How did David Remnick feel when he saw Burkhard Bilger's 2014 story, "The Ride of Their Lives", about young Texas bull riders, turned into a film?
"In a way, it was more emotional," said Remnick, who has served as editor for The New Yorker since 1998. "The film shows kids getting thrown from bulls and getting hurt pretty bad, and their dads are often pretty aggressive with them," said Remnick.
This is what happens when the "cool, light tone" of a print piece is turned into a striking short film. Which is exactly the point of the new series The New Yorker Presents, available today on Amazon Prime.
Each 30-minute episode consists of a variety of documentaries, scripted narrative films, comedy shorts, poetry, animation, and, yes, those illustrious New Yorker cartoons. The series is executive produced by Oscar and Emmy-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, and his Jigsaw Productions. Kahane Cooperman, a longtime veteran of The Daily Show, serves as showrunner.
After a lunchtime screening, Gibney talked about how his team decided on a "roster" of stories that would make for good films. After all, The New Yorker archive goes back to 1925. They then took their short list to various filmmakers, who also pitched their own ideas. All told, the 10 episodes feature roughly 50 different films. Gibney said they shared rough cuts of each of the pieces with Remnick and his staff. "We totally embraced putting ourselves through the rigors of the New Yorker's fact checking process," said Gibney.
Remnick, in turn, says they mostly stayed out of it. "The biggest thing we can do is get the hell out of their way," he said. "That story is now in the hands of someone else." Though Gibney noted that some of the writers whose stories were turned into films were very much involved in the process.
"Sometimes the voice of the author is very much in the piece," Gibney said. "There's no rules to that, it's kind of like a negotiation," he added.
Though Gibney is known for his work on feature-length documentaries like Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, he appreciated the challenge of finding something more specific about a story.
"I focus on a tiny element of it that I felt would be interesting to explore," Gibney said of his film, The Agent, which is based on Lawrence Wright's 2006 story about how the CIA might have prevented the FBI from stopping the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "It's the ability to do something focused that makes these pieces work," he said.
After breaking out with shows like Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle, The New Yorker Presents is Amazon's first push into original documentary. And in a change from the usual practice of releasing every episode at once, Amazon will roll out two episodes each Tuesday over the next five weeks.
Though Amazon hasn't renewed the show for a second season, Gibney is already looking at ways to be more current with the stories of the day; many of the films are human interest pieces, though one episode concludes with an essay on gun control. "We can be, I think, a little faster on our feet next season," he said.
For The New Yorker, the series is an extension of parent company Condé Nast's push into digital video. Though, for Remnick, the only way for the famed 91-year-old brand was to go bold. "Generalized ideas are not interesting," he said. "The specific idea of Alex Gibney doing a show, that was interesting."