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“It Was a Project That Then Became An Obsession”: Director Alan Berliner on the Decades-Spanning Journey Behind His TIFF-Premiering Doc, Letter to the Editor

Letter to the Editor

Less a motion picture than a picture of still photographs projected in succession, Alan Berliner’s latest documentary, Letter to the Editor, takes as its inspiration the vast photography featured in The New York Times over the past four decades. Berliner, now 63, began collecting and categorizing thousands of photographs since Ronald Reagan’s first year in the White House (1980) and continues unabated to this day, or at least until Letter to the Editor made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past Saturday evening. 

Comprised entirely of typically hi-res photographs first published in The New York Times (and now scanned for additional clarity), Letter to the Editor is a humanist take on the world we live in and how we learn to live it, that is, through the information we’re provided on a daily basis via our doorstep, at the local newsstand, or on television. A personal filmmaker (his previous feature, First Cousin Once Removed, was about his relationship with his first cousin, the poet Edwin Honig), Berliner incorporates numerous stories about his relationship to the The New York Times, and even the world’s, as it becomes apparent that our understanding of the greater issues at large are formed via the media cycle that connects us.

A few days before the film’s premiere, I spoke with Berliner about the specifics of a hobby that grew into something much more, categorizing thousands of photographs, forming a story out of still images, and more.

Letter to the Editor will air later this year on HBO courtesy of HBO Documentary Films.

Filmmaker: What was the impetus for collecting and cutting out photographs in The New York Times in the first place?

Berliner: While I’ve been something of a collagist since age 16, I officially began collecting photographs from The New York Times in 1980, having made a number of short collage films prior to that. I have this archivist/librarian mentality and the idea of collecting newspaper photographs and storing them in boxes and categorizing them combined two interests of mine: one, that of being a collector, and two, of being a news junkie. The combination of those two interests satisfied those very deep strains in me. From there, it kept building and building. 

I didn’t have the idea to make a feature-length film out of the photographs until much, much later. It was something that started out as a hunch and then became an idea, and then a routine, and then, ultimately, a ritual. At some point I realized that it was a project, which then became an obsession, and then subsequently became a film. All the while, at any stage going back to when I was 23 to the present (some 40 years later), the film represents my understanding of the world, or, to put another way, my way of cataloging and making sense of the world. 

Filmmaker: Did the incoming presidency of Ronald Reagan and the assassination of John Lennon contribute to this need to preserve and archive material that documents current events?

Berliner: I wouldn’t say those events served as catalysts for my collecting, as John Lennon was killed in December of 1980 and I had begun collecting photographs before then. But to cite a specific event, I’d have to go back to ABC’s Nightline program that began in March of 1980. At the time, they aired so much news coverage chronicling the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979 and concluded in 1981. It was Nightline’s debut that made the crisis the [event] to follow. Suddenly there would be news on at 11pm, airing right after your local news, and that was unheard of at the time! They’d chronicle Day 55, Day 56, Day 57, Day 58, etc. and it was incredibly gripping and captivating to the “younger me.” Today, we’re familiar with the constant news coverage and have become desensitized. Thanks to the birth of CNN (also in 1980), it became easy to fathom the idea of a 24-hour news station.

Filmmaker: Did you only categorize and store the photographs by subject matter? Never by date or something else?

Berliner: Nope, only subject matter, which itself continued to grow and change. Let me provide  an example: I used to have a category called “Men with Guns,” before realizing, “Gee, I’m seeing more and more images of women with guns, so ‘Men with Guns’ doesn’t make sense anymore.” And so I created a new category that included both men and women. Years later, I realized that I had been finding more and more images of children with guns, and so it trifurcated into its own third category.

Whether it was technology or politics or the nature of protests at home or abroad, I was always being responsive to the world. Once I started making the film, however, my categories had to get much more fine tuned. Even so, I had more than 1,600 different categories for the images I was collecting, and to be honest with you, I would have had more, but my computer crashed, so I had to contact someone who works in Support for Avid (that’s the software I use) and they did an investigation on my system and found that Avid wasn’t set up to have that many bins and that I should stop expanding. It cramped my style a little bit!  My computer was terribly slow, but knock on wood, it’s worked. 

The advantage to having so many categories was that every photograph was filed in no less than four (and sometimes as many as ten) different ones. Regarding the associative memory that’s necessary to make a film like this, I didn’t have to recall a particular photograph off the top of my head. I just had to remember one or two things about it, and that would be enough for me to find it. Any photograph could be in eight or ten different categories with other photographs that do not share anything in common (in terms of their subject matter) but which allowed me to make associations between them. 

Filmmaker: Were there other nonfiction essayistic films that influenced your embarking on this project?

Berliner: The work of Chris Marker was always important to me, as well as the work of Dziga Vertov and that of Walter Ruttmann, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City specifically. I love work that captures the day in the life of a city, or the full spectrum of urban life, or in the case of Chris Marker, a personal essay of a life. I think I’ve internalized and incorporated a number of those films into my work over the years.

But for this film specifically, there wasn’t a map or template or model to follow. In a weird way, I learned how to make this film by making it. To be honest, I’ve never worked harder on any film in my entire life, while at the same time, I’ve never had as much fun. People who make things for a living know that that combination doesn’t happen very often. It became a combustible mixture of factors that ultimately proved I didn’t know what I was doing until I was doing it. 

Filmmaker: What was your process of forming a narrative? Had you written out a script for yourself and then searched through your archive for accompanying images? Or where you found images that influenced you to create new subsections in your script?

Berliner: This is a little hard to describe, so first let me say that there’s always a degree of playfulness in the putting together of my films. Occasionally I would group photographs together and then understand how I wanted to sculpt and define them. Other times, I would have an idea about what the role of good news and bad news and fake news is in our lives, and I would write those roles down before embarking on a search through the archive to find photographs that would visually illustrate that point. The use of these photographs might be metaphoric or symbolic in nature, sure, but there was always to be an interplay between the words and the images. There was never an instance of me writing an entire script and then filling it in with photographs. It was always back and forth, truy interdependent. I love to work with archival footage, and one of the thrills of working on a film like this is that new potential footage comes in every day in the form of the daily newspaper. 

I couldn’t wait to walk to the corner newsstand and purchase The New York Times. There could be a photograph in that day’s paper that I would mindlessly flip through before suddenly realizing, “Wow, that’s actually spot on for what I need to help me turn the corner in the film’s narrative.” The process made me sift through photographs again and again because photos that I’d passed through a month or even a year earlier, suddenly might possess a new meaning or sense of purpose that could enhance my film’s narrative. That was very exciting. As The New York Times documents a changing world on a daily basis, my film adapted along with it.

Filmmaker: Were there any particular photographs that lead you down certain rabbit holes or narrative threads that you found a way to build off of?

Berliner: Definitely. There’s a photograph of a man (I believe a Buddhist monk) who self-immolates, which is to say, he sets himself on fire as a form of protest. There was a photograph of this in The New York Times on two different days (in two different years). At one time it was in color, and the other time, it was in black and white, and it’s the same photograph. I thought to myself, “Gee, look at the difference between the vivid, bright orange of this man on fire in the color photograph and then the gray scale of the fire in the black-and-white photograph.” And so I thought to myself, “Since it’s the exact same image, separated by a few years, if I dissolve from one to the other, you can see the color, the orange color of the fire, literally coming to life.” I could dissolve it slowly over time, while I discuss, as I do in that section, how I think the introduction of color photography changed The New York Times.

There’s a moment in the film where I take on The New York Times for what I thought was a relatively poor choice for their first ever color photograph published on the front page. It was of the Cleveland Indians’ Tony Fernández, who had just hit a home run to get Cleveland into the World Series. In the film, I take The Times to task for this because, one, it’s wasn’t a local team, which I didn’t think was a good idea, and two, you only see the back of his head. Looking at the even larger context, the world is so complicated and yet this is the first color photograph they chose to put on page one? 

You make a film like this one day at a time. As the world is coming at me, I use my system of categories and subcategories (and the filing of them) to continually learn about the world and about how I make sense of it, however idiosyncratic I might do that. But that’s my role and that’s my responsibility as a filmmaker. I’d like to even think perhaps it’s my role and my responsibility as an artist, to take the world apart and put it back together again, so that viewers look at the world, and the newspaper, and news generally, differently and with new eyes. Hopefully I’ve transformed these photographs in ways that make viewers see the world differently and think about life in a more interesting way.

Filmmaker: What was your process of digital scanning?

Berliner: Ongoing! I started scanning the photographs about five years ago, and I’ve been scanning continually through, in spurts. As the scope of the film became more specific, I started to bring in sound and write words that would change the photographs that needed to be scanned. At the beginning, before I actually had a film, when I was at that hunch or idea phase, I scanned a purposely general range of photographs that I could then hone in on over time.

Filmmaker: The film also includes audio of archival news coverage. Was this something you had also been collecting? Or did you dig into certain audio libraries once you began this project?

Berliner: Since I live in New York, certain news themes, if you will, are “authentic New York” to me and press my New York-centric buttons, like WINS and WCBS or NPR. The news junkie in me responds to the quality and pulsating forces of that music, and how, when we hear them, they prime our nervous systems to get ready to be hit by the news, if you will.

It wasn’t a big leap for me to find that music, as those themes are already in my nervous system. In Pavlovian terms, I’m trained to respond a certain way when I hear them. That’s what they’re intended to do, and they work very effectively. And then there’s another level of music in the film, where I choose music that comes from the photographs themselves. If there’s someone holding an album (or pulling out an album from a large stack), I’d find an organic piece of music to accompany it. If there’s a photograph of sheet music atop a piano, I was usually able to find what that piece of music was. I then listened to it and in many cases chose to include it in the film.

There’s a very wide range of music in the film, from hip-hop to Gregorian chants, from symphonic music to very eclectic, abstract, string quartets; there’s even The Star Spangled Banner. Like the world we live in, I wanted the soundtrack of the film to represent and reflect the world’s diversity and complexity. 

There’s another thread of sound in the film, which hopefully doesn’t rub people the wrong way, but I use the sound of screaming quite a bit in the film. There’s a man screaming, a woman screaming, and so on. I use it for general angst, as a decree against racism, as a decree against sexism, for the highs of victory in sports, for the lows of failure in sports, etc. It’s a sound of mortality in the film, the sound of giving birth in the film. I’ve tried to use the scream with all of its existential dimensions. There’s even another scream that takes place right in the middle of a discussion about my son Eli, and our generational difference, and so it becomes the scream of generational difference, the scream of parent-child friction, and so forth. In romance, there are screams of people yelling at one another, ostensibly because of misunderstanding, or the dynamics of love and romance, and so forth. I tried to imbue the sound of the scream with all of its dimensions, as a very pure human utterance that everyone can relate to.

Filmmaker: And in the edit, how did you come to a reasonable Average Shot Length (ASL)? I’d guess we go through 10 images a minute, but I could be wrong….

Berliner: To be honest with you, I never thought about that. While there are some photographs on screen for25 or 3- seconds, very few are even on for more than six seconds. And then there are thousands of photographs in the film that are only on screen for two frames! Many of them are underneath the sound of a sewing machine, in which I talk about the family culture I come from, which on my father’s side has to do with being a tailor and being involved in the New York City garment center. Sewing, weaving, and knitting things together was part of the culture in which I grew up, and so the sewing machine is another prominent sound that recurs throughout the film. But those photographs are on screen for two frames, and there are many shots in the film that are only on for a few frames more than that. I’d like to think that the length of each image is appropriate to where it fits in the story, no more and no less.

Filmmaker: Early in the film, you discuss how The New York Times is a very important paper that’s somewhat under attack right now. Thinking of the film through that prism, of Trump’s tirades against “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” did it push you to finally make the film? To create this multi-decade spanning passion project into a film that’s meant to be shared with others?

Berliner: It was never a question that I wouldn’t be able to make a film about the impending extinction of a newspaper without tackling what the implications were (and what was at stake) in its loss. It became apparent in 2016, as Trump called The Times a disgusting, failing newspaper and the enemy of the people, that my film would have to reflect and embrace the issues of the current political moment. I’ve always aspired to find the balance between the personal and the universal, the personal as means to expressing the universal, and so forth. I am a concerned citizen of the world. As a filmmaker and as an artist, it’s my role and responsibility, if I’m going to work with photographs from the newspaper and deal with the urgency of this moment in time, to confront issues like freedom of the press and remind the viewer of the things we take for granted. What does freedom of the press mean? What does it mean that technology is changing the media landscape?

While I think the film is about the current political moment, I also think it covers news (good, bad, fake) and the entire landscape of the world we’re currently living in, as well as the dangers we face due to the changes in technology and how they’ve affected both how we receive the news and who’s sending it to us.

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