Was Susan Sontag the Last Public Intellectual? Nancy Kates on Making ‘Regarding Susan Sontag’

Trying to capture the range and brilliance of the late Susan Sontag, perhaps our most illuminating public intellectual, is a heady task, but documentarian Nancy Kates does a wonderful job of it in her documentary Regarding Susan Sontag. I went into this movie seeing Sontag as an idea, a voice on a page, and I came out of it with far more clarity about who Sontag was as a woman. Not just the quick-witted, sharp-barbed thinker who was able to clarify and elucidate our greatest achievements and most horrifying fears; she was, above all, a person, with all that entails — difficult and prickly, brave and curious, maddening and enlightening. Regarding Susan Sontag premieres on HBO Monday, December 8, and I took the chance to talk to Kates about how the documentary came together.

Flavorwire: How did you strike a balance in the documentary about appealing to Sontag fans versus Sontag newbies? 

Nancy Kates: We’re always trying to balance what are the people who know too much about her are going to think versus the people who know nothing. It’s tricky, the people who know a lot, I felt a little intimidated by those people. There will be 5000 people that know about Sontag and the New York Review of Books and the post-war history of magazines like Partisan Review and then there’s 300 million Americans and I was like okay, maybe we should make the film for them. It was a very tricky balance but i did feel that maybe it’s a better thing to focus on them and to not worry so much about those inside baseball sort of people.

What kind of gossip did you have to cut from the film?

I learned dish, but a gentleman never reveals his secrets.

What did Sigrid Nunez have to say about Sontag? She wrote a fascinating memoir, Sempre Susan, about her relationship with her when she was dating Sontag’s son.

She’s interesting because she wrote a couple of articles before she wrote the book — and the book came out right before our interview — and the book is much more complicated than the articles. When I interviewed her, she was very positive about Susan. I think she’s more positive than negative about Susan.

I thought all the interviewees were very earnest, and hopeful. A few of them had what I called “post-Sontag stress disorder” and I couldn’t talk to them on camera. Some of them needed this outlet to talk about her. It’s a delicate thing to talk to someone about their friend or ex-lover who’s no longer alive.

What was it like to find footage of Sontag making a movie in Sweden?

It was really interesting and occasionally at film festivals I get asked is it daunting to make a film about a woman with ideas about cinema? She’s daunting as a figure in general. She’s obsessed with cinema, feature films, and her films are interesting but they’re not amazing. It was such a gold mine that she was there on camera.

What kind of footage could you get and use of Sontag?

I loved Susan fighting with Norman Mailer. I loved that she was mentioned in a feature film (Bull Durham), there’s more that they didn’t mention — Zelig, and there’s a part in RENT.

What do you hope people take away from Regarding Susan Sontag?

I just hope that it encourages people to think, and to go to bookstores. Then you have to read Susan, or participate in public life in some way.

Will we ever have an intellectual like Sontag again?

Part of it is that we’re in a different moment now. It’s more democratic. Some of it’s insipid, and some of it’s kind of great. I think critics and our intellectuals aren’t as lionized as they were in her era — and they may have a less prominent role in culture.