The codirector of Best of Enemies sat down recently to discuss his latest documentary covering the legendary on-air debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.
Note: This interview may contain spoilers for those who have not yet seen the film.
/comment: Did you know about this story from way back, or did you only find out about it more recently?
Robert Gordon: I knew about the debates. I knew about the blow-up, but in terms of the story we tell on the film, lots of this was revealed in the research process. We didn’t know that ABC was a third character. We didn’t know any of that story. We didn’t know the sense of parallel lives between the two — all their similarities. That all came through the research.
/c: What about the story gave you the sense that this was a tale worth retelling?
RG: The first time I saw the raw debates on a bootleg DVD in 2010, it spoke to me so contemporarily that I knew this was powerful. I knew it had two great characters — so that was good — and that what they were saying really rang with me about the present. So I thought, okay, I don’t know what the story is, but I’m ready to dive in.
/c: How long had you known you wanted to make the film?
RG: Well, from the minute I saw the debates in 2010 and we started shooting in 2010. The way we do it, Morgan Neville [the codirector] and I have made several films together in the past. We’ve kinda done them all the same way. We put some of our own money in, we go shoot and make a trailer to go raise the money. So we made a great trailer. We’re, like, “Man, we’ll have this thing out for the 2012 Presidential election. That’ll be great!”
/c: Obviously, it took longer than you thought. Surprise!
RG: Yeah, it was… In a way, you have to keep that dumbass naïveté each time you start a film — that belief that it’s going to be easy — because they’re all so hard to make. If you faced it, you’d never make it.
/c: Going through all of the archival material, did you already have a narrative that you were looking to fill, or did the material drive the narrative?
RG: The material definitely drove the narrative. We knew we had 10 debates that were a narrative progression of dramatically building tension, so we knew we had this prizefight. That’s what we referred to it going in.
/c: I referred to it in my review as Ali vs. Frazier.
RG: Yeah! Exactly, and then it was the research that allowed us to tell this ABC story, like, oh, okay, we’ve got that. Now we’ve got this thing that’s kinda wrapping around it. We had this through-line of the debates, and we had this checkerboard of their parallel lives, then we had this ABC media story that was kind of the ivy that wrapped around it all. Beautiful.
/c: Who was your most valuable resource, and why?
RG: I’ll say my film partner, quite frankly, because this was hard to figure out. It was really good for us to be able to bat all the ideas around with each other over five fucking years! Outside of that, outside of our crew, in terms of the people we interviewed… It was interesting because George Merlis [a network executive] really helped make the ABC story very plain. George Merlis and Dick Wahl [another network executive]. (Christopher) Hitchens was great. Everyone was great. It was beautiful!
/c: Tell us about how you shared duties with Morgan?
RG: Coproduce. Codirect. Commiserate.
/c: Great line. You should get a card with that.
RG: (Laughing) We both are capable of doing the same thing. A lot of the shooting we did with each other in mind. If he was in New York City on another film, he’d piggyback one of our shoots on it. I could go out and do shoots, and he might not be there. We can each work sound, so that helps. We sort of share the same tastes. It’s sort of like a Venn diagram. The part that doesn’t overlap is the part we have to argue about, and we sharpen each other’s ideas. One more sort of thing in this show. I was really into the debates themselves and just liked to immerse myself in that. When we started editing, Morgan was in L.A., and I’d go out there 10 days — two weeks a month. But he was there for when all the B-roll started coming in — all the archival material. He had a head start on me with the archival material, so the way it worked out is that I could cover us anytime there was a debate question. Our editors knew I had the answers on my fingertips. If we’re looking for some B-roll, I could turn to Morgan, E-mail him anywhere in the world and say, “Hey, here’s the issue. What do you think?”
/c: Did you get a different take watching the debates sequentially over a shorter time frame than the audience might have gotten?
RG: A little bit. The significant difference is that, in our movie, the first off-topic statement is from Vidal. In the raw debates, it’s Buckley who takes this off-topic immediately. That didn’t seem to be a make-or-break type of thing.
/c: What was it like working with ABC?
RG: ABC was great to work with. They were very helpful… once they got it… until the very end when they panicked. One guy kinda panicked, but he was just scared of what his superiors would say.
/c: What did they say?
RG: The superiors said, “We’re a news organization. We don’t censor. You can have what you want.”
/c: What was it like working with the older material? Did you have to digitize all of it?
RG: Some of it was already digitized, so the vast majority of the material comes from ABC, right? They have some digitized. They have some organized on the Web that’s not digitized, and so, by the point that we made our first trip to ABC in early 2015, we’d been on this for four years. So we placed an order and we go into ABC, and it was like a Venetian banquet.
They wheel out the first cart. It’s stacked high with 16mm film. Then they wheel out a second cart. It’s stacked high with Beta SB tapes. Then out comes this third cart that was like the advertiser cart of ¾ inch tapes. So we just dove in. What was wild was that we’re working with what’s called one-light prints — the fast, one-color transfer prints to see what you get from the raw material. So we edited with that for months of editing, then for our selects, we made HD transfers out of it, which is what you see in the film. Man, when we saw the HD transfers, we’d been working with this stuff for like 10 months. It was like seeing it for the first time. For example, we added a sound effect when Gore drops a book on a table. It turns out to be a sofa. On the HD, you see the book sink into the cushions. Oh, my God. That’s a sofa. You couldn’t tell it was a sofa on the original material.
/c: What was most challenging about having to construct this without the two biggest players being around?
RG: Well, you know, in a way not having them around was kind of nice because you don’t have to worry about what they’re going to think. You don’t have to answer to them. Gore was around when we began. We interviewed him. It was a terrible interview. It was late in life. He was not nice. He called us “Buckley-ites” 10 minutes into the interview. We went, “We’re really not. We’re not taking sides here. We’re trying to tell a bigger story.” He just didn’t agree with the premise — placing Buckley on the same plane that he was on. He just kept calling Buckley a buffoon. He just kept calling us buffoons. Yeah, and so he had already had the last word with his scathing obituary, so we felt like giving him another last word would break the balance. Our point was to keep the balance and talk about a bigger subject.
/c: Everyone’s going to ask this, but if you had to pick a winner of the debates, who would you say won?
RG: It’s a three-pronged answer. In the moment, Gore definitely wins because Buckley loses his cool and loses the debate. In the ensuing dozen years, Buckley’s ideas are on the rise until 1980 when Reagan wins. Buckley’s at his apogee throughout the ’80s. Now, almost 50 year later, things that Gore was suggesting in the ’60s that were unfathomable are mainstream, so it’s come full circle.
/c: Were there any sensitivities that had to be factored in given the relative closeness to the passing of both men, mainly as it relates to their families?
RG: The only family member that was an issue was Christopher Buckley, who declined to participate three different times during the process. This had been a low point for his father. Even after the film has come out, we’ve had some communication with him. He’s just not interested in it. He didn’t want to utter the “V” word. He didn’t want to do anything… I think it was an “honoring his father” pact. That was it, and I think it would have been the same if we did this in 20 years, so the proximity to their deaths wasn’t an issue.
/c: What most surprised you individually about Buckley and Vidal?
RG: That’s a good question. I’ll say that Buckley’s easier right away. Though being the arch-conservative thinker of our time, or his time, he preferred to hang out off-camera with liberals. He preferred to not discuss politics. He preferred to talk about the arts, and he had a real love of live. He was a bon vivant. He loved to sail. He liked to have drinks. He liked to have long discussions. He liked to talk about music. That was a real… I got a lot of respect for him from that. Also, while we’re praising Buckley, I admired the fact that he could change his mind in public. He came out as a segregationist and in a short time realized the wrongness of that idea and publicly changed his mind.
/c: During the Civil Rights bill debate?
RG: Right around then, exactly. That was in the ’60s. Then you jump 40 years into the 2000s, and he changes his mind on the Iraq war. Lifelong. He could stand up and say, “I was wrong. I’ve reconsidered, and now I take the opposite side.” That’s admirable.
Vidal. We had this meeting with Vidal — this interview that went so badly, and when it was done, we were wrapping up in his house. It had been, like, 2 ½ hours of pulling teeth. It was exhausting. Totally unsuccessful. I don’t mean, like, it was a B and not an A or a C and not an A. It was an F. It was, like, there’s nothing we can use. It was remarkable, so the manservant comes back in after Gore’s wheeled out of the room. We were wrapping up — just dejected. So he comes back in and says, “Mr. Vidal would like to know if you’d like to have a cocktail with him.” We’d have a cocktail with anybody at that point, and we went up to this room. The manservant goes in over here — we thought we were going into some parlor… It’s Vidal’s bedroom. Vidal’s propped up on pillows on the bed. He says, “Boys, have a seat.” There’s no chairs anywhere. We all sit around the edge of the bed. The cocktail cart’s rolled in. We start having drinks. It’s really fun, and Gore was really charming. That was weird. You saw all this charm in him at that point. However, if we pulled up a camera, I’m 100% sure he’d have gone back to the same death-killing persona. So I was impressed with the way he could turn the charm on and off.
/c: How did NBC and CBS respond to the debates?
RG: Merlis says that they made fun of ABC for forsaking their journalistic responsibilities. Then they did exactly what ABC did in terms of not doing gavel-to-gavel coverage and doing the commentary instead.
/c: So full coverage stopped in ‘68?
RG: Gavel-to-gavel ended essentially until C-SPAN came along. This sort of more passionate punditry grew immediately. CBS put it on 60 Minutes — Point/Counterpoint and other similar things developed quickly. What’s interesting is that the networks have scientifically engineered this way to get the most anger in the shortest amount of time. The most shouting between commercial breaks. What they missed was that people really enjoyed watching the fuse. That night after night after night… that dramatically building tension. These guys were cutting each other, and that was really cool. They were also speaking on a very high level. This level of the dozens is not something we see anymore. ABC just took it up. Everyone else just took it to having everyone yell to get bigger ratings. It’s a nightmare now.
/c: Longing for the days of Walter Cronkite?
RG: There’s good and bad in Walter Cronkite. What was great in ‘68 about news is that at least everyone shared the same news. Now I can go on the Internet and say here’s proof that black is white, and you can do the same. It’s like living in a George Orwell novel. We don’t share the same facts anymore, so that’s been a problem.
/c: You mentioned in a key section of the film that Buckley has just one person he won’t do the debates with — Gore Vidal. What was his response to being told afterwards that it would indeed be Vidal?
RG: Well, obviously, he accepted it, and I think he accepted it for two reasons. One is he got paid well to do it. They got 10 grand each, which today would be like 70 grand. That included some work before and after the debates, but it was good money. Every bit as important was that Buckley knew that this was going to give him an audience — a huge audience — of people to whom he could preach. It wasn’t Fox News preaching to the Fox News choir. It’s new converts — people that haven’t made up their minds. He could reach people.
/c: Did you get the sense that both of these men felt personally anchored to the other, or was this just another experience in their long, varied lives?
RG: This definitely anchored them to each other — these debates. In ‘64, they say to each other, “I never want to see you again,” and I agree. But when they face each other in ‘68, again for the money and the opportunity to reach a wider audience, they find themselves now, because of the incident — the blow-up — tethered for life. There’s no YouTube then. Buckley made the mistake, which he realized, of doing the Esquire article. That led to another mistake. That was, by then… ‘73. So this had been in the public eye for four or five years at that point. Buckley had made every mistake, and this was ingrained in the public mind. Ever after when he was asked about it, he demurred and said, “No comment.” Of course, Vidal always took the opportunity to throw another hand grenade at Buckley. Those actions and the fallout of those actions made them tethered.
/c: Last question: What didn’t make the film that you would have liked to have had the time to cover?
RG: I would have liked to have gone more into, and we don’t go into this… First of all, there’s great bonus material on the DVD. We had a fantastic cast of interviews. It was so hard to cut these beautiful statements from these witty, intelligent people. A lot of them are in the bonus material — an hour of it. One of the key things I missed covering — it was one of the last things to go — was the religious differences between them. Buckley’s staunch Catholicism. Vidal’s atheism. Another was a bit on their early publications. They each published early major works around the same time. We had more checkerboard, parallel-life stuff that would have been fun to work in but just couldn’t. Our allegiance was toward the film, and we were just constantly cutting the fat.
The one complaint I’ve had… someone told me at a recent screening that he had to go to the bathroom and was waiting for a dull moment, but it never came.
/c: I agree completely.
RG: I took it as a compliment.
/c: You did a wonderful job with the film.
RG: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.