Laurent Bouzereau interview: Five Came Back

We interview the director behind Five Came Back - one of the best documentaries currently on Netflix...

The golden age of DVD and Blu-ray special features might be behind us, but that doesn’t mean the genre’s best filmmakers have to put down their cameras and power-down their edit suites. Netflix’s new series, Five Came Back, is the epic-scope story of five filmmakers and their involvements, both personal and professional, in the Second World War, as told by Laurent Bouzereau, a long-venerated veteran of DVD supplements.

Bouzereau’s film is adapted from a book by Mark Harris but adds one compelling conceit of its own: the stories of the five directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – are told by five of their more contemporary counterparts – Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro.

I spoke to Bouzereau about his processes and purposes in making this film, from the ‘casting’ of the five contemporary directors to the story’s three-part, three-hour structure. We also touched, briefly, on Bouzereau’s upcoming venture into fiction filmmaking. Here’s how our conversation went.

Why tell this story?

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There’s a little bit of history here, for me. I read the book by Mark Harris and was absolutely blown away. I was somewhat aware of the role that these directors had played in World War II but not to this extent, so it was a discovery for me. And this is such a unique thing that has never happened again, that film directors at the height of their careers put everything aside, including family, and decided to go to war, to risk their own lives. This is an incredible story, told so well by Mark in the book, but it would be interesting to tell it using these filmmakers’ images.

I wanted to find an interesting narrative entry, which we eventually found with the five contemporary directors. I’m fascinated by history and by World War II and it was great to find a new way to talk about it. It appealed to me for those reasons, and I think viewers will feel the same discovery.

Also, I get a chance to talk about films that these directors made, either before or after the war, films that sometimes have been forgotten. It’s a chance to discover a kind of cinema and also how filmmakers are influenced by the events that surround them – especially when they participate in these events. When we talk about George Stevens, he’s not the same man – he never makes a comedy when he returns from the war. Just that example alone is exciting.

It’s not casting in the traditional sense, but I’m curious as to how you selected this group of five contemporary directors, and what told you these are the right five guys.

That’s a very interesting question because we made list after list of people and I really needed to find directors who knew the subject. Of course there was going to be a little bit of research, hopefully they would revise and Mark Harris had written a script that guided the kind of narrative we were going to have. Then there was the issue of scheduling, with the directors we were interested in all being busy.

But there was such an emotional response from the first five directors we went to, we stayed with them. I felt so lucky. Some of them I knew personally – Spielberg I’ve known for over 20 years, Larry Kasdan I have known – but I had never met Guillermo del Toro, had met Coppola and Paul [Greengrass] a couple of times. But never in this context, never when it was going to be a four, five hour discussion, sometimes more than that, about one specific subject.

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While the directors were each talking about one of the specific subject directors each time, I also wanted them to comment on the others. I felt it was important to get those perspectives.

I was super nervous, thinking “What if they’re not prepared?” but they showed up with notes and ideas and they opened up the story. I love when Paul Greengrass talks about coming from a documentary background himself, and how he can appreciate John Ford filming Midway and putting a camera in the best possible place for the shot but also the worst possible place for a risk to get killed. Or when Guillermo relates to Frank Capra because he is himself an immigrant. I found those parallels really powerful.

The interviews were a treat, really, and a journey of discovery. It was humbling to me that they knew so much, and related it in ways that elevated the discussion.

You did have a structure by Mark Harris, and I see a credit at the end for a teleprompter operator so I’m assuming you were giving the directors some kind of on-screen aide memoire or similar.

They weren’t reading, you know. They are looking at me through The Interrotron, a device through which I am filmed and they’re looking directly at me on a video monitor, being filmed through that screen. They never saw anything else.

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[Errol Morris fans will know all about The Interrotron; others may wish to read about this cunning bit of kit on the website of Steve Hardie, one of Morris’ collaborators.]

When you are doing an interview you know what you want, there’s a performance you want, but you also think “I’m going to catch you going to a place I don’t know you’re going to.” I feel that’s something I’ve perfected in the twenty-plus years I’ve been doing this. Suddenly when you ask a question about a specific film, the director comes back with, “You know, when God created the Earth…”

It’s a little bit of a dance but in this case, there were no issues. It felt very structured because the script and the book take us from before the war, the directors’ success and relationships with their families and the studios, then very naturally into the war. Along the way we’d stop to speak about specific films and I was so blown away. Of course Spielberg would talk about The Treasure of Sierra Madre or Mrs. Minniver but he also knew The Battle of San Pietro. He’d say “I always wondered how Huston knew to turn the camera to the right when that guy fell on the ground” and I’d think “How does he even remember all of this?”

It was super exciting as a filmmaker. I started editing in my head, confident that I had the footage but watching it get better and better. The problem, which is part of your question as well, is how to make it a three-hour journey rather than ten-hour. One thing that was super important to me, and I reassured Mark Harris when I was offered the project, that the thing I loved in the book was the cutting between the stories. It was almost effortless, and I needed to do that in the film too. It couldn’t be ‘Episode One: Wyler’, ‘Episode Two: Huston’. And it cannot be that we don’t hear about one of the guys for a very long time, so finding the rhythm was something that my editor [Will Znidaric] – who is a genius – and I struggled with. Struggled in the best sense of the word. We made sure that we covered the essential and had maximum impact.

Whenever I’ve cut together lots of mixed interviews, I’ve done a paper edit first, using transcripts.

That’s the way I work, usually. I do all of the interviews then write the material, create a script, but then, of course, it moves some more during the editorial process. But… it was completely the opposite way we approached this. I did an interview with Mark Harris that we were never going to use, about his entire book and conducted over three or four days, and that became the spine of what I felt Mark really wanted to focus on. That gave me the first hint of the rhythm. At the same time, it was my editor mainly and an assistant editor, we were watching all of the [film and archival] footage, making sure we could license what we needed for illustration, and what shape it would be in. Suddenly we would find a little piece of film, sometimes just a frame, that shows, I don’t know, William Wyler, or outtakes from something.

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When I actually sat down with the five contemporary directors I was able to guide them towards certain images. Sometimes they would talk about something we didn’t have the footage for and so we had to find a way to lead them towards something I could actually use.

We created parts. A part about Dachau, a part about Midway, using the footage and then, when we had the interviews, we started integrating them into this existing storytelling. It was a challenge because I had never worked this way before.

Why the three-part episodic structure and not a single three-hour movie? It’s Netflix, so people can already pause and drop in or out wherever they need to.

Because it just felt like some very specific benchmarks gave us logical points of stopping. It just felt like the right way to do it.

At one point I asked Mark “Should we try to do this as a two-hour film?” and he said “Absolutely not. It either has to be three or four hours.” Three hours feels logical with before the war, the war and then after the war.

I loved that the end of each episode restates where the five guys were, and where the world was at the moment. Then there’s that stunning credit sequence by my friends at Elastic, who also created the Game Of Thrones Opening, and I was saying “Whatever we can do to have that opening as many times as possible.”

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As more and more people stream things on Netflix and move away from physical media, we’re not getting the same sort of documentary supplements on movies that we did, for a wonderful while, get a lot of. I’ve watched many films made by you, by Charles de Lauzirika, by some of your peers, a number of good documentaries about films that, frankly, I didn’t know would yield such interesting material. But this age seems to be, more and more, getting behind us.

I don’t think those days are gone. Not for me. I’ve never been so busy. I’m still doing this kind of work with Spielberg, and I’m lucky to have connections to films that really interest me. What happened that I do deplore is that when I started making two-hour documentaries on the making of Jaws or Taxi Driver, those things had never been seen before. You’d never seen a feature-length film all about, say, Raging Bull or even 1941, until that revolution with Laser Discs, DVD and Blu-ray. But the press and media give that stuff a bad name. As filmmakers doing that kind of work we do work hand in hand with the studios and film marketing, and we do service that hand-in-hand with the more documentary aspect.

Sometimes we have to split these feature-length films into different pieces for union reasons, for legal reasons, which has given us a bad name. “It’s not really documentary filmmaking.” I’m sorry, but it is. Wouldn’t you want to have had a guy like me or the other guys you mentioned when Hitchcock was making Psycho? I did a documentary on Ben Hur and all I had was the Super 8 film that Charlton Heston’s wife had shot to show how they filmed the chariot sequence.

When all is said and done, years from now, you’ll look back at the work we’ve done and say “Oh my god, these tell so much about the evolution of these artists.” I hope that the work I do gets a little more recognition and respect.

Now, when you compare these films to documentaries about social issues or politics, of course those films are incredible, and but it’s like comparing different genres of films. I started doing [DVD documentaries] when they didn’t exist, growing with it and 20-plus years later, I’m getting the chance to produce ‘regular’ movies and do series like this with Netflix.

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The Five Came Back trailer got an incredible response. I hope you don’t mind me saying that it took me by surprise. What do you think people are responding to here?

I’m shocked as well. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from people I haven’t heard from in a long time, agents calling me with offers and all that sort of thing, and we’re less than 24 hours after the trailer came out. That’s why I love that Netflix did this. I think that a lot of TV networks and producers in the position to make documentaries have underestimated how much people, at large, either fans or non-movie fans, are fascinated by both storytelling and the film industry. The trailer put those things into a unqiue context that seemed like a real game changer.

I hope that this excitement means that viewers, when they are being told a story of Hollywood in a context that includes something people can relate to – a condition of war – that they’ll be fascinated.

I’d love to know about the non-documentary work you’ve been developing. What’s happening with Bad Little Kid, Micro, Dragon Teeth?

Everything is still alive. It’s development. I’m working with screenwriters, and with Sherri Crichton, and the Crichton estate – Michael Crichton, I knew and met during the circumstances of doing documentaries about his work.

Dragon Teeth is about to come out as a book but we’re developing it as a series. It’s very rewarding from a creative standpoint, and extremely emotional. I’m doing this with Sherri because of the work I did with Michael as a documentary filmmaker. I hope my contribution makes a difference.

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Laurent, I want to thank you not just for your time this morning, but for your part in what will be a vast legacy of films about films.

And I want to thank you for your interest.

Well, it’s quite unstoppable. It’s natural.

Great. And I hope there are many more of you out there.

Laurent Bouzereau, thank you very much!

Five Came Back is available on Netflix now.

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