Interview with Mike Wallace Is Here Director Avi Belkin
For the first time ever, CBS News and 60 Minutes have allowed an outside filmmaker to access to their archived footage. Avi Belkin was the fortunate Director to gain access to this amazing footage. And with this footage, Belkin created a fascinating documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here. Known for asking the tough questions, Mike Wallace was a pioneer of the probing interview, and the influential newsman who helped achieve massive popularity for 60 Minutes.
In my interview with Belkin, he provides some great insight into his process of working through the massive amount of archived footage to tell an important story about Mike Wallace and the state of broadcast journalism. In addition to some of Mike’s biggest stories and controversies, we also get a glimpse into the personal side of his life that hasn’t been seen before.
What inspired you to put together this documentary on Mike Wallace?
I was basically obsessing about the question of broadcast journalism and the state of broadcast journalism. I didn’t know a lot about Mike as well when I started this story. And I was looking for a small, microcosm story to tell the bigger story of broadcast journalism. When I researched it, I just kept coming across Mike Wallace interviews all the time. When I went into Mike’s story, I found that he had this unparalleled career in broadcast journalism. Over sixty years of covering the news, starting from the radio days through the television days, and then the first news magazine. And I had this idea of doing a portrait of Mike, and through his portrait, basically tell the bigger story of broadcast journalism.
How much footage did you have to work with?
Wow, it was massive. My Assistant Editor counted when we finished the project, and it was roughly over 1,400 hours of footage. So, a lot is the answer to that. But I mean it was kind of fun. This was the first time that CBS opened up their 60 Minutes archived vaults for someone to use it. So I basically got the whole coverage of the 20th century in film materials and raw interviews. So I got to say, it was really an enjoyable experience to watch those archives.
How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out when going through hours of this interview footage? The way that you put it together tells such a great story. But I can only imagine that this was a painstaking process.
I always try to choose an angle of how I’m telling the story. My angle was the broadcast journalism story. And what I wanted to do very early on was to do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace. So I went into the archives looking for all of the times that Mike was the interviewee, not just the interviewer. And I kind of built an interview of me asking questions through those archived materials. At the same time, I was looking for moments where Mike was interviewing other people, and in those moments, I was looking for either historical events that are getting portrayed or explained, or other moments where Mike is asking a question where his character is being revealed in it.
Yes, I really like the way it switches between Mike as the interviewer and the interviewee. It gives us a nice mix of the two sides. It lets us know a little bit more about him from different perspectives.
It’s a rare opportunity when you get to do a movie about someone who is on both sides of an interview. He’s interviewing but also being interviewed. I felt like that should be the way I construct the film by going back and forth between those two situations.
This film provides us with some insight into Mike’s personal life. For instance, his battle with depression and dealing with the death of his son. When you started this project, were you anticipating to see this much about him in regards to the personal side of his life?
I was 100% not anticipating that. Going into this project, I knew the surface-level stuff about Mike. Meaning, he was this legendary newsman and tough interviewer. But that’s it. So I really didn’t expect to see so much depth to his personality. The fact that he was prone to depression. The fact that he was so insecure. That he lost his son in a tragic accident in Greece. That he tried to commit suicide. All of those things were amazing to discover. But it also made his character so much more compelling because you saw him overcome those difficulties in his life.
For sure. Those insights into his personal life really were fascinating. I had no idea about any of those things regarding the tragic death of his son.
Yes, it’s just the worst feeling you can imagine happening to a person, to find your dead son. And then Mike took that moment, and I felt in a beautiful way, kind of turned it around. When trauma like that happens, it can be devastating or it can propel a change in your life. Mike took that into the positive angle by asking himself the hard question of “What are you doing with your life?” Rather than doing all of the commercials, he started focusing on the news. He took that personal tragedy and made it into a motivation for him to change his life.
For those who are younger and maybe didn’t know much about Mike Wallace going into the film, how are you hoping that they perceive Mike by time they finish watching your film?
I hope they perceive him as a human being with flaws and strengths. But at the end of the day, as a journalist. As someone who put the purpose of giving the information to the audience and to uncover the truth at the top of what he did. At the end of the day, Mike also dramatized news and also made a little bit of performance show out of it. But he only did it to get people to watch the news. He only did it to get people to say, “This is important. I want to see it.” I think at the end of the day, we have lost that element of asking the tough questions and asking the second follow-up tough question if someone doesn’t answer it. I hope young viewers see that and remember that news can be more hard-hitting and more honest.
Switching gears a little here. I know you have six-part doc series coming out on AMC on August 1st called No One Saw a Thing, which I’m very excited to see. Do you have other things in the works for your next project? And if so, will you continue to do more documentaries?
I will continue to do documentaries. I have two projects right now that I am developing, so it’s a little bit too early to start talking about. But for the last two years, I was doing a film and six-part doc series simultaneously, and that’s a lot. So I am trying to relax a little bit as well.
What is one underrated film that you like to champion whenever you can to make sure more people get a chance to see it?
I would say Fata Morgana by Werner Herzog. Obviously, Werner Herzog is not under the radar. But that specific film, I’m not sure how many people know it. But it’s an amazing film. It’s one of his early films and it’s a really experimental film. But there’s something beautiful about cinematic language that uses there.
Mike Wallace Is Here opens on August 2nd at the Ritz Five Cinema.