Nick Broomfield: “She very much reminded me of Margaret Thatcher”

The documentary maker on Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and sex in Bedford.

After your last two projects, the drama films Ghosts and Battle for Haditha, what inspired you to return to your old style?

I’ve worked with lots of different styles. I did a couple of low-budget features using real people to act as themselves and I had embarked on a feature, The Catastrophist, using actors, and there was this endless process of getting it off the ground, so I thought it would be good to recharge my batteries and go back to my roots. Plus there were other things. There’s always an interaction between the personal and the work. My father had just died and was anxious to go and do something on the spur of the moment. The thought of going off to Alaska was actually rather appealing at that time.

Many of your subject seem to see themselves as victims, even when they’re not. Is that fair?

I think that’s true. [Palin] very much reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who in her later years would only allow herself to be interviewed by designated interviewers. Sarah Palin was exactly like that. She only would be interviewed by Fox News. I think the paranoia you’re talking about comes with power. It’s somebody with an absolute philosophy who isn’t interested in people who disagree with them. None of them were interested in democracy and open discussion, or a belief that several brains looking at a problem will come up with a solution better than your own. They’re all very reluctant to embrace criticism and regard it as a destructive thing.

How big a role do you think Palin’s parents play in her life?

I think she’s incredibly close to her parents. Her father was her science teacher and track coach. Apparently as well as being somebody who was rightfully very popular as a teacher – he had all these mammoths and dead animals – he was incredibly brutal to people. I don’t think Sarah was a natural athlete and she was always trying to get his respect and approval. Basically, nothing was ever good enough. It’s interesting she married Todd, who was the best basketball player, the one star they had. She was always devoted more than anything else to impressing her father and having him on board, and he’s somebody who absolutely sees the world in black and white tones: you’re either with him or you’re against him.

Why are those who loved her so reluctant to embrace Mitt Romney?

Well, firstly he’s a Mormon. He’s not a fundamentalist Christian. He doesn’t embody all those fundamentalist positions. He’s changed his position on abortion, which is a fundamental thing for them. He’s changed his position on things like health care, so I think he’s basically toadying to the extreme right because he knows he needs their support to carry the Republican party in the election. But no one really believes that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist in the way Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann are. I think Romney is regarded as an outsider.

I see she has a TV show now.

She’s been under contract with Fox for some time. I think Murdoch regarded her as a rising star and believed in a lot of the stuff she was saying. Believed in her populism. That she was a great demagogue and had a loyal following. Maybe believed mistakenly that she was going to be vice-president and that his empire would benefit from her philosophy...

How many of you were there working on the film?

In Alaska there was a researcher who was looking at archives, contacting people and making phone calls, then somebody doing all the technical side of things – film making has become more and more technical: downloading footage, coming along on shoots, keeping everything going – and then Joan Churchill was the camerawoman and I was doing sound. So there was basically four of us. In post-production we probably had another three researchers. The Sarah Palin film was a frustrating film and it was very hard to get footage for stuff. It required more people than normal.

Do you think people have started to distrust you?

I think certain people do. I guess Sarah Palin obviously did. I think when I was doing things like Aileen or Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, everything was fine, but I think probably right-wing politicians and those kinds of people do distrust me. And of course everything has got more difficult with the internet. You can find out what somebody’s done and how they’re perceived.

What are you up to now?

I’m just finishing an undercover film I did with the same journalist who I worked with on Ghosts, Hsiao-Hung Pai. She did a stint as a housemaid in a Chinese brothel in Bedford. Based on those studies we did another undercover film which is called Sex in Bedford and should be out some time in the new year.

Did you manage a cameo?

I did actually visit once, but no, I didn’t make a guest appearance as an evening customer.

"Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" and the "Nick Broomfield Documentary Collection" are available now on DVD from Universal Pictures (UK).

Nick Broomfield. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear