Tim Clancy heads up the Emmy-winning international documentary series, VICE HBO, which investigates pressing global stories, including things like Taliban-supported child suicide bombers, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the refugee trail in Europe from Syria. In short, Clancy leads the direction of some of the most intelligent international reporting produced to date.
What did you study documentary film? If not, how did it happen? I was actually an English and Theatre major in college, and I started making my own films around 19 years old, mainly because I was tired of performing Chekov for sleeping frat guys. By the time I moved to New York I was pursuing both narrative and documentary filmmaking, but after several years of driving actors to airports and getting network TV producers their coffee and bagels, I was losing steam and starting to question what I was doing here.
I demoted myself from Production Assistant to intern and did 3 months working for Morgan Spurlock, and he was such an honest and genuine person who really cares about his films. Working for him helped me realize that documentary filmmaking could be a very powerful and ultimately more rewarding medium (for me personally) to work in.
On the last day of my internship, one of his executives gave me a book of correspondence by Hunter Thompson called The Proud Highway where Thompson was roughly the same age I was and at a similar point of having zero success in his career. The Exec highlighted an excellent passage about how most people never choose a path and go hard for what they want in life, and by the time they decide to choose what they want, they’ve already run out of options and the choice is made for them.
Well, that scared the fuck out of me, and made me realize that when you have no connections in a city as big as New York, and you’re trying to find success in an industry as big as film and television, you need to make a MOVE, and you need a special skillset and a deep desire to be the best you can be at it doing it.
The next day, I decided I wanted to be a documentary film editor who focused solely on social issues, which set off a chain reaction that years later has led me to my current gig working as a Co-Executive Producer on my favorite show on TV.
VICE on HBO has focused on pressing, current events and crises around the globe. How do you select the subjects for each show, especially given that, of late, there seem to be an inordinate number of very fucked up (and therefore, unfortunately, suitable) subjects to investigate? My favorite thing about our show is that our guiding principle is that we never say no to a good idea, but “good” becomes a relative term when you work with talented people who consistently have great ideas, and sometimes the hardest thing on the show is choosing which stories we’re going to put the full effort of our team behind.
There are obviously many factors that go into it but we only get to make so many films, so I think a good guiding principle is, “If me telling you the truth of the situation in a bar somewhere doesn’t make your jaw hit the fucking floor, then we probably shouldn’t do it.”
Sometimes the eye-brow-raisers you end up with are a whole lot of fun (“Did you know you can work in China, on the books, as a phony erection doctor just because you’re a white guy?”) and sometimes those stories are dark as hell (“Hey, have you heard of Boko Haram? How about their Uncle ISIS?”). For as scary as the world can be, though, I’m actually extremely proud of how eclectic our current season is. We have a story on assisted suicide that will blow your mind and leave you stunned and quietly weeping one night, and the next week you’ll watch 100+ Ethiopians regain the gift of sight, and you’ll be crying tears of joy.
It’s a mixed bag, which often leaves you not knowing how to feel—just like the world.
Can you also talk about how and why VICE HBO began? What was the gap you (and the show) hoped to fill in documentary filmmaking when you began? As a raging “Lets Save The World” young filmmaker, I spent a lot of my 20’s freelancing at companies who gave my film pitches rejections like, “It’s amazing, BUT…there’s just no money in social documentaries.” Pitch after pitch, I was told that no one cared about child marriage, or social injustice, or poverty, but rather that the future was reality television, and people throwing drinks at each other. If that’s not a “Gap,” I mean what is?
The contrast at VICE has been insane—the absolute polar opposite—and I can honestly say that the driving force behind it starts at the very top with our company’s founder, Shane Smith.
What comes down from him is the core belief that human beings are inherently interested in knowing the truth, no matter how hard it is to swallow. That belief that people want to hear what everyone else says they don’t want to hear, is what drives not just our show but our entire company.
Basically, on Day One, it started with the will and conviction to tell the stories, and now each year I think we just get better and better at telling them. You travel to some crazy and dangerous places to make each episode. What do you do to a) stay safe and b) gain access to places and interviews? Is there a lot of figuring things out in real time with boots on the ground? How much is planned and lined up ahead of time?
My role on the show personally is more in the big picture and is rooted at home, so my mother sleeps well knowing that the farthest I travel for work is usually Los Angeles or Washington DC (although both are dangerous in their own ways).
Our field teams, however, are without question the most bold and daring people I’ve ever met in my life. When it comes to the access, half of their bravery is just having the courage to ask (their “Gets” include: captured ISIS fighters, active Boko Haram, and George W. Bush) but when it comes to the execution of some of the stories, I just can’t say enough about how truly fearless they are.
We do our best to try to know the storybeats before they head out and plan accordingly, but improvisation is inevitable, and when a rockstar like Gianna Toboni tells you she’s going to go play Indiana Jones and visit a site where real life Egyptian Tomb Raiders are digging illegally for ancient antiquities, you say, “Sounds Great!” in the board room, but you just can’t appreciate the bravery it takes to get that story until you see her climb down a 40 foot hole on a creaky hand-held rope that’s twice as old as she is.
These people are my heroes, and I want to collect all their trading cards.
You say your ultimate goal is to make the biggest issues around the world that affect real people as important to viewers as fictionalized drama. That is a big and awesome goal. What, in your opinion, will help you achieve that? What makes the best documentary filmmaking? One of my great hobbies in life is watching romantic comedies on airplanes, and maybe it’s the altitude or the cheap white wine, but I cry like a baby nearly every time—and romantic comedies are terrible. In the film world, they’re most formulaic of the formulaic, they’re the fakest of the fakes. Yet there’s still something real enough and something powerful enough to strike a chord, because the themes in even the worst of fictional movies still touches on real emotions, and real experiences.
So what’s more real than…real?
To me, good documentary should always annihilate even the best fiction because I’m sorry but Blue Valentine isn’t real, and even if he’s amazing and he’s charming as fuck, I’m pretty confident that Ryan Gosling is going to be better than fine when he wakes up tomorrow.
We have to do that “willing suspension of disbelief” for fiction, but we don’t have to for docs, and that should be the genre’s superpower, and an edge that always wins out.
A good documentary starts with a story that’s worth telling, and then captures reality without contaminating it and making it fiction (aka Reality TV). If you can find a good story and then take those real emotions and real experiences and place them into a story structure that’s digestible to the viewer and maybe even a little cinematic, then watching a good doc vs. watching good fiction is like having sex vs. watching pornography—one is a real, actual experience, and the other is a faked experience which happened on a fake set with fake people trying their best to make you feel real things. Well, which sounds better?
My personal feeling is that if a documentary on a subject isn’t better than a fictionalized piece on the subject, then the problem isn’t the documentary, it’s the person making it.
Outside of your Emmy (congratulations) what are you most proud of with your work (or which episode) on the show so far? What do you find most rewarding about your job? Shiny things are nice and I think we’ve made some great films this year (standouts to me are a film with President Obama on mass incarceration, Fixing The System, along with our Special Report, Fighting ISIS). But as proud as I am of our fourth season, more than any single episode or film we’ve done, I’m honestly most proud of the team I get to work with every day. This will read as bullshit, but I take more pride in being a part of our team’s growth over the past 4 years, and I feel most rewarded when I get to see the sum of our team’s accomplishments play on a screen in my living room every Friday night.
We’ve grown from a garage band of 15-20 ambitious 20-somethings and a handful of grey beards, to a team of roughly 100 people who are fearless and intelligent and the hardest working team of humans that I’ve met in my life. Working with all those personalities is simultaneously the most difficult and most rewarding aspect of my job, and something I know I’ll always miss when I finally move to South America and realize my lifelong dream of becoming a drunken fisherman who the local peoples refer to as, El Capitan.