Ady Barkan's life is upended when he is diagnosed with ALS, but a confrontation with a powerful senator catapults him to national fame and ignites a once-in-a-generation political movement. Not Going Quietly received three IDA nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing. The film also received a nomination for the Critics Choice Documentary Awards and won the Audience Award and Special Jury prize at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, and screened as an official selection of Tribeca Film Festival.
The documentary film steadily navigates the political and social commentary terrain, through the voice and hope of Ady Barkan. It's a riveting and jaw-dropping journey, poignantly helmed by Nicholas Bruckman. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Nicholas about the film's story trajectory, the collaboration with both co-writer and producer Amanda Roddy and editor Kent Bassett, and the future of documentary filmmaking.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: How did you initially link up with Ady Barkan and how did the story you initially start with evolve to what we see now in the film?
Nicholas Bruckman: I run a documentary and commercial production company called People’s Television in New York and DC. In order to pay the documentary bills, we do all kinds of branded work in the social impact and social justice and progressive political organizing space - a lot of short-form docs and commercials for organizations I believe in and candidates I care about. And so, I got a call in early 2018 from Liz Jaff and she was looking for a production company to make a short video to launch the Be A Hero campaign. And we got on the phone and she said, ‘OK, so I just have this crazy story. I met this guy on an airplane. We filmed the Senator. We shot this video and it went viral. And we're going to launch a healthcare organization.’ And I took a look at the video, which I thought was pretty amazing of Ady confronting Senator Jeff Flake, and really didn't know what to think about what the campaign was or would become, because I didn't really know Ady yet. So, I thought it was more of a traditional kind of health care campaign or fundraiser until I flew out to Santa Barbara and met Ady and the very first frame I ever filmed with him, is in the movie - he's changing his shirt and his wife Rachel is helping him get ready, and he's topless in the interview chair and he's like, ‘Alright, let's get started.’ And that moment, we were filming for what we thought was going to be a kind of short-form launch video for YouTube for his campaign. At the end of that interview, I said, ‘Hey, Ady, let's make a movie.’ Because I realized not only was he this incredible person, activist and father and hilarious, self-deprecating kind of guy that you wanted to spend that kind of time with, but also there was this crazy urgency to tell his story because of ALS and how quickly it moves. He had already been sick for a year when I met him, and he was already losing his voice. It was kind of a now or never moment. I just saw that kind of flash before my eyes that there wasn't really any time to talk about this. And fortunately, Ady was really receptive right away. We made that short launch video for YouTube, and then we shifted into making a kind of journalistic observational documentary.
Sadie: That's incredible. How did you and your co-writer Amanda Roddy approach this story and collaborate?
Nicholas: We worked closely together from the beginning to the end and there were a lot of challenges with how we wrote the story, because we wanted everything to be as authentic from Ady's perspective and worldview as possible. And yet, Ady couldn't always speak, in a pretty literal sense, right? Sometimes we'd be on the road with him wanting to interview him, and as you saw in the film, he would lose his voice entirely, certain times a day. And that happened often and so we had to ask ourselves do we want to do an interview with him now or should he save his voice for his family or for the audience? And it was a very difficult ethical question to navigate while we were shooting. And often we would choose not to interview him and to let the story unfold through his natural conversations that he would have with other people rather than performing for the documentary. And I think that ended up giving us some more intimacy and authenticity and a more narrative cinematic feel to it and it ended up being a constraint that made the movie better. But it also meant that we had to tell the story using his computer voice, which he gets later in the narrative.
Sadie: I liked the creative choice of not relying heavily on talking heads, it gives it, like you said, a cinematic feel to it.
Nicholas: Yeah, I always really wanted the film to feel like a narrative. I’ve also produced narratives, like scripted films and commercials, and it was always a goal of mine for this film to feel like a drama or that kind of structure.
Sadie: It certainly makes it more digestible for those who don't tend to seek out documentaries. Was your editor Kent Bassett on board from the very beginning or did he come on later?
Nicholas: No, he came out a bit later - we were still shooting when he came on. He did an incredible job of helping us create that elegant art that the movie ultimately has. I think it feels like when you're watching it, ‘Oh, this just happened and then Ady did this, and Ady did that!’ But of course, a lot of that was really crafted in the storytelling to make that journey feel cohesive, and to really be true to the spirit of the story, and to craft those 90 minutes from 300 hours and thread that delicate line of inspiring, the sad and the funny without ever getting lost in one of those three things. And Kent did an amazing job of creating that emotional balance of the movie.
Sadie: The emotional balance is certainly there. I adore watching the relationship build between Ady and Carl, it's like they slowly switch roles as his ALS progresses. This is more a humble request from me, but I hope you do some kind of follow up story with Carl in say 10-15 years to see where he is at that point in his life, because I feel like he's going to be doing really great things in his lifetime.
Nicholas: We should do that. [laughs] Carl hasn't seen it yet, but I'm excited for him to. I think he's still a little bit young, and it will be emotional for him. Seeing Ady and Carl's relationship transform is really the heart of the film. It's not just about activism. It's about Ady learning to be the best father he can be with this condition. I think it's connected to his activism and I think his activism gets meaning and that meaning he can translate to his family and to his son. And it's just incredibly beautiful. For me, the most emotional thing about making this movie was seeing their dynamic unfolding. Carl now really has a much better understanding of Ady's condition than he did. And they learned to communicate and have this dynamic and it makes Ady's life worth living. And of course, there's this question that we get asked about a lot of like, how did you balance the political and the personal in this film? The approach was not so much balancing it but rather like erasing that line or erasing that boundary as if those things are separate. And that's what I think Ady does through his work is those moments of him being with family are made possible by the healthcare and the providers that he's fighting for other people to have.
Sadie: There’s a really great quote that Ady says in his speeches, ‘Hope is a hammer,’ which I think just beautifully encapsulates this movie and story.
Nicholas: We almost called it that. [laughs] We kept going back and forth between the two.
Sadie: Oh, wow! With that said, what do you hope audiences take away from this film after watching it?
Nicholas: I think that's what really encapsulates the spirit of the movie. It's paraphrased from author Rebecca Solnit, who says that hope is not a state of mind, right? It's really easy, especially for people I think in the progressive and activist movement in this long fight to win things like universal health care, which are still so far in the horizon, it can be really depressing and demoralizing and easy to get jaded and hopeless. But when people asked Ady, and we got the benefit of making this movie in his presence, what gives you hope? Especially with something like ALS. Ady says that hope is not a state of mind. Hope is a state of action that you create hope through doing something about it - it's not about the results, it's not about the odds of victory. The actual act of trying to create and forge a better world for yourself, for your family, for the country, that is the creation of hope. I find that very moving and I find that to be the heart of what Ady's messages are about. It's like the ALS is this metaphor for paralysis that our country is experiencing, problems that we can't seem to solve, and the way Ady's overcome them is through action. I think there's something in that for everybody, whether you're a political activist or not.
Sadie: Yeah, I totally agree. And as a documentarian, there comes great responsibility. Why do you think it's important to be a documentarian especially in this day and age?
Nicholas: I think that all storytellers whether fiction or nonfiction, podcasters, or video game makers, you do have great power and responsibility. I think that it's possible to make movies and I hope Not Going Quietly is one of them that entertains while engaging with those issues in a real way. I personally love the documentary medium, mostly because I believe that old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Nobody could write this thing in a believable way that the woman who happened to be next to him on the plane and the Senator that he was looking for, we're all there and they would capture this moment together and turn it into this national movement. And then a year later, another activist would confront the same senator in the same way. It's a richer world than I think anybody could have written. And for me, those kinds of stories are really exciting. I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what documentary directors do; there's this of being a fly on the wall and hitting the record button and that's making the movie and it's not. I think there's as much direction between a documentary filmmaker and their crew and their cast that there is between a narrative director and their crew and as much relationship building between me and Ady as there is between a director and an actor - it doesn't mean it's the same process. There's a lot of craft that goes into documentary directing, which I think is overlooked and I hope that with the kind of new renaissance and resurgence and excitement around the documentary medium, there'll be more respect for it. And when I say respect and misconceptions, a real tangible example of that is how a documentary has never been nominated for Best Picture. There's no reason for that. I'm hopeful that there will be a new perception and renaissance around the craft and artistry of documentary filmmaking and that's happening now. And I'm excited about it.
Sadie: It’s interesting that you say that because a lot of well-known directors are heavily inspired by documentaries, a specific documentarian, and how they engage their subjects. It’s all filmmaking and as noteworthy as a narrative.
Nicholas: Right, exactly. Another thing that's certainly quite mystified is the documentary writer's role. And what a documentary writing credit is. There's been a lot of discussion about this recently. There's a lot of really incredible documentary writers out there like Mark Monroe and his people who really are screenwriters. And their base material consists of interviews and words that people said in real life, as Amanda and my work was based on that, but there were elements of VO co-written with Ady and pulled from his statements and other things the way a traditional VO might be. I think that's an important role in the scripting world and documentary filmmaking world, that's starting to be recognized and understood in a better way.
Sadie: I've heard many filmmakers say that their next passion project would be to make a documentary and as you know, it takes a lot of work and dedication. Any advice for those filmmakers who want to make their first documentary? Is there something maybe you wish you would have known on your first project?
Nicholas: Yeah, good question. One thing that I feel strongly about is being tool agnostic. I think a lot of people wait for the right camera packages and the right crew and all of that. Some of the best shots from Not Going Quietly were shot on phones or were shot by activists and not filmmakers. I think that trust and relationship building is the most paramount thing and being there when the dramatic moments unfold; your presence and access in that moment is everything. So that's one thing and another thing is, it kind of goes back to what I was saying about the direction, is that I think documentary directors shouldn't be afraid to set the stage or create a framework for the way they want their story to unfold and bringing their characters together in meaningful places. I'm really excited about the kinds of hybrid filmmaking models that are going on where real people are brought into artificial or narrative or scripted frameworks, or situations and seeing how those dynamics play out. I would really encourage people to play with form and blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, which a lot of films are doing in exciting ways now.