HBO: When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

When Spike Lee went to HBO in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina to seek funding for what would become “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” the cable network was immediately interested. The two had worked together previously on the 1998 documentary “4 Little Girls” and the 2002 biography “Jim Brown: All-American.” But documentary unit president Sheila Nevins wanted a music-oriented film, according to the film’s producer and supervising editor Sam Pollard.
The idea, Mr. Pollard said, was to put eight musical groups in different places made notorious by the storm, whether the Superdome or the French Quarter, and use musical interludes as a thematic link. “Spike said yes because he wanted to get the money,” and then proceeded to make the film his own way, Mr. Pollard said, adding, “I don’t think we ever told her” that the film’s composer, jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” in front of his devastated family home in the Ninth Ward, was going to be the one musical element that survived from the original vision. “I think she looked at the cut and realized it.”
There is plenty of music in the film, however, and the film’s 100 witnesses became their own music. “Lee orchestrates a multivoiced blues for the common man,” Troy Patterson wrote in Slate; he also called the film a “monument of oral history.” The Peabody judges deemed it “an epic chronicle of destruction and broken promises, a heartrending document and a profound work of art.”
Produced by HBO Documentary Films in association with Mr. Lee’s 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, “When the Levees Broke” went into production almost immediately after the storm hit New Orleans at the end of August 2005. By October, Mr. Lee was interviewing displaced survivors in New York; by early November, Mr. Pollard and others made their first research trip to New Orleans, identifying witnesses, from average citizens to officials and journalists. Mr. Lee made the first of eight trips to the city around Thanksgiving, shooting the interviews on film.
Told without narration, the challenge wasn’t finding the voices to tell the story but combing through more than 500 interviews, 200 hours of archival footage and 400 still pictures, in five and a half months, in order to get the film ready for airing on the one-year anniversary, Mr. Pollard said. Mr. Lee had so much material that HBO along the way agreed to double the running time to four hours, from the original two. The original $1 million budget was doubled as well.
Mr. Pollard said he marked up transcripts for usable material as they came in, with an eye for what was “powerful, emotional and dramatic.” Some stories he wanted to tell in full, only to conclude that they went on too long (some of the cut material ended up on the subsequent DVD). “It’s always tough decisions. You’ve got to be rigorous with yourself,” he said.


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