STARTUP.COM - Q&A with Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
Movie Interview by Susannah Macklin
PHASE9 meets the directors, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
To any soul baring subject worth their salt, Chris Hegedus should need no introduction. She is the documentary maker who turned the cameras on the powers that be both in art (while filming Joel Coen in the recent DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN) and in life with THE WAR ROOM, the academy award nominated docu-drama trailing Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential election campaign. She also thrilled thousands of music fans with her 1988 footage of Depeche Modes 101 st concert as part of their massive world tour. For anyone who ever wanted to be watched by the fly on the wall- Chris is the woman to call.
In 1999 while on the lookout for the ultimate testimony to Y2K, Chris stumbled upon 25 year old ex-MTV producer, Jehane Noujaim. Jehane had been following her then roommate Kaleil Isaza Tuzman around with a camera, fascinated by this young guy's bid to create dot.com company GovWorks from scratch. Neither Kaleil, his lifelong friend and business partner Tom Herman or Jehane realised just how captivating the project could be until Chris Hegedus showed an interest in it. Now flying high on IMDBs most requested documentary list, it is ironic that it is this latest celeb free collaboration that is likely to make Chris and Jehane internationally recognised names.
The buzz surrounding STARTUP has so far been pretty good and it received a lot of coverage in the mainstream press early on. How do you feel about this?
CHRIS HEGEDUS: We're ecstatic about it! Especially that it's going to play over here in theatres, because you know I've been making films for a long time and a couple of the early films MONTEREY POP and DON'T LOOK BACK played in theatres as well as a film called TOWN BLOODY HALL, but other than that it's very hard to get an independent documentary film or even an independent fiction film into the theatres in England. We've also been very lucky because the subject matter is so timely. It's got people writing about it and that great for us, because as independent filmmakers we just don't have the money readily available to advertise this film. Usually in order to get that type of publicity you have to pay for it.
You mentioned timing there, STARTUP is so apt right now, but you couldn't have known it would remain so relevant. Would you say you've been lucky in hitting the right time with its release?
CHRIS HEGEDUS: Oh yeah- because people have done some incredible articles about it both in the UK and in the United States. We've had entrepreneurs and business people watch the film and write how they've felt about it so there've been all sorts of interesting spins because of the subject matter and timing. The newspapers have done it entirely on their own and it's been great so far.
Jehane, you and Kaleil one of the guys at the centre of the STARTUP story were roommates when you made the film. Was this a big pull factor for you in making your first major project a documentary or would you have happily filmed in this genre on any subject of interest?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: It was definitely a big pull factor. I was supposed to go back to Egypt to make a film which I'd been planning on doing for about a year- I had my ticket, I was gonna leave... than Kaleil and I started throwing around this idea of making a film about what he was doing. Initially I was like mmm follow my roommate around for a couple of years? I don't know if I want to dedicate my life to doing this. Then I met up with Chris - I was looking for a partner and the fact that she also found Kaleil fascinating and a charismatic character sort of gave me the confidence to keep moving forward with it. You know Kaleil went to Harvard, he's a really smart guy, I don't think he's ever really failed at anything. You kind of knew that he was a personality worth filming. I knew he that would make it really big or really struggle if it was gonna go down- which is what ended up happening, especially as things turned sour with him and Tom. I was so into the fact that he was starting GovWorks and taking these risks along with this best friend from high school- I was interested in the personal story.
It was also due to all the things that were happening in the apartment at the time. you know I'm about to leave for Egypt but there was this buzz because here he was on the edge of his bed at midnight negotiating hundreds of thousands of dollars without even having an established business , everybody is leaving their jobs in order to do this, and I was like, "why am I leaving when this amazing story is happening?"
Getting that amazing story in the can took a lot of hard work though - you followed Kaleil and Tom on these incredible 18 hour days for over a year- did either of you have any idea it would be like that?
CHRIS HEGEDUS: I had absolutely no idea that they worked all the time like that- I was ignorant to that aspect. In some ways I thought it would be convenient for me which was why I was initially interested in this story (laughs). I knew that there was this revolution going on and part of it was in California in Silicon Valley - but then there was this other weird part in New York in this place called Silicon Alley! So that way I didn't have to travel too much, I could just find this entrepreneur and film this story. But that they worked as hard as they did was exhausting for both of us. It was certainly an advantage for Jehane to be roommates with Kaleil because we could really keep track of them, although we ended up working so much too!
JEHANE NOUJAIM: I remember the first time when Chris and I went out to California together - she was like oh my god Jehane, they really do work all the time, she was really so suprised. It's true though- they were working 24 hours trying to get the next Venture Capital firm to interview them. They were kind of hanging on by their fingernails!!
Where on earth did you find that kind of stamina?
CHRIS HEGEDUS: It was total adrenaline and obsession. Jehane has never spent less than two weeks when visiting back home in Egypt, and she went back for I think a week during that period. We were just both so scared that the company would go down or that they'd raise tens of millions of dollars in the week we were away. It was total obsession and fear that we were gonna miss something.
Luckily you were there to capture Tom and Kaleils meeting with a VC (Venture Capital) firm when they offered to invest $17million in GovWorks provided they signed there and then, but the pair couldn't locate their lawyer on the phone! Do you think this VC firm's awareness of a film crew had an influence on them making such bold and decisive choices?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Well with most of the companies we just went to the initial meetings, then when things got more complicated and they kept having further and further meetings about how much money they were gonna invest, it wasn't something we were really in on. The meeting we did follow in detail was the one you mention which was with a firm called Highland Capital, but the guy from there Bob Higgins was really so supportive of the film and he'd seen us there from the beginning. When we walked in Bob was like 'Oh- you again!!' I mean they know you're there, but I don't think we affected what was going on while we were there really. If anything, if they're gonna have some real tough negotiations, then they don't want you to be in on them, they're gonna ask you to leave.
CHRIS HEGEDUS: Yeah that's right, and on some occasions that we turned up Bob would have said no if we'd asked him first! But sometimes you have to just get in there.
You mean turn up and doorstep people?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Exactly (laughs). We just said to him, look when you feel really uncomfortable - kick us out!
CHRIS HEGEDUS: It did get harder and harder to get in on meetings as the company had more and more financial responsibility and problems, and as the economy started to go down. People don't really want you around at that point. Though they like you when they're doing good - they don't otherwise. We really wanted to film a particular meeting with a board of directors, but now it's very difficult to do any type of recording in a board meeting because the age is such that everybody sues each other for anything that's said or things can be used against them so they didn't want to have any record.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Yeah we really wanted to film this one meeting because Kaleil and Tom had been talking about these people for so long. So Chris and I were really upset when we couldn't get in to that one. We went into the bathroom which was basically our conference room because it was all boys. We went in there, cried - and then went shopping (both laugh loudly).
Going back to something you mentioned earlier- I have to bring up the rift that grew between GovWorks founders Kaleil and Tom while you were making the documentary, which made for a pretty juicy story. When everything was turning sour between them did you find it hard to stand back and not get involved for the sake of the film?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Definitely. That was hard. When Kaleil and Tom fell out there were often times when they didn't fully understand what was going on, but Chris and I knew both sides of the situation and we knew things that they didn't know, so gut instinct is to step in and say, listen this isn't really what's going on. But we just had to kind of believe that the situation was bigger than us, that there was stuff that wed missed and that you can't play God. In a film of this kind, you just have to let things take their course. There's also this very strong trust thing that you have to maintain, that you're not talking about what you're filming, otherwise people can't trust you to let you in to do it!
Many people have commented that Kaleil has emerged from the film as this kind of 'Machavellian' character because of his attitude. Jehane as a friend of his - do you think these opinions are fair?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: I found that people who are involved in this whole world really understand where Kaleil was coming from a lot better. Critics have been pretty harsh with him actually. I think he was completely obsessed with what he was doing, he was working all the time and he did feel like he wanted this business to come before anything else. He did have this very focused and I guess you could say Machevellian vision - before friendship, anything, this is what comes first. But he's actually quite a laid back personality and after this whole thing was over he had the time to be a person. So do I think its fair? I think its people's very different reactions to the film, but that's what I love about the reactions because you come away from it so conflicted. You sometimes feel like Kaleils doing the right thing or he's sometimes doing the wrong thing. The same with Tom. I think its complicated - I don't think it's as cut and dried as any one article portrays Kaleil.
Didn't you ever feel like doing Kaleil a favour by pulling him to one side to say: 'Hey you're coming across as an asshole here!'?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: To be honest I never thought at any point you look really bad here I want to stop filming and tell you to change your actions, because you cant! You can't step in and interfere atall because then you're changing reality or whatever, and you just can't worry about it. I just figured when shooting stuff that it somebody looks like an asshole they look like an asshole, were going to be editing all of this stuff later, so you know well see how this story comes together. But when you're shooting, you just cant be thinking about that stuff.
CHRIS HEGEDUS: It wasn't an easy process for Tom and Kaliel and it certainly wasn't easy for them to watch. But at the same time they knew from the beginning that it was gonna be the ups and downs, we're not doing a promo piece on them!
But at the end of all these ups and downs, were you at all concerned that it might not pan out as you'd imagined, and that you might come off with just a boring story about two moaning men and the internet?
CHRIS HEGEDUS: (laughs) There is a certain element of luck when shooting a film like this, but there's also very hard work and determination and I think that we were committed to the idea that there was going to be an interesting story here, that these were two interesting characters, that they were taking on enormous risks, and something was going to go on. But certainly it's [the filming process is] very boring for a lot of the time. Things were dragging on and on and we didn't really see an ending in sight. The business aspect is interesting but it's also so dry, so it's hard you know? You're there for a long time making these stories and there's a lot of worry and pressure that you're actually gonna end up with what you think you're gonna end up with. When we saw the tension between the two friends, we knew that would be the story but we had no idea that it would come in this explosion that had so many emotional repercussions and was as harsh as it was. But at the end of the day, as filmmakers we knew in our gut that we were getting a good story.