It’s a little surrealistic right now,” said a dazed James Moll, a 41-year-old filmmaker who won an Academy Award for his Holocaust documentary, The Last Days . Mr. Moll is Steven Spielberg’s in-house documentarian at DreamWorks SKG and now, crucially-”surreally!”-has become Senator John Kerry’s official Presidential big-screen image-maker.
On Tuesday, July 27, Mr. Moll had just wrapped the final editing session on the most important short film of the political year, an extract of Senator Kerry’s life, meant to introduce him to the Democratic National Convention, and to as much of America as the television networks will allow, on the evening of July 29.
The film is so fraught with political consequence that Mr. Moll (pronounced “mahl”) had his work shrouded in the kind of secrecy that is usually saved for events either as important as the Oscars themselves or Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign, which was revealed at the 1984 Republican Convention, forever changing how Presidential nominees would be introduced. Once upon a time, an eloquent orator would come up and croon or blast rhetorical paeans into a convention microphone. Those days are past. They have been replaced with “the film”: Morning in America or The Man from Hope , Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s movie about Bill Clinton.
Nobody knew what was in this film. And nobody was supposed to be told. “I’m really sorry about this,” Mr. Moll said. “I’m really embarrassed by this. It’s crazy for me, too.” He seemed to really mean it.
But Mr. Moll didn’t have to apologize. Robert Shrum, Mr. Kerry’s media strategist and the rhetorician-in-chief of the liberal arm of the Democratic Party, is the man who has, more than anyone else, molded the public perception of the Senator’s personality. Mr. Shrum had seen a rough cut of the documentary campaign film and was willing to vouch for it.
“It’s a very powerful film about John Kerry and what his values are and the character of the man,” Mr. Shrum said. “I just think James Moll has done a terrific job.”
Despite his outsized influence on all things Kerry, Mr. Shrum said that Mr. Moll was the “creative driving force behind the film,” although, he added, not inconsequentially, “Steven Spielberg has had a fair amount of influence.”
Between Mr. Shrum, Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kerry’s campaign and massive collection of interested parties, Mr. Moll was getting his fair share of advice, to be sure. But Mr. Moll, an earnest, soft-spoken documentarian, “a serious, sober filmmaker for a serious, sober candidate in a serious, sober time in history,” and his reserved optimism, have remained intact. “The process hasn’t been without its occasional frustration,” he said, in an e-mail, “although I’m excited to be working for a candidate I support.”
Mr. Moll has been hunkered down for weeks inside the fortified compound of Universal Studios, in Universal City, Calif., where Mr. Spielberg got his start and from which the late Lew Wasserman once offered advice and support to many Democratic candidates, working right up until and during the Democratic National Convention. He had the massive and sudden task of sifting through 30 years of video footage, stills and film outtakes and constructing a thematic portrait that would solve the problem that various national polls say needs to be solved quickly: to introduce and define John Kerry, a fundamentally undefined persona, for the campaign, for the nation and for history.
That is why, throughout Hollywood, the purpose of the film has been thumbnailed after one of Mr. Spielberg’s most notable projects: “Saving Private Kerry.” The Republicans have been so prospectively upset by Mr. Moll’s film, and by the Spielbergian reputation, that they have anticipated with an answer for a film not yet released 11-minute video propaganda montage meant to define Mr. Kerry as what they have called a “flip-flopper” showing Mr. Kerry’s differing views on the war in Iraq.
Five days before its premiere, Mr. Moll was still scoring the Kerry documentary with live musicians. This wasn’t unusual in Hollywood or politics: in 1992, Bill Clinton didn’t see The Man from Hope , the highly successful mini-movie produced by Mr. and Mrs. Thomason, until 1 a.m., the night before his convention speech.
Mr. Moll operates his own educational and promotional film production company called Allentown Productions, named after his place of birth in Pennsylvania. But Mr. Moll’s career has been heavily shaped and influenced by the most successful film director in modern moviemaking history. And Mr. Moll said he often relied on Mr. Spielberg’s filmmaking eye.
“He does watch cuts and he’ll talk about them and he’ll make notes,” said Mr. Moll. “It’s always scary. Because as long as I’ve known him, he’s still Steven Spielberg. He’s a very, very bright man, but I do feel comfortable in saying, ‘No, and here’s why.’ And sometimes that flies. At this point, I try it anyway.”
Luckily for the Kerry campaign, Mr. Moll’s specialty is constructing visual history, specifically, the story of the Holocaust, as told by its survivors. Now he was being asked to help Mr. Kerry survive his own lack of lubricious charisma-in other words, his non-Clintonian tendencies-and turn his granite presence into an American commodity.
The self-described “in-house video guy” for Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Moll ran the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the organization created by Mr. Spielberg in March 1994. As senior producer and executive directors, Mr. Moll compiled an archive of some 50,000 video interviews with Holocaust survivors.
“At the height we were doing 340 per week,” he said. “We had 200 employees in Los Angeles. It was an administrative job; it was not a creative time.
“Because I’m not Jewish,” he added, “I almost felt like I wasn’t qualified to do interviews.”
Similarly, Mr. Moll isn’t a Democrat, either. He said he’s a registered independent. “I believed in Kerry before I started this project,” he said in an e-mail, “but after getting to know more details of his life than most people ever will, I can honestly say that I have nothing but the highest respect for him, and he’ll make a great President.”
James Moll had his own pantheon of cinematic masterpieces and heroes against which to match Mr. Kerry: Lawrence of Arabia , The Bridge Over the River Kwai , Star Wars . In a 1999 newspaper column for a British paper, Mr. Moll said his idea of a great double feature would be Silence of the Lambs and Tootsie . “I think Jodie Foster is pretty tough,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with her. She could probably kick my ass.”
Mr. Moll met Mr. Spielberg at a birthday party. At the time, Mr. Moll was an intern working with producer Lauren Shuler Donner ( Pretty in Pink , St. Elmo’s Fire ), who had hired Mr. Moll to create a birthday film for her husband, the director Richard Donner.
“I was going all over Hollywood interviewing these famous people, and one of them was Steven Spielberg,” he said. “The film went over very well, needless to say.”
Mr. Spielberg invited him to lunch and offered him a job at Amblin Entertainment documenting his appearances on TV and at speaking events.
It was an attractive gig for a young filmmaker who’d been earning a living making corporate videos and industrial films for liquid flow meters and pH sensors.
“Very shortly thereafter,” said Mr. Moll, “Mr. Spielberg “was doing the sound mixing on Schindler’s List and he was speaking to Holocaust survivors and he had this idea to record every living Holocaust survivors, as many as possible.”
Mr. Moll’s 10-person team on the Kerry film is the same one he used to produce, edit and score The Last Days , the Spielberg-produced film about Hungarian Holocaust survivors as told by five survivors. That film won the Academy Award for best feature documentary in 1999, suddenly making Mr. Moll the kind of director who had to get an unlisted phone number.
Using the interview archive, Mr. Moll also produced a number of Holocaust-related films for TV, including Survivors of the Holocaust and The Lost Children of Berlin . He made a 77-minute documentary called Voices from the List , which is packaged with the DVD version of Schindler’s List .
He attended the U.S.C. School of Cinema-Television, where he was a devotee of the director Peter Weir. “I remember watching Witness when it first came out, Peter Weir’s film, and for the first time questioning myself as a filmmaker,” he said. “That is a brilliant piece of filmmaking-can I do that? Why did he put the camera there and not over there? How did he know what? It’s an innate thing, and do I have that? It was a little bit scary. Then I said yes I can, and I studied all of Peter Weir’s films.”
But Mr. Moll’s first love had been screwball comedies. Among his first jobs was working with the French director, Francis Veber, as an associate producer on the 1992 comedy Out on a Limb , starring Matthew Broderick.
“It was not a good film,” he said. “It was a troubled production. It was the best learning experience I’ve had in my professional career, because I was able to see so many things go wrong.”
Mr. Moll couldn’t pinpoint the exact influence of Mr. Spielberg on his filmmaking. “He gives notes on every project,” he said. “And I’m sure I’ve absorbed a lot. But I don’t think I could very easily articulate specific tricks he’s imparted on me. He looks at a cut and states the obvious that should have been right there in front of my face.”
Then again, Mr. Moll said he couldn’t really articulate his own style. He listened to people. He filmed them. It was about being “honest. I definitely don’t try to draw emotion out,” he said. “I’m going for the honesty.”
That could be a problem in this politically fraught year. In this, the summer of left-wing documentaries and all the questions about the line between documentary and propaganda, Mr. Moll was producing his piece of citizen-lobbying whether he liked it or not. But he was no Michael Moore, he said.
“I think Michael Moore is tapping into some collective conscience,” he said, but “it’s certainly not a film I would have made. I wouldn’t have chosen to make a film that way. I found it entertaining.”
And he felt there was a place for Mr. Moore’s style of propaganda. “It has its place, it has its function,” he said.
But he didn’t like imposing his own point of view on a subject. It wasn’t his style. In The Last Days , he said, he interviewed a very reserved Congressman about his experiences. “I definitely don’t try to draw emotion out,” he said. “During the interview, he did become very emotional. And I didn’t use any of that footage, because it’s not true to who he is. It’s not the person I came to know. I’m not going for the emotion, I’m going for the honesty.”
It’s fun to imagine what might go through Bob Shrum’s head when he hears a filmmaker say those things. But in Mr. Moll, he had definitely found a man with more sincerity than you find in the average presidential campaign. In Mr. Moll, Mr. Kerry seems to have found something better than an image-maker-he has found a true believer.
“When I think about fiction filmmaking,” said James Moll, “sure, it would be fun to do a comedy someday.” It may happen. But not Thursday night.
Follow Joe Hagan via RSS.