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Director Nicholas Wrathall on his Gore documentary.

by Amber Wilkinson

Looking back in Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia
Looking back in Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia

The phrase 'larger than life' could have been coined for Gore Vidal. The prolific essayist, sometime politician and social commentator was never backwards in coming forwards when it came to offering his opinions of life, love and - perhaps, most notably - the political establishment. So Australian director Nicholas Wrathall - whom I met recently during Tribeca Film Festival - took on lot for Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia, but perhaps the biggest challenge of all was to get Vidal to open up about himself.

In fact, Vidal is so reluctant to talk about his half a century relationship with Howard Austen - although his grief for him is acutely shown in scenes where he leaves the Italian house they shared together - that Wrathall had to call on others to flesh out the details.

Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal

"He was very reticent," Wrathall admits. "I did keep asking him and a lot of his answers would just shut the question down. Other times, I'd see a crack and he would be in the right mood to open up just enough to let people see in that little window about what he's thinking about. That's why I had to bring other people in to talk more about Howard and his sister [half-sister Nina Straight] as well. People to give a bit of insight, because he was very protective of his private life. He didn't mind speaking about it off camera but as soon as the camera came out, he would say, 'That's private.' or 'Why do people want to know about that?'

"It was so hard to get him to speak about Howard. He was grieving the entire time that I knew him. I never met Howard but, you know, when I went to the house in Ravello, the sense of Howard in the space was everywhere. But he couldn't talk about it for whatever reason, he just was grieving."

Wrathall says that he was inspired initially to make the documentary by Vidal's writing concerning 9/11 and got to meet the man himself through Vidal's nephew, fellow filmmaker Burr Steers.

"I thought, what an amazing opportunity to get to know this man and to get his word out," says Wrathall, "because he's not going to be around much longer and there's a much younger generation who know very little about him. That motivated me. And the politics motivated me really deeply. I thought, who else is addressing power and speaking this kind of truth to power in American society? Who else? And he's not going to be around too much longer - I have to make this film.

"And I had this opportunity to meet him and realise he was open to it. I don't think he thought right away about the long run of it, he just loved getting his message out and being interviewed. Then I went to Italy, luckily, he said, 'Yes, come'. And there was this amazing situation where he was leaving that week. I was staying nearby and every time I came to his house he was just sitting around, lamenting his life was over there. I tried to capture that and the more I got to know him, the more fascinated I became."

The result is an insightful documentary that balances Vidal's political views with details of what made him tick personally. Vidal has such a high-profile public persona down the years and Wrathall says that he was different in person to what he had anticipated.

"He was more than I expected - much, much more in the way that I had imagined him through his writing and his public persona," says Wrathall. "He could just speak on anything at all, in great detail - with incredible knowledge and draw on these incredible parallels, either from the founding fathers or ancient Rome or Greece or talk about Confuscius in the context of what was going on in American politics. Then he would start asking me about what was going on in Australian politics, like 'What's Bob Carr doing now? He's going to retire as New South Wales premier isn't he? Is he going to go into federal politics? He says he's not.' I said, 'I think he is' and talked about what I knew from Australia and then I realised that he [Vidal] knew him and they'd been on these trips together. The same with Gough Whitlam and all these other Australian politicians."

The film is likely to inspire Vidal fans and newcomers to either revisit or seek out his work. Wrathall, who spent months poring over microfiche in New York and London, says the process of researching the documentary was "obsessively fascinating" although he admits that having to cut chunks out in the editing suite was "heartbreaking".

He adds: "Hearing my editor say, 'You've got to cut that bit out.' I'm, like, 'How can we cut that bit? You've got to be kidding!' It was hard not to go on these tangents."

Wrathall is also saddened by the fact that Gore Vidal didn't get to see the finished film in its entirety before he died on July 31, 2012, at 86.

"It wasn't a complete shock because he was old and he was sick," he says, "but I was devastated on the day that he died. I was not in LA [where Vidal passed away]. I'd been there the whole time and we'd been editing, I'd been trying to get the film finished and we were struggling financially - we didn't have any investment in the film and was just paying for it myself, paying the editors, going broke. So I came to New York to do a small job to make a bit of extra money and he died when I was here.

Director Nicholas Wrathall
Director Nicholas Wrathall

"Not that it would have made any difference where I was but I just seemed that I was really in the wrong place, that I should have been closer. I did manage to show him some of the rushes and he, at one point, demanded to see what I'd been doing. It came from his book agent, I think, because I'd been going at it for years at this point. So I just made him a DVD copy of all the videos I'd done with him in and they watched them and they never really got back to me. I finally tracked them down and said, well, what's going on did you see the material? They said, yeah, we watched it. I said, I want to go and see Gore again and they said go ahead. He was an old man and I think they were trying to be a bit protective of him but then I would call the house and he would sometimes answer and say, 'Just come over."

He adds: "It was a struggle and when I realised how sick he was, I doubled down and thought, I'm not leaving this editing suite until I get this film made. Then I managed to find an investor to help with the post right at the end. I was sort of heartbroken that he didn't get to see the film."

And he says Vidal's state of health had a real affect on the film, including the decision to open with a scene that shows the author standing by his own gravestone.

"It really drove the film," he says. "We were editing that scene and it was the suggestion of one of my editors. He just put that scene together and put it up front. I was, like, 'Wow, are you serious? You really want to do this?' And one of our producers said: 'No way.' Then we had a different editor... but I kept coming back to that scene thinking this is really powerful we've got to use this scene up front. He was still alive when we cut that scene but he was sick."

The film was finally finished just a few days before its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, so Wrathall admits that the impact of bringing it to audiences hasn't really hit him yet. He was, however, cheered by the fact that many of Vidal's old friends from DC and New York had attended the screening.

Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia
Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia

"A few of them sent me the loveliest texts and emails the next day and I felt vindicated finally," he says.

As for capturing Vidal himself, does he feel that he got to the real Vidal or just the Vidal on the day in question?

"A bit of both, I guess," he says. "But when I went to Ravello and his house, then I felt I was getting the real Gore. But he did like to turn it on for the camera, there's no doubt about that. There's so many aspects to the real Gore that I could never get them all. He had so many different periods. He was so frail at the end he opened up a bit. Physically, I think that he wasn't the robust physical person he'd always been made him so much more vulnerable and reflective."

There are reflections aplenty in Wrathall's absorbing and entertaining documentary and if Vidal seems occasionally vulnerable, he still had style. After all, as the man himself said: "Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn."

The film will be released in NY on May 23 and in LA on June 6, 2014

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