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“Mike Wallace is Here” and Why Those Tough Questions Really Matter

Director Avi Belkin examines how Wallace’s work changed the standards of broadcast journalism, while unpacking the personal qualities that made him tick.

Profiling legendary reporter Mike Wallace, who interrogated the 20th century’s biggest figures during his more than 50 years on air—and the aggressive reporting style and showmanship that redefined what America came to expect from broadcasters—Mike Wallace is Here uses decades of footage from the 60 Minutes vault to explore what drove Wallace, whose career was entwined with the evolution of journalism.

“The idea for this film originated with a question: How did we get to the place broadcast journalism is at today?” says director Avi Belkin. “A crucial moment in the film is when Mike says ‘the first thing that totalitarians do is attack the free press.’ I wanted this film to show how the free press is imperative for a democracy, and how asking hard questions is the core of what journalism is about.”

The film is told exclusively through archival footage, tracing Wallace’s career on the air from his invention of the “tough question” in his 1950s interview show Night Beat to his news specials of the ’60s to his four decades on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Belkin examined how Wallace’s work changed the standards of broadcast journalism, while unpacking the personal qualities that made him tick.

Mike Wallace in “Mike Wallace is Here,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Belkin had unlimited access to CBS News’ archives for the making of the documentary, including never-before-seen raw materials and outtakes from 60 Minutes’ earliest days on the air. Drawing from that and other sources, including the University of Texas at Austin where Wallace’s early kinescopes are stored, he crafted the story of Wallace’s path from radio drama announcer to early TV actor-pitchman to hard-hitting journalist.

“I scoured thousands of hours of interviews and broadcast work,” Belkin explains. “That included raw footage of some of the greatest interviews ever conducted, shot beautifully on Super 16mm film… not just 60 Minutes, but also archives of old shows, commercials, early acting jobs, and interviews other people did with Mike. This was the first time 60 Minutes and CBS News have ever opened their archives completely to an outside filmmaker. I had my pick of over 50 years of unparalleled archival footage… it was a dream.”

Mike Wallace in Mike Wallace is Here, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Belkin’s aim was to create a dialogue with his subject: By collecting every instance where Wallace himself was interviewed, and coupling his answers with his interrogations of others, Belkin created a structure for the film inspired by Wallace’s style—”This film interviews Mike while he’s interviewing others,” says Belkin. “We got a ‘Mike Wallace interview’ using Mike’s own tools.”

To create that meta-interview of Wallace, Belkin watching hundreds of hours of footage and pored over thousands of pages of printed transcripts, picking the toughest questions posed to Mike and his most revealing answers. He then repeated the process for materials where Wallace was the interviewer, honing in on themes that connected to his subject’s life and the essence of his work. From this deep research emerged a paper script, which over the course of an eight-month edit period came to life in the hands of editor Billy McMillin.

“This is going to be a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace, based on his technique and his mentality, so that was half of the film, taking all the interviews he gave as an interviewee and building a script and an interview that I’m doing from the archives of him,” Belkin tells Stephen Saito. “Then the second part was identifying where he’s interviewing other people, but it’s really themes that are personal to him. Once I had those two storylines aligned, you watch the materials through those lenses and just pull stuff, playing with them and a year after, you have a film.” To read the full interview, click here.

“When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true,” writes Christopher Gray. “After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how ‘fear is the energy toward doing your best work.’ In the very same interview, she calls Wallace ‘a son of a bitch,’ and Mike Wallace is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend.” To read the full article, click here.

Mike Wallace in Mike Wallace is Here, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“From the beginning, I reached out to the Wallace estate, and that allowed us to go to CBS, to the University of Texas at Austin, to Mike’s alma mater the University of Michigan, to every place that held any of his work,” says Belkin. “UT-Austin had the black-and-white kinescopes of The Mike Wallace Interview that launched his hard-questioning style. They had unbelievable footage, a real treasure trove of material that helped create the full arc of the film. Those materials really show how Mike invented the direct question as we know it today and chronicle the emergence of the new
‘star journalist’ in Mike Wallace.”

60 Minutes, Belkin explains, “absolutely reinvented the news.” The post-Watergate 1970s popularized, and at times polarized, Wallace’s distinctive style—aggressive, combative, unbowed by those with money or power, and fearless in pursuit of the truth. “When I was watching Mike’s raw interviews, all of that extended footage, his magnetism and style was so evident,” says Belkin. “He was always ‘on,’ every moment of the interview.”

“My favorite follow-up question of Mike’s was often just one word: ‘Why?’ In that one word, he conveyed so much. Over hundreds of hours spent watching them, I never saw an interview of Mike’s that was boring. He filled each one with drama to capture an audience’s attention—but he was also genuinely fascinated by the people sitting in front of him. He wanted to know what made them tick.”

“Mike was not a reflective person,” Belkin continues. “I believe that the best way he could learn about himself was through his interviews of others, though his questions. So Mike’s questions were often a reflection of his own subconscious, and that’s why you see a lot of the same motifs returning over and over again in his interviews. I think the main reason Mike was so relentless in trying to get to the core of the person he interviewed was because he believed it would echo some truth in him as well.”