This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, we feature Part 1 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage. Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.
NP: What made you decide to do a film about the Rodney King protests?
DL: The idea of the film was brought to us by the producers, Simon Chen and Jonathan Chen. They had set up the project with National Geographic and, when they came to us, there was an idea of doing a look back. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil unrest was coming up, and the thought was to revisit that moment. Simon and Jonathan approached TJ [Martin] and I to direct the film. TJ and I took some time to think about it, and eventually came back and said we’d be interested in doing it, but we would want to make it using exclusively archived material and not do any original interviews or shoot any new footage.
If I remember correctly, there was some discussion of a “plan B” of doing interviews in case it wasn’t possible to make the film out of just archives. Obviously we’re not the first people to do something like that, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I don’t think TJ and I had ever considered that back-up plan to be viable. We were going to make this film the way we wanted to make it.
NP: Following up on that, what was it that made you want to make the film entirely out of archival footage and dispense with creating any new footage or doing present-day interviews?
DL: There were multiple reasons. One was to allow the audience to be back in that moment of time and not have contemporary interviews in retrospect that would possibly create a distance for the audience between this event and their experience of watching it. We also didn’t want such a complicated topic – not only the civil unrest itself, but the events leading up to it and all of the underlying issues that led to it – boiling that down to a ninety-minute film felt a little irresponsible to us. So, we wanted to take that moment, the footage that existed, and present it in a way that people could come into it unfiltered and hopefully draw their own conclusions or spur a conversation.
We also come from a background of what’s referred to as vérité filmmaking, or direct cinema, where we are going out and just being a “fly on a wall,” and then putting together a film from that. So we thought that if we could think of these archives as if these were videographers that we had sent out to help us shoot this event while it was happening, it would be like making a film like that. Essentially, you shoot what you can shoot, and then you try to create the narrative and the edit. That felt like a way to be able to do that with a historical film.
NP: Regarding all the archival footage that you used, where did you end up finding all of the footage? And how did you go about securing the permissions to use the footage?
BP: We started out, I think, where most productions like that would start out, regardless of whether it was going to be archival only. And that led us along a path that we continued on for the duration – it was months of time – of trying to find content. I think along the way, when we were in Los Angeles, we also had the luxury of contacting some of the people who had recorded stuff on their own outside of the news entities here. And that was one of the more interesting parts of it, and I think we got some content from people who were literally down at Florence and Normandie [Avenues] filming. You can get some stories from them that inform the way the footage might get used as well.
But we had a relationship with one local news company called KTTV and KCOP. They were part of the Fox Family that we were a part of with National Geographic, and that opened the door – a pretty significant door – to getting in there and getting some air checks, just bits and pieces of the way that archive has been retained by a guy named Mitch, who was a really diligent archivist and still is there. He has taken a lot of time over the years to make his archive date-searchable, and you can come to him, time after time, with different requests and he would always find what was available and send it back out.
With all of these, you need to get the information about what’s licensable and the rates, and what’s restricted and how it’s restricted – is raw footage restricted? Every local place like that, and the national places too, all have different sets of rules that apply to how the footage can be incorporated. So it was a lot to keep track of, and we just kept at it, chipping away. You’d see something in one clip that would make you want to go check into something else. We often would see moments that would be clipped, or were somehow cut away at a moment that we wanted to see more of. It’s a lot of following back up and just bugging people to look again, to look deeper, to turn these people who are in charge of these archives into collaborators. It was a lot of relationship building and maintaining relationships with these folks, over the course of months. And you really do have to ask them a lot.
DL: We went to the “usual suspects” at the beginning. What they sent back was the standard clips that a lot of people like; it’s almost like the greatest hits, so to speak. It did take a while to get a lot of the people – the archivists, the different networks – to wrap their heads around that what we really wanted was this raw material. And that’s not something that is often desired. [Usually when] somebody’s doing a historical piece on anything, they can just say, “Give me a thirty-minute reel of the best stuff,” but we were really looking for the stuff in between that.
NP: That’s very interesting, because that happens a lot as an archivist or working in archives, when somebody has materials they’re interested in donating, for instance, they’ll [often] bring out what they think are the “greatest hits” among the things they have to show as a sampling. A lot of times those’ll be artifacts, say, a pistol that was used in a famous [historical] battle or something. But knowing the types of things that other researchers are going to be [more] interested in, you’re really looking, as an archivist, for that raw material. So I really relate to that.
DL: To use your analogy of the pistol that was used in some battle, that stuff – the “significant” stuff – exists out in the world because lay people understand that it’s significant. But it’s the everyday stuff that doesn’t seem as significant that is really, when telling the full story, the hardest stuff to find, and it’s the fabric that connects the dots between the real big moments that we tend to as a society. These things get filtered down into bullet points.
NP: Yes, exactly. And tragically, so often that’s the stuff people end up throwing away because they don’t realize the significance of it.
DL: Right. For sure.
NP: Going off something that you had mentioned – the things that, when you were doing archival research, you would see in footage that would really interest you, but then [the footage] would cut out, and you’d try to go looking for where that [footage] picked up amongst the raw materials. Were there things that you were hoping to find in your research that you ended up never finding?
BP: The first thing that comes to mind that falls in that category, I think, was news content, specifically from the Spanish-speaking community here in Los Angeles. We looked very hard and made a lot of calls to, I think it was Univision and [some] other places that we were trying to source content. We were literally on the phone with folks in Mexico, at one point, trying to see if their main location in Mexico could have retained any of the broadcast. We were able to get some radio, I think, that was in Spanish and a little bit more and that POV was addressed a bit, and we wanted more of that. We wanted more options from that. So I think what we included, ultimately, was from a very limited stash of content that could have been included. It’s always tough.
There was an interesting situation with a guy named Reggie, who, similar to a lot of these folks at the time, had stuff go out to different channels. He had done a deal right after everything had happened, and was a little confused about whether he retained the rights to his footage. He had seen bits and pieces of the stuff that had been included in the hard copy. Ultimately, we ended up finding out that he did have rights to his footage, and he had the original tape. That was an instance when we had a glimpse of something that was pretty interesting, because he was right at Florence and Normandie. He was down there right at the tail end of some of the most famous violent scenes that made their way out. And the raw tape that he ended up getting ended up being pretty powerful and we were able to include it in the film. So, they weren’t all in vain, but there were definitely some pursuits that just led to nowhere.
NP: Continuing in that vein, was there anything about the archival research process that surprised you, or did you have any major “aha” moments in the research process?
DL: Just from direct insight, I think there was a bit of naïveté on our part in thinking that more stuff would be archived in its original form. Just knowing what is required on our side when we deliver something, in terms of deliverables to a network, all the different versions [we make], making sure that there’s a textless version and there’s a version with the audio split out on one track, etc. You make all that stuff that you give to these places, and then when you go to the archive you find that they only have the main version with the titles all over it. That’s the only thing for me that was surprising, just how there wasn’t more raw material out there.
BP: I can tail up on that too, just to say that I had never really pushed as hard on archives as we did for this film, and I guess I ended up being surprised at how much more there was sometimes after having been told that everything had been spent as it related to what we’d asked for. A level of persistence, in that sense, really did pay off over the course [of the project]. But you really have to have the time in order to allow these people to do what they’re doing and to go radio silent for a month, and then all of a sudden they’re back and they’re providing interesting content again.
[Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner!]
Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.
Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs. He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.