“Just Go Back to the Work.” Filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb on Documenting the Remarkable Partnership Between Her Father and Robert Caro
The Documentarian Behind Turn Every Page in Conversation with Lisa Liebman
When director Lizzie Gottlieb set out to explore the remarkable partnership between her father, celebrated book editor Robert Gottlieb, and the preeminent political biographer Robert Caro for her new documentary Turn Every Page, she knew being impartial was not only impossible, it was beside the point. “I thought, I have to bring people in through my eyes,” she says of the high-stakes story she sees as two literary titans “in a race against time to try to finish their life’s work.”
The filmmaker had met many of her now 91-year-old dad’s impressive roster of writers—who included Toni Morrison, John Le Carré, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Heller—during his years running Simon and Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker. But the 50-year-relationship between Gottlieb and the now 87-year-old Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Power Broker, and the multi-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, remained a mystery. (In the film she notes that she didn’t meet Caro, who’s working on the final Johnson book, until her father’s 80th birthday.)
Recounting the pair’s professional and personal stories, replete with the alter kakers’ idiosyncrasies—collector Gottlieb has a copious number of Lucite bags; luddite Caro writes longhand and on an electric typewriter—the documentarian offers a glimpse into a vanishing world of book publishing and “the kind of alchemy of a creative collaboration that has been so productive and is also so peculiar and unique.”
Lisa Liebman: You said that it took Caro quite a while to open up and trust you and the process. What were you doing when that happened? Was it filming with him at LBJ’s boyhood home, the place that he got Johnson’s brother to honestly recount childhood memories? Did you use the same technique?
Lizzie Gottlieb: At first Bob didn’t want to do this project at all. I think he rightly felt that a writer shouldn’t want to have their editorial process made public because [it’s] supposed to disappear, and the reader should feel that the writer is writing directly to them. So for those secrets to be revealed—what was changed by an editor, or by that collaboration—feels intrusive and maybe not appropriate. You don’t want readers to read a book and think, Oh maybe the editor was right: this should have been different….You want them to just experience the book. My father’s joke about that is, nobody wants to hear an editor say, “And then I said to him, Leo, don’t just do war, do peace, too.”
So I think Bob was skeptical or suspicious, appropriately, of what I might want to show and why I might want to show it. His process of coming to trust me was a gradual one [that] started when we had an initial conversation, and he went from saying that he didn’t want to speak publicly about his writing process, to realizing that he had never seen a film about a writer and an editor, and that it might be meaningful for people to understand that. And I think he liked the fact that it was taking me so many years to make the film. He was like, That’s my kind of girl.
By the time we went to Texas and we sat in that boyhood home of Lyndon Johnson and he told us the story of how he recovered the story of Johnson’s youth, he really believed that we were doing something honorable, and that we were looking for the truth. So maybe I was learning from him. I was doing a bit of a Caro: trying to take the time I needed to get to the truth of the story I was trying to tell.With my father, his maxims are “Get it done,” “Do it now,” “Check, check, and check again.” And that really stayed with us. Just go back to the work.
LL: Your father provides the film’s best soundbite: “He does the work. I do the cleanup. Then we fight.” And we hear about the pair’s disagreements over words like “looms,” and punctuation like semicolons, and cutting sections and entire chapters. How would you describe what you’ve called “the delicate power balance” between them?
LG: Kathy Hourigan, the managing editor of Knopf, says in the film that though they fight, they have the same noble goal: to make the best book possible. So in that sense, I think they’re aligned in what they want. They’re not at odds over the goal. These are Robert Caro’s books—it’s not a shared project. But my father, as the editor and publisher, has a certain amount of power. As my father says, they both feel that everything is as important as everything else—the first chapter of the book, the semicolon, are of equal importance. My dad says that he can be equally firm, strong, emotional, irrational, about any of it.
So here are these two men who are very, very sure of themselves, and very convinced that they’re right. And they care very, very deeply about all of it. And then they clash and neither one wants to let it go. That’s an intriguing thing. [Caro’s] books are about these very powerful men who are obsessed with power and how they use it for good and for ill—with a lot of focus on the way they used it for ill. Here are these two men who have much less global power, but they’re using theirs’ for good, and they’re using it together.
LL: So the relationship allows for the power to shift, to ebb and flow?
LG: There’s a moment when they realize that Bob wants to do Lyndon Johnson in what they [initially] thought would be three volumes because it was too hard to cut The Power Broker down to one. [But] Bob says, “What am I going to live on?” And my father says, “That’s not your problem. [Agent] Lynn [Nesbitt] and I will work that out.” I see that as the moment, like in a superhero movie, where the superhero gets his power, gets his cape. And it sets him free to go and be himself and do what he uniquely can do in the world. In the very literal sense, I think [my father] empowered Caro to be able to go and write the books he needed to write. I’m very touched by that….I’m not sure publishers are able to do that anymore—to pay for something that might take 40 or 50 years to complete.
LL: Caro says that the writing is hard, “but research is just great.” Did you ask him why he still writes longhand, and then types on a Smith Corona with carbon paper versus using a computer?
LG: I think he feels that that’s how he’s always done it. And it’s worked very well for him, so why would he change?
LL: Did your father write his books on a computer?
LG: Yes. [But] he edits in pencil.
LL: Caro shows you the outline for his final book, and says that he took the first row of pinned pages down from the wall because the section is done. He starts to say more, but stops. What do you think he didn’t say? Is that the section we see him and your dad working on at the end of the film?
LG: No, the section that we see them working on at the end is the manuscript for Working, which is the  book Bob wrote about his working process. They have not started editing volume five yet because my father doesn’t see anything until it’s done.
LL: Any idea what he stopped himself from saying when taking some of his outline down?
LG: That was actually a couple of years ago. He said that it was a section about the Gulf of Tonkin, so he must be further than that now [laughs]. I think he was just unsure about how much he wanted to reveal to the world about exactly where he is in the book.
LL: Your father says that he sees the role of an editor as “a service job” offering an “intelligent and sympathetic reaction to the text and to what the author is trying to accomplish.” Do you think editors still operate that way?
LG: I am very close to Jordan Pavlin, the editor in chief of Knopf, who’s in the movie. I would say in her case, absolutely, yes. I love the way he phrases that because I think there’s sometimes a myth of a kind of all-powerful editor. I think that framing it as a service job is helpful and accurate. It feels revelatory.
LL: You were able to elicit from each man what they admire about the other. Caro believes nonfiction prose should be equal to any great work of fiction, and says few editors feel that way. Your father talks about Caro’s industriousness, and that his role is like that of Cordelia to King Lear: to love and be silent. Caro has since said that working on the film changed his relationship with your Dad. Is it because he got to hear that?
LG: I think so. Each of them having to pause and think about what they love and admire in each other has made them appreciate the relationship and the other person more. They both say that they have actually become friends over the course of filming. My dad says [laughs] it’s because Caro says that he likes his daughter.Maybe I was learning from him. I was doing a bit of a Caro: trying to take the time I needed to get to the truth of the story I was trying to tell.
LL: About Caro’s efforts to finish this last book, New Yorker editor David Remnick says it’s a daunting task for which he’ll need sitzfleisch to finish. In the production notes, you say that Caro is “on the brink” of finishing. What does “brink” mean?
LG: I think one of the reasons Bob Caro is still speaking to me is that I never have asked that question. So I hope that wasn’t overly optimistic. He’s working incredibly hard, and I have complete faith that he will finish, but I don’t know when.
LL: Yeah, and your father has to hang around for that to happen too.
LG: That’s right. They’re gonna do it. I know it!
LL : What was the most surprising thing you learned over the course of almost seven years of filming?
LG: I was surprised by how funny and how much fun they are to be with. My incredible producing partners, Jen Small and Joanne Nerenberg, and I were so inspired by their industriousness and their maxims. [Besides] Bob Caro’s “Turn every page,” another one he has posted on his desk lamp is, “The only thing that matters is what is on this page.” We kept saying that to each other. When he’s interviewing people, in his notebooks he writes at the top of the page “S. U.,” which stands for “shut up.”
That’s his note to himself to not insert himself in the interview and just let people talk. That was very inspiring to me as a person who interviews people. And with my father, his maxims are “Get it done,” “Do it now,” “Check, check, and check again.” And that really stayed with us. Just go back to the work.
LL: What did you learn about the pair’s ability to create definitive works on power?
LG: Concentrating on Caro’s work, [it was] immersing myself in his work ethic— his never taking “no” for an answer. He says he read all these other books about Lyndon Johnson’s senate election, and they all say, “No one will ever know whether Lyndon Johnson stole the election of ‘48.” And he said to himself, No, I will never write that sentence. I will never say no one will ever know, or history will not relate, because if it can be found out, I will find it out. And then he says, Okay, it’ll take me a year to find this out. And he goes down to Texas, and he doggedly pursues the story even in the face of what seems like it’s going to be impossible.
And then he uncovers and reveals for the first time the way in which Johnson stole his senate election of 1948, which changed everything. He would never have become senator. He would never have become vice president or president. So listening to [Caro] and being immersed in his industriousness and his determination and work ethic is just unbelievably inspiring. I think that kind of work is very rare.
LL: So industriousness is power?
LG: I like that.
LL: I can’t let you go without asking about your father’s bag collection. We know from the film that your mother hates it. What about you? Will you find storage or wall space for them some day?
LG: I think they’re incredibly beautiful and intriguing. I’m not sure I’d want them to line the walls of my bedroom [as her father does]. But I love his love of them. I watched him collect them, from when he found the first one. He would get so excited when he would come across one at a flea market. He threw himself into learning about who made them and the whole industry. He goes all the way when he’s interested in something. He does occasionally let me borrow one. I wore one to the premiere of the movie.