CULTURE & ARTS

The Director Of HBO's New James Foley Documentary On Making A Movie About His Childhood Pal

Brian Oakes explores Foley's journalism and resilience.

In August 2014, the American journalist James Foley became a household name. ISIS dropped a video on YouTube in which Foley was beheaded after nearly two years of captivity in Syria. Overnight, escalating concerns of global terrorism seemed to skyrocket. 

Foley is now the subject of a documentary that premiered at last month's Sundance Film Festival and airs on HBO this Saturday. Directed by his childhood friend, Brian Oakes, "Jim: The James Foley Story" explores Foley's childhood, his journalism and "resolve." One interview subject posits that Foley's death was the biggest American news story since the 9/11 attacks. After winning the Sundance documentary competition's audience award, The Huffington Post sat down with Oakes in New York to discuss Foley's life, his journey with the documentary and his final encounter with his childhood pal.

You had to secure a lot of footage and interviews for the movie. At what point did everything come together so that you knew you had the resources to execute it? 

My original motivation came about three months after Jim was killed, in early November 2014. At that point, that image of Jim in the orange jumpsuit and what he had come to represent across the world was surreal. I mean, this is my friend from first grade, who I’d known my entire life, and he was this symbol of political agendas and a reason to go to war. He was mentioned in an episode of “Homeland” -- stuff that I was so uncomfortable with. So I just started to feel a responsibility, in a way. I don’t want my friend to be represented like that. That’s not his legacy. That’s not the story he leaves behind, and I wanted to do something about that. There’s a man behind that, and it’s a lot more important than what he’s being used as, as a prop, almost. I approached the family because I’ve known them my entire life too, and they were skeptical at first because it was so fresh.

What were their initial reactions? 

They never came out and said, “No, that’s a horrible idea.” What I had said to them was, “Listen, most likely someone’s going to do something on Jim. They might adapt his story for a Hollywood film.” And they still might, I don’t know. Or a bad television drama. Someone’s potentially going to do something, and if that’s the case, I want to do it because I know Jim and I can do the story properly. I could put the kibosh on other people that might be like, “Oh, we’re trying to do a story about hostages,” or something like that. It was kind of important to get out of the gate quick, in that sense. The family didn’t ask any questions; they said, “I think if you want to do it, that would be amazing.” But I wanted them involved, so as I started to develop the narrative, I would tell them that it’s becoming more about Jim as a journalist, as opposed to me growing up with Jim.

Were you ever going to make yourself more of a character? 

No. People had told me that I should think about doing that. But no. A.) This has nothing to do with me, and B.) It’s just another character. There are already a lot of characters. In docs, you typically have six, maybe seven characters. This has like 12, so there’s no reason for me to do that.

So many documentaries suffer because the filmmakers over-insert themselves. You accomplish it by seeing the family members refer to you by name during their interviews. 

Yeah, I definitely break that fourth wall. I do think you watch a film differently if you know who the filmmaker is, especially in the case because I was a childhood friend. You’d think, “Oh, I’m probably going to watch that film a lot differently than if it’s just some director coming in.” 

Did you sit and watch all of Jim's war footage?

Oh yeah. I never got his raw footage. I only got his edited pieces. When you’re filing from Libya or Syria, you can’t just send everything because the Internet is really hard. He would just file selects. He had his laptop stolen and taken away, so I think a lot of his raw footage is gone. A lot of the footage I used was part of his pieces. And Jim was very, very well-respected by his peers and his colleagues, so I just started to reach out to those folks about, “Hey, we’re looking for footage of Libya and Syria, and photos of Jim -- what do you have?” It just started coming in.

You say at the top of the film that you won't show the beheading, but there are tough images nonetheless. Did it seem obvious to you how gruesome you’d let the footage become?

It was never obvious. It was a constant discussion and evolution of what I wanted to show and what was important to show as we developed the narrative. At first, I didn’t want to show anything from the video of Jim in the orange jumpsuit. The war footage I definitely wanted to show because that’s what he was doing.

The great thing is, one of my writers and the editor didn’t know Jim, so it was like this perspective that kept me in line with what’s good for the narrative, as opposed to what I want to show because he’s my friend. You want to say, “Oh, it’s that guy, the journalist who was beheaded in Syria.” But you have to show that image because that’s how everybody knows who James Foley was. The idea of not showing the image quickly went out the door. And then, as we developed the story and it became what it was, when we ultimately get to that moment of Jim’s death, that was a really difficult sequence to edit. What are we going to show? Is it necessary? This is a piece of propaganda video. This is a recruitment video for ISIS, so you run a really difficult line between exploitation versus narrative, and I think ultimately what I ended up realizing was the whole idea of this film was to recontextualize the video. Take it away from its intended purpose and twist it so Jim owns it, because once you understand who Jim was as a person, I believe, it’s no longer this symbol of propaganda. When you see Jim in that element, you see that total resolve and what he endured. Now I feel like that’s his moment. It’s not ISIS’s moment. That was the end of his life, but it means something much bigger now than just a politically fueled image. 

Before making this movie, would you have called yourself a political person? 

No. 

Has it made you more political? 

I would say yeah, definitely. The film is purposefully apolitical for a number of reasons. There are so many political issues this film brings up, and I don’t really like films that just kind of kiss something. You can’t just say, “Oh, totalitarianism,” and then just move on. There’s government hostage policy. Do we bomb ISIS? What do we do with the Syrian government and their regime? Do we pay a ransom? Our government launched a raid at one point to rescue the prisoners, which has since been declassified. It was unsuccessful -- they were too late, and there’s a lot of backstory to this. The criticisms that we get for the film are that it’s not political enough, like, “Oh, it’s dishonest because it’s not talking about these things.” But that’s not dishonesty.

It’s the story you chose to tell. The movie could have been strictly about global politics. 

You could make any kind of movie, but I’m not about to get into any of those topics because I don’t have the time to go over them, and then once I do, then you lose Jim. But, at the same time, what I like about the film, and what I learned -- and this wasn’t intentional -- was that Jim’s story was just this story of this one guy, but the political issues that percolate to the surface are huge, especially now. The Syrian refugee crisis is the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and Jim was there telling stories about that, like European hostage policy versus American hostage policy. Then there’s humanity, and good versus evil, and all these things that come up. I feel that's more powerful than me saying, “This is what you should be thinking” or “This is what the government should be doing.” I’m not in a position to say that. Jim would hate that, too -- he wouldn’t want me to be political like that. But go ahead and sit in a bar with your buddies for three hours and talk about it. I think the film brings those things to the surface, which is great.

Another political strand involves the forensic investigation into the video. Knowing you would show some of the video, did you explore the fact that some said it was doctored?

There’s going to be conspiracy theorists wherever you go. I learned this lesson when I did a film on the national debt, called “I.O.U.S.A.” One of the guys in that film was a former U.S. comptroller, David Walker. The film came out, and people were saying it was this and people were saying it was that, and the director was all concerned. And David said, from a very political standpoint, “Listen, all you have to do is focus on the 70 percent.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “There’s 15 percent of people on the left and there’s 15 percent of people on the right that have very extreme views. Focus on the 70 percent in the middle because the 15 percent on the left and the 15 percent on the right, you’re never going to reach them. No matter what you do, you’re never going to change their minds or satisfy their desires." Whether it’s conspiracy theorists or people saying this is a fake video, it’s not worth my time. It’s all bullshit. I don’t know if you want to print that, but it’s true.

How much time did you spend with each of Jim’s family members? 

I did two interviews with Diane, Jim’s mother, and I did one interview with everybody else. They lasted anywhere from two and a half to four hours. This was the first time I’ve ever done long-form interviewing. My approach was to spend the morning with them. We’d get breakfast and tea and chat. I already knew them, but I wanted to spend time with them.

Without cameras rolling?

No cameras. And then we’d have lunch, and then sit down and do the interview later in the day. Even when I met with [journalists Daniel and Pierre and Didier and Nicolas], I was comfortable. I brought Michael and Katy, Jim's two siblings, to France with me to do those interviews. Diane had put me in touch with them, so there's an immediate comfort factor. These were Jim’s friends. It was nice because they knew I wasn’t there for some agenda-driven angle. I was just Jim’s friend making a documentary. That really helped me out. 

Did you set terms for the interviews?

It was kind of different for everybody. No one ever said, “Nothing’s off-limits,” but I was very clear at the beginning that if I asked a question people weren’t comfortable with, just tell me and we’d move on. It was more conversational than anything. I think, for the hostages, with Daniel, they were just like, “Listen, I’d love to talk about Jim and my experience with Jim in captivity,” but they didn’t really want to talk about their own experiences. It was more about keeping it on Jim. They didn’t want the focus to be on them or their torture, which is fine -- I didn’t want to go there anyway.

The rub of documentaries and reality TV is that you need unscripted content to fit into sound bites. Everything your subjects say has to be clear and succinct, or else it's no good. When you’re doing tough interviews like that, how do you ensure you’re getting content that will translate? 

Luckily, all the subjects I interviewed are amazing speakers. That helped. These are journalists, so they’re very eloquent and they have a point of view. That was obviously a great thing to have. Daniel had been interviewed quite a bit, and he said to me, “This is a really great interview because you actually allowed me to talk.” My interview style is to ask a question and then I don’t really interrupt. I just let it go until it’s done. I think that’s why our interviews were so long. It’s not like I was going in there trying to get them to say something. That was the nature of the interview because I didn’t really know what I was going to get. They would be done talking and I would just kind of sit there in silence, which I love. This is something I learned from listening to Werner Herzog. Those moments when you’re done saying something and you just look at them and don’t say anything, there’s this awkward silence.

You both don’t know what the next beat is, and you use that to your advantage. I know the technique well.

Yeah, it builds so much empathy for someone because you catch them in this moment of thought. They might say something and they’re finished talking, and you just kind of sit there and they sometimes will kind of look away and think about what they’ve just said. As the viewer, seeing them to do that, you have this empathy for them, and it’s amazing. I love that. It just allows them to just be in their moment. It obviously ends up being really long interviews and a lot of footage, but I do think you get better clarity or better answers from people because you give them a chance to think about it.

What was the hardest thing for you to leave out of the documentary?

I think all the childhood stuff, like my backstory growing up with Jim. We grew up in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, which is this tiny, rural Norman Rockwell town on Lake Winnipesaukee. It was this quaint New England town, and none of that is in the film. We had tons and tons of memories, so a lot of the first things I started cutting were all these little stories of, “Oh, once we went out on a lake and did something stupid, and then we played soccer together and Jim was in this really funny game show on New Hampshire public television.” It was all these childhood memories and they were hilarious to me. But that’s why it was great to have writers who didn’t know Jim. I’d be like, “This is five minutes of the film!” And they’d be like, “No, it’s hilarious to you but will mean nothing to anyone else. All you need is a six-second clip in the title sequence and you get the point." 

When was your last contact with Jim?

My last contact with Jim, I believe, was the summer before he was captured on Thanksgiving Day 2012. He had come to New York. I mean, he was transient. Whenever he’d come through New York, it was like, “Oh, you’ve got an hour or two with Jim, he’s coming through.” He was always bopping around and going in and out of Libya or Syria or something. I think my last contact was that summer. He was in transition and thinking about going into Syria for the first time.

Did you ever feel compelled to urge him not to go to Syria? 

I was never one to tell him not to do it. Honestly, what happened in Libya was horrible and scary at the time, but when he was freed and it was all resolved, there was so much euphoria. You just kind of get complacent again. Then, he went back to Libya and he was safe and just got back into the job. So Libya just became part of the deal.

His first stint in captivity seemed like an anomaly. 

Yeah, exactly. And it wasn’t like he was the only one doing this stuff. It was his job and he loved it, so maybe I was naïve about the dangers, but I never said, “Don’t do that.” That’s what Jim does -- he’s a journalist. He knows what he’s doing.

Did he seem like the same Jim you’d known all your life? 

Yeah, because I never saw him after he went over to Syria the first time. Syria was really where he started to be affected by what he was seeing. Syria is bad. It’s like hell. So after Libya, you could see he was a changed person, for sure. He was just a little bit more solitary, I would say. But he never wanted to show it. Everything was always cool. He would say, “No, no, everything’s all right.” I think he kept a lot of things inside of him. They became his own personal tortures. I think he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, for sure.

You would have to assume so. 

We kind of allude to it in the film. He was definitely changed, but he never was concerned, I guess. He dealt with it really well. He was a tough dude.

When did the family first see the movie? 

I showed them cuts of the film earlier. I showed them a rough cut in October. I needed to make sure they were cool with everything. 

And were they?

They were. They trusted me. I think that cut was maybe three hours. It was long, but it was important for me to get their feedback because, in a way, it was a collaboration. You needed the family’s blessing to do it, as hard as it was. They probably saw two or three more cuts after that. 

What was the energy in the room when you watched it together for the first time? 

I was sweating profusely. It was really, really nerve-racking, but it was super emotional, as you can imagine. We watched it up in New Hampshire in their living room. It was the first time they’d really seen anything put together like that. It was really emotional.

"Jim: The James Foley Story" airs Feb. 6 on HBO. This interview has been edited and condensed. 


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