Interview: Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert talk American Factory and Netflix
Matthew Turner | On 01, Sep 2019Reading time: 13 mins
Netflix’s terrific documentary American Factory charts what happens when a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in a previously shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. Before it arrived on Netflix, the film received its UK premiere earlier this year at Sheffield DocFest (read our review here), where co-directors Stephen Bognar and Julia Reichert were on hand (via Skype) for a Q&A.
How long were you working on this whole orchestration of documenting this story at the factory in Ohio?
Julia Reichert (JR): The factory is right near our house. We can drive there in about 20 – 25 minutes, and we were working on it for about three years as far as the shooting part, so we were walking up those concrete floors for almost three years and then the editing was…
Stephen Bognar (SB): The editing was another year to finish it. We started editing while we were still filming – it was about 18 months of editing and a total, between filming and editing, of about four years. So it was quite a push. It was actually a very intense few years because it was such a big story and we felt that we were chasing it non-stop, for those years. We ended up filming over 1,200 hours of material during the period. You notice in the camera credits, there are five main camera people and there’s a number of additional camera people and we had people all over the factory, following different “characters” for months and months, so it was a very intense kind of process.
Was the casting process done during the editing, or did you know as you were shooting who you wanted to really focus on and what kind of stories you wanted to highlight?
JR: Well, you’re asking a couple of questions there. We knew the kinds of stories we wanted to highlight – we knew pretty early on that we had a kind of upstairs-downstairs kind of story where you had blue collar workers who were both Chinese and American. Even though we started with our hearts with the blue collar Americans, we also knew there were management people both Chinese and American. Then there was, of course, the Chairman and then there were the engineers and the designers – we don’t see much of them in the film. The sales people. We followed a lot of people, a lot more people than are in the film.
SB: In a way, what you’re asking, you’re putting your finger on something I don’t think we’ve ever realised, that casting seems to happen twice in a documentary. First it happens while you’re filming, as you’re looking for people to follow, and ask, you know, can we follow you? And then it happens the second time in the editing room. There are several people we thought would be main characters in this film, who in the editing room did not emerge, did not grab us like other people did, and so they receded to the background. And we loved them, and we loved their stories, but the casting in the editing room is when you listen to the material, and the material says this person has a stronger narrative or speaks more to the larger story you’re telling than that person, even though you might love the other person.
JR: We always really loved Wong. We loved Bobby. We loved Jill. So some of the people who are pretty big characters we really like, there were others too, and then there were some of them like Jill, you know Jill got fired, and Jill decided to become a union activist. Of course, we didn’t know, we liked her for her.
SB: She was not at all a union activist at the beginning. She was just grateful to have that job.
JR: And then she got drawn into the union because of what happened to her friend, who was fired for going to the hospital. And so she decided to get involved and then she got very involved, and then she got fired, like so many people who were union activists got fired. So that made her go higher on our list, let’s say, in the editing room.
SB: Well, yes. Because her story just got more rich and more complicated.
When you looked at the footage from China and what you captured there, how did that offset the stories you were following in the States?
SB: You know, our jaws dropped again and again in China. We never thought we’d find ourselves in the middle of like a Broadway musical at the annual dinner. It was exhilarating, but in the end it was a challenge to figure out how to place that. We loved so much of that – we loved it too much and we had to pull it back so that it didn’t overstay its welcome in the film, in terms of editing. Those musical numbers with the little dancing chickens or the people paying tribute to windshields, it was just so wonderfully wild and unexpected for us. But yes, it found its equilibrium in the editing room, gradually, because we just kept taking away, taking away from those showtunes until it was great.
JR: The other thing you mentioned, we managed to get interviews with some of the workers as they were working, were on a break. There were six of us and we had three crews, and we’d go on the tour, but then we’d find ourselves like hanging back or taking off in a different direction, which wasn’t necessarily what I think the company wanted, but they didn’t stop us. So that’s how we managed to get those interviews with factory workers there.
SB: And we should say right away, this film would not be what it is if we didn’t have these two amazing Chinese co-producers who are filmmakers from China, Yiquian Zhang and Mijie LI. They came on board the film in 2016, when we started immediately realising we are missing huge parts of the story because we don’t speak Mandarin Chinese and we’re not Chinese, ethically, culturally. And so when they came on board, it opened up doors to the Chairman, to Wong, and so many avenues and parts of the big story that we were missing.
I know Netflix came in quite late. How did you fund this?
JR: The short answer is Participant Media, which is a big studio out in California – you’ve probably heard of them, they did Green Book and Roma and Spotlight and lots of big films – they came on board actually right after our new President was elected.
SB: Well, he wasn’t elected… [laughter] When the electoral college stole the votes, uh, yeah. There was interest from Participant. I mean, Julia and I are very lucky, we’re grizzled veterans at this point and we are lucky that we have a camera and a car, and we have income from being teachers, and so we can start making a film in our region within an hour’s drive of our house at almost any time. And so we started this film with no funding, as we have with many films, but then at some point we realised the film was so big that we needed to start looking for funding. And then we sent it to Participant Media and they were very interested, pretty early on, because it’s such a wild story and we had put together a couple of clips to show them.
JR: That’s what happened. The world changed, they realised we were sitting right in the Midwest, part of the country that very few people on either coast had any clue about and then suddenly it was powerful and it elected Donald Trump. So they called us. [laughter]. They’re laughing…
How did you get that access to Fuyao and did the Chinese, or the Chairman ever try and pull access when they started firing Americans?
JR: It was pretty amazing. Well, we made an earlier film, which is still available on HBO Go, if you have that there, it’s called The Last Truck: Closing of a General Motors Plant, and the very beginning of this film, there was a prayer, and it was the day the plant closed and you saw the workers crying in the plant as the last truck [left the plant]. So that film, which is a short film, 40 minutes, it’s a very good film to see, it’s kind of a prequel to this film. So we made that film and it’s a very good film, it was an Oscar nominee, it was on HBO. And so when the Chairman bought the plant, some of the Americans actually thought, oh, this should be documented, this Chinese entrepreneur coming to our town and starting a plant with 2,000 workers and so forth. So they called us, long story, and the Chairman saw that film and he said yes, let’s invite them, let’s see if they want to do it. Now, what they had in mind at first was that they would pay for the film, which of course, we could not take a penny from them. We also said that we wanted complete access and total editorial control, like, we would do it, under those three circumstances. And the Chairman said yes! And in that hierarchical structure, once the owner, the Chairman says yes, everybody has to say yes, even if they weren’t always wanting us there. And to answer your second part, which was a very good question, no, the Chairman never – even though he could see things were getting really rough, and he could see that we were talking to workers, and he could see that we were documenting what was going on with the union and safety and all that, no. In fact, he reinforced that he wanted us to make a real documentary.
SB: He’s very much a film person. He’s written an autobiography that’s not like some kind of PC correct book – I mean he talks about problems and headaches all along the way and mistakes he’s made in his own book. In a way, he’s a maverick, he doesn’t care, he’s 72 years old, he’s like, I want this story told, and we were very fortunate that he had that attitude. And I will say also, in the documentary process, we use the analogy of you’re either on the boat, on the train, or you’re not. And we were very lucky, as filmmakers, that we got on the train in the early days when everything was really going well – well, it wasn’t going well, but there was so much excitement, so much optimism, so much hope. And we kind of just were there as things gradually got harder. Now you just saw less than two hours that compresses like three years into two hours. As things got harder, it was more gradual than what you see in the movie, and real life is more gradual, of course. And as it got harder, we were already on the inside and generally people – not the Chairman, but the Americans and the Chinese leadership – were like, you guys are part of this and you’re here, so I guess you’re going to stay here. We were kind of like part of the furniture at that point, we were on the inside of the story.
When you were setting out to do it, how much insight did you have into what might transpire?
JR: You know, it was really like a runaway train, and we didn’t know which track it was going to take. We live in that community and we’d made the other films in that community, so we knew the stakes for the blue collar Americans were very high. Here’s a potential for good jobs, and a lot of good jobs. But we also knew – we saw right away – it was an extremely different culture trying to come in and act as management and teachers of these blue collar, mostly middle aged former union members. A lot of General Motors people decided to apply for a job, they wanted to go back in that plant, which they had loved for years. So we knew something interesting was going to happen and we just kept shooting and kept asking questions and finding out what was going on for whether it was one of the Chinese lawyers, some of the Chinese engineers, blue collar Americans. The thing that we couldn’t get access to, as Steve referred to at first, was the Chinese nationals who couldn’t speak English, who basically got on an airplane in a small city in China and got off the airplane in Dayton, Ohio and were just plugged into this totally new place. We couldn’t have much access to them at first, because we didn’t speak the language. Once we got the Chinese co-producers, that story bumped. But no, what did we expect? We didn’t expect this was going to be about late capitalism. We didn’t expect this was going to be about globalisation, automation. The union. We knew about unions and we were basically pro-union, we thought it would be good if the plant was unionised, but what we didn’t know on that story was the impact of the anti-union consultants, which had a huge impact. I think we just gave you kind of the surface of it. In terms of fighting the union, the union-avoidance consultants, as they call them, we didn’t know what that was, really.
SB: You know, when we do documentaries, I think we try to not have expectations and I think we go in with our eyes and ears as wide open as can be and just have a sense of where things might go, but learning to live with uncertainty, or learning to live with who knows what’s going to happen is part of just doing the process of doing vérité cinema.
JR: Yeah, you just get in there and you see your people and you ask what’s happening and you try to follow what’s going on. The whole union avoidance, I want to emphasise, a big part of the reason why union density has fallen so much in our country is because of these folks preventing elections or having a very strict playbook for defeating union elections. I don’t know if you guys have that there.
SB: I do want to say that as we structured the film in the editing room, we realised that we had this rare opportunity to give a deep voice to Wong and a deep voice to the Chairman, in terms of how much they had given us in terms of their inner life, their intimate thoughts, their feelings, and even though we’re not Chinese, we’re American and our point of view is American, we worked hard to not let the film have an overall American point of view. And then again, our Chinese filmmaking colleagues were super important in that. While we’re with Americans, it does feel like we’re in the shoes of those Americans who lost so much, but when we’re with Wong or the Chairman, it’s not that sense of loss, it’s not that sense of midwestern American anxiety about where is the future going. It’s a different kind of tone or feeling.
American Factory is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.