Carl Colby recently met with journalists to discuss his film The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. I was able to be present for two roundtable interviews. Topics ranged widely. Because this comes from two settings, there may be some ideas duplicated. Here are some of the excerpts.
One of the writers commented on how balanced this was as a first person documentary. How important and difficult was it to maintain that impartiality?
I came out of Washington, DC, where you may think it’s partisan warfare all the time, but actually it’s a lot more nuanced than that. You only get respect when you understand the view of somebody else. This was a discovery. This was quest. I didn’t have my mind made up. I wouldn’t have made this film if I already thought my father was a monster or some sort of hero. It was a search, a quest. So to me it couldn’t be any other way. Then also I’m old enough and lucky enough to have grown up when CBS had CBS Reports and NBC White Papers. I watched the twenty-hour World at War series narrated by Lawrence Olivier. I watched Shoah and I saw Sorrow and the Pity probably two or three times. To me, I always felt that I want to hear from the witnesses. One of the most important things for me was not to get too many, kind of, commentators—you know, experts. There are some of those. Tim Weiner’s an historian and he wasn’t there and those things, but he has a good sense of history and frankly as a reporter knows how to put a sentence together. But generally I wanted people who’d been in the field—were part of the fray.
What surprised you the most and how challenging was the research to putting the film together?
I always felt I had a kind of private pipeline into my father because he taught us how to listen and how to watch—how to learn from just being around, blending into the environment. I remember as a boy in Saigon once, he said, “Stop. Look across the street. What do you see?” I said, “A bicycle shop and a couple people going in and out. This little noodle cart. I don’t really see much of anything.” He said, “Look again.” And then I kept looking, and then you do see. What’s that person lingering there for? And why is that car idling at the curb? I think he taught us to listen and to watch. So to me it was very important to kind of absorb the environment. So in making this film I thought I need to get as deep underneath as possible and take what I think I know and either prove it or take it in the direction it wants to go. So things like the Phoenix program I had kind of a cursory knowledge of that, but then I intentionally put on the screen [former Senator] Bob Kerrey, Medal of Honor winner, lost his leg. Phoenix veteran though. He was very apologetic about his own involvement. He was vilified a couple years ago because he admitted to being part of a like a My Lai-type incident. At the same time there are people like James Schlesinger who very coldly, but maybe correctly, says, “If you don’t want to engage in that kind of a battle—if you’re too squeamish and it makes you uncomfortable to fight the enemy on his turf—you best get out. You’re not going to win that conflict.” Which is kind of a chilling, harsh thing to say, but you know, there’s some truth to it.
He was asked about interviewing his mother for the film.
I set of to make the movie because I was watching the 9-11 coverage and two hours after the twin towers fell, Wolf Blitzer is asking James Baker, Secretary of State under Reagan how this happened. Baker said, “I trace this back directly to the Church and Pike hearings when Colby was forced to reveal the Family Jewels of the CIA and we lost all capability to engage covert action, clandestine activities.” I thought, whoa! It’s kind of relevant and makes him relevant. Then I saw armed CIA paramilitaries riding horseback and camelback wearing turbans and sporting beards fighting with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, and I thought that looked like OSS. So I set out to make what I thought was going to be kind of a professional portrait of a soldier that engaged in counterinsurgency—sort of more of a compact film.
Then I thought, well, I’d interview my mother as an afterthought; she might have something to say. Then she took it in a completely different direction. She was very light and made Italy and all that like it was fun. It was a George Clooney movie with some beautiful actress. My mother was brunette, gorgeous, drove a car into town—open car—and one time the car got stuck, or some mechanical problem. Fifteen Italian guys jump to the car to fix it. My father was really worried because it was in the middle of a labor demonstration, and he thought it would be a scandal. What was she doing there? And if they looked into it, who was she? What does he do? So she was a pivotal part of my story. I remember a week or two after that I called her, I said, “You know I think I’d like to interview you again. There are some other things you need to say.” And she said, “I’ve been thinking the same. I was very light. I was kind of airy when we talked before. I want to talk about the darker side. I want to talk about the hurt.” So I thought I have a different movie. And she became kind of my partner. She’s still my favorite dinner companion. During this whole long process I would go out to dinner with her to this little French bistro. She’s 90 so it’s kind of hard to amble around now, but we’d sit and talk, and she remembers absolutely everything. She’s a wonderful person and I think her sense of herself as a kind of character in this morality tale is what I most got out of the project.