Honesty Over Truth
Andrew Cohn is an Emmy-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Before transitioning to narrative film, Andrew spent ten years directing documentary films—including Medora, Night School, and Warriors of Liberty City. His first feature-length narrative film, The Last Shift, starring Richard Jenkins and Shane Paul McGhie, premiered at Sundance in 2020. I sat down with this critically acclaimed documentarian and filmmaker to discuss his career, his work, the logistics of documentary filmmaking, and the concept of honesty in art.
Filmmaker Andrew Cohn, at 6’4 with a gregarious and charming smile, reminds you of that beloved goofball in high school who never studied but somehow managed to pull a 3.9 GPA. He’s funny and warm and seems to exist in the world with ease. However, this devil-may-care vibe sits in contrast to his documentary oeuvre. While his documentaries are filled with entertaining sequences, humorous moments, cute kids, and eccentric characters—they showcase the quiet desperation and hardships of everyday life and often portray intense themes including poverty and racism. According to Andrew he, “just like[s] to make movies about interesting people living on the outskirts of society.” And it’s this duality, in their joy and pain, that makes his films emotionally satisfying and artistically successful.
Andrew’s foray into filmmaking followed a somewhat untraditional route. “I didn’t go to film school,” he said. “I just always had a passion for movies. I don’t even call them ‘films.’ Some of them are corny and some are more highfalutin.’” Andrew tends to intentionally draw from an unpretentious lexicon, which serves both the function of making his world view conceptually congruent and the function of giving me anxiety about over pontificating on his work or using too many dime-store art-school words in writing about him.
“When I was in college my goals were limited,” he continued. “Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I didn’t even tangentially know anyone who made movies. That was the equivalent of going to Mars. Later, I connected with a dear friend, Davy Rothbart, who was doing a magazine called Found. He was really encouraging when it came to writing. He’d written a book and was doing press and I was like, ‘wow, this is somebody I know who’s going on David Letterman.’ It was my introduction to the idea that you could make art and make a living making art. It was that rudimentary. I was writing [mostly] short stories, and through circumstance started writing screenplays then moved out to LA after I graduated – with my terrible screenplays. Like most people moving to LA in their 20s, I didn’t know anything, didn’t know anyone, and sort of hit a wall. My talent hadn’t caught up with my ambition. I had a lot of things I wanted to accomplish, but I wasn’t really ‘good’ at anything yet. I sort of floundered around LA, working odd jobs and writing bad screenplays.”
A bit defeated, he soon moved back to the Midwest and moved in with his parents. He spent much of this time at his parents’ house, lounging and watching movies. One day, his mom pointed out that he was mostly watching documentaries, and suggested he try and make one himself. Out of this initial regrouping and renesting, an existentially frustrating time, Andrew found his damascene moment that pushed him into documentary filmmaking.
He pulled himself off the couch and borrowed a camera from his friend, Dave Yosha, who also showed him how to use it. He made his first documentary short, teaching himself the process along the way. The film, Dynamic Tom, ended up doing “pretty well,” getting released on the Wholphin collection of short films and being aired on the Documentary Channel. “I was like, ‘I really love this.’” Andrew said.
Soon, Andrew was given the opportunity to make Medora, a film that would change the course of his career forever. “[My friend] Davy [Rothbart] sent me a New York Times article about a high school basketball team in Indiana that hadn’t won a game in like three years and was like, ‘this is what we’ve been looking for,’” he explained. “We decided to make it our first feature-length documentary…. I was really attracted to the story. The death of small-town America as told by this winless high school basketball team and the boys that go to school in this town of 500 [people]. We moved down there and lived in a crappy motel, funded the movie with our credit cards, and it ended up doing well. Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci came on as executive producers, it premiered at South by Southwest, and it won an Emmy for PBS.”
“All of your documentaries tend to deal with big social issues,” I said. “Do you generally think of an issue and then look for a story that exemplifies it?”
“I cringe when I hear “social issue documentary,” he said. “I’m less interested in that than I am finding really interesting characters that feel like movies. [I look for] a baked-in structure, a world, and characters. People who have specific wants and needs and desires, and whether they get those things or don’t. Whatever sort of social commentary comes out of that—I sort of let other people decide what the movie’s about. [Director] Alexander Payne [Sideways, Election, and The Descendants], who’s a mentor of mine, always says, ‘you never know what your movie’s about until you do press for it.’”
I cringe when I hear “social issue documentary.” I’m less interested in that than I am finding really interesting characters that feel like movies.
“How do you decide what ‘characters’ to follow?” I asked.
“You’re casting your movie,” he said. “I’m looking for three things in a character: one, most importantly, are they interesting? Do you want to root for them? Second, do they have a great story? Third, how willing are they to open up their lives? If they’re only going to meet you halfway and guard themselves and not let you in [it’s not going to work]. I want a willing partner and like to give a lot of authorship to the characters. I follow multiple people, and some don’t end up in the film. You cast a wide net and whittle it down later.”
“Do you see thinking of living people as ‘characters’ as a bit sticky?” I asked.
“Documentaries are inherently exploitative,” he said. “We like to pretend that they’re not. You can exploit people for what you think is a good reason, but you’re still exploiting them and you’re still telling their story. I try and have a really open conversation with my characters— [find out] what it is that they want, why they’re doing this. You become friends with these people. I’m not pretending to be friends with them. I care about them and keep in touch with them afterwards. It’s an interesting and bizarre relationship between a documentary director and the subject of a film. There’s so much trust that goes into the relationship and then you’re gone. I’m still watching them, as I’m editing the film for another year, but physically I’m gone.”
Documentaries are inherently exploitative. We like to pretend that they’re not. You can exploit people for what you think is a good reason, but you’re still exploiting them and you’re still telling their story.
“Do these friendships and real relationships get in the way of you doing your job?” I asked. “It seems these emotional entanglements would make it hard to be an unbiased observer.”
“I [engage] as much as I can,” he said. “People always say, ‘there’s a line in the sand between subject and director,’ but I walk all over that line. There’s more hours put in off camera than on camera. That’s how you get people to open up. I share things about myself—anything they want to talk about—my family, what I’m going through…. There’s this lie in the documentary community that we’re just there observing things and everything just kind of unravels. You’re not a documentary director if you’re not in there directing and saying, ‘hey, why don’t you go to lunch with your mom?’” Meaning that a director must push the action forward in order to capture meaningful moments and progress a narrative.
“Do you ever get involved in people’s lives in a more impactful way for the benefit of the film?”
“Sure! [A character in Night School] had talked to me about how his criminal record was getting in the way of finding a job. I saw [a flier for aid in getting your record expunged] and said to him, ‘is this something you’d be interested in?’ And he said, ‘yeah.’ That became a big storyline in the film, and if I hadn’t nudged him, it wouldn’t have happened. You have to push your characters to do things, otherwise they’ll just go home and watch TV. You have to manufacture some magic…. [Another character in Night School] was extremely close to graduating but was having a hard time with algebra. A friend of mine offered to tutor her and she ended up graduating. It was great for the movie and great for her.”
“If you push someone towards an action and it ends up badly for them, does that make you ethically culpable?”
“I don’t really go by a code of ethics,” he said, chuckling. “I’m joking, but [nothing bad ever did happen]. I’d like to think I wouldn’t push someone to do something that would go against my moral fiber. I’m less interested in outcome. Whether [the Night School character] gets his record expunged or not, I’m more interested in who he is. In storytelling, we understand characters by the choices they make, but we have to have a road for him to go down that shows me who he is.”
“The male character you mentioned from Night School who is trying to get his record expunged—there’s a scene in the hospital, after his brother’s been shot, where he’s ranting about tracking the shooter down to get revenge. Do you worry about being a legal accessory in a moment like that if he had actually gone on a killing spree?”
“[Not really]. There’s a moment like that in Medora, where there’s a bunch of high school kids drinking and you’re kind of like, ‘am I participating in something illegal?’ But, whatever, it’d be happening if I was here or not. The fact that I have a camera has nothing to do with anything. I might tell [that character] off camera, ‘hey, not sure going seeking revenge is a smart thing to do’…. I’d never [try to convince] him to go get revenge for his brother because it’d be good for the film.”
“With all of this ‘directing,’ do you feel you are taking some of the truth and reality out of a documentary?”
“Films are only as honest as the filmmakers who make them. Do the characters in the film think it’s honest? That’s the main thing…. You have to make something that feels honest. There’s no such thing as ‘truth’ in documentary. The second I pick up a camera and decide what to point it at, it’s my version of the truth. What I’m looking for is emotional honesty.”