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Interview with Greg Whiteley

Greg Whiteley interview

HBO

How did you find out about the story in Resolved?

Greg Whiteley

I was a high school debater, and I thought the topic was fodder for an interesting documentary. When making a movie, I think you want to find drama and you want to find interesting characters and then hope they are articulate because you're going to be interviewing a lot of them. Debaters fit that bill. What I wasn't really counting on was the drama of Richard and Lewis. And what had never occurred to me was how few people of color participate in the highest levels of debate. It hadn't dawned on me that that might be an issue or might be a story.

HBO

How did you find Richard and Lewis?

Greg Whiteley

When I was first researching the idea, we happened to see them debating at the Berkeley tournament. Being the only two African-Americans that I could see at the whole tournament they stuck out. I pinned them down afterwards and asked them a couple of questions and they were just really cool and really engaging. But when we met them they were not great debaters. I think they had a very mediocre record, four and four at the tournament. And I thought, for this film to be successful I've got to find a team that's got a chance at winning the Tournament of Champions. But I liked them, so I kept in touch from LA and made a couple of trips out to their school in Long Beach. And as we kept in touch they began to catch fire. They started to win, and we were just lucky enough to be there and to be filming. It really changed the nature of our story.

The luxury of being a storyteller is you just get to tell the story. I don't have to be smart enough to have the answer.

HBO

Did they make a case to you or did you make that decision on your own?

Greg Whiteley

We were following five teams trying to figure out: what's our story here? It really wasn't until we started editing that we said: well , this is the story. I shy away from saying this is a film about the social injustices that exist within the world of high school debate. I just find Richard and Lewis' story interesting, and juxtaposed with Sam and Matt, I find that interesting. I'm not trying to say that the world of Sam and Matt is the world of privilege and by setting these stories against one another, you might dislike Sam and Matt. Sam and Matt are people that you root for just as you would Richard and Lewis. However, I actually think that makes a larger comment. If you really are interested in social justice and in civil rights, the villains that existed back in the 1950s or 1960s are not the same today. Yes, you have members of the Ku Klux Klan and you have white supremacists. But they're in the strict minority; they're not the ones affecting public policy. The real hurdles to achieving social equality are not being perpetuated by racists. It's the people that, if you were to ask them, "Do black and white people deserve to be treated equally?" they would say, "Of course, absolutely." But if you say, "Are you willing to allow your activity, that you love, to be changed and morphed in order to encourage more black participation...?" I'm not so sure there is a clear-cut answer. I think that's the luxury of being a storyteller is you just get to tell the story. I don't have to be smart enough to have the answer.

HBO

With all the fast talking and confusing logic, how hard was it to keep a grip on the story that was unfolding around you? Even though you had experience with it, did you ever feel lost in the stream?

Greg Whiteley

I'll be honest, my first weekend shooting a debate tournament, when we were just figuring out if we wanted to make a movie about high school debate, I was really discouraged because I didn't understand it. And I had debated in high-school--but it had been years. I thought, how on earth can you make a movie in which the most dramatic moments cannot be understood by a general audience? It wasn't until I decided that it was about the communication breakdown between groups of people like Richard and Lewis, who are attempting to debate for the first time on the national circuit, as well as the communication breakdown that occurs between this activity and a general audience that it became fun. Further, with the help of some well placed graphics I think we are able to break the speed down in a way that helps the audience understand and appreciate what these kids are saying and doing.

HBO

Was there any feeling of animosity towards you from the "debate establishment" for shining a light on these guys who were bucking the system?

Greg Whiteley

Yeah, there was. But those people who expressed animosity toward me or the project were in the strict minority. The funny thing was, even when I encountered someone who was opposed to the idea of making a movie about high-school debate they would still agree to be interviewed. It was very rare for somebody to say: I'm not going on camera.

HBO

Do you know what they're all up to now?

Greg Whiteley

Matt is at Yale, he's not debating. But keep his name in the back of your head; I think he'll discover the cure for cancer or there'll be some genome named after him or something. Sam has transferred from Santa Cruz to Redlands and was going to debate then he wasn't, and now I think he's going to again -- he's still letting life reveal itself to him (to borrow a phrase of his). Richard is at the University of Louisville. He debated for a season and then became enamored with student government and student activism, and he's the president of a couple of black student organizations at Louisville. If there is any kind of an issue of race or if the NAACP is somehow involved in a news story at the University of Louisville, he's one of the students who gets called as I understand it. Lewis debated for a year or so at Cal State Fullerton and just recently decided to stop. It's not unusual for people like Richard and Lewis and Matt to decide not to debate any more. Debate is very intense and extremely time consuming. The people that do it have to dedicate their life to it and it is not uncommon for many talented kids to decide they would like to focus on other things in college. A lot of really bright people like Sam, Matt and like Richard and Lewis get to college and say: there's a whole world out there that I'm gonna go study.

Resolved

2008 Documentary Films Series