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It is kind of a dance


Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus have a rhythm together, like they’re used to talking and thinking as a team. No wonder—they’ve spent over two years—intensively—working on Startup.com, a documentary on the spectacularly speedy rise and fall of an internet company called govWorks.com. Conceived and developed by Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, friends since childhood, govWorks was designed to facilitate interaction between local government, citizens, and businesses and began during the dotcom boom.


Startup.com is the first film for 25-year-old Noujaim—Kaleil Isaza Tuzman’s roommate at the time she and Hegedus decided to make the film, which, a circumstance that they both agree gave them unusual “access” to their subject—and of a piece with Hegedus’s previous work with her partner D A Pennebaker (who also produced Startup.com), such as Moon Over Broadway (1998), a documentary on the production of a Broadway musical starring Carol Burnett, and The War Room (1992), a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.



Cynthia Fuchs:

What’s at stake in making a documentary, for you?



Chris Hegedus:

You’re always making the same old thing. We’re always looking for a story where we can follow some person through something in their life that is important to them, that has some kind of risk and built-in dramatic structure, so that we can make a film in a style that is as similar to a fictional feature as possible, and gives the viewer the sense that he’s dropped in that world and gets to experience it. That’s what has always been interesting to me in filmmaking, and quite often you can’t do that, you don’t get the dramatic arc or a character that interesting.



Jehane Noujaim:

Kaleil was my roommate, so I was feeling that in addition to being able to follow this story over a period of time, I was very interested in getting a personal side as well. We decided it would make a better film to continue living together, to focus on Kaleil and Tom’s relationship. And you need a period of time and access to watch those emotions come to surface.



CF:

The film has a mix of domestic scenes and office or business scenes, all showing something different about these guys.



CH:

Well, we had exceptional access since Jehane was living in Kaleil’s house: of course we were coming in! It was a true luxury that was given to me when I partnered with Jehane on this. You want to get as many sides of people as possible in those situations. In a lot of ways it was difficult to get a balance because all they did was work. They didn’t have much of a life. So we were always desperate to find the girlfriend [Dora]—and Kaleil was hardly with her during that whole time.



JN:

In editing, we looked through all this footage looking for shots of them together, and there weren’t any. So all of the stuff with Dora is by herself, except that one scene, but he’s on the phone!



CF:

How do you deal with the ways that people are affected when you’re filming them?



CH:

You don’t deny that you’re there. But if you are there enough, you really are part of their life and they can’t be bothered with you after a while. They were so involved in what they were doing, really hanging on by their fingernails so much of the time. So they couldn’t be worried that we were filming, and the times that they were, we’d work it out with them, but you can’t film everything, and you try to get what you can.



CF:

The personal relationship between Kaleil and Tom develops so dramatically, almost as if you’d written a script.



JN:

At the beginning I have to say, I was thinking a business story could be very dry. And a lot of the meetings were. But it was so exciting: they were like an adventure group: I used to read the Secret Seven and adventure stories. So here were these guys who wanted to raise a lot of money and put government online and change the way government works. And 6 months later he’s sitting next to the President and has raised $60 million. It was fascinating to watch, though, because of the personal relationship.



CF:

On some level, the whole set up is unreal to most of us, just the staggering amounts of money they’re talking about.



CH:

(laughs): Right. We’re trying to make ends meet. Kaleil and his friends came from Goldman Sachs, they were already making $300,000 a year salaries, so it was a big step down for them in salary, to make $90,000, and then they’re charging out there to raise $20 million, and did it in like four weeks. That’s something to watch. They’re only 27 years old, and walk in with this idea and walk out with $20 million. It’s generational, too: all this money is out there for all these young kids.



JN:

What really interested Chris and I was their idealism. This wasn’t a movie about barbeque.com. When they started, they had a flat structure, where everyone would be working together, and that had to change when they got so much money and had to have a hierarchy. But they had great ideas at first: they were going to move the office to Harlem, create a kind of internet community, bridge the digital divide, and bring government back to the people. But then you had your cynics, concerned with making money. I think it was difficult to balance the demands of the venture capitalists who wanted to make money quick and the idealism. There was a lot of pressure to make products that made money.



CH:

I really admired them taking on that kind of responsibility at that age, the caliber of people they enticed to be on their board. There was so much competition too, not necessarily for the same idea—not many people have the ambition to take on government—but there were other companies working in the sphere already, without the internet. So it was like David and Goliath, once these other companies figured that out.



CF:

Did Tom and Kaleil have input into the structure of the film?



JN:

They didn’t see footage until the end, but that was because the thinking was, it was a joint process. It was their film as well, and they should want us to be there at different times. At the end, you want their opinions, you want them to like it. If you’re working with someone and they feel you’re committed to the story, they want the true story to be told. But looking at footage along the way just makes you self-conscious.



CH:

Yeah, they start seeing themselves as actors in their own lives. That’s why we don’t do much interviewing along the way. It gives people the impression that all you want to do is interview them and go away and they go on with their lives. And that’s not the relationship we want to develop. We basically just had Jehane and I following them.



JN:

We thought about having two crews, and following the VCs’ [venture capitalists] side and the entrepreneurs’ side, but I don’t know, I felt so loyal to them that going down to EzGov would have been really hard.



CF:

The dotcom world is very guy-focused and -driven—how was it to work in it?



CH:

(laughs) It was really strange. We tried to use it to our advantage when we could, getting into VC meetings, acting like two girls with cameras. But it was a real problem for employees in the company. Those long hours, women don’t want to be going home at 3 in the morning in New York, and that’s when they’d be having a big meeting, “spontaneously.”



CF:

What is it that you like about collaborating on a film?



CH:

For this type of film, where you’re following a story, it’s nice to have a partner, because you don’t know what the story’s going to be, and quite often you’re feeling very unloved, so it’s good to have a partner you can commiserate and strategize with. It would be hard if the person didn’t have the same vision. And Jehane, though this is the first film she’s done, has a similar passion and had studied with a friend who makes similar types of films, so she was aware of this genre of filmmaking, and she got it right off. It is kind of a dance, figuring out how to communicate.



JN:

With sign language!



CH:

We would signal each other, you know, I think something’s happening with this phone call over here, and we’d get set up quickly.



JN:

It’s good to work with someone who can help you see the bigger picture, because you have four eyes on something all the time, you can tell when to pull back for a wide shot or something.



CF:

Documentaries don’t typically open in theaters. What is the appeal of making documentaries, for you?



JN:

When I started on this, I was actually surprised to find out that Chris and Penne [Pennebaker] aren’t making money. But it’s obviously not why you do it. It’s amazing to experience other people’s lives and I can’t imagine a better existence than what Chris and Penne do, dropping themselves into people’s lives.



CH:

Well, if you’re going to make a film, you do want critical response, and in this country, you don’t get that unless you have a theatrical release. If you just show the film on television, you might get a review but you might not, you don’t know who sees it. So if you really want audiences to see it and look at it in a critical way, you need to get to theaters. Film festivals are a good way to promote.



CF:

And cable tv?



CH:

HBO is good when you have a certain subject matter, but we never seem to make that kind of subject matter. It doesn’t have that sensationalism that they seem to like. At the same time, everybody has read about this dotcom phenomenon, they’re probably totally sick of it in some ways. But many people say after they see this film, “Now I understand what it was about. Now I really see the excitement.” They can see that there are people involved, who are ambitious but have some virtuous intentions about what they were doing, and they work very hard.



CF:

You have so much material to work with—do you see the story take shape as you film? Do you edit in your head ever or do you make all your choices in the editing room, afterwards?



JN:

There were several endings that could have happened: At the beginning we were thinking that in 6 months they’d be IPO millionaires and we’d be swimming in their pools and they’d fund our next film. The next ending would be that Tom and Kaleil might have both had to give up their posts to senior leadership, and that would be like giving up their baby. We were following so many stories at the same time, the girlfriend, the company, the relationship.



CH:

I think I try to figure out a little bit what the story is, it’s like being a detective. Right off you see that Tom and Kaleil are such opposite personalities, they were kind of like James [Carville] and George [Stephanapolous] in The War Room. You could see that Tom was the techie-artist type and very blunt and he wasn’t going to fit in with these business guys at all. You could see there was going to be some kind of problem, in the personal story. And the business part, we started knowing nothing; I told Jehane, I thought VC meant Viet Cong. I think in the end, we knew that Kaleil was a person who was so dynamic that if we just stuck to him, something was going to happen.



CF:

The language can seem alien at first.



JN:

Yeah, we thought at first we’d have to have a vocab list with the film, and then thought, we’d structure it around emails going back and forth. We had a bunch of ridiculous ideas. But while the business environment is so arcane, the focus is really the human story, and that’s easy to follow.

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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