In some ways, you’d think Jared Leto, Oscar-winning actor, movie star, and frontman for Platinum-selling band (with his brother Shannon) 30 Seconds to Mars, would not need much of an introduction. But now you can add another hat, with a new, heartfelt project for Leto, which is in some ways as ambitious as anything he’s ever done: producer and director of the documentary A Day in the Life of America, a sweeping yet intimate cross-section of America shot on a single July 4th in 2017 with 92 film crews fanning out across the United States and Puerto Rico.
“As an introduction to the often startling contradictions of a country in turmoil, the film scintillates,” wrote Stephen Farber in the Hollywood Reporter. “The impressive film… provides often beautiful glimpses of very distinctive parts of the country in the age of Trump. Alternately disturbing and inspiring, it manages to capture the diversity of America in a tight 73 minutes.”
Leto wrote to me about why he wanted to take on such a huge project, if he’s an optimist or a pessimist about America’s future, and how challenging it was to oversee such a huge number of crews across the United States. He also talks about how much PBS influenced him growing up and adds a few of his most favorite films.
As someone who is used to being in front of the camera, why did you want to orchestrate from behind the lens? Why did you want to make this particular film, A Day in the Life of America?
This was an idea I’d been thinking about for a really long time and I thought it could be an opportunity to turn the camera on ourselves and capture a portrait of this country and these really tumultuous and fascinating times that we’re living in. When I was a kid, my mother subscribed to National Geographic. It was our gateway to the world, as it is for so many; they had a project where they sent photographers all over the country to capture a single day in the life of the United States, and that always stuck with me.
I look at it as a time capsule something that you could dig up 100 years from now, even 1000 years from now, and it would give us some insight into who we are, what kind of people we are, what kind of time that we’re living in. Seeing the final product, formed of the 92 incredibly talented crews, covering all 50 states plus Puerto Rico and DC, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to date.
I’d love to dive in more into the unusual process in making this ambitious film. How did you land on each of the film crews you worked with who would be in each of the states on that one day?
Initially, we put together 30 people that were producing in some capacity, and we started riffing about who we would want to see in 24 hours. I’m really grateful to all those people who worked so hard. It was pretty down and dirty. I’ve always geared towards a good challenge, and the challenge was making it all in a single day and making sure you have enough footage to make a compelling piece. Telling a story of hundreds of vignettes is really difficult. It’s funny because I had this idea to make an album where I would travel around the country and interview people, and then write songs loosely around the people and the places and the stories that I heard, but I ended up doing it backward.
So, logistically it was really challenging. We had a great group of producers and we all hunkered down, knowing that we had to have everything in 24 hours. I couldn’t even tell you how many hours of footage we have, but we were buried in footage. It was really hard to decide what to include. There are so many stories that are compelling.
It’s interesting to see people that you may not agree with. I don’t agree with the guy with the gun, but I’d like to spend a little more time with him. This movie is a reminder that you don’t have to agree with people on all fronts to have them be your neighbor or your friend, and I think that’s a really nice thing. It’s hard, we had a lot—10,000 people contributed, and we had our 92 crews and I would say 95% of the footage was from those 92 crews.
“I hope the impact of this film begins to show there are many who believe and fight for the American Dream, even when that dream seems to be taken away from them.” –@JaredLeto
Watch #DayinAmericaPBS starting Monday, January 11 on @PBS and the PBS Video App. pic.twitter.com/mKr6hAEX12
— Independent Lens (@IndependentLens) January 8, 2021
How much guidance did you give them as far as what stories they would focus on in their states? Did you guide as far not going too dark or anything?
You know we didn’t ask people to go out and film dark stuff. We were specific about some events we wanted to capture, and people we wanted to spend time with. We have the birth of children, we have people sharing their last words. Incredibly surprising stories. We didn’t dictate what stories people told. We didn’t dictate their point of view. We went to every single state in the country, so we didn’t avoid any areas.
It is dark, but I do hear in the film a surprising amount of optimism. I hear people going “Yeah, it’s tough right now, but I still think we can do it.”
Putting this question on you that you posed to others, what did the “American Dream” mean to you growing up, and what does it still mean?
I think what’s so important about America and the American Dream is that we have instilled inside of us the idea that with hard work, with passion, with the help from friends and neighbors, that anything is possible. It’s a tough world out there for a lot of people in this country, and I think that’s what we see, but I didn’t write the script, I’m just the messenger here. It’s your movie, not mine. I just held up the mirror, with the help of 92 crews.
What did you watch on PBS when you were growing up? Did you watch documentaries on PBS as a kid, too–was that part of it?
I should say PBS has been a big inspiration for me. A big source of education and I’ve always been really supportive of PBS, and in awe of the quality and perspective and I remember the excitement I had when I found that there was an app that I could dig into. I was like, ‘Wow this is too good to be true.’ There’s so many goodies, and I sent it to my mom of course. We grew up in a PBS household, and I remember the programming. It’s a part of my life and my story, so that must be one of the reasons why I ended up on this unexpected path, and it’s because of you guys. So it’s partially your fault.
This almost feels like a human-centered version of the beautiful Planet Earth series. Was that an influence on you, too, and as an empathetic human were you able to detach yourself from these stories the way a nature documentarian may have to when filming something like Planet Earth?
I mean there’s a lot of parts of the film I don’t personally agree with. I felt it was really important to give people a voice, but to not censor who we are. Who our neighbors are, who America is and to try and get an accurate depiction of a nation in this tumultuous and important time.
Do you have any predictions for America’s near and distant future? And for you, would you want to do a follow-up project to this one?
It’s an incredibly unstable time that we are living in, in a number of different ways. I have a lot of hopes and dreams for the future of America. I think there’s so much potential in America. When I’ve toured city to city with Thirty Seconds to Mars, I see a lot of joy, I see a lot of celebration, I see a lot of unity. That’s an important thing to witness. It’s something we all talk about—the divisiveness—but there’s a lot we agree on and I think this piece is really important. I’m optimistic [about] the future of our country, I think that there is so much talent. So much love. We have the potential to accomplish almost anything. I’m a hopeful pessimist I guess.
And who do you hope A Day in the Life of America reaches the most or what kind of impact do you want it to have?
This movie documents a moment of real controversy. I hope this movie acts as a gateway to an understanding that although we may share different views, and some that I personally wouldn’t defend—fundamentally the one thing that connects us is this country. I like to think of this as an opportunity to begin a dialogue – for those who have arguably been forgotten or at least feel forgotten in this country. I hope the impact of this film begins to show there are many who believe and fight for the American Dream, even when that Dream seems to be taken away from them.
I’m sure there were about 100 challenges or more in doing this production but what were some of the hardest?
We knew we were doing something that was a bit of an experiment, but also it was an opportunity. We had a headquarters in Los Angeles, and we were all pretty much sleeping under the desk in the final days, because we knew we had one shot. We were manning the phones, all day and all night, because we were communicating with our teams everywhere. There were issues; we tried to get access. We were trying to be as helpful to everyone out there on the road as possible—solving problems, putting out fires, looking for stories and following things.
How did you get the people featured in the film to trust you and your filmmaking team?
I think that people wanted to share their stories, and understood what we were doing. They all understood this time that we’re living in. I sent out five questions and encouraged everyone to share those questions with all our subjects, and there wasn’t a shortage of opinions. It was quite inspiring to look at the raw footage.
I think everyone did a great job building a rapport, and all the filmmakers were really transparent and honest, whether they were in the south side of Chicago or at a mansion in Beverly Hills.
Was there anything you had to cut out from the film that you wish you didn’t?
There were so many incredible stories that we couldn’t include. We tried to shine a lot on as many diverse stories as possible and unfortunately had to lose some of our characters in the process. I wish we could have featured everyone, but it was an impossible task.
Do you have your own personal favorite moment within all these many stories?
At some point, I went up in a helicopter to film the fireworks, and that was something I’ll never forget, because I’d never really seen LA from that vantage point, and being in a helicopter when there are fireworks exploding all around you is absolutely insane and amazing. And other things [were] going on there— gunshots, and someone had a hold of these old military flares they were shoot-ing up in the sky. It looked apocalyptic, like Armageddon, but beautiful at the same time.
— Independent Lens (@IndependentLens) January 7, 2021
What did you have to put on hold in your life to get Day in the Life of America done?
Your whole life goes on hold when you make movies. Luckily this movie’s shooting day, while ultimately very complicated, only actually lasted one single day. I think it’s safe to say we didn’t get to celebrate the Fourth of July in the traditional sense, but I think it’s always most exciting when you shake things up.
What are your three favorite or most influential films?
Three??? There are too many to list. But a few would include Blade Runner, Dune, The Shining, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, 2001, Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs, Alien, The Deer Hunter, Memento… I could keep going.