Noujaim and Chris Hegedus have a rhythm together, like they're used to talking
and thinking as a team. No wonder -- they've spent over two years -- intensively
-- working on Startup.com, a documentary on the spectacularly speedy rise
and fall of an internet company called govWorks.com. Conceived and developed by
Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, friends since childhood, govWorks was
designed to facilitate interaction between local government, citizens, and
businesses and began during the dotcom boom.
is the first film for 25-year-old Noujaim -- Kaleil Isaza Tuzman's roommate at
the time she and Hegedus decided to make the film, which, a circumstance that
they both agree gave them unusual "access" to their subject -- and of
a piece with Hegedus's previous work with her partner D A Pennebaker (who also
produced Startup.com), such as Moon Over Broadway (1998), a
documentary on the production of a Broadway musical starring Carol Burnett, and The
War Room (1992), a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's 1992
What's at stake in making a documentary, for you?
always making the same old thing. We're always looking for a story where we can
follow some person through something in their life that is important to them,
that has some kind of risk and built-in dramatic structure, so that we can make
a film in a style that is as similar to a fictional feature as possible, and
gives the viewer the sense that he's dropped in that world and gets to
experience it. That's what has always been interesting to me in filmmaking, and
quite often you can't do that, you don't get the dramatic arc or a character
was my roommate, so I was feeling that in addition to being able to follow this
story over a period of time, I was very interested in getting a personal side as
well. We decided it would make a better film to continue living together, to
focus on Kaleil and Tom's relationship. And you need a period of time and access
to watch those emotions come to surface.
The film has a mix of domestic scenes and office or business scenes, all showing
something different about these guys.
Well, we had exceptional access since Jehane was living in Kaleil's house: of
course we were coming in! It was a true luxury that was given to me when I
partnered with Jehane on this. You want to get as many sides of people as
possible in those situations. In a lot of ways it was difficult to get a balance
because all they did was work. They didn't have much of a life. So we were
always desperate to find the girlfriend [Dora] -- and Kaleil was hardly with her
during that whole time.
In editing, we looked through all this footage looking for shots of them
together, and there weren't any. So all of the stuff with Dora is by herself,
except that one scene, but he's on the phone!
How do you deal with the ways that people are affected when you're filming them?
You don't deny that you're there. But if you are there enough, you really are
part of their life and they can't be bothered with you after a while. They were
so involved in what they were doing, really hanging on by their fingernails so
much of the time. So they couldn't be worried that we were filming, and the
times that they were, we'd work it out with them, but you can't film everything,
and you try to get what you can.
The personal relationship between Kaleil and Tom develops so dramatically,
almost as if you'd written a script.
At the beginning I have to say, I was thinking a business story could be very
dry. And a lot of the meetings were. But it was so exciting: they were like an
adventure group: I used to read the Secret Seven and adventure stories. So here
were these guys who wanted to raise a lot of money and put government online and
change the way government works. And 6 months later he's sitting next to the
President and has raised $60 million. It was fascinating to watch, though,
because of the personal relationship.
On some level, the whole set up is unreal to most of us, just the staggering
amounts of money they're talking about.
(laughs): Right. We're trying to make ends meet. Kaleil and his friends came
from Goldman Sachs, they were already making $300,000 a year salaries, so it was
a big step down for them in salary, to make $90,000, and then they're charging
out there to raise $20 million, and did it in like four weeks. That's something
to watch. They're only 27 years old, and walk in with this idea and walk out
with $20 million. It's generational, too: all this money is out there for all
these young kids.
What really interested Chris and I was their idealism. This wasn't a movie about
barbeque.com. When they started, they had a flat structure, where everyone would
be working together, and that had to change when they got so much money and had
to have a hierarchy. But they had great ideas at first: they were going to move
the office to Harlem, create a kind of internet community, bridge the digital
divide, and bring government back to the people. But then you had your cynics,
concerned with making money. I think it was difficult to balance the demands of
the venture capitalists who wanted to make money quick and the idealism. There
was a lot of pressure to make products that made money.
I really admired them taking on that kind of responsibility at that age, the
caliber of people they enticed to be on their board. There was so much
competition too, not necessarily for the same idea -- not many people have the
ambition to take on government -- but there were other companies working in the
sphere already, without the internet. So it was like David and Goliath, once
these other companies figured that out.
Did Tom and Kaleil have input into the structure of the film?
They didn't see footage until the end, but that was because the thinking was, it
was a joint process. It was their film as well, and they should want us to be
there at different times. At the end, you want their opinions, you want them to
like it. If you're working with someone and they feel you're committed to the
story, they want the true story to be told. But looking at footage along the way
just makes you self-conscious.
Yeah, they start seeing themselves as actors in their own lives. That's why we
don't do much interviewing along the way. It gives people the impression that
all you want to do is interview them and go away and they go on with their
lives. And that's not the relationship we want to develop. We basically just had
Jehane and I following them.
We thought about having two crews, and following the VCs' [venture capitalists]
side and the entrepreneurs' side, but I don't know, I felt so loyal to them that
going down to EzGov would have been really hard.
The dotcom world is very guy-focused and -driven -- how was it to work in it?
(laughs) It was really strange. We tried to use it to our advantage when we
could, getting into VC meetings, acting like two girls with cameras. But it was
a real problem for employees in the company. Those long hours, women don't want
to be going home at 3 in the morning in New York, and that's when they'd be
having a big meeting, "spontaneously."
What is it that you like about collaborating on a film?
For this type of film, where you're following a story, it's nice to have a
partner, because you don't know what the story's going to be, and quite often
you're feeling very unloved, so it's good to have a partner you can commiserate
and strategize with. It would be hard if the person didn't have the same vision.
And Jehane, though this is the first film she's done, has a similar passion and
had studied with a friend who makes similar types of films, so she was aware of
this genre of filmmaking, and she got it right off. It is kind of a dance,
figuring out how to communicate.
With sign language!
We would signal each other, you know, I think something's happening with this
phone call over here, and we'd get set up quickly.
It's good to work with someone who can help you see the bigger picture, because
you have four eyes on something all the time, you can tell when to pull back for
a wide shot or something.
Documentaries don't typically open in theaters. What is the appeal of making
documentaries, for you?
When I started on this, I was actually surprised to find out that Chris and
Penne [Pennebaker] aren't making money. But it's obviously not why you do it.
It's amazing to experience other people's lives and I can't imagine a better
existence than what Chris and Penne do, dropping themselves into people's lives.
Well, if you're going to make a film, you do want critical response, and in this
country, you don't get that unless you have a theatrical release. If you just
show the film on television, you might get a review but you might not, you don't
know who sees it. So if you really want audiences to see it and look at it in a
critical way, you need to get to theaters. Film festivals are a good way to
And cable tv?
HBO is good when you have a certain subject matter, but we never seem to make
that kind of subject matter. It doesn't have that sensationalism that they seem
to like. At the same time, everybody has read about this dotcom phenomenon,
they're probably totally sick of it in some ways. But many people say after they
see this film, "Now I understand what it was about. Now I really see the
excitement." They can see that there are people involved, who are ambitious
but have some virtuous intentions about what they were doing, and they work very
You have so much material to work with -- do you see the story take shape as you
film? Do you edit in your head ever or do you make all your choices in the
editing room, afterwards?
There were several endings that could have happened: At the beginning we were
thinking that in 6 months they'd be IPO millionaires and we'd be swimming in
their pools and they'd fund our next film. The next ending would be that Tom and
Kaleil might have both had to give up their posts to senior leadership, and that
would be like giving up their baby. We were following so many stories at the
same time, the girlfriend, the company, the relationship.
I think I try to figure out a little bit what the story is, it's like being a
detective. Right off you see that Tom and Kaleil are such opposite
personalities, they were kind of like James [Carville] and George
[Stephanapolous] in The War Room. You could see that Tom was the
techie-artist type and very blunt and he wasn't going to fit in with these
business guys at all. You could see there was going to be some kind of problem,
in the personal story. And the business part, we started knowing nothing; I told
Jehane, I thought VC meant Viet Cong. I think in the end, we knew that Kaleil
was a person who was so dynamic that if we just stuck to him, something was
going to happen.
The language can seem alien at first.
Yeah, we thought at first we'd have to have a vocab list with the film, and then
thought, we'd structure it around emails going back and forth. We had a bunch of
ridiculous ideas. But while the business environment is so arcane, the focus is
really the human story, and that's easy to follow.
Click here to read Elias Savada's review.