archive research

Archive Researchers, Documentary Productions

Interview With Rhodri Lowis On His Work For Werner Herzog & Andre Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev


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Meeting Gorbachev was undeniably one of the standout archival productions on Archive Valley during 2018. As the head of the archive research, Rhodri Lowis found archives that eventually helped to build a very different portrait of Gorbachev, following the unique artistic vision of Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. We had the chance to catch up with Rhodri and learn about his experience working with these two amazing filmmakers and how Archive Valley became an important part of this archival production.

How did you get involved in this ambitious project?

I was doing some research for André Singer’s company Spring Films and he was going into production with the project, having finalised the funding. He took me on in a preliminary research role and I stubbornly stuck around!

When you started the project how specific were the directions gave by the two directors?

There was naturally some specific direction, but I was given some freedom to explore interesting areas. A lot was rather implicit, given that what is most important about Gorbachev’s life were the 6 years during which he was the leader of the USSR. As an international project (we were supported by A&E in the USA and MDR/Arte in Germany) there was a degree of focus on Gorbachev’s international dealings – with the USA, Germany, UK etc. – and how this resonates in present-day geopolitics.

As one might expect, there were some very precise demands from Werner Herzog – for example, a specific aerial shot of the “Baltic Chain”, where two million people across the region linked arms to demonstrate for independence. He also remembered reading of some footage of Gorbachev’s predecessor, the dying Chernenko, voting from his hospital room made to look like an official polling station. To him, these and a few other clips were essential to the narrative, and that was clear quite early on. My instructions from André were more broad, ranging from Gorbachev’s early life under Nazi occupation, following his rise through the ranks of the Soviet system, to the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. We amassed as much footage as possible and periodically would go through images, filtering out generic material to be best prepared for the edit.

Our producer Svetlana Palmer grew up under Gorbachev and worked on CNN’s Cold War series, and so had both first-hand memories and strong archive knowledge of major events in the Eastern Bloc. This really enriched the scope of the archive we could look for and her input was invaluable. Beyond that, as I also worked across the general research and preparation for interviews, that put me in a good position to think of areas to explore for archive footage.

You made quite a few requests through Archive Valley’s platform. What were your goals – trying to bring as much context as possible or finding the unexpected?

Well, both really. We had done some extensive background research and so had a good idea of the footage we wanted for some sections of the film – protests in precise locations leading to the breakup of the USSR, landmark events such as Chernobyl and the Reykjavik Summit, and particular press conferences. But I also put out a few requests hoping for some unexpected material. For example, we came across some little-seen footage of the Belavezha Accords, an agreement to effectively dissolve the USSR between the leaders of the Soviet republics. This was a huge moment that sealed the fate of the Union and decided the future of the now former-Soviet countries, and it was great to find it on camera. The Archive Valley platform was really useful to get these requests out to a broad spectrum of companies and independent researchers
with whom I could then discuss directly and in more detail the nature of our requests so as to ensure the best possible footage could be sent to us.

Is there a specific footage that you personally think stands out?

There’s some wonderful rarely-seen footage from the Russian State Archives in Krasnogorsk, which we used throughout the film but especially in a sequence depicting the funerals of Gorbachev’s three predecessors in very quick succession: mass parades, elaborate hearses and the frail remaining members of the gerontocracy that Gorbachev inherited. Werner also remembered a rather understated coverage of the initial opening of East-West relations. This was confirmed when we dug around local news archives. A clip from Austrian TV news in 1989 offered some gardening advice: to use a mug of beer to entice your booze-loving slug infestation and kill them off… The report is then followed by a somewhat underwhelming announcement that the Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh had ordered the dismantling of the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria – the first hole in the Iron Curtain! Werner was astonished that somebody had decided this was less important news than beer and slugs, and it formed an amusing and memorable sequence in the film.

What was your experience dealing with Russian archive sources?

Our project was split about 50-50 between Russian and non-Russian archive sources. Everything in Russia and the former Soviet Union was expertly sourced and managed by our excellent Archive Producer Masha Oleneva, whose encyclopedic archival knowledge found us the best material there was. She is immensely experienced and ensured that negotiating with Russian archives was a relatively painless process.

The documentary is composed of three big interviews with Gorbachev by Werner Herzog. Did the archival research start before the interviews? What was their impact on your research process?

Yes, there was an initial scout to see what was out there, and as the interviews progressed, we had a better idea of what we could search for and use to furnish these conversations that form the film’s backbone. We didn’t have a very orthodox schedule, owing to Gorbachev’s health and availability; this demanded that interviews be carried out sometimes at very short notice or delayed at the last minute. This definitely dictated the direction of the film’s archive research; while we waited for an interview, we collected and refined material, but as soon as an interview was completed, it would throw up many more areas of interest for research and so it was really on a week-by-week basis in terms of direction.

How did you perceive the work dynamics and creative process between these two filmmakers?

This was my first time working with Werner and André, and both had very distinct methods that melded together well during the film’s progression. I was based at Spring Films in London with André and we worked much more closely.

André is a leading anthropologist, and as expected the research was directed with academic rigor. Over 9 months I saw his very methodical approach: we combed through reams of transcripts of dialogue between Gorbachev and other leaders and in parallel looked for interesting corresponding footage. Early on, he had a pretty clear idea of the film’s structure, and that certainly informed the visual material we researched.

Werner’s approach was rather different… He had the ideas in his head and in a small notebook that he took to the interviews with Gorbachev, but it was hard to predict which areas he would explore in the conversations. The same could be said for the edit: we had a pretty good idea of the film’s narrative, but Werner arrived and highlighted many other areas that we hadn’t, and this carved out a different direction.

I learnt quickly to predict nothing with Werner, and to only expect to be surprised!

What was the most challenging part of the archival production?

Our schedule was unforeseeably accelerated during the edit, so this gave us less time to negotiate and finalise deals with archive houses. I’d say the most challenging part, however, was keeping on top of all the material we had coming in – so many spreadsheets! I had to stay on top of where a piece comes from and how to access it, how much we were using from each archive house, all in the middle of an accelerated and naturally constantly changing edit period. It was certainly challenging, but to wish for more time would have been a luxury. This constrained time frame, in fact, helped us to focus more and be a bit more ruthless in negotiation! If something was going to cost too much, we dropped it, and our 6-month old catalog we had assembled often gave us cheaper and better alternatives.

How different is this film from a regular political biopic?

As the film’s title suggests, it is more the “meeting” of Gorbachev and Werner Herzog and the far-reaching conversations they had, rather than a day-by-day of Gorbachev’s life. Having said that, it was important to guide the viewer chronologically given that it was such a short time period (6 years) in which he changed the world. It was also essential to lay out these key moments explicitly for the younger generation – to which I belong – who have little if any memory of his impact on the 21st Century. I think we managed to avoid a regular portrait by highlighting the personal side behind Gorbachev’s political image – his family life, especially his profoundly moving relationship with his wife Raisa, which brings out the human side to a global leader. To add to this, we focused on the lesser-known and arguably pivotal moments of the era – the Hungary-Austria border fence for example. I think André’s all-bases-covered approach to research combined with Werner’s unconventional tendency to pick up on these unexpected areas strongly contributed to this film being more than a straightforward biopic.

Documentary Productions, Rare footage

Interview with Rich Remsberg, on his work for the latest Netflix docuseries ‘Bobby Kennedy for President’


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‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ is shaping up to be one of Netflix’s biggest documentary releases of 2018. The four-part series is not only a fascinating study of American politics during that period but also an intimate portrait of the complex Robert Kennedy. We had the chance to catch up with the series’ Archival Producer, Rich Remsberg, who is also a member of our international community of professional archive researchers. We spoke about the monumental archive research and production that made this series a true achievement in historical documentary.

How did you get involved in the project? There are plenty of films dedicated to the Kennedy’s, what made this one unique for you?

From the initial phone call with the producers, it was clear that this project would go deeper than the usual treatment of Robert Kennedy. For starters, the four-hour format allowed for the archival to breathe in a way that is not possible in shorter docs. The intelligence that the director and producers conveyed in talking about the story suggested that they understood RFK’s complexities and contradictions and that this story would be told with a good deal of dimension.

USA. New York City. 1966. Portrait of Robert KENNEDY in his apartment.

Considering the enormous volume of archives coming from multiple sources, how did you manage to organize the workflow?

Largely by relying on colleagues! During the research phase of the project, I was focused on finding material; our archival co-producer, Brian Becker, sorted and tracked it all. We used color coding and a couple of pretty straightforward spreadsheets on Google Docs, and Brian had a lot in his head. Our assistant editors ran a very tight ship, and our story producer, Elizabeth Wolff, had total recall for every aspect of RFK’s history.

For managing costs and licensing, I had a more complicated set of linked Excel spreadsheets to accommodate the four individual episodes and project totals. I came to see spreadsheets as something like crossword puzzles, where the game is to fill in every square.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

Without question, the most difficult part of the project was the effort to get footage from archives that would not grant access or made it difficult. There were several, with varying reasons and importance to the project, and they resolved in different ways. For political and politeness sake, I won’t go into details, but it was extremely stressful and we lost a lot of sleep over it. My hair was actually falling out in clumps.

Negotiating terms to meet our budget and ironing our contract language for so many different sources was also a challenge. Because we started ordering for the first hour before we knew what we were using in the fourth, it was especially awkward. I’m grateful to the archives who were willing to work with us on this.

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Rich Remsberg in his home studio.

What was your ‘eureka’ moment?

Hard to say, the production schedule didn’t leave much time for savoring in such things. Certainly, finding the footage of Marian Wright Edleman testifying before the Senate committee was an important moment. She speaks so unbelievably beautifully, and she laid out most of what we needed for the exposition of RFK’s southern poverty tours. It also alerted the team to her as a contemporary interview, and she added a lot to the film in that respect.

Another important moment was finding Howard K. Smith’s critical commentary on the Kennedys. There wasn’t much in the way of television news commentary in those early years – Smith and one other commentator were about it. I went through a lot of old TV listings to find references to the original aired programs, but the films were not in the ABC archives. There was a moment of panic, but then I managed to find surviving reels of enough of the programs at the University of Wisconsin. We were able to access from UW and clear with ABC.

Is there a specific piece of footage that you are the most proud of?

There are probably bigger moments to point to, but I liked a lot of the small details, mostly from local news archives, that helped paint a very human picture of Bobby – both the ways people connected with him and their deep dislike of him: Paul Newman’s terse comments from WTMJ, the woman with the excellent bouffant hairdo from Southern Methodist, a dozen different pieces from University of Georgia.

Bobby Kennedy for President

Did you use any international sources to bring fresh new perspectives to the story?

Only a British Pathé newsreel and a British interview that is now in an American archive. This was mostly a US-focused story. For the beats on RFK’s travel to Europe and South Africa, we mostly relied on coverage from the National Archives and the networks.

Could you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the director? How did the script evolve over time with the footage you found?

I worked with Dawn Porter, the director, and Laura Michalchyshyn, the Executive Producer, mostly on big-picture aspects of the project: tone, overall story, the nature of Bobby’s character, key elements, and so forth. Also on budget and legal concerns. For the more specific development, I worked closely with Elizabeth and Brian, considering how to fill story beats, figuring how best to use different pieces of archival, how the archival could build the story structure. As Elizabeth developed the script, there was a lot of her hitting me with requests and my finding the footage quickly to get it into the edit.

Everyone on the project favored using the best footage we could and figuring out how to clear and pay for it later. That made for some long days toward the end, but I think it paid off on the screen.

DawnPorter
Dawn Porter, the director of the series

Netflix is putting a strong focus on heavy archive-driven projects, proving that there is a real demand for the genre. What was the key to creating an immersive experience for a broad audience? How do you think the film appeals to a younger generation?

I think we’ve recently entered a golden age for archival documentaries. One of the best things about that is the platform allows for greater integrity of archival material. Rather than dropping bits of illustrative archival into one- to six-second slots during interviews, there is time for the archival to breathe, to create a more cohesive immersive environment, to convey subtlety, to suggest mood, to express more complex thoughts, to live with contradiction, to get a visceral feel for the atmosphere of the time. OJ was great about this, so was Wild Wild Country. We’re seeing it more and more. I’ve been saying that four hours is the new hour.

Another is that by virtue of being archival-driven it can be less mediated. Interviews can still offer some perspective and keep the story on track, but allowing the archival to carry the historical information leaves more space for the viewer to bring his or her own understanding to the story. I think the best films leave the audience with a complex understanding of the subject and room for different viewers to have different understanding.

I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in where an executive producer says that young people just aren’t interested in history. I’ve never believed that to be true, and what I’ve found from talking to actual young people is that they expect the visuals to look good, and they don’t want the film to tell them what to think.

How do you think the movie resonates with the audience considering the current political and social developments in USA?

Hoo boy, this really merits a much longer rant, but in the interest of space, I’ll say that 1968 was a node in history where we might have taken a better path. It can be dangerous to play with counterfactual what-ifs, but it’s hard not to entertain at least a thought of that road not taken. I don’t harbor a simple belief that Bobby would have taken us into a beautiful sunlight-bathed world of compassion and justice, but he was an extremely powerful voice – arguably the best voice – for growing in a more mature way as a country, in understanding what it means to be an American citizen.

But here we are, a half century later, with the path taken, a selfish decline to the end of empire. At the same time, there are also other forces at work, and it’s right to ask where in that Bobby’s spirit dwells. It can certainly be found in much of the political resistence, of course, and I think it can be found in our individual sense of decency – not only in committed activists or people who even identify as especially political, just regular people whose conscience says, No that’s not okay; I recognize a different responsibility, and I feel something kinder.

We were never able to fit it into the film, but we tried working with the Dion song, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It’s a romantic piece that misconceives the killing of Lincoln, JFK, King, and RFK. The part that still gives me chills, though, is the bridge where he asks the simple questions, “Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good in you and me?”


Rich Remsberg is part of Archive Valley’s community which boasts 500+ talented archive researchers in over 60 countries. If your production needs an archival researcher/producer, you can sign up and find the right person for the job in just a couple of easy steps.

 

Archive Researchers, Documentary Festivals, Rare footage

MIPDoc2018: Key takeaways from Archive Valley’s panel​ talk with James Hunt and Thorsten Pollfuss


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Archive Valley was thrilled to attend MIPDoc 2018. The event, dedicated to non-fiction programming, hosts 700 participants from over 50 countries—making it a perfect stage for Archive Valley to showcase our passion for archival footage and research. Our CEO Melanie Rozencwajg worked with an amazing team behind the event to organize and lead a panel discussion about the enormous potential of rare archives, and how they empower storytelling through unique global perspectives. The title of the panel was “Archives & Storytelling: Unearthing Unique Footage at a Global Scale.” 
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Documentary Festivals, Rare footage

SPOTLIGHT: 4 Archive-Driven Documentaries @ HotDocs2018


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We have prepared for you a short selection of films from this year’s edition of HotDocs that we expect to showcase some of the best work in the field of archive research in 2018. With the full line-up published, it was easy to spot the productions that rely on the meticulous research of both personal and external archive sources. Some of the productions will have their World/North American premieres making the festival a truly special moment for the filmmakers and researchers behind them. The selected films come from very different places, periods, each with a unique personal narrative making a great complete watching experience if you want to see all of them (something that we definitely will).

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The Right Footage

Stock and Archive Footage: What’s the Difference?


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We’ve all encountered stock footage whether in advertisements, or even in documentary films: ready-made footage that is used by a creator to illustrate part of a narrative or to create a certain aesthetic. However, though archive footage technically serves the same role, there are some fundamental differences between stock and archive footage that are important when trying to understand pricing, and the rights required to use the footage.

In other words, when producing a program for film or television, when am I searching for “stock,” and when is it seeking out “archive footage?”  (more…)