By Rebecca Green
10 years after being nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, producer Howard Gertler is enjoying another career highlight with Laura Poitras’s film, ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED, which won the 2023 Spirit Award for Best Documentary and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 95th Academy Awards.
Howard sat down with Dear Producer to discuss this moving documentary that explores the interweaving impact of photographer Nan Goldin’s artistic work, personal battles, and activism as she determinedly seeks the downfall of the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, who are largely responsible for the opioid crisis. Howard shares how he became involved with the film, how it interconnects with his previous body of work, and his advice for new filmmakers just entering the industry.
I want to start by saying I loved ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED so much. I started in film through photography so I was familiar with Nan Goldin’s work, but not the depth of her activism.
With documentaries, producers come in at various stages. Sometimes, you’re there at the inception of the idea. Sometimes, you come in once there’s footage to see, and other times there could even be an assembly to look at. On ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED, what was your entry point?
I met Nan on an interview shoot for another documentary, which is now in production, about the photographer Peter Hujar, who is briefly referenced in ALL THE BEAUTY AND BLOODSHED. Peter was a friend of Nan’s. It’s a film that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are directing and I’m producing with John Lyons, who was also a producer on ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED. We interviewed Nan about Peter in late spring 2019 or thereabout. After we wrapped, she asked me what else I had produced and I mentioned HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. She said that film was one of her favorite documentaries and told me she was working on her own film and could use some advice.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Nan, and I knew about her activism, so I gave her some general advice about ways to go about putting a film together and thinking about an approach that would be inclusive of both the activism, but also her life and her art. If an audience member watched the film not knowing who she is as an artist and the impact her art had on the world and on art institutions, then you wouldn’t understand why her singular leverage was so powerful. The film had to be expansive in order to understand that.
Nan was very engaged and open to talking about all of it and if I would be interested in producing, and I was like, “Of course!” Her team had been self-taping since her organization P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) started. That was a year or so before I’d even met her. They had the footage, but they were having trouble getting traction for the film.
I first went to John and said, “I talked to Nan. She’s trying to make her movie. Would you want to make this one together as well?” He was like, “Oh my God. Absolutely. Of course.” Then, a few days later, I got an email from Laura Poitras who coincidentally just had breakfast with Nan. I’ve known Laura for about 20 years, we met on one of my first jobs working on the show SPLIT SCREEN for IFC. Laura encouraged me to work with Nan and shortly after that, mentioned she would be interested in directing. We started having conversations with Laura as a group. It came together in a very organic way.
In watching the film, for the first 30 or so minutes, I didn’t know where the story was going. You have the storyline of Nan as an artist, you have her in her present-day activism, but then you also have the story about her sister. But then in the third act, it collides beautifully and felt so satisfying. How did you go about capturing so many different stories and tracking them in such a well-balanced way?
We had three full-time editors, two associate editors, and two additional editors who came in at the final stage and helped with polishing, tightening, and problem-solving in meaningful ways. Generally, in this case, we were starting with the footage that existed, which was all the self-taping that Nan and P.A.I.N. had been doing already. Then, we brought on archival producers very early on, Shanti Avirgan and Olivia Streisand, who are both incredible.
Nan gave us access to her entire work archives and she also had works in progress, like the project she’s making about her parents that you see at the end of the film. I was reviewing all of that work. If memory serves, one of the first sequences we assembled was the Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing sequence because that was something where archival was plentiful.
With every documentary, especially one with so much material, you just have to start somewhere. In our case, Nan started it all. She organized that exhibit in the late 80s at a time when AIDS and people with AIDS were stigmatized by various institutions, including the government, and she stood up to these forces in the ways that she could with this exhibit. We realized that was going to be a throughline.
Every filmmaker has a different way of navigating the process. Sometimes you’re just going through all the footage and you start assembling sequences and seeing how your characters are speaking to you. In this case, we started with what we had, but we also were filming.
For example, Nan told us she was going to the Louvre with P.A.I.N. so I hired a cinematographer who went and filmed the Louvre action. The action at then-Governor Cuomo’s office in 2019, I was there with my iPhone along with a DP. Laura started filming herself soon thereafter. You start filming these moments and you see what comes up. You’re reviewing all the footage and filming and just seeing what emerges. Editing is writing in a documentary; the shoot is almost like gathering the elements you’re going to put into that script. You’re figuring out how to build it as you go. One of our editors, Joe Bini, created an amazing dramaturgical document about how we could weave the past and the present. That was the structure the entire editing team was working off of. It was really effective. We didn’t know how the movie would end until the Sackler name was taken off the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were two years into cutting when that happened.
When did you know when to stop? Nan’s story is one that will continue so did you set a third act and aim for a particular resolution?
We knew we wanted to film through the resolution of the Sackler bankruptcy, which you see in the film’s final act, because Nan, P.A.I.N., and other stakeholders were turning their attention to that. You don’t always know when you will find the resolution of the film’s story. You budget the best that you can. You’re moving money around to keep capturing what you need. You’re strategizing as you go to ensure you have the runway to land the plane, so to speak.
In terms of Nan’s archive, is it common for an artist to own all her work or do you usually have to go through museums?
Usually, the estates or the artists own the copyright to their work. Not the institution necessarily. Sometimes, we must go to institutions to get permission from them. Most of it usually comes directly from the artist.
At what stage did Participant Media become involved?
We started filming around June 2019, when the Louvre action was happening, and we filmed through that fall. In the beginning of the film, Nan is hanging an exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in London. Laura, John [Lyons] and I flew out there, we hired a small crew, and we filmed. We also filmed action at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which you see a little bit in the film. After that, Laura cut some sequences together, and we showed them to Diane Weyermann at Participant. At that point, they came on board the film.
It’s been 10 years since the release of HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE and it’s hard not to draw some comparisons between the two films. Was there anything that you learned from HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE that you took into making this film?
On a practical level, from the beginning, I understood the line from ACT UP and Treatment Action Group (TAG) and AIDS activists to Nan’s activism today. You look at some of the footage that we have in the film of the protestors who are at the opening night of Witness: Against Our Vanishing and you see Bob Rafsky, one of the heroes of HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, is in that footage, it all connects. I always knew that this is where the story was heading, connecting the dots between ACT UP and activism today, what P.A.I.N. is doing and what a public health crisis opioid addiction and overdose has become. It was clear to me as a producer and I had to make sure that it would be clear to an audience.
In looking at your body of work, it’s very obvious to me why you were the right producer for this film. It’s encouraging to see growth and a continuation of a producer telling the stories that are important to them. I feel like it’s such a volume business for producers right now, but your choices seem intentional and meaningful.
When the movie was over, my first thought was ‘more movies like this need to exist.’ People need to see that activism work can yield results. We’re often made to feel like the world’s problems are too big so what’s the point? This film shows us the point. In the films you chose to produce, are you looking for films you know can make an impact?
First of all, thank you for saying all that. We’ve talked about this on panels we’ve done together. What producers do is often in the shadows and people even in our industry don’t get it. I’m trying to show more intentionality in what I do now as I feel my body of work gets deeper. I’ve never had a good answer for what I’m looking for. One way of framing what I gravitate towards and want to make is films I’d want to see as an audience member. Films that could be artistically useful to people.
That’s not necessarily a film’s number one goal. It’s to transport, illuminate, entertain, dramatize, and do all those things. If the film doesn’t do that, it can’t be helpful to people. With Nan, something important to her is destigmatization on all fronts, the destigmatization of drug use and drug users is important to her. She and PAIN have put a lot on the line to advocate for that. Hearing feedback from people who struggle with addiction or people close to those who do say this movie was meaningful to them is extraordinary.
What is the definition of a documentary film? On one side, you have a commissioned series like MEGAN AND HARRY, then you have music docs like with Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Billie Ellish, you have crime docs, then you have what I would say are more traditional docs like ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED. With each documentary I watch, I always think, “where does this fit in the documentary landscape?” Does it matter whether audiences know the subject had control over telling their own story?
As we’ve described during press for the film, Nan was a collaborator with Laura, but there were parameters that we were doing this within, which was an effective way to make this film. It was of utmost importance to Laura and Nan to make sure the film was authentic and truthful, two aspects core to the integrity of their individual works
What are you most grateful for and excited about regarding what you’re working on for the next couple of years?
We were making this movie through the pandemic and Participant remained committed to making this amazing film no matter what the obstacle. They were the best studio. I will always be grateful for the experience and hope to do many more projects with them.
I’m happy that people liked the film and it meant something to them. That, to me, was something that did give me hope, especially at a time when we’re all looking at the business as a bit of a question mark.
Are there any particular words of wisdom you would give a new filmmaker coming into the space right now? Someone who’s at the early stages of their career following in this crazy market?
New filmmakers trying to get a toe-hold should focus on making the story that only you can make, that satisfies you and differentiates who you are in a commercial marketplace. AFTER SUN is a brilliant example of this, only Charlie could have made that film. Those things do help grow your career.