Five questions for Kirk Simon
Guy Somerset · 09 May 2017
The director of Doc Edge film The Pulitzer at 100 on a century of journalism under attack.
The Pulitzer at 100, 6.15pm, Saturday 13 May, 2.30pm, Monday 15 May, 8.15pm, Friday 19 May, Roxy Cinema, Wellington; and 6pm, Saturday 27 May, and 9.15pm, Monday 29 May, Q Theatre, Auckland, with director Kirk Simon in attendance on both days for a post-screening Q&A. Part of Doc Edge, Wednesday 10 – Sunday 21 May, Wellington, and Wednesday 24 May – Monday 5 June, Auckland.
The Pulitzer Prizes were Joseph Pulitzer's way of lifting the reputation of journalism from the gutter after the 'yellow' period for which he had been in large part responsible. He thought the journalism prizes would be burnished by their association with those for literature and other arts. For different reasons, journalism and its reputation are under attack today – is The Pulitzer at 100 you doing something similar to what Joseph Pulitzer was, by highlighting the virtues he sought to champion?
I believe the message of The Pulitzer at 100 grows more important every day. Journalism and the arts are under attack by a tyrant who The Washington Post says lies 73 percent of the time. If there were no free press, Donald Trump would be allowed to continue his campaign of bold-faced lies. The film reminds us a press that cherishes excellence, truth and uncompromised values is essential to society.
Presumably in the process Pulitzer lifted his own reputation too. Few, other than historians, would now associate his name with 'yellow journalism'.
Pulitzer was a clever man. He certainly had his flaws but what he left behind – the Columbia School of Journalism, his namesake prizes, the Statue of Liberty installed in New York harbour – is impressive. Certainly ‘yellow journalism’ will always be a part of his Wikipedia entry but it will never be the lead.
The winners you talk to, the actors who read for you, are amazing – how was it getting people to take part? Did anyone say no? Philip Roth is a notable absentee. You have Carl Bernstein but not Bob Woodward.
I am very persistent when it comes to making multiple requests of people I would like to have in a film. I'm always surprised I don't have a stack of restraining orders attached to this film. I think Roth is America's greatest living writer and made continued requests to him to participate. Woodward initially said yes but I could never get a firm filming day. I do believe both are given their due respect in the film. However, please remember these two missing names are in a landscape that includes Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Wynton Marsalis, Nick Kristof, Michael Chabon, Marty Scorsese, Natalie Portman and many others.
Which of the winners you talk to have meant most to you personally?
I'm a reader. There are stacks of books everywhere in my New York apartment. I read Nick Kristof and Thomas Friedman's every column in The New York Times. I feel in the current political climate Marty Baron, the editor of The Washington Post, is a god. I've read the entire oeuvres of Michael Chabon, Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz and Michael Cunningham. For me, the production was a delight.
Did looking back over journalism's illustrious past make you feel better or worse about its present and future?
In the big picture, the themes of the past hundred years have remained remarkably similar: the role of race, power, women's rights and immigration. The work of these journalists and authors is remarkable. It may be a tougher assignment currently but journalists have been attacked in one way or another for the past hundred years.
Director Kirk Simon with Natalie Portman.
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