Behind the scenes of the new documentary about '60 Minutes' legend Mike Wallace
Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin got unprecedented access to the CBS archives for the revealing and intimate portrait of the man we thought we knew.
Filmmaker Avi Belkin is enamored with the art of the inquiry.
He's made a documentary about legendary "60 Minutes" newscaster Mike Wallace, perhaps one of the greatest interviewers in recent memory. So when I reach Belkin by phone in California to chat about his new film, it's no wonder he flips the script – turning the tables to ask me questions.
I ask the Israel-born Belkin some basic biographical details: Where did he grow up? Does he have children? Instead, he asks me in jest: "Are you married?"
For those keeping score at home, the 41-year-old Belkin is single – "Put that in bold in your article," the director directs – and it's this back-and-forth volley that embodies the documentary's DNA. "I had this idea. I wanted to do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace," he explained. "But Mike was obviously dead, so I had an idea of doing this through the archives."
Belkin put together a short presentation and flew from his home in Tel Aviv to the United States. His first stop? CBS News. He pitched his idea and, to his surprise, the storied news organization granted access to their vast archives to the up-and-coming filmmaker. What Belkin found there was extraordinary: never-before-seen footage of Wallace prepping for interviews, chatting with colleagues and pontificating about his life's work.
"It was unreal footage, over 50 years of raw materials, from almost every big event that happened in the 20th century," Belkin said. "It's like Lego blocks, or a puzzle where you don't even know how the end result is going to be. And you're simply doing a very complex collage out of the stuff you have. So I was very lucky on the materials that I had available to me."
The resulting film is unlike most documentaries. There are no talking heads – neither experts nor actual participants speaking retrospectively – and no new voice-over narration has been imposed. The entire movie is masterfully stitched together from archival footage. Wallace ends up narrating his own documentary.
Avi Belkin studied filmmaking at an arts school in Israel called Hamidrasha. (Photo: Lev Radin / Shutterstock)
The film debuted to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and arrives in theaters later this month. Viewers who are only familiar with the public side of Wallace will glean a more nuanced portrait of the man. He had a son who died in a freak hiking accident. Wallace was clinically depressed, and in one of the film's most poignant moments, he reveals that he tried to commit suicide. "A lot of the time we ask questions that are personal to us. They interest us specifically," Belkin said. "So if I were to hit those moments where Mike is showing his own subconscious, his own character through the questions, it will be an interesting portrait of him."
Perhaps the greatest overarching theme of the documentary is Wallace's deep insecurities. He started his career as a product pitchman and so was not taken seriously when he first entered journalism. "He was an actor, basically," Belkin explained. "And I think that made him insecure about his credentials throughout his career. It never ended. But I think, obviously, he used it to his advantage because that chip on his shoulder made him work very hard to show everybody that he's worthy, that he is a serious reporter."
Chris Wallace and I are at the #Sundance Film Festival for the world premiere of “Mike Wallace Is Here,” the documentary film by Avi Belkin. It is powerful, emotional and so timely. Mike Wallace was an amazing man and a great journalist. pic.twitter.com/sMe6Zx3ZVI— Wolf Blitzer (@wolfblitzer) January 27, 2019
When asked why he decided to call the film "Mike Wallace is Here," Belkin revealed its double meaning. "Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Mike and '60 Minutes' were at the prime of their power, Mike Wallace was supposedly the most feared person in America. And there was a saying that if you come to the office on Monday and your secretary says that, 'Mike Wallace is here to see you,' that was the most scary sentence you could hear in your life."
But Belkin also liked the way the title was a nod to our modern era. "It sets up the fact that Mike Wallace is here, he never left. And I have felt like his legacy is all over broadcast journalism until this day. So I thought that it was a nice name to go with."
Belkin is having a bit of a pop culture moment. In addition to the Wallace documentary, he has directed a six-part true crime series which will debut on the Sundance TV channel in August. The show centers around a bizarre 1980s story that took place in Skidmore, Missouri. The small Midwestern town gained international notoriety when its residents banded together to get rid of the local bully.
As we hung up, Belkin reflected on his time in the U.S. The Hollywood establishment had no idea who he was three years ago, when he was living in Israel. And now he was telling two uniquely American stories to a wide audience. "It's amazing," he told me. "Obviously I'm very happy and I feel blessed to have been this successful with those two projects. At the end of the day, there is something very different about having a dream and kind of living it."
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