NYFF ’14: Tedeschi takes center stage

David Tedeschi (pictured) talks to realscreen about making the leap from editor to co-director with The 50 Year Argument, his latest documentary collaboration with Martin Scorsese.
September 26, 2014

After editing five documentaries for Martin Scorsese over the course of a decade, David Tedeschi (pictured) this year made the leap from editor to co-director for the duo’s latest effort, The 50 Year Argument.

The doc examines the half-century history of The New York Review of Books, weaving together rarely seen archival material with contributor interviews, original footage filmed in the magazine’s Manhattan offices, and excerpts from writers such as Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.

The film world premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, before playing on the BBC earlier in the year. After festival stops at Telluride and TIFF, it continues its festival run at the 52nd New York Film Festival on Sunday (September 28), before enjoying its HBO premiere the following day.

Tedeschi’s turn in the spotlight comes after having previously served as Scorsese’s editor on 2011′s George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2010′s Public Speaking, 2008′s Shine a Light, 2005′s No Direction Home, and an episode of 2003 doc series The Blues.

Realscreen sat down with him in Toronto to discuss his upwards move.

After five projects as editor, you’re serving as co-director. What was different this time around, and how did that conversation come about?

Well, it came about in the initial conversation. The New York Review of Books and [its editor] Bob Silvers came to him [Scorsese] to see if he would be interested in making a film, and he was very interested.

But he had a tiny little movie called The Wolf of Wall Street that he was working on [laughs], and he felt that he was unable to commit to the schedule that they were interested in pursuing, and that’s when he bought me on. So from the beginning we knew that I would be co-directing it, and we just kind of threw ourselves into it.

tedeschi and scorsese in conversation during the filming of the 50 year argument

David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese in conversation during the filming of The 50 Year Argument

How was your role different as co-director?

The biggest difference was that I’ve never been involved in the filmmaking before. So, I did some of the interviews… for example he interviewed Joan Didion, but I was there, and we talked about it a lot.

When we started out, he was very clear about a few things he wanted to shoot, but as it evolved, I would say, ‘why don’t we shoot this,’ or ‘why don’t we do that,’ and we kind of figured out a way to make it work where we were both shaping what the final film was going to be.

This coming after you had previously done four docs together, along with an episode of a series…

I think this is the fifth film we’ve worked on together. I edited No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, and it was a wonderful experience for me. I think we really got to know each other from that experience.

Then I worked with him on Public Speaking – there was also another editor – and on Shine a Light. I was in California over Christmas break, this is a year and a half ago, and he calls me up and says, ‘would you be interested in working on this with me?’ And of course I love The New York Review of Books, and each time I’ve worked with Scorsese it’s been a fantastic experience.

I’ve been a reader for many years, I kind of came of age with it, so we talked for a little bit about it. But coming off the phone I thought, ‘how did he know that I was a reader of the Review?’ But he just knew. And it didn’t surprise me that he was a reader.

Most of our work has been with music films, but Public Speaking was a similar topic – it’s about a writer, and it’s about ideas, and speech, and provocative ideas. But this was something new; it’s a different kind of challenge, it’s a different part of the human experience, and it was very exciting to work on.

Your previous collaborations have often involved a lot of archival material – particularly the Bob Dylan and George Harrison docs. Is your ability to work with archive one of the strengths of the relationship? How does your relationship work?  

I think it’s that he has championed a certain style of filmmaking, and it’s interesting that he’s championed it in his documentaries. Whether it’s Italianamerican, My Voyage to Italy or No Direction Home, it’s very emotional, meticulous.

And I think that I have – I hope to say – an understanding of how to treat archival footage as if it were footage that had been [newly] filmed. It’s a certain point of view about story and conflict.

robert silvers in "the 50 year argument"

Robert B. Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books

Was there a lot of archival to work with this time around?  

When I first sat down with Bob Silvers, the editor of the Review, he said: ‘The thing you have to understand is, we followed the waves of history.’ So in that respect, we had unlimited subject matter.

There have been more than 10,000 articles in the Review, so it’s not just a question of archival, it’s a question of how you find and connect to a story within this publication. We believe in story, we’re storytellers. So how do you find a story out of 10,000 disconnected articles?

We seem to have done something that is at least coherent, because we’ve gotten a great response at festivals, and of course we were on the BBC, on ‘Arena,’ and we’ll soon be on HBO. We weren’t afraid of it being academic, because I don’t think it’s an academic subject, ultimately.

The 50 Year Argument is very much a film of ideas; it gives significant time over to exploring the ideas behind a selection of articles from some of the Review‘s many past writers. It seems as though you weren’t afraid of embracing the highbrow…  

Here’s the crazy thing, whenever I would talk to anybody and say, ‘yeah, I’m making a film about the Review,’ they would not necessarily think that the material would be cinematic. It’s not necessarily a subject that lent itself to a cinematic treatment – especially in a documentary.

But Marty was always convinced – and it’s very emblematic of how he works – that if it’s part of our experience, of the human experience, then there’s a way to make a compelling story and an emotional film; if it really is such a part of who we are.

I’d say it took three or four months to discover certain things, like how these titans of the 1960s – Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Miller, Gore Vidal – how entertaining they were, aside from the fact that they were great writers and they had a lot to say. The Review is actually a very funny publication.

Has the process of doing this made you want to direct your own documentaries?


Is that an unreasonable question?

No, not at all. Look, I feel like the luckiest man in the world. I get to work on all these different, really cool projects. If someone were to throw me the money and throw me the access…

The thing is, I have a personality that’s much more suited to being a documentary editor. I’m rather shy, and I liked being in that dark, closed, safe room, and having the universe in the computer in front of me. But never say never; who knows what’s going to happen?

  • The 50 Year Argument has its Big Apple premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival on Sunday (September 28). Tedeschi and The New York Review of Book‘s editor Robert Silvers will take part in a Q&A after the screening.
  • Check out realscreen’s coverage of Martin Scorsese’s TIFF Q&A here.
  • HBO will host the U.S. television premiere of the doc on Monday (September 29) at 9 p.m. EST. Check out a trailer below:

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.