The Final Act
The Texas Documentary Tour hosts Robert Stone's 'Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst'
The Patty Hearst kidnapping on Feb. 4, 1974, was one of those memory-searing events. Today, violence and political terror are part of the daily sensory overload, but at that post-Vietnam, pre-Watergate time when a small, motley group of the interstitially disaffected in the Bay area dubbed themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army and seized our national attention and held it for close to two years, it was something new. Remember how the country anxiously awaited the SLA's missives, those audio tapes dropped at a Berkeley radio station, the youthful voices of the group (identified by their noms de guerre) articulating their demands?
We watched the press encamped in front of the Hearst home, waiting for a poker-faced Randolph Hearst in black horned-rim glasses to emerge with periodic responses to the SLA's taped demands for multimillion-dollar food-for-the-poor handouts, and of course, that now infamous footage, recorded by the Hibernia bank surveillance camera, revealing Patty (now Tania) as a seemingly fully participating member of the SLA. Glued to our TV sets, we witnessed the repeated bungling of the case by the police and the FBI, followed by the two-hour live-coverage of the final shootout and the demise of six SLA members in a house in L.A. Finally, 16 months later, the arrest of Patty and the remaining SLA members. Then her conviction for bank robbery, her prison time, her sentence commuted by Jimmy Carter, and her pardon by Bill Clinton. Her bestseller, her marriage to her bodyguard, her return to the bosom of the privileged life of the "pigs" she'd condemned during her captivity. And then just last year, yanked from their families, communities and respectable jobs, it was back to jail for four former SLA members for the 1975 murder of the Crocker Bank teller but not for Patty.
Robert Stone (Oscar-nominated "Radio Bikini," 1987; American Babylon, 2000) directed Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004). The film, which played at Sundance last year, is a 90-minute recounting using clips from the voluminous archives of newscast footage and the insightful (with 20/20 hindsight) talking-head analysis of SLA founder Russ Little (who, like the rest of us, watched most of it on TV, he, from his San Quentin cell) and Michael Bortin, a later-joining SLA member, and one of the recently sentenced.
Austin Chronicle: First the obvious question: What about the SLA/Patty Hearst saga attracted your attention 30 years hence?
Robert Stone: I was in high school in New Jersey when the whole thing went down, and I've never forgotten it. It was one of those incredible stories that sticks in your head and only becomes stranger as life goes on. I saw Paul Schrader's film about it years ago which I really liked and is highly underrated but I was always curious why nobody had ever made a documentary about it. I soon found out why the hard way, but I'll get to that later. Another thing that drew me to this story is that I have a longstanding fascination with media spectacles, an abiding interest in the relationship between political terrorism and the mass media. Combine that with the fact that a great many of my films concern the meeting of fantasy and reality and this story kind of hit me like the perfect storm. So I was really captivated by it on a number of levels that I think are reflected in the film.
AC: The ending of the film feels more than a little ambiguous. How would you describe your film's attitude toward the SLA? To Patty Hearst?
RS: The film can be read in a number of ways. That's intentional. I want the audience to be able to come to their own conclusions about the many ambiguous aspects of the story, so I'm not trying to hammer home one particular idea. My attitude about the SLA is that they operated as a cult more than as a political organization, let alone a movement. I think they got increasingly lost in a romantic fantasy that's a key feature of popular culture: that of the outlaw or the lone knight doing battle against the evil empire. The trouble is they were living out this fantasy with live ammunition and with deadly consequences as so many people do. Ultimately, their two-year crime spree became a symbolic and metaphorical final act to the decade we now call "the Sixties," which actually ended around 1975.
As to Patty Hearst, I think it's clear from the tapes she made that appear in the film that she came to believe in their cause and did indeed join them. As to the question of whether she was brainwashed ... to the extent that the term means anything I suppose you could say she was. But you could also say that they all brainwashed themselves. They were all indoctrinated into an extreme and totally uncompromising political ideology, which they all at the time thoroughly believed. Brainwashing is kind of a catchall phrase for a lot of rather uncomfortable aspects of human psychology.
AC:How did you choose the two narrators you used? Why didn't you talk to Patty?
RS: Yes, the film revolves mainly around Russ Little, who founded the SLA and who's imprisonment became the motivating factor behind the Hearst kidnapping, and Mike Bortin, who admired the SLA and joined up after most of the original group were killed in L.A. When I began this project I was very upfront with everyone involved about what I was doing and where I was coming from. I was not willing to cut any deals or to exchange flattery for access. In other words, I was not willing to allow this film to become a platform for the SLA to rewrite their own history, although there were certainly enticements for me to do just that. I never wanted Patty Hearst to be interviewed in the film for a variety of reasons, and I think the film itself kind of addresses that at the end. She's already told her story, and her side of it is all anyone knows, if they know anything. Her strange celebrity has obscured, almost from day one, what to me were the most interesting aspects to this story. So through a lot of hard work and persuasion I was able to gain the trust of several senior former members of the SLA, including Little and Bortin. They were willing to talk to me, no strings attached. Their stories are so compelling in part because each of them in their own way has some detachment from the aspects of this story for which there's the greatest historical record. And they work together in the structure of the film because as Little is becoming increasingly disenchanted with what's happening with the group that he founded, Bortin is on the outside growing more enthralled to the point where he's like the guy who likes the product so much he buys the company. And then of course suffers buyer's remorse.
AC: What were the challenges involved in making the film?
RS: There were financial challenges, challenges of getting access, and challenges of finding footage. All three were ultimately overcome, but it took many years to do so. Financially, I quickly found it was almost impossible to raise money for a movie on this topic without the involvement of Patty Hearst. Yet I knew that to make a film with her involvement would ruin it. Celebrity trumps all in our culture, and no one was interested in bankrolling the film without her. On the other side of the coin, this film is more of a pop-culture thriller than a political film, so I wasn't going to raise any money for championing a political cause. And the SLA were nobody's darlings. The long and short of it is I went heavily into debt and called in every favor I could to get it made. It was probably a blessing because it meant I was free to pursue my vision for the film without compromise. The BBC backed the film midway, giving me total carte blanche, PBS bought it upon completion, and now Magnolia Pictures is releasing it in theatres. So I'm thankfully out of debt!
AC: Were you surprised by anything you turned up while making the film?
RS: I was very surprised how smart and how thoughtful the former members of the SLA were when I met them, including Bill Harris, who doesn't appear in the film. I was surprised at how successful the SLA had been in manipulating the media, and in eluding the FBI. I was surprised how accurate my theory that the SLA had been inspired by pop-culture icons like Robin Hood turned out to be and how all of them were film freaks. Patty Hearst told me, after seeing the finished film, that the SLA once dressed her up in disguise and took her to the movies to see State of Seige. I had gone out on a limb in theorizing the significance of that film (and others like it) to the SLA and it turned out to be truer than I could have imagined. I was surprised how much they now seem to agree with the thesis of the finished film, despite the fact that it's not a very flattering portrait. And I was doubly surprised that Patty Hearst has also championed the film. Both she and Russ Little have said that it's the best, most accurate, and fairest thing that's ever been on this story. It's perhaps the only thing they agree on.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst screens as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado). Robert Stone will conduct a Q&A after the screening. Tickets are $4 for current Austin Film Society members and new members joining before the screening, as well as students, and $6 for nonmembers. They are available only through the Austin Film Society at www.austinfilm.org or at the venue one hour prior to screening.