Hannah Eaves: Do you think that coming out of a country with a television service like
the BBC, being used to informational programming in a long format, helped you in
your current work?
Adam Curtis: Yes. I grew up in the late 80s watching all that current affairs and news
stuff and thinking it was so boring. I mean, really boring. Yet at the same time, I was
convinced that power in my society, the power in our societies, moves not just through
politics, it goes through science, it goes through public relations, it goes through
psychology, it goes through everything and that we should be telling stories about this.
And no one was. So, yes, I came out of that tradition. But I realized that you could tell
stories which are basically political but are also about areas that are a part of people's
lives, which they don't look at that way - rather than doing long, dull interviews with
politicians. I mean, I hardly interview politicians because they're boring. And you know
what they're going to say. They're not unpredictable.
Do you come up with your thesis first, before you find the stories?
No. I find the stories. I mean, you could argue that I started this one because I was
interested in conservative theories about society, which is really what this is about, but
you'd never know that. Ultimately, I found this story about this guy Sayyid Qutb and I
just thought it was a great story. If I like it, I assume that everyone else will be
fascinated. Because I knew nothing about him. I mean, don't you find it astonishing that
neither television here, nor in my country, has done a proper history of Islamism? The
movement that actually led to the planes being flown into the buildings on September
the 11th. I mean, I've done sort of a quirky essay that uses that, but no one's done a
proper six-part series. It's just astonishing. I still don't understand. Surely your job as a
television maker, even at boring old PBS, is to inform people.
Jonathan Marlow: You use an exceptional amount of "found footage" in your films. By
Pandora's Box, that style is pretty well established. How did you decide to approach
your footage in this way? Early on, from a journalistic standpoint, were you always
intending to discuss issues with your own narration and with images that occasionally
work in conflict?
Well, to be honest, out of desperation. Pandora's Box is actually when I started doing it
because I'd sold this idea of doing a whole series about politics and science and what
the political ideas were behind the scientific ideas of the last thirty or forty years, and
really, they're very difficult to illustrate. I mean, I was really desperate. There was one
thing I made about the RAND Corporation and it was just a disaster until I suddenly
realized you just throw anything in you like. It is out of desperation. And providing
your writing is strong - the words are terribly important. Then the pictures, if you like
them, other people like them. You put in jokes; there were people I had interviewed
there that were really boring. I won't say who, but actually I discovered that if you put
in images that weren't actually illustrating what they said, but made fun of them a bit,
not in a nasty way, but played with them as you would if you were a novelist, you
have a sort of counterpoint that points out their character. It sort of works. But it was
out desperation late at night in the cutting room.
Eaves: Where do you draw your archive material from? The BBC archive?
The great resource is the BBC archive. It goes back sixty years. There is a vast
warehouse near Heathrow airport which is the grimmest place ever, but it's just got this
amazing resource of images. For a lot of the news footage from the 1970s through to
the early 90s, they've got all of the little clips that they ran into the studio. So you'll
have a Beta tape which will last two or three weeks and I just sit there, playing it here
and I've got a recording deck there and any image I like I just record and log and so
when I then get desperate in the cutting room, I think, oh, yes, there was that shot of a
mountain with a grey sky behind, that was rather beautiful, I could put that in there. It's
out of desperation. And also because I don't like film crews. Film crews are really
boring, they're dull; they believe that pictures are more important than words and they
always want to go to restaurants and get fed. Actually, if they've done all the work for
you and it looks better, then why not just steal it? It's cheaper. And then you can just
do anything you want.
Marlow: You're quite adept at using music cues in very unusual ways.
My great inspiration here is John Carpenter. The audio actually has so many soundtracks
thrown in, just little bits of things. I tape bits of noise and shave bits off them and turn
them around. The other reason that I love this is, in the early 90s, nonlinear editing
systems came in and as they've gotten better and better I just took to them like a duck
to water. The stuff now is just wonderful. I mean you put pictures in and literally you
pull it and you stretch it like that and it's just... Sorry, we're getting off the point.
No, it is the point. You're taking the notion of what a documentary is and you're...
But you see, I don't think I make documentaries. I'm going to go on about this. I'm a
journalist. I'm a modern journalist. I use pictures imaginatively to argue a piece of
journalism essay-making. Documentaries are for people who make achingly plangent films
with no commentary about graves in Bosnia. There's a wonderful place for those in
television and in cinema but I do something else. I tell people about the world and I
use my voice and I tell them what I think and I show pictures that I like. Also, the
other thing I do is, I use the pictures to disguise the fact that I make great jumps. I
often get asked, "Oh, why don't you write a book?" You can't, because actually, if you
take all the pictures away, it would be rather sort of, not mundane, but... In a way, the
pictures have a sense of disassociation. They stop people thinking, "Oh he's trying to
Agit-Prop us." Instead, I'm having fun with this argument. I show quite clearly in the
way I use pictures that this is an argument. I don't pretend that this is the voice of
God, that this is an authorial thing. What I'm saying is, look, the world is very
complicated and this is my argument, based on an assembly of facts which are not
untrue, but this is my argument, and the way I use pictures shows that and it's almost
like they know what they're going to get and they can argue with it. People love it.
They know it's not true - no, I mustn't say that, but you're right, it gives a sort of
distance to it, but also it's enjoyable.
Eaves: Don't you think though that if you did show The Power of Nightmares here on
television, people would hear your British accent and assume that it is the impartial
BBC voice of authority and fact?
I think that's quite a good question. I don't know how my voice would come over. In
Britain, my voice doesn't come over as authorial. It's slightly playful. It's quite soft. It's
emotional and I twist and turn. The traditional voice of the BBC is deeper and has more
gravitas. I talk fast and the films are a bit like that. It's a bit like meeting someone at a
party who's a bit obsessed about something. And you're quite interested, but at the
same time, you think, hang on, do I want to get away from this or not? You know what
you're getting. But I don't know whether it would be seen like that in this country. If, in
fact, just being a British voice, like, they all sound alike, don't they? You know what I
mean? Would just confuse the matter.
Marlow: Could you tell us a little bit about the difficulty you're having getting your
films seen in the U.S., theatrically or on television?
What I'm more interested in is getting them on television. I'm in television because it's a
powerful medium. Filmmaking's all very well, but really, you go out to a captive audience
of liberals who basically sit there and nod and say, "Hmm, yes, that's very nice." The
point about television is that it still has a wide demographic and I would love it to be
on American television.
I don't know how it would work here, but at the BBC, I argued that, although these films
are critical, you wouldn't know quite what my politics were. And actually, I keep my
politics perfectly out of this. This is a very interesting area and I think that TV in my
country is beginning to adapt to this. I don't know whether your television is; I think
it's much more timid. It's really a simple question. Why can't television stations have
Op-Ed pages? It's as simple as that. Why not? It's not like it's a polemic - I'm writing a
critical piece. And you can't quite tell where it's coming from because it's factually
based, but it is critical. What's wrong with that? There seems to be this thing in this
country where they would want, within the same program, to have someone saying,
"Well, Al Qaeda, as an organization, does exist." Which is stupid.
In this series, The Power of Nightmares, I am critical of the neoconservatives, I'm critical
of the Islamists, I'm critical of the ways politicians from different parties have chosen to
use the fear that emerged out of these actions. You couldn't tell what I actually think.
My personal politics have nothing to do with this. I'm just grumpy because I can't
understand why, for example, my own organization has reported things like these sleeper
cells in the way they have. I can't understand it, they're so sloppy. They get it wrong. I
have just been sitting in a trial about a so-called sleeper cell in my country and the jury
quite rightly dismissed the charges against eight of the people and convicted one guy
of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance because he was a nasty horrible Islamist who
had downloaded some recipes from the Internet - from an American Supremacist site,
interestingly - and tried to make the poisons.
The poisons were so pathetic that they couldn't even kill the mice they were tested on in
the laboratory. The jury quite rightly said this is rubbish, got rid of the other cases and
charged this man. He was a nasty horrible man - he'd also stabbed a policeman. Nasty.
My own organization reported it as a perverse jury decision and said that the
authorities had stopped a terror plot that, if it had happened would have had, quote,
"consequences greater than 9/11." It was just rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I don't get it.
That's what I'm grumpy about. There's no politics in this.
The trial was reported, then three days later, I was at the British Academy Awards. I got
the award for the best factual series. I was sitting there listening to everyone go up,
thank people, thanking this and thanking that, and I get so bored with that, so I finally
get this award, I go up and make a speech criticizing the media for the reporting of the
ricin trial saying that, as I show in my film, there is still this problem, let's hope that this
award changes this because I can tell you that the ricin trial has been badly reported,
including by my own organization. It was cut from the broadcast. By the BBC.
I mean, it's just weird. Actually, what I'm saying is, the thing that fuels these programs is
not a sympathy for a particular side or another, it's just a general grumpiness about the
way reality is being portrayed. And then on top of that, I'm trying to ask, well, why are
they obsessed with portraying this fantasy? So there are two levels in my films. There
is a factual story and then, on top of that, I try and say, hang on, why has this
happened? And I say, well, it could be this. I don't necessarily believe that's true, I'm
trying it out. And it's so weird, the way everything is being reported here and in my
country; there must be some reason behind it.
It's trying to get a handle on a secret history of the world?
It's trying to work out actually how reality does work. How fact and fiction mix together
and how that's then used by powerful organizations and why.
Tom, we were talking about your efforts to get Adam's work shown in the U.S. How did
you first come across Adam's films? Was it through Telluride?
Tom Luddy: Indirectly. When I was programming here [in San Francisco] in the past
and at Telluride, I never made any distinctions between work done for British
television and work done for the cinema. At Telluride, we had Alan Clarke for the first
time and gave an award to Dennis Potter and gave an Award to Anthony Wall and
we've had many others here. For me, they're all people who make things that look to
me like films, even though Mr. Curtis may disagree. To me, they're moving images
and sounds and I don't make any distinction.
A friend of mine told me about Century of the Self, and I happened to be almost the next
day with Stephen Frears, and I mentioned it to him, and he said, "Oh, it's Adam
Curtis. He's the best we have, you know. I'm in awe of him; it's not just that, there's
The Mayfair Set," and he babbled on, The Mayfair Set has the best ending of any
British film, it's a work of genius, the monopoly board sequence, and so, then I got
hold of Century of the Self and I didn't want to wait for Telluride, which was coming in
September, and I got it in here [SFIFF 2003]. Part Three is all about people in this
part of the world and I said, you know, it has to show in San Francisco first.
Marlow: Do you ever feel that it's not actually the politics that American stations
disagree with, but the fact that you actually tackle big ideas, and we're not well-known
for dealing with big ideas?
Curtis: I think there is a fear of doing ideas on television. And to be honest, if you look
at the mind of a television executive, it is quite well-founded. I know the archives at the
BBC. Programs about ideas are so boring because what you tend to have is, you have
a well-known personality. They do lots of shots of them striding around usually
different parts of the world and then they do illustrative bits in between and they're
really dull. What I do is find stories that I then use to illustrate the ideas. Because I
think people's stories are interesting. And I think that, if you could persuade television
executives that people might be interested because of the stories, they might change
their mind. They see there are ideas and they go, "No, you can't do that on TV." But
we were astonished with The Power of Nightmares. Audiences really are quite interested
in this, because, with this subject, you're touching on their own fears. All we're saying
in this series is, "Don't be so frightened. Get a grip. You do face a threat but it's not
this terrifying unique force that you've been told it is." And people quite like that.
Eaves: But don't you then transfer the fear? You then become more fearful about the
way you're being manipulated.
No, you become more empowered because you have been informed of the actual reality
behind the fantasy rhetoric that you are given. Actually, that gives you more strength.
The problem of our time is that people are increasingly atomized and individualized in
our society. "Individuated" is the posh word. And that removes them from the support
structures that officially have given them a sense of what the world is really about. The
church, trade unions, all sorts of things like that - and television has a great role to
play in doing that. What we're telling them is: "Don't be so frightened. It is a threat but
it's not going to overwhelm our society." I think that's a good thing for television to do
. Actually, the reaction to our series was that, yeah, we quite liked someone saying that.
And we thought, they really did feel it, and I'm sure people here have a bit of a
suspicion it isn't quite like we're being told it is.
Marlow: Taking The Mayfair Set, Century of the Self and now The Power of
Nightmares, are you diffusing the power of the powerful?
My job isn't to change the world, my job is to just lay it out. It's up to them how they
take it. I'm just trying to tell you how power does work in society. It doesn't work
simply through politicians in Washington or in Westminster, it works through all sorts
of big institutions, large beaurocracies, from science beaurocracies to businesses to
psychology, all these things, I'm just showing, here, look at how it does. It's up to you.
I'm critically showing it to you. I make fun of some of the people and their pretences
along the way but I don't think I'm sort of, like, diffusing power. Television just tells
you what's going on. Television doesn't change the world. It never has. Never will. It's
a reinforcing medium.
Luddy: Everyone seems to be saying that the BBC is dumbing down. Do you see
yourself as going against the grain?
You could argue that what I'm doing is adapting to an audience that is becoming more
assertive in wanting to be entertained, which is not a bad thing. Okay, I'm going to
entertain you, but I'm also going to put ideas in. In a sense, I am part of that dumbing
There's a very good dramatist who works for British television at the moment called Paul
Abbot. There's an old theory in television that you can't put too much in, you've got
the let the film breathe. We were agreeing that we just don't believe that. If you can't
keep up, then just fuck off. There should be a sort of confidence in what you do. We
think that confidence helps people come to us. It attracts people because old television
was so patronizing to people. It was like, you're so stupid, we've got to have a pause,
which I think comes over as patronizing to people who are newly empowered and more
confident these days. You can't hide it, your intentions as a filmmaker. I think what I do
comes off as, I'm interested in a subject. I'm over excited by it. I want to tell you about
it and I'm going to keep running about it until the end of the hour and you've just got
to keep up because I think it's quite exciting and if you don't, go away. People like that,
because it's genuine.
A number of the intellectuals within the British elite don't like what I do. They think I
cut too fast, more like a pop video. They put on that posh voice and say it's not a
measured discussion of the issues. Is television dumbing down? Television is dumbing
down basically for the same reasons I talk about in The Power of Nightmares. Many of
the people who make television programs have run out of ideas. They haven't got
anything more to say. So what they do is they entertain the masses by making reality
TV. It's as much their fault as it is the fault of the masses. They've run out of
confidence. They haven't got the faintest idea of what to do. They don't know what's
right or what's wrong any longer. It's partly what my programs are all about; it's the
failure of the elite to really have confidence any longer. That's true in television as it is
in politics and journalism.
Eaves: That comes through in The Mayfair Set, particularly the loss of confidence of
the politicians in England.
So that allows through a bunch of rapacious scalawags who come in and loot companies
and, out of that, the market then comes in. It really is about the failure of a generation.
That's the thing we're living through, we have lived through, the failure of a liberal elite
to realize their project. It didn't work.
You use a lot of interview subjects that are relatives of the people you're talking about.
That's because they can tell part of the story. They can bring characters alive. What I
don't interview are the traditional experts. I have some people who have written books
about it, because I think they are good. The tradition of my television and your
television is to have the expert who comes on and does a sound bite. Experts who do
sound bites are just so dull. You can see they worked it out ahead of time. So, mentally
you turn off. So I tend not to use that. Also, you know, the daughter of Edward
Bernays, who was incidently a complete monster, you sort of get a sense of that from
the way she talks. I never addressed it to her directly because it would have been cruel
and unthinking. But if you just let her talk, her slight anger about him comes over. But
you don't have to say that. You just let it hang there and then go on with the story.
One thing that comes through in The Mayfair Set, which I would argue is slightly
lacking in some of the more successful anti-corporate documentaries here, is the
eccentricity of the main capitalistic leaders; their real love for the art of making
money, money that they don't even need. It's a great game for some of these people,
and their personalities come through as characters.
I think it is wrong, even if you're being critical in your analysis, not to actually convey a
flavor, a sense of why these people do things. I mean, the neoconservatives do have an
epic vision of reestablishing the moral vision of the world. You want to get that over to
people. What I find difficult are those documentaries and writing that always portray
people as bad. People aren't simple and bad like that. The Mayfair Set people were a
complicated bunch thrown up by changes in our society that were going on, driven by
strange desires and feelings, and you want to get all of that over. And also because
having people like that brings the thing alive and if you bring it alive then people are
interested and then you can actually tell them ideas.
Marlow: There is a starting point for all of these pieces, and obviously, you're in some
starting point as you move into whatever will follow The Power of Nightmares. Have
you begun to flesh something out?
To be honest, I haven't found a story. I've got lots of theoretical areas but I'm just
waiting to find a story. I haven't found one yet. You know when you find it. When I
started on The Power of Nightmares, I was going to go and do a piece about Ayn
Rand, as Tom well knows. Her theories are the opposite of the neoconservatives and
the Islamists. She believes in total individualism and freedom. And originally, I was
going to do all three of them, but it was too complicated.
And you use yourself as a benchmark?
I think I'm quite normal. I think what I would like, other people would like. People like
stories, it's just a given fact. However much some filmmakers try to get away from it,
storytelling, even in it's most dislocated form, is what drives movies.
Luddy: You were going to have Ayn Rand going to the premiere of a movie at the same
That's the other thing about it; Sayyid Qutb is in Colorado in 1949, Leo Strauss is
arriving in Chicago, and Ayn Rand is at the premiere of The Fountainhead in Los
Angeles! I was going to start, like a novel, with those three things. Then I started
cutting the first film and it just was too complicated. You didn't know where you were.
Marlow: Could you talk a bit then about your use of 19th century literature as the
foundation for a structure and a style of your form of journalism?
Curtis: Well, I've always been fascinated by 19th century novelists because they are very
cinematic. They take a panorama of a society and they have characters moving through
it and they tell the story of the characters, but they also tell you something about
society at the same time. I am fascinated by the structure of television, because
television is episodic. You can have ten episodes or twelve, or you can have 25
episodes; you can criss and cross and make things work in a structure which, in a
one-off film, you can't necessarily do.
One of the things that I've done in this last series is, take two stories which most of the
time have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and I cut between the two much as
a novelist would. Someone like Balzac would do that because the audience knows,
trusts you, because they know that in the end they're heading together. There's a
trajectory and then they cross and then they go the other way and people like that.
And you can do that over a period of weeks, so I'm fascinated by that.
Audiences will buy a great deal of moving around, providing they have that sense of
anticipation. To go back to your point about ideas, you have to do that to have a
clothes horse on which you then hang the ideas. If you just have someone talking to
camera, it's very dull. But if you've got a driving narrative like in The Mayfair Set, you
know that James Goldsmith is going to die, and this is going to happen, that's going to
happen; because part of reading a plot is sort of knowing something might happen, you
work it out ahead of time.
I just think television is a really original medium which people haven't yet fully exploited
and discovered. I mean, we were talking earlier on about how so much really good
drama, from our British point of view, is being done on American television now. It's
really inventive. Some of the cutting and the structure. The structure of a series like
The Wire, even 24 - whatever you think about the ludicrousness of the plot, it uses
many of the avant-garde techniques of the filmmakers of the 60s. What I'm fascinated
by is not visuals, in a traditional cinematic sense, but structure and ideas. That you can
actually take the structure of a story or a structure of different groups of people, like
the Mayfair Set. I took four men who, well, they all knew each other, but they hung
around one gambling club in Mayfair for thirty years. I just followed their story, more
like a novel. That's what I mean. I suppose I'm more literary than cinematic in the way
that most critics in Britain would describe cinema which they think of as purely visual.
And it's a sad thing that's happened to cinema. It's lost that sense of the interplay
between visual and cinematic things and the great literary tradition. If you go back to
Luddy: Also, the BBC is very good at some of the literary adaptations. Andrew Davies's
work, for example.
Yes, and he does very audacious jumps in the structure which I really admire. Personally,
I think that people like me are pushing television towards what great novels were like in
the 19th century. It's the central thing in our life. You come home and you turn it on.
And you get drawn in. Even some reality programs have elements of novels about them.
Big Brother didn't work here, but Big Brother in my country, they edit each night to
tell a little story of that day. I mean, sometimes it's completely crap, but actually, again,
it's within the novelistic tradition. To go back to the questions that David [Thomson]
was asking me in the Q&A, the BBC comes as much from a literary journalistic tradition
as it does from a cinematic tradition, and when it mixes well, it's really good. And I
think things like The Wire on HBO also have that same sense.
I wanted to ask you about Robert Reich. Several times in Century of the Self, including
at the very end, he says as clearly and precisely as you could have wanted the thesis
that sums up what we've just seen, as if you had written it for him. Did it just come
out of his mouth like that?
I had never met him before. I came to see him in his house in Cambridge one rainy
morning. We had twenty minutes to sit him down. I told him what my film was about
and we just argued it through. And, in fact, actually he helped, because he's a good
teacher. It was like having a very quick tutorial. He shaped it down for me, and I told
him what I was up to. He's a very clever man. And anyway, he was absolutely right on
the nose. Because actually he agreed with what I was up to because he's had that
experience with the administration. Sharp man.
Eaves: He makes that point that, if these people only stand for what the pollsters tell
them to stand for, then what do they stand for?
Exactly. That's the problem with politicians at the moment. I often get asked, "You made
this mini-series that told us that Tony Blair is a creature of focus groups and then he
goes and invades Iraq; why did he do that?" There are various theories about it. I
suspect that actually he felt disempowered by the focus groups, that he was just a
creature of that, and here came an issue that would give purpose and meaning to a
politician like him and he went for it, but he did it on theory. He thought, "I, as a
politician, ought to have something grand to do so I'll go and do this war." But it didn't
quite work out the way he intended. It was an attempt to get back that sense of power
and authority. That sense that we know something that you don't. I think that's what it
is. I don't know, it's a mystery.
Luddy: I thought I found a clue to it in the first part of The Mayfair Set. When I
watched that, I said, "Well, we're in British territory here. This belongs to them in
their minds, and they're not going to let us go there without them being a part of it.
Actually, that's a very good point. One of Blair's advisors is a man called Robert Cooper
who has argued that what we need in a post-Cold War society is a new moral
imperialism, much as the British had towards the end of their empire. And Blair may well
have bought that for precisely that reason.
Eaves: Do you think that there's a lack of political imagination now? That things have
Yes. I think it's the sort of thing that people like me are dealing with. Politics has run out
of steam. As I say in this film, in an age of politics where no one believes in anything,
fear becomes the only thing to believe in. That's it. It's not a conspiracy. It's all we've
got left. A new form of politics will emerge. I suspect it won't come from the Left. I
suspect it will come from an area that we haven't yet thought of. Perhaps it will come
out of science. But I expect we're at the end of the old politics.