Talking Documentaries, Vietnam and Local Music With Dallas-Bred Oscar Nominee Keven McAlester.
When this year’s list of Academy Award nominees was revealed last month, the various local outlets reporting the news did so perhaps with a little more glee than they had shown in years past.
And rightfully so. Because not only was there a local included in the announcement, but it was a guy with whom many of those reporting the news had once worked.
Yup: Keven McAlester, a former fixture in the Dallas music scene thanks to his past work as a co-host on 102.1 KDGE-FM The Edge’s “The Adventure Club and as a music critic for both the Dallas Observer and the defunct weekly paper The Met, went and earned himself an Oscar nomination this year for the documentary work that’s been his career focus since, oh, about 2004 or so.
Specifically, this recognition came for his work as a co-producer and writer on Last Days in Vietnam, which earned its Oscar nod in the Best Documentary Feature category. The film tells the tale of what exactly happened in the final days of the Vietnam, focusing long and hard on the on-ground repercussions of the U.S.’s decision to quickly evacuate its troops from the region.
Excited to hear that there’s perhaps life after local music coverage after all, we recently caught up with McAlester for a phone conversation, during which he deferentially gave all the Oscar credit to his co-producer, Rory Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys), while also patiently explaining to us how this film came to be and how he still can’t shake the North Texas music bug that bit him long ago.
My first question about the film is maybe a weird one, but I noticed that, in addition to being credited as a producer of Last Days in Vietnam, you were also credited as a writer on this project. Maybe this is just naive of me, but what exactly is the role of a writer in a documentary film?
That’s a good question. It varies from film to film. Often, there’s narration in a film, which of course involves writing. But, in this film, since there is no narration, it was developing the story. Mark Bailey, Rory [Kennedy] and I wrote a treatment, which we then presented to American Experience, so they could produce the film. They had actually developed the idea in-house before presenting it to Rory, who brought me on. So that was the first thing we did as writers. Then it was a lot of crafting the story once we’d done the interviews — picking through transcripts, building them into a script and then giving them to the editor. It’s a lot of just being involved in the story throughout and shaping the narrative once the material is there. When I explain it to people, it’s sort of more like adaptation than writing an original screenplay.
So you just said something interesting that I didn’t know. You’re saying that American Experience went to Rory with the idea?
Yeah, so the film was produced by American Experience Films, which produces American Experience for WGBH in Boston for PBS. They do, I think, eight or 10 films a year, and much of what they do is develop in-house and then they go out and hire people. They had the idea of doing a film about the fall of Saigon and they talked to Rory and she figured out how she wanted to do it and then brought me on to sort of help create it with her.
And you had worked with Rory prior on another documentary on social issues, 2010’s The Fence, which took a look at Mexican-American border fences for HBO. Was working together on Last Days in Vietnam a direct reflection of that experience and just teaming up once more?
Yeah. I mean, Rory is an incredibly accomplished filmmaker and has worked with a bunch of producers and I think she likes to work with a wide range of people, not only with producers but also composers. I think it just helps her as a filmmaker. So we worked on that and then she did a feature on her mother called Ethel, which was on HBO, and then we made this.
The fact that they came to you guys and not the other way around is fairly interesting to me, especially given your own history as a filmmaker. From what I understand, You’re Gonna Miss Me, your 2005 documentary on Roky Erickson, was very much a passion project. This almost seems more like an assignment. Did you have an already set interest in the Vietnam War or was this something you had to really dive into for this project.
No, I didn’t. My only goal with deciding to do any project is whether I find it intellectually engaging and if I have the opportunity to work with smart people. I’d worked with Rory before and I loved working with her, and I have tremendous respect for American Experience. That’s what sold me on the project. I knew probably about as much as any layperson knew about the fall of Saigon. Really, it was a deeply educational experience learning all that.
How much of this story was yours to decide upon? When American Experience came to you guys, did they a specific angle in mind or were you able to really choose your own?
They had some basic thoughts — they wanted to make it about the fall of Saigon — and suggested storylines. For instance, they were [interested in] the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, and that was one of the things that led them to want to make the film. That story was told for the first time, I think, in 2008 on NPR. So they had some ideas, but they brought Rory on because they trusted her as a filmmaker and trusted her vision and trusted her to find something great in that basic concept. All of her films are ultimately about people. They’re about social issues and subjects, but they focus on the human stories behind all of that. And once we started examining it, we found that were were all these incredibly interesting and tragic human stories to be told.
Just even from the basic premise of the film, to use newspaper terminology, it’s almost as if the war is just the peg.
Right. We didn’t want to get really too deep into arguments about who was responsible. It was really about, once the inevitable was inevitable, how people reacted to it.
Looking at the feature-length documentary that you’ve done, this really does stand out as the odd man out. You’ve done a music documentary, you did a documentary called The Dungeon Masters about dungeons and dragons. Obviously, the Roky story has a of serious elements to it and I don’t mean to downplay those, but this one seems different.
Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying. Those were cultural documentaries.
Yeah, it’s a stark difference. So how did that change your approach to this film?
Well, it’s interesting because this is very much Rory’s film. Starting from that point, I worked on it — and I loved working on it and I loved working with her — but it’s very much her vision. So I wouldn’t lump it in with much else that I’ve done for that reason. But, more importantly, I would lump it in with those in that I’m proud of it. Look, it was just a really incredible opportunity to work on the kind of film that I hadn’t worked on before, a film about a very specific event from the past. The Dungeon Masters and You’re Gonna Miss Me , while there were elements of the past in You’re Gonna Miss Me, we were really finding those films as we were making them — and in the case of You’re Gonna Miss Me, especially because I hadn’t made a film before, I had to figure out how to do it. With this one, there was a very specific set of events and the challenge was finding the people to tell it in the most human way. We wanted to have a plan for which parts of the story to tell just because there were so many voices to tell the story.
You must’ve known that these voices were out there and willing to talk.
We knew that they were out there. Getting them to appear in the film took some time — meeting them and explaining to them the kind of film we wanted to make. The best way to describe it is that the treatment was sort of a blueprint and the film ended up differently because, when you’re interviewing people, you don’t know what they’re going to say. You have some idea because there had been books written about it and whatnot, but, really, we just sort of had a blueprint, which was really just a safety net.
How closely did the film end up to your initial vision with that blueprint?
It’s pretty different. The basic events are the same because the events are the events. But because of the perspective of the people that are telling it, the treatment was more expository and the film ended up being more personal.
You mentioned earlier the rewarding experience of working on this film with Rory. But I imagine, just from an objective perspective, that it’s more literally rewarding now because of the nomination. I don’t think one sets out to do this kind of work for award nominations or whatnot, but what was it like finding out that your film had been nominated for an Academy Award?
It was incredibly flattering and I was hugely thrilled. This will sound like a cliche, but I honestly mean it: I look at the nomination as the result of the hard work we put into the film and the people I was collaborating with, starting with Rory and the people at American Experience and my co-writer Mark Bailey, but also the people in the film. My reaction was an appreciation for all those people, for allowing me to tell the story or to work with them.
I saw a bunch of your old colleagues here in town, notably Tim Rogers and Robert Wilonsky, congratulating you on your nomination when the news came out, which was a really cool thing to watch. In Robert’s piece in particular, there was a link to an old FD Luxe profile on your family that said something along the lines about how it took you eight years to admit to yourself that you wanted to get into film. That really stood out to me. Obviously, you were pretty active in the media between your jobs as a co-host of “The Adventure Club” on The Edge and your gig as a music critic at both the Dallas Observer and The Met. What made you want to make that transition? What about the medium of film spoke out to you and said that this was the direction you needed to take?
I think the thing about film is that it combines all of the interests that I have. It’s one part writing, it’s one part visual and photography, it’s one part music, it’s one part intellectual ideas and storytelling. So it’s always struck me as an apex of a creative endeavor because it combines all of those things in a really amazing way. So I think I’d always had that in my head, but I was just unsure of myself and what I wanted to do, much like any guy in his 20s, really.
But you’ve got a couple films under your belt now. Are you pretty comfortable in the realm of film at this point?
Every time I work on a film, the subject is new, so my goal is to remain a student and just work as much as I can.
Not to swipe this current film or its nomination nuder the rug, but I’m curious about what else you’re working on. Is there anything you can tell us about in that regard? Is the documentary world for sure your path at this point?
In an ideal world, it’d be a combination of documentary and narrative. The thing that I’m working on at the moment is I’m adapting a British coming-of-age novel called Black Swan Green that’s currently scheduled to shoot this summer, so we’re sort of wrapping up a lot of pre-production on that.
One thing that’s really cool, I think, is that you still keep your toes in the Dallas music scene, even with all this other stuff that you’ve got going on. You’ve directed music videos for the Old 97’s and for Mind Spiders, for instance.
Yeah! Well, I’m obviously a huge music fan, so any opportunity I have to work with a band that I like, I’ll take. I just called Mark [Ryan of Mind Spiders] because I’d heard the record and loved it.
How much attention are you paying to the North Texas music scene these days? Are you able to keep an ear to what’s happening here these days?
I am! I really loved the Radioactivity record. I try to listen to as much as I can whenever I have time. I just love going back to that stuff — especially the stuff I haven’t listened to in a while. I love going back to that stuff and rediscovering it. I mean, I’ve been a music nerd since I was, like, 10. So that’s pretty natural.
The 87th Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, February 22, on ABC starting at 7:30 p.m. CST. Head here for more information on Last Days in Vietnam.