Exposing the New York Review of Books: Q&A with HBO Doc Director

Robert Silvers in ‘The 50 Year Argument’/Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/courtesy of HBO

Founded during the 1963 New York printers' strike, the New York Review of Books (aka the NYRB, the New York Review, or just the Review) was created upon the belief that book reviews could be more than just brief articles on whether a book was worth reading. The NYRB evolved into a home for essays on arts, culture, current events, politics, and of course books and literature. Esquire once called it "the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language." Over the years, it's famously been the home for works by such literary heavyweights as Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Michael Chabon, and others. And it's still going.

On September 29, HBO premieres "The 50 Year Argument," a Martin Scorsese-directed documentary profiling the New York Review of Books and its history. Signature recently got chance to sit down with David Tedeschi, Scorsese's longtime documentary collaborator who co-directed the film, to talk about the project, how different movements in history influenced the NYRB (as well as the film), and the different meanings for the word "argument" in the title.

Signature: How did this project come about? What got you involved?

David Tedeschi: Well, Bob Silvers [the NYRB's Editor] and Rea Hederman [the NYRB's Publisher] came to Marty [Scorsese] with the idea that maybe he'd be interested in doing a movie on New York Review of Books. They had, I believe, seen "No Direction Home" and I think they must have been familiar with "Public Speaking." Of course, they were familiar with his body of work and the fact that he's doing documentaries now ... but they had no idea he was a reader of the New York Review; he's been reading it since the 1960s.

[Scorsese] was working on "Wolf [of Wall Street]" and they were anxious that something be done within a year or year and a half. And that's when he suggested I work on it too and that the two of us collaborate and work on it as quickly as we could, which turned out to be eighteen months.

SIG: Were you a New York Review of Books reader before?

DT: Yeah. My mom was a subscriber so I started reading it in high school ... so for me it was really fascinating to be in the offices of the Review because in a way it was a road not taken.

SIG: Was that important? To film everyone and Bob Silvers working in the office?

DT: Marty's impulse was to shoot. He was like, "Get into those offices and shoot." Obviously, it's not a vérité film, but to have this element of the office ... I think it really worked. I think it's wonderful to see him on the telephone, editing, talking to writers, talking to his assistants, his assistants kind of giving him feedback. So yeah, it was important, to me and to Marty.

SIG: There doesn't seem to be a hard liner narrative arch in presenting the New York Review's history, but rather more of a focus on key periods presented in segments. Was that deliberate?

DT: When I first sat down with Bob Silvers, he said, "In order to understand the Review, you really have to understand that we follow the waves of history." And I started to read the Review in the seventies, but of course I was very aware of Vietnam and that's the first wave he named ...

The first real progress we made in terms of figuring out what we were going to do, aside from the filming, was with the Mary McCarthy Vietnam piece. We had Patricia Clarkson record the voiceover ... [McCarthy's] writing, those words, was very important to use because the Review is about good writing and analysis and we didn't want to pay short shrift to that because to me that's the essence of the Review ... and then as if it had been scripted, one of the researchers found a piece of archive [footage] from a local New York television station ... It was maybe two years before she went to Vietnam and she talks about - because it's at the forefront of her mind - how terrible Vietnam is, how terrible our involvement is, and how she wants to change it. And as a person there's no way she can change anything, but she wants people in Washington to understand how terrible our involvement is and then she says at the end, "Well, I could write something."

WF: Do you think you missed out on something due to the fact that the New York Review of Books' co-founder and longtime co-editor Barbara Epstein passed away in 2006?

DT: Both Barbara Epstein and Elizabeth Hardwick [a writer and critic who helped found the NYRB, who passed away in 2007]. They were not - I don't believe they were public people in that way. They were literary people. It's not like today, where you have to appear on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and the millions of other things -

WF: Like having a Twitter account?

DT: Yeah, sure. But I just mean to have footage of them. We only turned up two interviews with Barbara Epstein ... and Elizabeth Hardwick we didn't come up with any interviews. It's wonderful to have Bob Silvers ... But sure, it would have been great to have interviewed Barbara.

WF: This is your first collaboration as a co-director with Scorsese. What was the experience like in comparison to the other projects you've worked on together?

DT: I think the main difference was that I was involved all the way through. So for something like "No Direction Home," I was not involved in the interviews or even "George Harrison: Living in a Material World," where I might have been there when they filmed. Here I did the interviews ... In a way, that was the real difference ... It was very similar to how we always worked, except in production I was much, much more involved. And I think in post, he was more open. We kind of walked through it together.

SIG: One of the really fascinating aspects that you explore in the film is how the New York Review of Books has adapted to technology and new media.

DT: It's a very different environment at the Review; everything has changed. And then on the other hand, nothing has changed; it's still about writing and it's still about editing. I was amazed at how both Bob Silvers and Rea Hederman embrace modernity. I'll give you a great example. Maybe a day before we premiered the film in England, the CIA officially opened their Twitter account and so the New York Review, through their twitter, spent the day tweeting excerpts from articles about the abuses of power done by the CIA in the last few years. And I thought that was really wonderful and it got a fair amount of publicity. And I didn't see any other reaction to the CIA on Twitter that captured the moment so well.

SIG: That also seems like a great example of the NYRB confrontational attitude, as in fifty years of arguing, no?

DT: I would just add that in "The 50 Year Argument," argument has two meanings. You could see it as the 50 year "conflict," but you could also say it's an argument for something ... "The 50 Year Argument."

SIG: I think that's the big pull quote for the piece

DT: [Laughs] Well, it's a good way to end it.