Beware of taking on Jacques Derrida as a subject, for starters
Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are among the most acclaimed documentarians of our time, with credits that include Derrida, Outrage , The Invisible War  and The Hunting Ground, a searing exploration of sexual assault on college campuses, which debuted theatrically earlier this year [it will air on CNN in the fall].
They shared insights on their careers as part of the International Documentary Association's Conversation series, hosted by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz at the Motion Picture Academy's Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
Here are the Top 5 things we learned:
1. It's very difficult to get Jacques Derrida to talk
Or more precisely, it's very hard to get him to open up about himself. Ziering, who studied literary theory, initiated the documentary project about the legendary French philosophe, later partnering on the project with Dick. Derrida proved elusive prey.
That’s one of the things I think that’s wonderful about making documentaries is they’re so damn hard to make.
"This was the cat and mouse thing. He would agree to a shoot and then he would not say anything when you sat down in front of him. He's sort of the über-anti-Kardashian, if you will," said Ziering.
In one moment from the film Derrida says, "Je ne vais pas tout vous dire. Non. [I'm not going to tell you everything. No."] Later, after Derrida watches another clip from the interview Ziering did with him he says approvingly, "J'aime bien sette scène là precisément parce qu'on ne dit rien. [I quite like that scene precisely because we don't say anything."]
"He was relentless," said Ziering. "Like that whole course of time it didn’t change. I could be at his house for three days—he didn’t ever let down his guard. For him words were so important. And there’s such a beautiful lesson in that. He was just relentlessly pedagogical."
Dick added, "He would answer questions but they would go on for five or 10 or 15 or 20 minutes and they were fascinating but we wanted to kind of cut into that and get more of an impromptu response... So we were continually coming up with ideas that would kind of throw him off guard a little bit."
Touché, M. Derrida!
2. How to make your point when you've got a restraining order against you
In 2009 Dick and Ziering released the controversial film Outrage, which set about outing closeted gay politicians -- but only those whose policies were distinctly anti-gay. Case in point, the late Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch.
Dick and Ziering interviewed many people for the film including ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, who loathed Koch for his failure to do much to curb the AIDS epidemic in his city when it first emerged.
"Larry Kramer happened to live in the same building as Koch. And Koch got a restraining order against him so he couldn’t say anything to Koch," Ziering related. "So what [Larry] did was he talked to his dog. “Look at that bad man, Poochie. That bad man does very bad things to our people, Poochie.”
Ziering said she and Dick discussed the moral implications of outing closeted political figures. "The bar for us was, 'Are you using your anti-gay postures to accrue more power to yourself?' Not only are you hurting others –- and Koch definitely decided to stay closeted—he made the calculation that that was too great a threat to his throne to sort of help the people around him when he could have."
Dick similarly defended their project. "This is really reporting on hypocrisy. People think, 'Oh my God, you’re going into people’s private lives,' but [when] people’s private lives affect their public positions – and particularly if it affects their public position in a way that’s hurting other people – that’s the responsibility of reporters [to cover]. And if reporters don’t do that then they’re censoring — they’re not only censoring themselves but they’re protecting the institution that’s allowing this homophobia to continue."
3. If you want to take on the US military, prepare to go it alone
In their 2012 film The Invisible War, Dick and Ziering exposed rampant sexual assault in the US military, a reality that had largely gone unreported by major media. But getting the film made wasn't easy.
"It was very hard for us to raise money for the film," Dick recalled. "We knew we had incredibly powerful stories. We knew we were breaking a story and we could not get money for it. We put in our own money and just continued to make this film... There really was this fear that 'I don’t want to go up against the military.'
"It was nearly impossible to just even get an interview with a senator to talk about this. That’s how radioactive taking on the military was."
"We pitched it to all the usual suspects and we could not get anybody to get on board," Ziering said. "It was really my first understanding of the military being a body apart, that no one felt they had a stake in because now we have this sort of mercenary army. It’s not a draft.
"I remember Nancy Willen was our publicist and walking into Sundance – she said to me, 'All the other publicists are saying to [me], ‘Good luck with that rape movie.’
"Everyone thought it was just going to tank and no one would be interested in it."
After seeing the film, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered immediate changes to Pentagon policy. But one issue hasn't been resolved --whether the military itself or civilian courts should handle the prosecution of sexual assault cases within military ranks.
"We still haven’t gotten the most significant reform passed which is the Military Justice Improvement Act," Dick said. On the upside, "This film completely changed the discussion [about sexual assault] and it also changed it within the military."
4. The most shocking thing about The Hunting Ground
For their latest film, Dick and Ziering again took on the subject of sexual assault, this time on college campuses.
"People ask us, 'What’s the most shocking thing about Hunting Ground,” Ziering said. "A lot was shocking but one of the more shocking things was that it was harder for us to get an interview with a high-level [college] administrator to talk on camera than it was to get Pentagon officials to talk on camera [for The Invisible War]. And that’s the truth and if you asked us intuitively before we made either film we would have expected completely the reverse."
If you want to blow the lid off the secret group that determines motion picture ratings, consider hiring a private investigator.
That's what Dick did for his breakthrough 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated [Ziering did not collaborate on it]. Becky Altringer, the private dic, helped Dick reveal for the first time who was dispensing all those "PG-13s," "Rs" and "NC-17s".
The private investigator, who is a significant character in the film, "happened to be a middle-aged lesbian woman, so that was another kind of twist," Dick recalled.
"The MPAA ratings are pretty much absurd in so many ways," he continued. "The raters are actually employed by the six major studios… they’re executives with the studios… And so the ratings they give are often more favorable to the studios and less favorable to their competitors which are the independent and foreign films."
Can you say conflict of interest?
Dick said for universities it's a matter of priorities. "It’s all about branding. And the last thing [administrators] want is the word 'sexual assault' associated with their university. What’s sad is that we still haven’t seen [a] university president stand up" and champion the issue.
"Higher education is just like any other institution," Dick said. "They’re going to circle the wagons and protect themselves… An institution will protect itself and use any tool that it can."
5. When to hire a private eye
Dick's film didn't succeed in changing MPAA policy, which still cloaks the ratings process in secrecy. But This Film Is Not Yet Rated did have an impact, Ziering said, revealing, for instance, "There was a homophobic bias in the things that they would censor in gay sex they wouldn’t censor in heterosexual sex. And there was also gender biases and all that. It didn’t move the needle in the MPAA but it did raise the consciousness of viewers who really didn’t have an understanding that there actually was an ideology sort of influencing the films we saw. And censoring them. That never had been in the public consciousness before."
Beware, MPAA, he's threatening to make a sequel.
[Editor's note: below is a sampling of Tweets about Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's latest film, The Hunting Ground]
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.