ethnographic films. We were taught to work in crews of two, and I carried on with that. I do sound and Joan [Churchill], my original partner from film school, does the camera. I do have researchers one doesn’t see, and producers, but it’s essentially made with that teeny team. And that allows us flexibility. I think it’s interesting to see where someone lives, to see what the drive to their house looks like, to see the interior, the meeting of people. An audience learns more in those few little shots than they do in almost any more formal setting. When I go into people’s houses, I’m fascinated to see what they have on the walls, what they wear, how they invite you in. It’s how we still usually meet people, the internet notwithstanding. It uses people’s everyday vocabulary to tell a story.



PM:

And livelier than the standard talking head.



NB:

Yes, the normal way of doing it is to go into someone’s house, rearrange their drawing rooms, put lights up everywhere, and sit down and start asking questions. And you get this completely constipated interview, not surprisingly. I never use lights, I never rearrange anything. And I like to film from the moment I meet someone. I think that keeps a tension and fluidity going. It’s when things stop, and people start fiddling around with their lenses that it’s no longer a social meeting. I want the interviews to be like conversations.



PM:

Very different from the interview with you on the Biggie DVD, where you’re posed in front of a poster for the film.



NB:

(laughs). How do you think that works on the DVD?



PM:

I think the contrast is instructive, actually.



NB:

I haven’t ever watched my interview, so I was wondering. And for the commentary track, I thought I’d just speak as I was watching the film, rather than having all these notes. I thought I’d reveal a lot more if I did it in an immediate and spontaneous way.



PM:

I appreciated when you paused in your commentary, to point out what you thought were key moments, as when Mopreme speaks to you on the street.



NB:

I must say, I really like DVD as a form. I think it is very useful and you can address issues in a specific way, which I think is very satisfying. And I think that viewers are interested in what people are thinking and how long it takes, and how something gets made.



PM:

How did you think about your audience for this film?



NB:

I wanted to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible, but also so it would work on the level of detail for the fans, though it’s really not a “music film.” On the other hand, I thought it was important that the white, middle class, liberal community would realize that the world of hiphop was different than what they might have imagined. That’s one of the reasons I put Voletta in it, in that way. The media portray [Biggie and Tupac] as two black gangstas who happen to be rap artists and were killed, so it’s kind of “So what?” There is such a separation in American communities that people don’t imagine that [Biggie] could come from a respectable, loving home, with an amazing mother.



PM:

Voletta makes herself fairly visible, even outside your film. But your conversation with Tupac’s father was unusual. How did you find him?



NB:

With great difficulty. It was literally, in the middle of nowhere, and every hour, he’d change his mind. I think he’s a shaky individual really. And he went through a period of addiction, and now he’s emotionally inconsistent. We were lucky and it was largely due to Michele’s persistence that we got to see him at all.



PM:

There’s such a range of characters across your films, but you remain constant as a persona.



NB:

Well, I think that’s sort of a life decision thing, which is that I’m always fairly consistent as to who I am. I don’t feel like I’m doing an MTV spot where I have to suck up to people and try and pretend I’m other than who I am. Sometimes that works. Though, for someone like Mopreme, initially, at least, I represented a spoiled, white, middle class filmmaker who he didn’t like. And if it hadn’t been for Michele, he wouldn’t have talked to me at all. But also, because of that, he was as revealing as he was. One of the most sensitive things about people is that they work out whether someone is sincere or if they’re performing. And if, as a filmmaker, you can remain consistent, after a while, I think that counts for a lot. Especially if you follow through and do what you say you’re going to do. People come to trust you after a while. After the first interview, I’ll phone people up and get their opinions on things, tell them what’s happening. I think that creates a feeling of openness, more of an exchange. And then it gets to the point where people call you up and say, “What do you know about this?” or, “Have you seen such and such a person?” And then you can give out information too, and acquire a more equal relationship.



PM:

Like with Russell Poole?



NB:

Yes, we had more information than he did at one point.



PM:

Have you kept up with him since the film?



NB:

Yes, and irony of ironies, Sly Stallone has bought the rights to his story. I hate to think what he’ll do with it.



PM:

Well, at least Russell has some food on the table.



NB:

Yes. After the end of the filming, he didn’t have a job. He was picking up bodies for the county. And I remember, we didn’t have much money, and he never asked us for any, but we sent him a check, and he was so effusive in thanking us. I thought it was wonderful that at last, he got a job with the sheriff’s department. I wouldn’t begrudge him making some money from Hollywood. When we showed the film at Sundance, Russell hadn’t seen the film yet, as it had literally come out of the lab and arrived at Sundance that morning. So we looked at it in this enormous theater, about 1400 people. And at the end of it, I went up and asked Russell to come up, really not knowing what he thought of it. Fortunately, he got up and gave me a great big hug. In hindsight, I see it was taking a risk, because he could have taken exception, because people do sometimes, you know. They have an impression of what you’ll put in the film that’s different from what they see.



PM:

And some come with a sense of what you’ve done before. It sounded like Suge, or someone in his office had seen a film of yours, with his injunction against “slander and funny stuff.”



NB:

Yes (laughs). Reggie Wright Jr. had seen Heidi Fleiss. But the film apparently got a good review on the Death Row website.



PM:

(laughs) Well, he was able to deliver his message to the kids.



NB:

(laughs) Apparently there was a rumor that I was going to be the Salman Rushdie of documentary film movement.



PM:

That long take of him at the end, in the prison yard, is striking.



NB:

I was tempted to interrupt, to ask him more questions. But Michele and I had talked endlessly of course, about how we were going to be with him. And we thought it was more interesting to find out who he was rather than doing a combative interview. I don’t think either of us felt he was going to confess to murdering anyone, but we knew it would be more revealing to get him to talk about what he wanted to talk about, to see how he viewed himself and the world around him. I think that’s what happened in that long take. He starts with his message to the kids, and then talks about Compton, which he obviously cares about. He’s such a product of Compton, he can’t get his vengeance for Snoop out of his system. I think one of the most amazing things about film is that in long takes, you just see things change. If you’re reporting in a different medium, say, in a newspaper, you report the conclusion. But in film, there’s a way in which you see the process of people making decisions or coming to a conclusion. No other medium has that ability. You can show things in real time.



PM:

I know that you spent a long time editing the film.



NB:

It’s such a rich story, with so many substories. I found in the initial cut that I spent too much time setting things up, informing the audience of what they were about to see. I was going into things in a detail that was interfering with the flow. So I had to find a way to simplify, so my voiceover was more my emotional experience of going through it than giving out information that somehow wasn’t coming through the footage. And we cut a lot of the substories out, that I just couldn’t do justice to. This way I could find a timeframe, an inherent structure in the material that showed an order and a progression. That took a long time. I still wonder if it couldn’t have had a more radical structure in a sense, so there was a more overtly political outer boundary about the racial situation in the States. But I think that’s inherent.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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