Interview with Director Amir Bar-Lev about his New Documentary HAPPY VALLEY

November 21, 2014


Artist Michael Pilato paints over the image of Jerry Sandusky in his mural “Inspiration" in HAPPY VALLEY. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Interview with HAPPY VALLEY director Amir Bar-Lev was conducted at his office located in midtown, Manhattan, on Thursday, November 13, 2014.

Jerry Sandusky, a retired Penn State defensive football coach, was arrested on November 5, 2011, for allegedly sexually abusing children. In 2012 he was convicted for his heinous crimes and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in state prison. Sandusky’s conviction should not be controversial, however, some people may think his punishment was not severe enough.

But were the controversy does start for many Penn Staters is when the University Board of Trustees fired the much revered and long-time head football coach, Joe Paterno, only four days after Sandusky’s arrest. The Trustees acted on knowledge that Paterno, along with President Graham Spanier, Vice-President Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curly, allegedly covered up a 2001 incident to protect the football program. The incident, which had been reported to Paterno by Mike McQueary, a graduate student and former Penn State quarterback, involved McQueary seeing Sandusky in the Penn State showers with a child doing something sexual in nature.

The controversy continued when the NCAA handed down unprecedented sanctions—which many believe were outside the jurisdiction of the organization’s own bylaws—onto the Penn State football program. Those sanctions imposed were a $60 million fine, four-year reduction in football scholarships, four-year postseason ban, and vacating wins from 1998 to 2011. As of today, the postseason ban has been lifted and next year Penn State will have all of its football scholarships returned.

So when I sat down with HAPPY VALLEY director, Amir Bar-Lev, I thought it was important to let him know that I had graduated from Penn State University, and that I attended every home football game during my four years there, but I hadn’t attended a football game since graduating in 1995. That I do, however, try to watch as many Penn State football games during the season as possible, but if I have work or something personal, I don’t have a problem with missing a game.

Amir Bar-Lev: Just picking up on this question of fandom, I was watching on YouTube… I was scanning around as one does with YouTube, and I found the Howard Cosell moment where John Lennon had to been assassinated. I don’t know if you know that story. Basically, he’s in the middle of this play-by-play and he says, “But we can never forget that, after all, this is just a game.”

Then, he sort of segues, as only Howard Cosell can, into telling this horrible news while you’re still watching the game and everything. I wanted to remind myself of it because I think that this story touches on a nerve, a cultural nerve, because it reminds us that it is just a game. There are some people who are going to take this story and say, “Football is inherently bad.” Then other people are going to say, “What does any of this have to do with football?”

There was a great moment that didn’t make the cut. There’s a moment in “The View”you know the show, “The View”? So, there’s a moment in “The View” where somebody says, “I think it’s not right that they’re punishing the football team with these sanctions for something that happened even before they were alive, many of them, or when they were in diapers.” One of the other women on “The View” says, “Because this wouldn’t have happened if it was an English teacher and you know it.” It’s hilarious because here in New York, we have this Horace Mann story, where it was an English teacher [Robert J. Berman] who used his literature and he kind of borrowed from the playbook of–what’s that Robin Williams movie?

James Richard Janowsky: DEAD POETS SOCIETY.

Amir:  Thank you. He sort of used that sense that the professor in DEAD POETS SOCIETY creates around himself. That romance we have with our English professors. He used those tropes the same way Jerry Sandusky used Joe Paterno’s surrogate father, coach tropes. I think it’s over simplistic to say this has everything to do with football and it’s overly simplistic to say it has nothing to do with football.

And then that middle area is, to my mind, an explanation for why people were so vitriolic about Joe Paterno. It was too close for comfort for a lot of people. I think that when they bulldozed his statue, it wasn’t to protect the kids–to protect victims–it was to protect themselves for the fact that they had put him up on the pedestal to begin with. I do think that it’s germane, your point from before we turned the mike on, that you love football, but not that much. That’s kind of what this is all about.

James: You covered parts of the Jerry Sandusky trial in your film, but that’s not what your film, HAPPY VALLEY, is about.

Amir: No. I mean, Jerry Sandusky is a villain, but he is not the more interesting villain for my film, because his villainy is easy for people to distance themselves from, whereas, some of the other failings that are part of this story are closer to people’s everyday experience. You hear about a Jerry Sandusky or an Adolph Hitler, and it’s easy for you to say, “Hey, I’m not that guy. I’ll never make those mistakes, moral failings. I’ll never act that evil, so I have not that much to learn from this story.”

But when you investigate these other cultural questions, then I think, I found that there was something–it does what documentaries can do. It becomes an exercise in empathy. It makes you question your own values and then kind of interrogate yourself about what you would have done in a situation like that. Because, after all, only Superman stops every time he hears about crime being committed. The rest of us make decisions based on what we consider our problem and not our problem. That seems to be what happened in HAPPY VALLEY.

James: Is that some of the cultural questions that you wanted to explore?

Amir: Yeah. That’s all I’m interested in is cultural questions because that’s what I consider my bailiwick. Other filmmakers would have taken an investigative tack, and there’s definitely a film there for those filmmakers. I’m interested in–I’ve been thinking about this lately because I saw MR. TURNER [Mike Leigh’s new film being released December 19, 2014, is about the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner]. Have you seen that?

James: Yes.

Amir: I walked out of MR. TURNER at the end and I thought, “My god, what a masterpiece,” but I would not be able to tell you why it’s a masterpiece or even what it’s about. I thought to myself, “That’s the kind of movie I’m trying to make.” I’m not focusing on stories that are pulled from the headlines because I’m trying to do the same job as the writer of those headlines. I’m doing it because I think there’s a way you can investigate why these stories get the traction they do. And in the end, leave viewers with that almost intangible, ineffable desire to be better people. If they do that when they’re leaving my movie, then I feel I’ve succeeded. If they do that and they can tell you exactly how they want to be a better person and exactly what their action points are, then I feel I’ve failed. That seems polemical to me, and that’s not what I’m trying to do.

James: Let’s talk about your approach to the film. The Sandusky crimes, Joe Paterno being fired, the NCAA sanctions on the football program elicit such strong, emotional responses from everyone close to this combustible, complex story. Is that why you decided to be objective in your approach to this film?

Amir: I guess I would take issue—I’m not totally sure I was objective.

Yeah. I feel I am subjective. The difference between my subjectivity and maybe other people’s subjectivity is the way they tell film. I try and have a perspective that is reflected in the film, and invite audiences to disagree with that perspective, if they desire to, so that people can watch my movies and have different takeaways from one another with the same film.

I think that if I was to quiz you about what you think what my perspective is on everything, you’d probably accurately guess at every juncture who I am more sympathetic with and who I’m less sympathetic with, how I feel about the spectacle of college football, all that stuff is in the film. It’s baked into the way we’ve edited the thing. So, I see the film as subjective.

James: I find that interesting because I feel that when someone goes to see your film, that if they already have a preconceived opinion about what transpired, I think that it will just reinforce their opinion.

Amir: Maybe, I don’t know. People–I was just talking to Budd Mishkin [a television host and correspondent for New York’s 24-hour news network, NY1] and he said that the film caused him to debate himself over and over again. He used the same term “debate”. I just don’t think there are easy answers in this story and that’s why I love it. That’s why I was captivated by it for two years.

I think that the opposite of a lie is the truth. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth. I think that, for instance, Tyler, the student we have, is correct when he takes issue with somebody for saying that it was inappropriate at the football game to tell the opposing quarterback he was going to leave in a hearse.

I agree with Tyler when he says, “This is football. I always want the other team to leave in a hearse.” Why is that, you know, this is why I brought up the Howard Cosell thing. Yeah, you got to take a look at football, actually. Now, am I suggesting that football should be banned, or that pedophilia won’t happen if there is no football? Absolutely not. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that all of these things, that there are connections between horrible deeds of a Jerry Sandusky, and innocuous things like football and spectacle. So, yeah.

James: What are your thoughts on what’s transpired with the NCAA and sanctions, and how it seems a lot of people’s thoughts have changed regarding what they did?

Amir: Right. My thoughts about it are expressed in the film, even though the film happened before some of these most recent chapters. I still think that Matt Jordan, the film professor who we interviewed, has the best take on it all. He says this is how we deal with things in America. We have a shaming spectacle that allows us to find one sensational example of a bigger, systemic problem. And we publicly flog the people behind the one, sensational example, not because we are so disgusted with them, but because we want to continue on with business as usual and not have to ask ourselves the bigger questions, the bigger, systemic questions.

I think that when the NCAA, for instance, pillaged Penn State for a football-first culture, it’s hypocrisy at work. It’s sanctimonious hypocrisy for them to say it. That’s what I think.

James: In November of 2011, the Jerry Sandusky story broke. You arrived in the State College in February of 2012. I’m assuming the entire community was wary of the media by then. How did you gain the trust of the Paterno family to get an interview, or to interview them?

Amir: There’s almost two separate answers to your question. The answer with regards to individuals is that I trusted our process and our team to arrive at a film that we could sit with them and watch, and own and feel proud of, and that they would see themselves accurately reflected in.

And also to be able to trust that I can do that with not only one perspective, but even seemingly opposing perspectives. And that is what we did. And that’s been one of the really gratifying things about this film is that we have shown it to people across this divide and perspective, people from wildly divergent perspectives and they’re all satisfied that the film is fair.

Then the other answer to your question of the cameras and stuff is that, yeah, we did feel, you know, I would be being hyperbolic if I said that I felt in danger at any time. That’s not accurate. But I did feel aware of my outsider status. That’s in the film. That’s hovering through the film.

There’s a reason why we include all the times where people talk about New York because we were a band of New Yorkers traveling down to–we were a tribe of New Yorkers traveling down to visit the tribe of Happy Valley, and they often let us know that they knew we were outsiders.

James: What are your thoughts on the media on how they were portrayed, not only in the film, but how they handled when the Jerry Sandusky case story broke, and then Joe Paterno being fired?

Amir: I mean–go ahead.

James: I would say there seems to be some point in journalism where the filter got taken off and they’re looking for immediacy. They need to get the story before someone else.

Amir: We could talk about that forever. I think it should be said, and it’s not a small thing, that journalists these days are given ever fewer resources. We as a culture care less about real journalism than ever before, and it’s reflected in the way we buy fewer and fewer newspapers, things like that. Journalists have less to work with, and do have to turn their stories in there as quickly as possible and they’re spread thin.

The storytelling, I think, reflects that. The medium of 24-hour news has few advantages, and certainly depicting a complex world is not one of them. They break the world and they always have been. They break the world into easily recognized, cookie-cutter roles: white hat, black hat, hero, father figure. When you start to oversimplify the world, then you’re always going to be disappointed when it doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter narrative.

Then in the case Paterno, when you put somebody up a huge pedestal, when you put somebody up as high on a pedestal as the news did, as people did, but certainly the news was a part of that, there’s a part of you, I think, that resents that person, even though he didn’t ask to be put up on that pedestal but you put him up on it. You relish the opportunity to pull them back down into the bucket with the rest of us.

There’s a sort of cycle where, you know, and you see in our film. You see an interviewer [Roy Firestone] say, “Isn’t it a bit much? Aren’t you just a really–how is it possible that you’re the beacon of integrity?” he says to Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno says, “I’m not the beacon of integrity. Don’t make me into the beacon of integrity. That scares me.” Nobody wanted to hear that. Until they wanted to think of him as the devil incarnate, and they did turn him into that.

It’s funny. We were angry at Joe Paterno because he didn’t live up to our projection onto him. He turns out to be a fallible human being. I think in some ways the story here is a story about the moment in every human being’s life when we realize that our dad is not capable of protecting us from the world; that our dad is also a human being. It’s a parable. The story is a parable. When you’re a child, you think that your dad is a towering figure who can protect you from everything. Then you realize, no, he’s a human being and that’s how you grow up. That’s what this story is about.

James: There was certain interviews I was expecting in the film: Graham Spanier, the former Penn State President; Gary Schultz, the Vice President; as well as Tim Curley, and also Mike McQueary, the graduate student who initially saw something happening in the shower with Jerry Sandusky and a child.

Amir: We did interview Graham Spanier and we were trying hard to speak to the other gentleman [McQueary] that you mentioned. But looked over our Graham Spanier material and wondered whether it was great for another film. Because there are so many outstanding questions there that will be determined, will be answered, hopefully, in a court of law at some undetermined time. It keeps getting pushed back. And until that court case happens, it’s hard to get people to – sorry, until that happens, it’s hard to get people to speak candidly, and you end up burning through 25 minutes of your 90 minutes in your film, and you’ve gotten pretty much nowhere. There really is enough material in what is known, what is less sort of–what’s the word?–forensic that we were able to… we felt we had enough for our audience to chew on without getting into some of those other questions.

James: And Mike McQueary?

Amir: We, at a certain point, stopped trying to get him into the film for that reason, but certainly we tried at the outset, yeah.

James: When it comes to the conspiracy theory that Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, Curley covered up Sandusky’s crimes to protect the Penn State brand – but there’s a fascinating aspect raised in the film that society – we don’t want to believe that something like this could happen.

Amir: It is possible that that the conspiracy happened just that way. If you’re asking me to bet, I think I agree with Viktor Frankl, who wrote “A Man’s Search For Meaning,” that what’s even more important to us than physical well-being is our sense of ourselves, is meaning, is our sense of our identity. While physical preservation is one of the paramount needs of a human being, even more paramount is identity–our questions of identity.

I would bet on a conspiracy that had to do less with protecting a brand or protecting the revenues that the football program brought in, and more about sense of one’s self. I think that there’s a clue to that when you hear Sue Paterno say, “We never talked about that because, in my view, it doesn’t happen.” Well, actually, it does happen. It’s the reason we called the film HAPPEY VALLEY. Because here was a place that had a very strong sense that it was a place where nothing bad ever happened. I think that one has to look at that to try and find out how it was that so many people didn’t see a thing happening right in their midst.

James: One last question before I go. Next year, the trial’s going to be happening with Spanier, Schultz and Curley, is that going to give Penn State, Happy Valley, State College some kind of closure?

Amir: Well, yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I want to speculate, but I would say probably not because the impact here is one’s sense of self. That damage may never be undone, and maybe it isn’t even damage… Maybe the town is realizing on that the only person who can take care of you is you, collectively, and that it’s a child’s version of living to believe in a father figure that way–a symbolic, surrogate father figure.

You might, if you’re doing this online, link to Jackson Brown’s terrific song, “For Every Man,” which has a line and I’ll bastardize it now, “Everybody’s looking for that father’s hand who can lead us back to that place where a childhood still dances.” Who will do it? Every man. That’s what I think this is a film about. This is a story about the fact that the only people – that we need care about for–well, I don’t–I mean, you know, the kids were failed by all of us. The notion that they would be protected by a symbolic, surrogate father figure is childlike. There you go.

HAPPY VALLEY is currently in limited release and available on VOD and iTunes.