The Making Of
Filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan talk about how AN UNREASONABLE MAN came to be, being inspired by Ralph Nader and the detriments of getting on the wrong elevator.
What led you to make AN UNREASONABLE MAN?
Henriette: I was sick of people yelling at me about Ralph and I wanted them to know the whole story. I wanted them to at least be INFORMED before they decided what they thought.
Steve: Believe it or not, it started as a sitcom. As a result of my work as a writer on the show Everybody Loves Raymond, I had gotten a development deal and was looking for an idea. I ran into my old friend from New York stand-up comedy days, Henriette Mantel, whom I knew had worked for Ralph as an office manager in the late ’70s, early ’80s. She used to tell me stories about those days, and it occurred to me that a public interest office might be a good setting for a show. I didn’t know much about Nader’s work, but the more we talked about it, and the more I read about Ralph, the more I was impressed with all that he had accomplished and intrigued by the fact that so many people were so mad at him, especially former allies. That sounded like a good arc for a story. How does one go from hero to pariah? That’s when the documentary took over from the sitcom idea.
What was Ralph Nader's reaction when you approached him about making this film?
Henriette: He was open to it. He didn’t really have to do anything besides being interviewed over the course of three days, and he also made a list of people who opposed his every move so that we could interview them.
Steve: It took a long time for him to respond. We had a great ally in John Richard, who has been Ralph’s right-hand man for over a quarter of a century. He was our conduit to Ralph. They didn’t know me, but they trusted Henriette. A few months after we had sent Ralph a treatment, Henriette called the office on a Saturday expecting to speak to John. Instead, Ralph picked up. They talked for about 20 minutes about whatever was going on in the world at the time, and at the very end, Hen asked, “So, what about this doc?” Ralph just said, “Let’s get started.” She hung up before he could change his mind, and it was on. His only involvement after that was agreeing to be interviewed and his only mandate to us was, “Make sure you speak to people who oppose me.”
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
Henriette: I would have loved to put in the NO NUKES movement which Ralph led, but even though the rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne all signed off for us to use the NO NUKES movie footage, Warner Brothers would not give us a reasonable rate. In fact, we could have bought the NO NUKES footage for the amount it took us to make the rest of the movie.
Steve: Much of what we couldn’t include in the film, we were able to put on the DVD. That includes scenes cut from our Sundance Film Festival version depicting more of the consumer movement victories, “NO NUKES,” the Prop 103 insurance initiative in California, the victory in getting the industry finally to equip cars with airbags. It also includes about a half-dozen featurettes on various topics that didn’t quite fit into the narrative. We have a more in-depth profile of Ralph’s personality, a discussion of the role of third parties in America, a discussion of corporate power in America, Ralph on the Iraq War. We dated things he was saying in 2004 and 2005 which have now become the common wisdom.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially resonated with you.
Henriette: When Ralph gets kicked out of the 2000 Debates. And when Jim Ridgeway swears.
Steve: Well, that golden footage of Ralph being turned away from the debate is a storyteller’s dream. How often can you find documentary footage that is an actual scene that plays out? I also love the sequence in the middle of the film where people discuss what it was like to work for Ralph back in the day. Henriette and I as comedians love that section because that’s where a lot of the laughs are. But I have to say that the very last speech in the film resonates most with me. In that speech, Ralph talks about how one can never give up, that there’s never a hill you won’t have to climb in the name of justice, that the idea is not to throw up your hands and say democracy is a myth or a fraud, but the object is to keep fighting to improve it. This is coming from a man who has taken a tremendous beating over the years for just about everything he has stood for. And through it all, he has never given in to cynicism. As a result, he and those he Johnny Appleseeded have accomplished so much and all our lives are better for it. I find that to be very inspirational and hope others do, too.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
Henriette: We were pretty O.K., thanks to our producer Kevin O’Donnell. Oh yeah, except Kevin got in the wrong elevator once with all the equipment and we missed our first Phil Donahue interview. He was nice enough to reschedule. Phil that is. Kevin was sent to his room.
Steve: There were not a lot of technical challenges once we decided on our camera and video format. We knew we weren't about pretty pictures, especially with all of the archival footage of various size and quality in the film.
What has the audience response been so far? What are audiences most surprised by after seeing the film?
Henriette: The audience response has been tremendous. They are most surprised by all of Ralph’s accomplishments.
Steve: I’ve sat through a lot of screenings and it’s fun to hear audiences talk to the screen and cheer and boo and applaud like it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think most audiences are surprised that it’s not a valentine to Ralph.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Henriette: Issues that I want people to understand or be informed about motivate me. Also my fear of ever waiting tables again motivates me.
Steve: There are important stories to tell that don’t get told in the Hollywood studio system. It was exciting to tell a story from an angle that leads people to come up to you and say, “I never knew that. I’ve changed my mind about some things.” What more could you ask of a movie-going experience?
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Henriette: Because I love PBS and have watched it all my life and I know millions of people will see it and that is important to me.
Steve: On the contrary, we were honored to be chosen. This truly is a gratifying culmination of our efforts to get this story out to people. Public television will provide us with our largest audience. Through community screenings and panel discussions prior to the airing, ITVS has been putting extraordinary effort into promoting not only the film but the ideas of civic engagement that are at the heart of Nader’s work. That is using the public airwaves for a noble purpose.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Henriette: We didn’t get to interview some people such as Alan Morrison who ran the Public Citizen Litigation Group for years.
Steve: I never did get that sitcom done. Maybe now I will and can write off the whole movie as research.