A film by Sam Green and Bill Siegel
Interview with documentary filmmaker, Sam Green
by Alexander Laurence
showing at Film Forum on June 4th, 2003
"Hello, I'm going to read a declaration of a state
of war... within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol
or institution of American injustice."
-- Bernardine Dohrn
Thirty years ago a group of American radicals announced
their intention to overthrow the U.S. government. In THE
WEATHER UNDERGROUND, former members, including Bernardine
Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert and Brian Flanagan,
speak publicly about the idealistic passion that drove them
to "bring the war home." Outraged over racism
and the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground bombed targets
across the country that they considered emblematic. The
group's carefully organized clandestine network managed
to successfully evade one of the largest manhunts in FBI
Sam Green and Bill Siegel spent four year uncovering the
mystery. Extensive archival material, including photographs,
film footage and FBI documents are interwoven with modern-day
interviews to trace their path, from the pitched battles
with police on Chicago's streets, to its bombing of the
U.S. Capitol, to its successful endeavor breaking acid-guru
Timothy Leary out of prison. The film explores the Weathermen
in the context of other social movements of the time and
features interviews with former members of the Students
for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers. It
also examines the U.S. government's suppression of dissent
in the 1960s and 1970s. Looking back at their years underground,
the former members paint a compelling portrait of troubled
times, revolutionary times, and the forces that drove their
This film has won numerous awards already including ones
at Sundance and SXSW. I saw The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (1997)
by Sam Green at the NY Underground Film Festival. After
that, he completed a short called Pie Fight '69 (2000).
The Weather Underground will be playing at Film Forum and
across the country starting June 4th, 2003. I spoke recently
to Sam Green at his home in San Francisco.
AL: When did you first
show this film?
Sam: It premiered at Sundance in January 2003.
AL: When did you get the idea to do a film about the Weather
Sam: I got the idea about four years ago. It's hard to
remember what thing were like in the late 1990s. Things
have really changed in the past two years. Back then it
was a really silly time. The story of these crazy kids who
tried to overthrow the government had always resonated with
me. I liked it. It came from my initial fascination with
that. I had always known who they were. But then, I met
someone in the Bay Area who part of the Weather Underground.
I never thought that most of them would still be around
and lead fairly normal lives. I spoke to this member about
it and asked him a bunch of questions. For me it was always
AL: Were you always thinking about doing a film?
Sam: It was bubbling inside my head. I was trying to get
someone else to do it. It was such a big project. I was
trying to get my friend Mary to do it. I thought that she
would do it and I would help her. I met this guy. I felt
like someone has to do it. I'll do it!
AL: How did Pie Fight '69 fit in?
Sam: That came out
of this project. I was at this photo archives place in New
York, and I was doing research for The Weather Underground,
and I saw this amazing photo. It was a picture of a woman
in a tutu throwing a pie. It said "San Francisco Film
Festival: Opening Night 1969." I stumbled across it.
It seemed so funny, crazy, and weird. I got sidetracked
on that. A film festival back then was this big gala event
with red carpets and tuxedoes. At that event, there were
all these angry hippies. There was a huge cultural divide
between them. That showed at Sundance too.
AL: You used all this available footage.
Sam: Yeah. They shot all this footage of the pie fight.
They had six different 16 mm cameras on the roof and across
the street. They didn't have the follow through. They never
really made a film out of it and showed it to people. The
footage was lost for many years. Nobody knew where it was.
My friend, Bill Daniels, found the film in a box in a basement
at ATA. I was looking for it for a few years. Bill Daniels
is like the Johnny Appleseed of underground culture. It
was so good.
AL: Your other film, The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, dealt with
a person with some right wing views. It's weird that you
did two other films about radicals.
Sam: The Rainbow Man is political but not in an explicit
way. To me, the story is a subtle critique of the media
and what it does to people emotionally. Even though he was
a crazy right wing Christian himself, the story is a critique
of consumer culture. The other movies are more explicit.
AL: Those other people were interesting because they were
the first TV generation.
Sam: They were all into some good movies. I was interested
in what movies they were watching and which movies influenced
them. That generation was also influenced by early TV and
the movies of their day. They listed Bonnie and Clyde and
Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid as some of their favorite
AL: Were all the people in the Weather Underground from
upper middle class backgrounds and did they all go to college?
Sam: Some of them were rich kids. They are went to college.
They weren't working class people. It's true that project
would be something that only kids in their early twenties
would entertain. Once you get older, you have less stomach
for overthrowing the government. Most of them did no jail
time. Most of them turned themselves in by the end of the
1970s. The FBI had broken the law so much in trying to find
them. All this dirt came out about the FBI. All these changes
against them were dropped. They just resurfaced and moved
on with their lives. It was clear that they had taken part
in the bombings. It was a different time. People wanted
to leave this all behind.
AL: What was it like talking with them now?
Sam: I was surprised. I thought people would be cynical
and disillusioned. The revolution obviously never happened.
They are all still hopeful and idealistic. They are more
realistic and older now. They don't have all the answers
anymore. At that time people felt like they knew exactly
what they had to do to overthrow the government. Nobody
has that sense of power anymore. But they all hopeful and
I think that is cool.
AL: How many people were involved with the Weather Underground?
Sam: It started off with a few hundred. By the end, there
were thirty or forty. All the time there were hundreds of
people who helped them. You can't stay one step ahead of
the FBI without having a lot of help. It is known who most
of the people involved were. It wasn't a card carrying organization.
There are the people who everyone knows about. But there
are several hundred people who did stuff or helped out that
nobody knows about. It could be your neighbor.
AL: I know about this author in LA who says that he was
involved in the Weather Underground or something like it.
As far as idealism and young people making an impact or
rebelling: I think his view is there no hope with young
Sam: It's definitely harder to rebel. Back then youth culture
was new and it was oppositional. It was truly a counterculture
and it wasn't part of the entertainment industry. It became
part of it very quickly afterwards. The original inspiration
for it was radical. It harder now to find the space to do
that when marketing has become so sophisticated. It can
still happen, I think. There will always be undergrounds
and hardcore scenes. The animal rights scene is pretty crazy.
Even some of the electronic music scene is still very underground.
There will always be a good creative rebellious spirit somewhere.
AL: When Bonnie and Clyde came out, people under 21 loved
it. Older people and older guys at the studio were wondering
why young people thought it was so great.
Sam: Maybe something similar will happen now that it's
the baby boomers and their kids? Maybe somehow their kids
will turn on them? They are good at marketing rebellious
ideas to their kids, so maybe it won't happen. I like our
generation: it's in-between, forgotten, cynical, lacking
self-esteem generation. I am happy growing up in that time.
AL: How did you start making the Weather Underground film?
Sam: It was a hard movie to do. I worked with Bill Siegel
who lives in Chicago. It was a hard movie because it was
about a group of people who were underground for ten years
and never photographed during that time. It's a crazy idea
for a documentary because you have nothing visual to work
with. That was a struggle. Since it was a 90 minute film
you have to pace it and use a narrative like a dramatic
film. With a short film it's easy. With a ten minute film,
as long as it moves, it's fine. It takes a lot of editing.
AL: Did you have some outside help?
Sam: Caveh Zahedi was a great help. He's a great independent
filmmaker who lives in the Bay Area. He has done narrative
films. He did a documentary called "I Don't Hate Las
Vegas Anymore." Caveh is really good at structure.
He is a great person to watch something and to give you
feedback. He is very smart about drama. With help like that,
this film was more possible.
AL: People are familiar with documentary filmmakers like
Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield. They always inject themselves
into the story for comic effect. How do you feel about that?
Sam: It's cool for them. I love both their movies. They
are both great characters, especially Nick Broomfield. His
shtick with Heidi Fliess is a good example. By the end of
the film, the three main characters hate his guts. When
he interviews Suge Knight, it is so good. It works for them.
I am a shy person. I don't want to part of the movie. Especially
in a story like this: that would be ridiculous to have a
first person narrator.
AL: How did you decide what to shoot?
Sam: We talked to a lot of different people. Out of talking
with them we picked out ones we thought would be good to
interview. We did some sit down interviews. But we tried
to take them to the actual places, and try to remember stuff.
That is a way better way to interview people than just sitting
down. When the Weather Underground went underground, they
lived in houseboats in Sausalito. North of San Francisco
there were all these houseboats in Sausalito. Now it's a
fancy little town, but then it was a poor squatter place.
We went there with Bernadine Dohrn. She was the leader of
the group. When we go to those actual places people tend
to remember things much better and it's more poignant for
AL: What surprised you about these people?
Sam: They got to a point where they all thought that were
not going to live through this. They laid it all on the
line. It was surprising to these people now and find out
that they are not these crazy whacked out terrorists or
fanatics. Most of them are these smart and compelling people.
That was inspiring to make to movie. The difference between
the history you read in books and the reality is so striking.
The reality is so much more complex than we can ever realize.
Even the Black Panthers were scornful of the Weather Underground.
They thought they were crazy.
AL: None of the could
ever see themselves as being older than 30.
Sam: That's beautiful. That's youth. Youth is so amazingly
creative and destructive. They were impatient and unable
to see the big picture. The world would be a horrible place
without that impulse. It's inevitable that it is something
that goes away. Hopefully there will always be young people
to express those things. It's good for the world. I made
this film with young people in mind. It raises some political
questions that I hope they are still interested in now.
AL: It will be showing in different places?
Sam: It will be showing at The Castro in San Francisco
for a few weeks and in Chicago at The Music Box. It will
go to a lot of different cities. It will be an art house
release. But I would like to show it in Orange County at
the VFW hall. I would like to show it somewhere where someone
says "This is an outrage."
AL: Terrorism has a new meaning now. There are all these
warnings. We have been attacked a few times now. Now they
just picked up this guy who bombed a Planned Parenthood
building. People don't realize that this sort of stuff has
been going on for a while, and there have been several bombing
in this country.
Sam: Many people who cause violence in America don't stand
for anything. The Weather Underground did articulate and
embody certain cultural forces and ideas. So they are more
significant than a sniper or anti-abortionist. The Vietnam
War was scaled back because of protests and because this
country was in such chaos. Young people were bombing places
here in this country. You can't maintain a country with
that sort of anarchy happening. People in the government
were obviously paying attention. It's hard to say though
if they changed the course of the war. The war went on for
a long time. It's hard to say what the effect of the Weather
Underground is. Thirty years later, we have this documentary
about the group, and who knows what will happen from that.
Ideas bubble up fifty years later. They didn't start a revolution,
but the last pages haven't been written.
Film Forum Website: http://www.filmforum.com/films/weather.html
The Weather Underground
2003 Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Competition
2003 South by Southwest Film Festival
2003 Philadelphia Film Festival
2003 San Francisco Film Festival Golden Gate Award, Best