The Filmmaker Who Documented Gawker's Demise
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because both Sundance and Netflix bet on him.
By Libby Coleman
Most directors had wrapped, edited, polished and finalized their films when they arrived at Sundance this year. But not all. Some, like Brian Knappenberger, waited until the eleventh hour.
While most of Hollywood made their way to Park City, Utah, for the year’s grandest cinematic shebang, director Knappenberger’s team was adding a key piece to his documentary Nobody Speak — clips from President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the ubiquitous protests that followed. The editor carried two file cases with the final cut to the airport, picked them up in Utah and jumped into a two-wheel-drive car, during heavy snow, to deliver the film to Sundance. The film arrived the day before premiering. The new cut worked; Netflix bought Nobody Speak.
Timing and timeliness are everything for the 46-year-old filmmaker. Knappenberger catches issues early, before they’re fully baked into national discourse. He documented the rise of the hacktivist collective Anonymous in 2011 (released in 2012), years before Vice’s documentary on the group. He sold a documentary on Aaron Swartz, the boy genius programmer who committed suicide, in 2014, just a year after Swartz’s death. That film, which played in limited theaters, was shortlisted for the Oscars. When he’s not at festivals, Knappenberger steps off the silver screen and into the news cycle itself, making op-docs for The New York Times about threats to internet freedom, torture and the NSA. His themes are hot-button and establishment-challenging; Nobody Speak may qualify for the Oscars next year.
Nobody Speak covers freedom of the press, telling the story of 2016’s biggest media court case, the Gawker trial, in which Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) sued the media company over publishing his sex tape. Later, it was revealed that PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel had funded Hogan’s suit. Knappenberger combined bought footage from stringers who sat in the courtroom with intimate looks into the posttrial dramas of Nick Denton (Gawker’s creator) and A.J. Daulerio (Gawker’s former editor-in-chief). At times the film feels jam-packed and unedited, amassing various media sources like a scrapbook — but that effect adds to its urgency. Nobody Speak steps away from Bollea and Thiel eventually to showcase other threats to the freedom of the press, like the growing number of billionaire newspaper owners scooping up struggling papers. Trump’s election is the dark cherry atop all that Knappenberger had previously presaged.
Knappenberger is now free to respond to the zeitgeist mere breaths after it begins.
“I think it’s quite an early film in what will be a trend in filmmaking,” Charlie Phillips, head of documentaries at The Guardian, says — read: timely political docs casting their sharp gaze on the new POTUS. But Knappenberger also represents a trend in filmmaking habits and technologies. As cameras shrink and editing becomes a household skill, documentary budgets are lowering and films can be completed faster than ever. It’s an ideal era for someone like Knappenberger, who, five films into his career, is now free to respond to the zeitgeist mere breaths after it begins. The filmmaker chooses his project when he feels “an undertow,” he says. Something makes him mad and seems like it’s “not going to end well.” When he saw how much the suit awarded Bollea — $140 million — Knappenberger got that itchy feeling about the First Amendment and went to work.
Raised in the small Colorado town of Broomfield, population 60,000, Knappenberger grew up about 15 miles from a nuclear weapons production facility, the Rocky Flats Plant. That plant brought him to his first major contact with the documentary world. He learned about the potential dangers of living in such close proximity to a nuclear facility from a film called Dark Circle when he was still growing up. “Radiation is an abstract notion for kids. You can’t see it or feel it,” he says. That is, until a doc challenges you. It turned out his community was fine, he says. A state-sponsored study backs him up too: When asked about radiation dangers in the area, an official at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment pointed OZY to a study finding cancer rates in Rocky Flats to be on par with those in the rest of the Denver metro area.
Of course, Knappenberger wasn’t starved for information in his house. He comes from a highly educated family: His father was an IBM engineer, and mom taught second grade. His parents gifted him his first camera, a Pentax, before a road trip he took with his family around the U.S. His parents created a scavenger hunt for him to find the various lenses. His mom drove while his dad explained focal lengths to him. This began a camera-crazy phase that never quite ended. “It was etched into me,” he says. In three weeks, he learned the basics that set him up for the cinematography and camerawork that allowed him to break into the industry.
Sundance and Hollywood this year are obsessed with Trump. Meryl Streep chastised Trump over mocking a disabled person; POTUS shot back a tweet about “liberal movie people.” Ashton Kutcher decried the executive order banning travel from seven countries. A day after the film premiered, as if on cue, Stephen Bannon, chief strategist to President Trump, said the media should “keep its mouth shut.” Knappenberger had missed the quote in all the tumult of Sundance. His eyes brightened halfway through our interview when I received the news alert. Nobody Speak could still change before it launches on Netflix, he muses.