Interview with director Luke Poling

As promised today’s blog is an interview with director Luke Poling.  I was already looking forward to seeing “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself” but now after interviewing Luke, watching the trailer on line and reading the reviews I wish the movie was tonight not next Wednesday. Luke is an immensely talented and interesting young man.  I strongly suspect this will be the first of many successful films we get to enjoy.  I look forward to following his career and bragging someday that I “I got to interview the famous film maker”.  I hope he still gives me interviews after he wins his first Oscar.

The questions and answers are below. Enjoy and . . .  get your tickets for the movie before they sell out.

Q: Luke, why did you choose George Plimpton for the subject of your film? 

A: Both Tom Bean (my filmmaking partner) and I found George incredibly fascinating.  And the fact that he was already slipping from the public consciousness seemed strange, seeing as he was everywhere for so many years.  Plimpton crossed into so many different areas, we saw him as this great guide through the second half of the American century.  Plus, being as good a storyteller as he was, who wouldn’t want to spend years listening to this guy talk?

Q: You’re right, he did seem to be everywhere. I remember him from when I was a kid. Back then it seemed he was always on TV for one reason or another. When did you first become aware of him?

A: I think “Open Net,” his book about playing in the NHL was my introduction.  As a Bruins fan, I really picked it up for its behind-the-scenes reportage but found myself really enjoying the history and the stories that make up so much of the book. And then, about a year after George died, I came across “The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair,” a posthumous collection of unpublished his writing, which just reminded me how great his work was.  That voice of his was so crystal clear on the page, it was a great reminder of how hard it was to write something that read so easily. Even if you never met him (which was my case), it made you miss him.  That book also contained the two pieces that really bookend the film.  It was after re-reading this book for the third or fourth time that I said to Tom, “What if we made a movie about Plimpton?”

It was only after we started shooting that I started to see a connection to Plimpton everywhere I looked- from seeing “Willy Wonka” on TV, to looking at the New York Times best-seller list, populated with writers who were first published by The Paris Review.  It got to be a little spooky after a while. And, for my wife, I think she grew tired of the three-degrees to George Plimpton game that we seemed to be continually playing.  (George knew so many people, you only needed three people to make a connection, and usually it took a lot less.)

Q:  Ok, I’ll play that game.  Let’s see, not the Kennedy’s, he was almost like a Kennedy, even the hair. How about Ronald Reagan?

A: Well, he was good friends with the Grucci fireworks family of Long Island.  (He was present when they became the first Americans to win the prestigious Monte Carlo fireworks competition.)  They also did fireworks for seven consecutive presidential inaugurations and for the anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, where Reagan spoke at the re-dedication.)

George was also certainly like Reagan in that he had a magnetic personality.  One thing several of our interview subjects said was that as a reporter, to get good material from your subjects, they had to be as interested in you as you were in them.  And George had that in spades.  When we interviewed members of the Detroit Lions and Boston Bruins and even the New York Philharmonic, they all spoke of Plimpton as a friend and not as a reporter who went in to write about their job.

To meet George in any situation was to be swept up into his world and that included being part of his schemes (one involving heading to Cuba to find the ‘lost’ ending of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” to being invited to one of his parties at his apartment, which would include all sorts of figures, from Presidents, to writers and poets and artists to even a Beatle.  (We found one party picture where George was perfectly framed in the shot, but Paul McCartney was half out of the frame, as if whoever took the picture was more interested in Plimpton.)

Also, he played horseshoes with Vice President George H.W. Bush when he was president-elect, for a piece in Sports Illustrated.  (George W. is in the pictures as well, watching intently.)

Q: I can see this isn’t going to be easy but I’ll try one more. How about Adele?

A: Adele is certainly much harder, since Plimpton didn’t interact with many musicians.  (Though he did have the Grateful Dead over to his apartment and went to see Radiohead with the NY Times opera critic.)  The connection is tenuous at best, but they both appeared on Saturday Night Live and Adele holds several Guinness World Records and Plimpton does as well- for lowest altitude firework.  (It exploded about three feet off the ground and blew out the windows of the houses all around.) 

Q: Plimpton was the pioneer of participatory journalism. As a writer, is that something you would want to try?

A: Not in a million years.  For me the great joy of this job is getting to go to interesting places and talk to interesting people.  And for this film in particular, we got to chase George’s ghost all across the country. From the halls of some of the great magazines to the Playboy mansion, we were welcomed in because of our connection with Plimpton.  He was such a well-loved guy, almost everyone we called for an interview said, “Sure, come on over.”  They were happy to share their stories and memories, because, to a one, they were all such great times in everyone’s lives.

While I have no desire to climb into the ring with any boxer, let alone the light-heavyweight champion of the world,  I’m certainly inspired by George’s openness to anyone he met; I love to get the best story from a person about their job, or some surreal event in their life. Participatory-by-proxy journalism is more my speed.

Q: I feel that the term Participatory Journalist or any other label for that matter are too restrictive for the person that George Plimpton was.  If you could use one term or phrase to describe George Plimpton, what would it be?


A: There isn’t one good phrase or label that conveys everything about George.  It was one of the reasons we ended up with the title of the film; the only way you could describe him was with his name.  “Plimpton” invokes all of these memories and experiences and not much else sums it all up.  We always described him as an intellectual Forrest Gump.  We ended up bumping into Winston Groom, who wrote the book, and told of him of our definition and he admitted that he did have George in the back of his mind as he was writing.

Q: One of my most vivid memories of him were the clips on television after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.  I was in grade school at the time. It was the first time I became aware of a presidential race. Bobby was a hero to a lot of kids back then. Plimpton was heroic when he helped wrestle the gun from Sirhan Sirhan.  I’ve read that the recording of the police interview is part of the movie. I’m sure that having lived through and experiences the 60’s, I will find that interview quite poignant.  Was there any part of the film or the filming process that touched you in particular?

A: Certainly that night looms large in the film and did so in George’s life.  It was one of the things that he did not discuss. His relationship with RFK went back to Harvard, and witnessing what he did that night was really tough for him. The only example of George talking about that night was in the police deposition he gave.  It was entered into evidence at the Sirhan Sirhan trial and, when we got the tape, we heard George as devastated as we had ever heard him. Finding this, and getting this first-hand account of what happened was certainly one of the high points of our filmmaking.

One of the questions we asked everybody we interviewed was, “do you remember the last time you saw or spoke to George” and everyone seemed to have talked to him in the last 48 hours of his life.  I wouldn’t chalk that up to re-writing the past, but rather, as an example of how involved George was with the people in his life.  Because everyone felt so strongly about him, the responses we got to that question certainly stand-out.  They all spoke of love for him and that they still miss him, even 10 years after he died.

Thanks Luke.

Enjoy the trailer at:

Plimpton will be at the County Theater in Doylestown on Wednesday, Sept. 25th. at 7:30


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