Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller

First Run's Judith Mizrachy (Director of Marketing), interviews Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller, directors of Howard Zinn: You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train

Judith: When did you first become aware of Howard Zinn and his work?

Denis: I became aware of him in 1986 when I first read A Peoples History of the United States.

Deb: My first introduction to Zinn came when I was an undergraduate in the 1970’s and was assigned his book, The Politics of History. It was the first time I found someone questioning how history is written, and why we are given a particular angle of history. I was thankful to have that idea early in my academic career.

Judith: What inspired you to make this film?

Denis: I was in London suffering from jet lag, and decided I needed to go find something other than the British tabloids to read. I came across a book called Failure to Quit in which Zinn outlines his reasons for remaining optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Because I loved history, I had already been wondering how one could make a film about history itself. After reading the book, I decided that maybe one way would be to follow this guy.

Deb: So, upon returning to the states, Denis called Howard (with some trepidation) and told him his idea. Denis told Howard he didn't expect him to say "yes" at that moment, but only hoped he wouldn't say "no". After seeing some of our previous work, Zinn agreed to participate on the project. Just a couple of days ago I found the original letter from Zinn agreeing to participate with Denis on the proposed project. It was dated 1997. I came on board as a "hired gun", shooting some interviews, and helping to rough together a first cut and a trailer. It was clear to me that this would be a long-term project, and I had enough interest and confidence in the idea that I joined in as co-producer/director (unpaid instead of underpaid!).

Judith: Did you encounter any obstacles while making this film? Was it difficult to find funding?

Denis: Yes it was very difficult, in part because often funders are looking for different ways to tell a story, but we felt that since Howard is a narrative historian, the form should follow the content. This did not sit well. The left needs to be able to tell stories that a broad public can respond to. Sometimes we get too lost in form. So funding was a struggle.

Deb: This was a difficult film to fundraise for. It's too mainstream in form for alternative funders, and the subject is too radical for traditional funders. We were fortunate to have some seed money from the Illinois Humanities Council and the Illinois Arts Council to start the project with. We "piggy-backed" interviews around the country on other, paid jobs. We did our entire rough cut in my basement. In the end, several people were very generous and provided funds that allowed us to finish the film. And, while our foundation support was limited, every penny was important. I think that regardless of the difficulties with fundraising, we always knew we had an audience, and we always knew we had a story. These two things kept us moving. Our question was always how to finish the film to get it out there.

Judith: How did Matt Damon become involved with the project?

Denis: I learned that Matt had grown up next to the Zinn's and that his mother was a friend of the family. What is interesting is that before we met him for the recording session, we called Howard and asked him what Matt was like, and wondered whether Matt had called Howard to check us out. I was stunned to find out that Matt never asked Howard about us and Howard told us, "He is a very trusting guy." Matt has been great to us and I hope people know that this is a person who is committed.

Deb: It was interesting working with Damon in the recording session. After he read the first excerpt I made a suggestion about inflection (yeah right – making a suggestion to Matt Damon? Who did I think I was?) His response was that he felt it was better to read the material straight, and allow the strength of the words to come through on their own. He was right, and his judgment really makes a difference in the tone of the film. It was such a pleasure to work with someone of his depth – even if the actual time was short!

Judith: Can you talk a little bit about some of the other projects you’ve worked on before this?

Denis: I've worked on several projects. One of them was with Deb about the FBI's COINTELPRO program. This was shown on several PBS stations, and continues to be sold and screened around the country. I worked on several things about the VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) around the idea of the nature of war. I've done a lot of stuff on the FBI and even on the Kennedy assassination. I love working on a film. What is especially interesting to me is how you can, especially in the compilation documentary, make a collage in a sense.

Deb: I’ve been a behind-the-scenes participant in the independent documentary community for over twenty years – teaching, working on many projects in a variety of capacities, and making my own films. I lived in Chicago for nearly fifteen years, and despite the fact that I now live in my home state of Vermont, I still feel most connected professionally with my comrades there. I had the good fortune to be introduced to documentary through Jack Ellis (no relation), one of my grad school professors. He had known Flaherty, and I used to savor that connection. My initial interest in film was related to its potential as an instigator in social dialogue. My own work includes UnBidden Voices, an experimental documentary based an East Indian women and about negotiating the space of “other”; The FBI’s War On Black America made with Denis; Skin Deep: Norplant in Poor Communities (co-produced with Alex Halkin) currently being translated for distribution in Spanish-speaking Latin America. Today, I continue to teach, serve on the board of the Vermont International Film Foundation, and work on my next projects.

Judith: The film includes both archival and recent footage, interviews with Zinn and his friends and colleagues, and Zinn’s own words narrated by Matt Damon. Can you discuss some of the filming and editing choices you had to make combining all of this material?

Denis: We had shot nearly 100 hours of footage and edited various segments and versions of the film for a long while, but the piece never really seemed to pull itself together until the war came. Then we knew we had something. It's strange, because external events dictate what you do in many cases. Sometimes, if you wait long enough, events will happen. I don't mean that to be flippant, but films - at least documentaries - are organic and in some ways make themselves, but the filmmaker has to find just what a particular film’s form is. By that I mean to be open enough to be willing to change from what you originally intended to something possibly different.

Deb: Our goals determined where we would go and where we wouldn't go in terms of Howard's story. Our goal was to look at the 20th century through Zinn's life - and to use his perspective as a thread to look at the great social movements of the century. To that end, our piece is not an expose, or an attempt to find "the inner Zinn". On the other hand, Zinn has a remarkable warmth and genuine spirit that comes through in the film. As filmmakers, we felt fortunate. Because of Howard's good will, there has been a spirit that has followed us through the production. Everyone we asked was willing to do interviews with us, permission to use archival materials and music was less traumatic that it could have been. That part was great. Working with Howard was a total honor and pleasure.

While I wouldn't say that there were things that were off-limits, it did become clear to me that my own interest in exploring more “inner-Zinn” was not a direction we’d go in this film. I would say that Howard was protective, especially of his family. He has a public story to tell. But in the end, his wife Roz was amazingly supportive, helping us with photographs, many kind words, and even some logistics. A few times, we discussed certain areas of questioning with Howard and together came to a consensus about how to proceed. Again, not to the detriment of the story. And, when we were finished, Howard and Roz did provide us with a list of their "notes", and we took the opportunity to tell Howard why we believed our choices were correct! That was interesting! Actually, I think there was one place we made a cut - not because he asked us to, but because his reaction to this specific part of the film broke a stalemate between Denis and myself, and tipped the scales in terms of what to do. Believe me, it was a relatively minor issue. But, I think the incident does reflect the process, and suggests that we maintained control of the piece throughout.
There are questions we would still like to ask Zinn, but I don't think any of them would have changed the course of the film in the long run. With a project of this length, and this long in the making, there are always going to be areas we wish could be explored further in the film. I guess I'd just say there are many more stories to be told!

Judith: The film’s soundtrack includes songs by Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, and Pearl Jam. How did you decide which music would appear in the film?

Denis: I love Bragg's music and was very familiar with the song “Power in the Union” and the fact that it is an old song done in a modern way – sort of Woody Guthrie meets the Clash - so that had to be used. Originally, Deb called up Eddie Vedder to talk about funding, and he called us back saying we could use his song “Down” that has the line “you can’t be neutral on a moving train” in it. Eddie is a friend of Howard's, and hey, it's Pearl Jam. The Guthrie song, “The Ludlow Massacre” was chosen because it illustrates an incident in Howard's life.

Deb: Denis is the music guy! ! Our composer, Richard Martinez did a great job interpreting the film and providing the bedrock that holds the emotional tone of the piece together.

Judith: Your film has appeared at a time when Zinn’s message is especially relevant. Was this timing intentional?

Denis: No, not at all. We just struggled to finish, but it is funny - and I really believe this - that ideas don't just come out of the thin air. By that I mean other people are thinking about the same thing. I think what Howard has to say will be relevant as long as our leaders drag us into wars.

Deb: The project has taken over 6 years complete. There is one piece of footage that always reminds me of that - the section when Howard receives the 1998 Eugene Debs Award for Excellence in Teaching. Some of the time spent was due to fundraising and trying to support production and post-production on the project. Some of the length is due to the fact that both of us teach and freelance to support ourselves and that the film never attracted big enough money to allow us to concentrate on the project full time. Also, I think both of us are process oriented, and it took some time to figure out exactly what the final piece would look like. We spent time showing early cuts to people and asking for feedback. We were amazed at how strongly people responded to seeing Zinn on screen and hearing him talk, as opposed to hearing people talk about him. This led us toward using Howard - or direct reference to specifics about Howard, throughout the film. Maybe, in this particular case, the time it took to finish was fortuitous. Today, Howard's message is so important for people to hear. His life story, and analysis of history, provide an astounding thread through which we can both understand and respond to our current state of affairs.

Judith: What has the audience reaction been to this film?

Denis: That is the best part. I think Howard says things that cut to their hearts and they admire his own struggle to be who he is. People like it because he doesn't hit you over the head. He does, but it is done in a way that people except, because he is such an engaging person. As we went along we wanted the world to see the man that we came to know. Getting to know, and be friends with Howard and Roz Zinn, was the best part of the making of this. So we wanted the audience to feel the same. He is who he says he is. As the rappers say, he keeps it real, so the audience feels that.

Deb: Personally, I like standing in the back of an audience to watch and listen as the film plays. In high-brow academic audiences, the film is watched with caution – fewer laughs. A general audience typically seems moved. My favorite audience member is my uncle, a man I usually consider to be rather conservative, but who drove 2 hours to opening night in Boston even though I wasn’t there. He called me in the morning and told me he really enjoyed it. He called me again after he saw The New York Times review, and this time said, “I’ve always known things were screwed up.” And, he proceeded to tell me stories about his experience in the National Guard. I think he responded really genuinely to the film in the way that many audiences do – Howard’s humanity really affects people.