Fall to Grace Director Alexandra Pelosi
From the ascension of George Bush (in Journeys with George) to the crash-and-burn of Ted Haggard (The Trials of Ted Haggard), director Alexandra Pelosi has been fascinated with the rise and fall of the men who comprise our political and social landscape. In her latest documentary, Fall to Grace, she finds elements of both narrative arcs in the story of New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who simultaneously resigned his position and announced his homosexuality in 2004, midway into his term. (McGreevey revealed an affair with a man he appointed as New Jersey homeland security advisor.)
Following his resignation, McGreevey divorced his wife, found a new partner, and has studied to become an Episcopal priest. He also extensively volunteers with women prisoners, and it is these varied activities that Pelosi captures in her HBO documentary, premiering at Sundance and airing Thursday, March 28 at 8:00PM. Fall to Grace is a surprising film, exploring as it does F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum, “There are no second acts in American lives.” But is the perpetually upbeat McGreevey really embarking on a new chapter here, or is his current work simply another facet of the political drive that got him to the governor’s seat? I asked Pelosi these questions in an interview in which she also gives great advice to beginning documentary filmmakers.
Filmmaker: You’ve done several politician-based documentaries and with The Trials of Ted Haggard you have made a sort of “fall from grace” documentary as well. What attracts you to these subjects?
Pelosi: I love these broken men. In the case of McGreevey, it’s fascinating because he’s sort of a recovering politician. If you talk to an ex-addict in recovery, they talk about the 12 steps. McGreevey was a recovering politician, and he was trying to make peace with the shame of having been a politician. I loved that whole idea. You know, every politician’s life comes to an end. They lose an election, or they get terminated and sent out. People get sick of them. Nobody lasts forever, and it’s interesting to see what they do after without all the attention and the limelight. It’s interesting to see what happens with their souls when they’re not being fed all this attention. I am so much more interested in people “after” rather than “before.” The news media likes people on the rise. I like people on their way down.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting you call him a recovering politician because — and this isn’t a value judgment one way or the other — when he was interacting with the prisoners, it felt to me that he was almost at a campaign event. Is that just in his DNA, this outward-facing behavior, the way he directs emotion at other people? Did that come from being a politician, or was that part of his personality and why he was able to be a politician?
Pelosi: That’s a very deep question. I’ll never know because I didn’t know him before. I lost a lot of sleep trying to figure it out. But, I’ll tell you this, and I don’t know if this answers your question, but he is genuinely having an effect on these women. I don’t know if that’s the political gene that’s still in him, or maybe it’s just because no one ever paid attention to them before. They’re just happy that anyone is talking to them. He used to be a somebody, and now they’re just happy that someone is giving the time of day. Somehow it all works. It’s a certain skill set to be able to walk in a room and have people go, “Hey!” And that place is a jail, you know? You see these broken, sad, mean, dangerous people. And a lot of them were in for really sick things, like murder. These are real criminals in jail and the fact that he can walk in and they’ll be like, “Hey! Jim!” — you have to ask yourself, does he need [to do this]? He wouldn’t go on Christmas and Easter and on [the prisoners’] birthdays if it was just an ego thing. If you need to get your ego fed, that’s not a 24/7 thing. Or maybe it is. I don’t know, it’s an interesting question.
But he is really dedicated. I hung around for a long time because I wanted to see how dedicated he was. At first, of course, I was suspicious. How often does he go there? How well does he know these women? And I was surprised by how deeply he knows them. He plays such a role in their lives. As a politician, you don’t stay and get to know people. Help them with their problems or go to court and fight for them. He’d go to court and help them get custody of their kids when they got out of jail; he’d help them get their drivers licenses. He would help them get a job at the local diner. He knows people in these places so he would hook these women up. And that was startling.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved? Did you bring this to HBO?
Pelosi: I just started making it. I didn’t go and sit and make a Powerpoint presentation for a documentary and then go get funding. I just went and hung out with Jim. And I kept going back and I found myself interested in going back. And that’s how my process is: if I’m interested in going back, I go back; if I’m bored with someone, I don’t go back. Sort of like, oh if it’s like this, no thanks. There are always these false starts; there may interesting subjects but I don’t trust this person or this person doesn’t trust me or whatever.
You know, every film is like giving birth. Every film is a child and it has a different backstory of how it got made. People look at my resume and are like, “Oh, you just worked at HBO for ten years.” I made eight films for them, but each one was a painful birthing process. What they don’t know is the first time I brought [this film] to Sheila Nevins [President of Documentary Films, HBO] she didn’t say “I love it.”
In the beginning, HBO did not want to do it. It was very clear they were not interested. I walked away and kept filming and putting it together and working on it. I just took the PATH train into New Jersey and it was easy to keep filming. You know, a lot of films need budgets. And that’s why things never get made. You don’t have the money. But, for me, I was working as a correspondent for the Bill Maher show this year, so I had a day job. I just did this stuff more on the side. A couple days a week I would go over there and [McGreevey] was in court for someone, or he was going into jail or he’d be in church. Different things like that. I would go and hang out with him. I would just film with a handheld camera. It doesn’t cost anything to shoot stuff. I just kept shooting until I felt like I had a story to tell, and then I just started editing it together.
Filmmaker: Do you do your own sound, or do you bring a sound person?
Pelosi: No, I didn’t have a sound person and this is why all of my editors curse me: I don’t have sound and I don’t have camera. Two things you need to make a film: picture and audio. I didn’t have either one of those. I shoot myself. I never had professionals.
Filmmaker: Did you use a shotgun mic on your camera?
Pelosi: No. Because I don’t want people to think I’m making a film. I feel like once people see you with a microphone it’s like an experiment and the experiment changes. I’m always afraid if I have extra equipment or an extra camera, people would say, “What are you doing here? Do you have permission?” I never got permission to go [shoot in] jail.
That’s one thing I learned from my first film — filming George Bush, shoving the camera in his face. Karl Rove came over and was like, “Oh, I get it, you’re from the ‘I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission’ school.” And I’m like, “Yeah!” And he went, “Yeah, I like that.” So, that’s always been my motto. If I had gone to the warden and gone, “Can I film inside your jail?” Of course he would say no. That’s why I just take my small handheld camera and just go places and see what happens. But then you have to ask for releases. That’s the hard part because you have to go back and be like, “I’m putting this on HBO,” and they’re like, “What?!” They don’t even remember the filming most of the time. Even McGreevey, who was governor of New Jersey, I just got a release from him this week. I said, “I’m going to Sundance, will you sign a release?” And he was like, “Okay.” I’m not sure he even really wanted to. I never asked him in the beginning. I was just like, “I’ll follow you and see what you do.” And I went along, brought my camera, kind of snuck it into the jail, filmed him in church and whatever.
With a camera, everyone’s so suspicious. They all have publicists, and it’s hard to capture a genuine moment. I feel like asking for permission is the death of documentary. I still believe in the guerilla style of bring your camera and filming it. I’m teaching at NYU and people say, “I’m going to make a film and here’s my shoot schedule.” I say, “Go to B&H, buy a camera and go. Stop making spreadsheets of cameramen and audio and shoots and fundraising and everything. Just get yourself a handheld camera and film it.” And then the money is [needed] to find an editor. That’s when it gets awkward. That’s when you need to make the decision, “Is this a film? Am I willing to spend my own money? Do I believe in this enough to put up my own money to pay an editor to come in and put it together?”
I had two stages [with Fall to Grace], with two editors. I would work on something first and I brought it to HBO and they weren’t interested. I just went back and worked on it and shot more and then I brought it to another editor, who’s a friend of mine, an editor on 30 Rock who was on hiatus. These things worked itself out somehow.
Filmmaker: Let me ask you a question about your filmography and approaching new subjects. When you approach a subject, do they ask to see your previous work to get a sense of how they will be portrayed? Did McGreevey?
Pelosi: I don’t know if he’s ever watched anything I did. I once went to Lance Armstrong and asked if I could make a film about him. He had all his handlers, and they were like, “Well, give us copies of all of your films.” I was like, “Forget it.” If you’re going to be auditioning me to see if I’m worthy, then I’m not really interested. I don’t want to be handled. I hate it. I mean, no offense to those lovely people at HBO who send out copies of my movies, but I don’t work with publicists [when approaching subjects]. It doesn’t work for me, because they say “no.” I’m from the “yes” school. I’m not looking for “no,” I’m looking for “yes” and any publicist is just going to say “no.” That’s their job. I’ve never known a publicist to say “yes” to [allowing] a camera in [their client’s] face. They ask these complicated questions. So, it’s hard to make anything because there are so many publicists and handlers around anyone you would want to be near.
Filmmaker: Did you have a question for yourself about Jim McGreevey before you started shooting? Something besides being attracted to fallen, broken men?
Pelosi: There are so many issues in this man. This one man has so many conflicts inside of him. Do people deserve to be forgiven? Does everyone deserve a shot at redemption? And the whole gay issue that he has with himself and the church: fighting the damage that the Catholic Church did to him. He’s a really, really well-read, interesting person. You sit down and have a conversation with him. He’s been through seminary school and he has these deep thoughts. He’s a little bit like talking to a priest. He’s a deep guy. He’s not like Ted Haggard, who was like a cowboy and took me to go shoot guns in Colorado. Jim is much more thoughtful; he’s deeper than most politicians usually are. Or he’s found depth, I don’t know.
I was raised Catholic so it’s not something I took to so much, but it’s fascinating to see how much damage the Catholic church did to Jim McGreevey’s life. He was a little boy sitting in a pew being being told he’s the devil or something. That’s interesting. I don’t know why he didn’t just get up and walk out of the room; why he chose to live in the closet his whole life because of something a priest said?
And then, this whole thing with the women. I always [rode] on the PATH train back to Manhattan with a heavy heart. I would sit there and talk to Ashley, who’s going to jail for 20 years for killing people. She was the head of a gang. But she was such a nice woman, and I liked talking to her. I do think she deserves an education. She was raped so many times. You get into these deep conversations about what happened to her in her life and how she ended up in this place. She deserves to go to school and learn something so that she can turn her life around, you know?
Filmmaker: Do you have anything else you want to add, and want people to know about the film?
Pelosi: This film is really Jim, it’s not me. I don’t have to walk the plank. He has to face the questions at the end of the day, not me. If they’re not satisfied with the answers, they have to ask him. People think that when you make something that you are the master of it. But nothing is black and white, and everything is complicated with Jim.