If you don’t recognize the name of Roger Weisberg, you are forgiven. Unlike many filmmakers, Weisberg does not boldly seek out attention for himself. Instead, he prefers if the attention goes to the subject of his documentaries, which often focus on social issues ranging from poverty to injustice within the justice system to health crises to a government which doesn’t appear to be working for its people.
Since founding Public Policy Productions in 1980, Weisberg has produced and directed 25 documentaries. All have been shown on PBS, but to date only two have been in theaters: “Road Scholar” in 1992 (a study on the iconoclastic humorist and poet Andrei Codrescu) and “Sound and Fury” in 1999 (which shows a family in dispute when a technology arises with the promise of ending deafness). “Sound and Fury” received and Academy Award nomination, as did Weisberg’s 2002 “Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?”; the filmmaker has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia Awards.
Weisberg’s newest feature will have a New York theatrical release: Waging a Living, a disturbing profile of four people barely surviving on painfully low wages. This profile of today’s working poor is something of an eye-opener, especially when one hears all the blather from Washington about how healthy the economy is and how people are enjoying today’s prosperity.
Film Threat caught up with Weisberg at his offices in Palisades, New York, to discuss this new release and his work in documentaries.
What were the challenges in locating the four subjects of the film, gaining their initial trust, and staying with them over the course of three years? ^ We contacted social service agencies, food pantries, labor unions, social workers, advocacy organizations, and other community groups to help identify subjects for the film. After interviewing hundreds of potential subjects, we selected 12 people from the Northeast, Midwest, and California. We followed them for three years, chronicling their struggles, achievements, and setbacks. Ultimately, four of the stories developed a sufficient dramatic arch to be included in the final documentary. Of course, we had to earn the trust of our subjects. We started by honestly disclosing the purpose of the film and our intention to periodically update their efforts to lift their families out of poverty. After several pre-production meetings to get to know one another, we began filming. About once a week we would check in with all the participants to see if there were any developments that needed to be captured on film. Soon, the subjects themselves began to call to alert us to events that they thought might interest us. As filming progressed, the candor of our subjects grew along with their trust.
There are relatively few films that deal with issues of the lower financial levels of the employment spectrum. Why have most filmmakers been so reluctant to shine a light on this issue? ^ The have-nots and their daily struggles are not sexy. Mass audiences are drawn to glamour, violence, sex, and youth culture. Everybody seems to have their own mundane struggles with making ends meet. So, devoting an entire film to these struggles may not seem too compelling on the surface. However, there is growing income inequality and shrinking upward mobility in America, and I’m convinced that a well-told story that puts a human face on these disturbing trends can and should find an audience.
Earlier this year, Congress rejected an attempt to raise the minimum wage. What is your personal opinion on this Congressional action? ^ Recently, Congress has been further unraveling the nation’s social safety net at the same time that it is strengthening business interests. I think Congress rejected the idea of raising the minimum raise because such a measure is perceived to be bad for business. This administration believes that raising the minimum wage will result in higher unemployment, increased outsourcing of jobs, and reduced profits for businesses. However, hundreds of cities have passed “living wage” bills that demonstrate that raising the minimum wage will not have the devastating effects that many conservative economists and legislators believe.
How has audience and critical reaction been to “Waging a Living”? Specifically, have people expressed their surprise that their fellow Americans are struggling to stay financially afloat? ^ Audiences have been moved by the experience of getting to know the people they often take for granted – the security guards in the buildings where they work, the waitresses in the restaurants where they dine, and the care-givers that look after their loved ones. Most people believe the cliche that if you work hard, you will succeed. They are often shocked to learn that these hard-working individuals who play by all the rules and work conscientiously every day are not able to earn enough money to support their families. They are even more dismayed by the revelation that despite their best efforts, many of these workers are trapped in their low-wage jobs and have virtually no prospect of advancing in the workforce and escaping poverty.
“Waging a Living” has been on the festival circuit. What was your specific strategy for getting into festivals? And where did you play (to date) and what festivals passed on the film? ^ The film, which was submitted to Sundance at the rough-cut stage, was not accepted. I regret that it was not invited to Hot Docs, Full Frame, San Francisco, Tribeca, or South by Southwest. I suspect that some of the reasons may be explained by my answer to your second question.
Relatively few of your films have been in theatrical release. Have you actively sought out theatrical release for these films? Or have you opted not to actively seek out theatrical playdates? ^ Most of my films tackle domestic social policy issues. All of my 25 previous films have been funded by foundations, PBS, and CPB for broadcast on national public television. Most are one hour in length and have a journalist host/narrator. For example, during the 90’s we produced 8 one-hour documentaries hosted by Walter Cronkite. These public affairs documentaries are stylistically not suited for theatrical release. However, I’ve made a few feature length documentaries that generated some nice ink and buzz on the festival circuit and went on to be released theatrically. Both “Road Scholar” in 1992 and “Sound and Fury” in 2000 had broad theatrical runs before airing on PBS.
What professional advice would you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers who want to be the next Roger Weisberg? ^ My advice to novice filmmakers is to never take no for a answer. “No” is just the beginning of a conversation. Tenacity, passion, and vision are often more important qualities than experience when it comes to getting your film made and distributed.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this too many times, but most people ultimately want to know this: what’s it like to be nominated for an Academy Award? And did you have to suffer Joan Rivers on the red carpet? ^ Obviously, being nominated for an Academy Award is a great honor. But, winning an Oscar is an even bigger honor – one which I have not yet experienced. The only statue I took away from my two nominations was a chocolate Oscar made by Wolfgang Puck that is given to guests at the reception following the awards ceremony. One of my kids reported that they saw me get out of a limo upon arriving at the Kodak Theater in 2003. One of the pre-show television hosts got very excited by the prospect of interviewing a big movie star, but when he saw me, he sadly reported “It’s nobody.” I think I share most of the documentary filmmakers’ awe at being included in this event. It doesn’t seem like we’re really part of the industry that is being celebrated. Still, since we filmmakers wield pretty big egos, we love the kind of attention and prestige that comes with an Academy Award nomination.