Sam Green Interview

The Weather Underground
A film by Sam Green and Bill Siegel
Interview with documentary filmmaker, Sam Green
by Alexander Laurence

"Hello, I'm going to read a declaration of a state of war... within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice."
-- Bernardine Dohrn

Thirty years ago a group of American radicals announced their intention to overthrow the U.S. government. In THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, former members, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert and Brian Flanagan, speak publicly about the idealistic passion that drove them to "bring the war home." Outraged over racism and the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground bombed targets across the country that they considered emblematic. The group's carefully organized clandestine network managed to successfully evade one of the largest manhunts in FBI history.

Sam Green and Bill Siegel spent four year uncovering the mystery. Extensive archival material, including photographs, film footage and FBI documents are interwoven with modern-day interviews to trace their path, from the pitched battles with police on Chicago's streets, to its bombing of the U.S. Capitol, to its successful endeavor breaking acid-guru Timothy Leary out of prison. The film explores the Weathermen in the context of other social movements of the time and features interviews with former members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers. It also examines the U.S. government's suppression of dissent in the 1960s and 1970s. Looking back at their years underground, the former members paint a compelling portrait of troubled times, revolutionary times, and the forces that drove their resistance.
This film has won numerous awards already including ones at Sundance and SXSW. I saw The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (1997) by Sam Green at the NY Underground Film Festival. After that, he completed a short called Pie Fight '69 (2000). The Weather Underground will be playing at Film Forum and across the country starting June 4th, 2003. I spoke recently to Sam Green at his home in San Francisco.


AL: When did you first show this film?
Sam: It premiered at Sundance in January 2003.
AL: When did you get the idea to do a film about the Weather Underground?
Sam: I got the idea about four years ago. It's hard to remember what thing were like in the late 1990s. Things have really changed in the past two years. Back then it was a really silly time. The story of these crazy kids who tried to overthrow the government had always resonated with me. I liked it. It came from my initial fascination with that. I had always known who they were. But then, I met someone in the Bay Area who part of the Weather Underground. I never thought that most of them would still be around and lead fairly normal lives. I spoke to this member about it and asked him a bunch of questions. For me it was always interesting.
AL: Were you always thinking about doing a film?
Sam: It was bubbling inside my head. I was trying to get someone else to do it. It was such a big project. I was trying to get my friend Mary to do it. I thought that she would do it and I would help her. I met this guy. I felt like someone has to do it. I'll do it!
AL: How did Pie Fight '69 fit in?
Sam: That came out of this project. I was at this photo archives place in New York, and I was doing research for The Weather Underground, and I saw this amazing photo. It was a picture of a woman in a tutu throwing a pie. It said "San Francisco Film Festival: Opening Night 1969." I stumbled across it. It seemed so funny, crazy, and weird. I got sidetracked on that. A film festival back then was this big gala event with red carpets and tuxedoes. At that event, there were all these angry hippies. There was a huge cultural divide between them. That showed at Sundance too.
AL: You used all this available footage.
Sam: Yeah. They shot all this footage of the pie fight. They had six different 16 mm cameras on the roof and across the street. They didn't have the follow through. They never really made a film out of it and showed it to people. The footage was lost for many years. Nobody knew where it was. My friend, Bill Daniels, found the film in a box in a basement at ATA. I was looking for it for a few years. Bill Daniels is like the Johnny Appleseed of underground culture. It was so good.
AL: Your other film, The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, dealt with a person with some right wing views. It's weird that you did two other films about radicals.
Sam: The Rainbow Man is political but not in an explicit way. To me, the story is a subtle critique of the media and what it does to people emotionally. Even though he was a crazy right wing Christian himself, the story is a critique of consumer culture. The other movies are more explicit.
AL: Those other people were interesting because they were the first TV generation.
Sam: They were all into some good movies. I was interested in what movies they were watching and which movies influenced them. That generation was also influenced by early TV and the movies of their day. They listed Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid as some of their favorite movies.
AL: Were all the people in the Weather Underground from upper middle class backgrounds and did they all go to college?
Sam: Some of them were rich kids. They are went to college. They weren't working class people. It's true that project would be something that only kids in their early twenties would entertain. Once you get older, you have less stomach for overthrowing the government. Most of them did no jail time. Most of them turned themselves in by the end of the 1970s. The FBI had broken the law so much in trying to find them. All this dirt came out about the FBI. All these changes against them were dropped. They just resurfaced and moved on with their lives. It was clear that they had taken part in the bombings. It was a different time. People wanted to leave this all behind.
AL: What was it like talking with them now?
Sam: I was surprised. I thought people would be cynical and disillusioned. The revolution obviously never happened. They are all still hopeful and idealistic. They are more realistic and older now. They don't have all the answers anymore. At that time people felt like they knew exactly what they had to do to overthrow the government. Nobody has that sense of power anymore. But they all hopeful and I think that is cool.
AL: How many people were involved with the Weather Underground?
Sam: It started off with a few hundred. By the end, there were thirty or forty. All the time there were hundreds of people who helped them. You can't stay one step ahead of the FBI without having a lot of help. It is known who most of the people involved were. It wasn't a card carrying organization. There are the people who everyone knows about. But there are several hundred people who did stuff or helped out that nobody knows about. It could be your neighbor.
AL: I know about this author in LA who says that he was involved in the Weather Underground or something like it. As far as idealism and young people making an impact or rebelling: I think his view is there no hope with young people today.
Sam: It's definitely harder to rebel. Back then youth culture was new and it was oppositional. It was truly a counterculture and it wasn't part of the entertainment industry. It became part of it very quickly afterwards. The original inspiration for it was radical. It harder now to find the space to do that when marketing has become so sophisticated. It can still happen, I think. There will always be undergrounds and hardcore scenes. The animal rights scene is pretty crazy. Even some of the electronic music scene is still very underground. There will always be a good creative rebellious spirit somewhere.
AL: When Bonnie and Clyde came out, people under 21 loved it. Older people and older guys at the studio were wondering why young people thought it was so great.
Sam: Maybe something similar will happen now that it's the baby boomers and their kids? Maybe somehow their kids will turn on them? They are good at marketing rebellious ideas to their kids, so maybe it won't happen. I like our generation: it's in-between, forgotten, cynical, lacking self-esteem generation. I am happy growing up in that time.
AL: How did you start making the Weather Underground film?
Sam: It was a hard movie to do. I worked with Bill Siegel who lives in Chicago. It was a hard movie because it was about a group of people who were underground for ten years and never photographed during that time. It's a crazy idea for a documentary because you have nothing visual to work with. That was a struggle. Since it was a 90 minute film you have to pace it and use a narrative like a dramatic film. With a short film it's easy. With a ten minute film, as long as it moves, it's fine. It takes a lot of editing.
AL: Did you have some outside help?
Sam: Caveh Zahedi was a great help. He's a great independent filmmaker who lives in the Bay Area. He has done narrative films. He did a documentary called "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore." Caveh is really good at structure. He is a great person to watch something and to give you feedback. He is very smart about drama. With help like that, this film was more possible.
AL: People are familiar with documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield. They always inject themselves into the story for comic effect. How do you feel about that?
Sam: It's cool for them. I love both their movies. They are both great characters, especially Nick Broomfield. His shtick with Heidi Fliess is a good example. By the end of the film, the three main characters hate his guts. When he interviews Suge Knight, it is so good. It works for them. I am a shy person. I don't want to part of the movie. Especially in a story like this: that would be ridiculous to have a first person narrator.
AL: How did you decide what to shoot?
Sam: We talked to a lot of different people. Out of talking with them we picked out ones we thought would be good to interview. We did some sit down interviews. But we tried to take them to the actual places, and try to remember stuff. That is a way better way to interview people than just sitting down. When the Weather Underground went underground, they lived in houseboats in Sausalito. North of San Francisco there were all these houseboats in Sausalito. Now it's a fancy little town, but then it was a poor squatter place. We went there with Bernadine Dohrn. She was the leader of the group. When we go to those actual places people tend to remember things much better and it's more poignant for them.
AL: What surprised you about these people?
Sam: They got to a point where they all thought that were not going to live through this. They laid it all on the line. It was surprising to these people now and find out that they are not these crazy whacked out terrorists or fanatics. Most of them are these smart and compelling people. That was inspiring to make to movie. The difference between the history you read in books and the reality is so striking. The reality is so much more complex than we can ever realize. Even the Black Panthers were scornful of the Weather Underground. They thought they were crazy.
AL: None of the could ever see themselves as being older than 30.
Sam: That's beautiful. That's youth. Youth is so amazingly creative and destructive. They were impatient and unable to see the big picture. The world would be a horrible place without that impulse. It's inevitable that it is something that goes away. Hopefully there will always be young people to express those things. It's good for the world. I made this film with young people in mind. It raises some political questions that I hope they are still interested in now.
AL: It will be showing in different places?
Sam: It will be showing at The Castro in San Francisco for a few weeks and in Chicago at The Music Box. It will go to a lot of different cities. It will be an art house release. But I would like to show it in Orange County at the VFW hall. I would like to show it somewhere where someone says "This is an outrage."
AL: Terrorism has a new meaning now. There are all these warnings. We have been attacked a few times now. Now they just picked up this guy who bombed a Planned Parenthood building. People don't realize that this sort of stuff has been going on for a while, and there have been several bombing in this country.
Sam: Many people who cause violence in America don't stand for anything. The Weather Underground did articulate and embody certain cultural forces and ideas. So they are more significant than a sniper or anti-abortionist. The Vietnam War was scaled back because of protests and because this country was in such chaos. Young people were bombing places here in this country. You can't maintain a country with that sort of anarchy happening. People in the government were obviously paying attention. It's hard to say though if they changed the course of the war. The war went on for a long time. It's hard to say what the effect of the Weather Underground is. Thirty years later, we have this documentary about the group, and who knows what will happen from that. Ideas bubble up fifty years later. They didn't start a revolution, but the last pages haven't been written