DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER PAUL STEKLER was the unlikely darling of the local media at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Faced with a shortage of homegrown filmmakers at the January event, Utah journalists covering Stekler’s new documentary, George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, eagerly played up his five-month stay in nearby Alta twenty years ago.
At the time, Stekler was driving cross-country with his girlfriend, Cassie Levitt, and they stopped in the small ski town, where her family owned the Alta Lodge. Toward the end of their visit, Levitt’s father, who was also Alta’s mayor, offered him the job of town marshal. “They needed an Andy Griffith type, a wise person who could talk people out of their … whatever,” says Stekler, laughing.
Although he says he liked the idea of wearing a badge, he chose academia and filmmaking instead. The Wallace film has been generating buzz since winning the Special Jury Prize for Writing for Documentary at Sundance. The 47-year-old Stekler produced and directed it in partnership with filmmaker Daniel McCabe and co-wrote it with McCabe and writer Steve Fayer, who are both based in Boston. It had its regional premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival in March, and on April 23 and 24 it will be broadcast in two parts on PBS’s The American Experience.
Since 1996 Stekler has headed the production program in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, where his dream is to raise between $15 million and $20 million to create the Texas Center for Documentary. The center could enhance UT’s profile as one of the country’s top film schools and, according to department chairman Thomas Schatz, distinguish the RTF program from its competitors’, which concentrate almost exclusively on narrative fiction filmmaking. Unofficially, the Wallace documentary serves as the center’s showpiece, and the response it generates could determine the center’s — and Stekler’s — future.
The eldest of four children, Stekler was born in Philadelphia and spent most of his life on the East Coast. He has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard and taught political science for five years as an assistant professor at Tulane University in the eighties. Stekler cut his teeth as a filmmaker on the 1990 civil rights series Eyes on the Prize II, and his four-hour documentary Vote for Me: Politics in America won a George Foster Peabody Award in 1997. He moved to Austin from New York City partly to escape his successful but stressful life as an independent filmmaker.
Stekler exudes a confidence that occasionally borders on self-importance. But when he’s feeling especially optimistic, he can be quite charming. “He has no fear,” says McCabe of Stekler’s approach to filmmaking. But the cliquishness of Sundance can breed insecurity. Black clothing and cell phones are ubiquitous. Stekler had neither. He was dressed to brave the elements in a button-down shirt, a navy pullover, and a kelly green ski jacket. And when he leased a cell phone for the festival, it didn’t work. Stekler’s frustration was exacerbated by the general nervous tension that hung over the festival like dense smog. Grizzled veterans knew the locations and passwords for the cool, celebrity-studded parties, but Stekler wasn’t privy to this information. These soirees, of course, are not to be confused with the boring “official” parties that are open to anyone with a festival badge. One night during dinner Stekler joked that his badge wouldn’t get him past the restroom.
At the documentary’s first public Sundance screening, however, there was no trace of insecurity as Stekler prepared to address the audience, despite the fact that he and McCabe were exhausted. They had finished the film only hours before the festival.
Stekler’s authoritative voice calmed the restless audience that had assembled for the nine o’clock Sunday night screening — a time slot that couldn’t have been worse for a film that comes in at just under three hours. Stekler delivered some witty introductory remarks about the documentary’s fifteen-year odyssey. Then the more reserved McCabe quipped, “This film needs no introduction.”
The lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled. Suddenly, the screen was filled with an unsettling close-up of Wallace’s face, recorded less than a year before his death in 1998. His skin is covered with liver spots, and his eyes are milky with age. He puffs slowly on a cigar, and the smoke drifts lazily toward his eyes, which gaze away from the camera. Even in old age, Wallace’s face retains much of the hardness so familiar from news footage and photographs of the sixties civil rights struggle. He still looks as defiant as he did when he blocked the door at the University of Alabama. This initial image calls forth all the complicated feelings viewers may have about Wallace, and it works brilliantly.
The film combines nuanced political commentary with a surprisingly poignant personal biography of Wallace. “The man we think we know is a stereotypical evil character,” says Mark Samels, a senior producer for The American Experience. “The man that this film is about is a much more complex, more interesting and important figure in American history.”
Stekler credits McCabe, whose previous work includes two episodes of the PBS series Rock & Roll and The American Experience biography Nixon: The Fall, with the difficult job of humanizing their subject. “I come at this through politics,” he says. “I think Dan was more interested in the personalities.” Broadcast journalist and UT alum Bill Moyers, who has known Stekler since 1993, says of Settin’ the Woods on Fire: “I see something in it that I didn’t see in his other work. Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics [an award-winning 1991 documentary about the state’s unique political history] had a certain on-the-surface vitality. So did Vote for Me. But what he’s done with this film is to take it to far deeper levels. He’s placed the decisive moments — the turning points in Wallace’s life — in a narrative that gives those moments the connected feeling of a novel.”
Stekler sees Wallace