Avi Belkin’s fascinating documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, provides an unflinching look at the legendary reporter who interrogated some of the most important figures of the 20th century. Wallace’s famously aggressive reporting style that he honed during more than 50 years on the air redefined what we expect from broadcast journalism today. To make this film, Belkin unearthed decades of never-before-seen footage from the CBS vaults, exploring what drove Mike Wallace throughout his career as well as what plagued him. Using only archival footage, Mike Wallace Is Here is a highly entertaining, compelling film that reveals the evolution of a man and of journalism itself. I sat down with Avi Belkin in Los Angeles to discuss this powerful doc and how Mike Wallace’s legacy is more important than ever in these times when journalism is under constant attack.
Danny Miller: It’s astounding to me that this film consists entirely of archival footage. Did you know when you started that you were going to be able to access that wealth of material?
Avi Belkin: Not at all, although I knew the film depended on me finding it. It was a tough process. This was the first time ever that CBS opened up their vaults to a filmmaker as well as the 60 Minutes archives.
Wow. How did you convince them to?
Timing? Luck? The initial idea was to do a Mike Wallace-type interview with Mike Wallace — to put the microscope on him. But when I started researching, I quickly discovered that everyone did that — every time anyone talked to him they tried to do a “Mike Wallace interview” on Mike Wallace.
With varying degrees of success.
Absolutely, but they all tried it. I think one of the best ones was with Barbara Walters, oddly enough. She really grilled him as you see in the film, she was amazing. So I had this idea of building an interview of him through the archives, and I decided to go to the family first before approaching CBS because I thought their blessing would help. I talked to Chris Wallace and Mike’s stepdaughter, Pauline Dora — they are the ones who handle his estate. And they liked the idea of doing an honest portrait in that way and so did CBS who ultimately opened up the library to me.
I love the mix of Mike Wallace’s interviews along with interviews of him. The Morley Safer one was particularly revealing, almost shockingly so.
Mike retired in 2006 so for his retirement they did a video in which all the correspondents he worked with interviewed him: Morley, Steve Kroft, Ed Bradley, and Lesley Stahl. But they only used a minute or two of the interviews and each one was about an hour long. I watched all of that footage in the archives and it was fantastic, it really told a story. Morley Safer’s long interview with Mike was just unbelievable — it seemed like he knew Mike better than Mike knew himself! Morley was such a deep observer and he worked with Mike for almost 40 years. Mike was not very prone to reflection but Morley kind of dissects Mike in his interview, he really hits the point of everything that Mike is about. One thing he says about Mike is that at some point in Mike’s life he adopted this tough guy character called Mike Wallace and played the role for the rest of his life. He really understood this person. I wanted to get at the complete man. I don’t think it was that well known that Mike was prone to depression and had tried to commit suicide. He had this insecurity about him that was not obvious but I think showing some of that helps to create a much fuller picture of him.
I wasn’t aware of all that work he did in commercials and on game shows.
Yes, and he was ashamed of that throughout his whole journalistic career. Once you understand that, a lot of things fall into place. You understand that Mike was an actor, which most of us are even those of us who are never in front of a camera.
It’s true, we all have our various personas. I know I’m a slightly different person online than I am in real life.
Right, we all are. And so many people are very, very different at home than they are when they’re working. Mike’s home life was a big complicated.
Seeing all of those amazing interviews that Mike does is so refreshing in this era of journalists being debased. For all his eccentricities and challenges, I couldn’t admire Mike Wallace more. Not that I’d ever want to be facing him in an interview setting!
He always said that the most frequent question he got was, “Why would anyone agree to sit down to talk with me?” And he always said the same thing: “Because people like it!” And it’s true — for all the fear people say they have about being interviewed by Mike Wallace, most of them looked forward to going face-to-face with the champ!
I know how hard-hitting he was, but one thing really surprised me in the film was that when he talked to some of the most reprehensible people he interviewed such as Leona Helmsley and even Vladimir Putin, he communicated with them in a way that made me feel more empathy for them than I ever have before.
I think you hit the nail on the head with those two. Mike was one of the only people around who had the ability to disarm them. Leona Helmsley and Putin are a little bit like Mike — these tough characters who have a very specific image and yet when you go into their back story you find a lot of vulnerability. They build these tough-guy personas to hide their own insecurities just like Mike. Getting past that was one of Mike’s most valuable skills.
He always seems to know just the right question to ask to get someone going. Like that very interesting interview you show with Barbra Streisand.
Yeah, he had this uncanny ability to hit the core of the subject with his questions. You sit down with Streisand, you can ask her a million different questions. But Mike goes right for the kill: “What are you afraid of?” That’s an amazing question to ask Barbra Streisand and it leads to one of my favorite quotes in the film, that fear is the energy for your best work. That is basically the core of Barbra Streisand.
And yet it was also fascinating to see in the film when people called him on his technique, like Streisand and Shirley MacLaine did in the clips you show.
Yes, Mike usually knew exactly what his subjects felt about his line of questioning, and he loved to be challenged.
It was kind of disappointing to see how different his interview with Ayatollah Khomeini was. I thought maybe he’d get something out of Khomeini, but it seemed impossible. That one was almost scary to watch.
Yeah, that was a crazy set-up. I mean, it was in the middle of the revolution and Iran had just taken the hostages. The CBS bosses must have been going nuts that he was even there.
What other interviews in the film do you find the most revealing of who Mike is?
One of the best moments for me is during the interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. She’s like the female Mike Wallace, one of the world’s toughest interviewers, and in their long unedited talk you see these two forces of nature colliding. It was great to see them going at it in the hours of raw footage in the archives. I especially loved the moment when Mike asks Fallaci if she’s an entertainer. That is the question that Mike has been asking himself all those years. And Fallaci says, “No, I’m a historian.”
And he’s like, “Oh, come on!”
Right. Mike sees historians as people who look at a subject 50 years or more after it happened and dissect it. Fallaci said, “No, we are historians because we document history as it happens,” and she felt that this is the best way to write history. That line spoke to me and why I like that the film is all archival footage — we made the decision not to bring in any new footage in of people reflecting about Mike Wallace. I think it’s so much more interesting to tell Mike’s story by showing what was going on with him as it was happening instead of analyzing him later.
He did so many fascinating interviewers, was it agonizing making the choices of which interviews to include in the film?
It was, but my rule was that every moment had to have something to do with the reveal of Mike. The parts that I chose were never about the person being interviewed but was always about what that exchange revealed about Mike. That’s also why I don’t identify any of the people until the end of the film. In a way it’s not really about them.
I also love that you mix interviews with very renowned people, from world leaders to Bette Davis to Donald Trump to the head of the Ku Klux Klan with those of people who are not that well known today. Two that come to mind are Diana Dors and Lillian Roth — both well known in their day but largely forgotten today. I think some of those obscure interviews reveal so much more than the ones with the huge names.
Thank you for saying that because that’s exactly what I was going for, and those two women are the perfect examples. The first one, Diana, talks about how being successful is very different than what you think, how the dream doesn’t really live up to what you have in mind, and that is very much what happened to Mike. And the second woman, Lillian, talks about how we’re all lost, that there’s nobody who is not lost in this world. Mike is like, “What are you talking about?” And she says to him, “You never feel that way?” Which leads right into the period where he loses his son which — the time when he felt the most lost in his life. All through the making of the film it was always about how a certain moment in an interview helped to reflect on Mike’s life.