EXCLUSIVE: With his latest directorial effort, A Day in the Life of America, Jared Leto had two objectives in mind—to be honest, and to do “brave work.” To those familiar with Leto’s work before the camera, this should make sense. Winning his first Oscar five years ago for his transformative turn in Dallas Buyers Club, as a trans woman dying of HIV, Leto has brought raw, daring authenticity to a range of bold films, from Fight Clubto Requiem for a Dream,and Blade Runner 2049. Further pushing his artistic limits, he’s toured with his rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, while quietly building a career as a documentarian.
Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, Leto’s documentary is consistent with his previous works, in its willingness to take big swings. Shot on the 4th of July, the pic explores every corner of the United States, at a “really important time” in the nation’s history, to dissect the good, bad and ugly of what it is today. “We had 92 crews. We sent them to all 50 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico,” Leto explains, “We were on this kind of mad journey to capture a single day in the life of this country.”
A logistically complex experiment, the film grapples with complex issues—like gun violence and the opioid epidemic—which have plagued the nation for decades. While laying bare America’s darkness, Leto was equally keen to embrace and share its light. Presenting despair and hope, the horrific and the beautiful—all in equal measure—the doc is no less a paradox than America itself.
Where did the idea for this documentary come from? Why was A Day in the Life of America a film you had to make?
When I was a kid, my mother subscribed to National Geographic. It was kind of our gateway to the world, as it is for so many; they had a project where they sent photographers all over the country to capture a single day in the life of the United States, and that always stuck with me. I thought it was fascinating, and it would be interesting to see a version of that captured in film. I thought of that when I was just a kid—I don’t even know how old I was—but it’s a beautiful book. I actually got a copy of it recently, that a friend of mine gave me. But we decided to kind of build on that.
I think I felt especially compelled to do it now, having just worked on an album called America that talked a lot about American themes, and ideas around the American dream, and the current state of who we are and where we’re at. I always thought about the film as a companion piece to the album, so they’re kind of one in the same.
What was your strategy in mounting this film? What gave you the confidence that you would be able to bring your vision to fruition, as ambitious as it was?
We had an incredible group of people that worked tirelessly, and a lot of producers, a lot of teams that had to be completely self-sufficient. We spent two to three weeks riffing on ideas and dreaming up things that we wanted to capture, some of the things we were curious about, heard about, some of the things we thought about.
I thought it would be interesting to film someone who’s walking across the country, because people do that once in a while; it seems like such an arduous and strange task to walk from one end of the country to the other, but also beautiful and fascinating. I knew I wanted to capture the birth of a child; I wanted to capture someone’s death and their final words. We knew we wanted to film a celebration in New York City and LA, and fireworks across the country, because it was on 4th of July. So, we had targets. But also, teams were empowered enough so that if things were going south and stories weren’t working, [they could] jump ship and find something else.
We had a giant room of really inspired and inspiring people that were passionate about the idea, and it was a massive collaborative effort to get this thing off the ground. It was really independent filmmaking at its best, where the passion and the grit kind of overrode what you would normally make up for in time and production, and careful plotting and planning. We just had a lot of gung-ho spirit, and that really helped a lot.
Was it tricky to figure out how to make the film, on a financial level?
The great thing about being a filmmaker in the times that we’re living in is it’s cheaper and easier than ever to tell stories, to capture stories, to film things and to share things, and that’s a great side of technology. When I was in film school a hundred years ago, I had to go and check out the Bolex; I had to buy the film, go develop the film, and then edit with razor blades and tape. We had some big, clunky video cameras that were horrendous; nobody wanted to use those. And now, anybody can pull [their] phone out.
We knew we were doing something that was a bit of an experiment, but also it was an opportunity. Our crews all had 2K or higher, at most 4K—really talented filmmakers, up-and-coming directors, cinematographers, camera people that shared their skill with us.
With this kind of film, I paid for it because I believed in it, and we were able to do things really smartly because we kept the team as tight as possible, and all the funding was on screen. There was no fluff, and there couldn’t be. I think that was important, as well: It had to be run-and-gun. It had to be loose. You could only plan so much when things are happening like this, and we came back with stories that blew my mind, things that I never expected to see. Things that inspired me, things that shocked me, things that haunt me.
Where were you on July 4th, as your crews dispersed?
We had a headquarters in Los Angeles, and we were all pretty much sleeping under the desk in the final days, because we knew we had one shot. There was a very specific mandate with this film that everything had to be captured within that 24 hours on the 4th of July.
The thing that I find really difficult when you’re watching the film is that it’s easy to forget that you’re in a single day, and the challenge that we still have. I mean, the film’s not finished—we’re going to show a slightly unfinished version of it [in Tribeca], but I think you get the gist and the spirit of the thing. But it was surprising, and really exciting to do. I’ve worked quite a bit on documentary projects, and it’s a very time-consuming affair, but this was great because it was over pretty much in a day. Then, of course, you’re buried in hundreds of hours of footage. We also had about 10,000 hours that was crowd-sourced of footage that people sent in from all over the country; we’ll probably see that stuff in some other form, but some of it’s in the film.
What was your process in managing so many crews remotely?
We were manning the phones, all day and all night, because we were communicating with our teams everywhere. There were issues; we tried to get access. We were trying to be as helpful to everyone out there on the road as possible—solving problems, putting out fires, looking for stories and following things. So, we had this central hub, this command center, and I was in LA. But at some point, I went up in a helicopter to film the fireworks, and that was something I’ll never forget, because I’d never really seen LA from that vantage point, and being in a helicopter when there are fireworks exploding all around you is absolutely insane and amazing. And other things [were] going on there—gunshots, and someone had a hold of these old military flares they were shooting up in the sky. It looked apocalyptic, like Armageddon, but beautiful at the same time.
Did you scout most of your documentary subjects in advance of the shoot?
We did scout a lot of it. We had rough outlines for probably about half of it; the other half, we knew what we were going to shoot. But again, as the story unfolds, you’d decide if you continue down that path. I gave all our filmmakers very specific direction around that. If things weren’t working, they were to bail and go and shoot something—to just follow their gut, follow their heart, look for a story, look for something beautiful, something broken, something that gave us deep insight into who we are at this incredibly tumultuous and important time in our lives.
One of your crews contended with members of the Ku Klux Klan. What was your brief to them? How do you deal with extremists, or those whose beliefs are far removed from your own?
Our experiment was to capture a single day in the life of our country, and to create an honest, unflinching portrait of who we are. So, we spent time with people on death row, we spent time with the Klan—with the young, the old, the afflicted, the addicted, all different kinds of people. It was important to me, and I did give this message out, that we were making an apolitical film, and I think that in order to give an accurate impression of who we are, our point of view needs to be as objective as possible. It can’t be completely objective; every time you make an edit, it’s a subjective [act]. You pick and choose, you tell stories, so it’s all subjective. But we wanted to be as neutral and apolitical as possible.
I felt that was important, and it was interesting. Sometimes, you would expect someone in a certain scene to be pro-Trump and another person to be anti-Trump, and it would be the exact opposite. You would go, “Okay, that’s interesting,” just to be surprised about preconceived notions of people. We examined Trump for the day; we follow pop culture. But most importantly, I think we get inside the people that make up this country, the people driving the rigs, the trucks, across the nation, keeping the country alive. Together, we follow young people that are struggling with opiate addiction, or amphetamines, people that are discovering who they are and talking about their identity and the path they choose in life.
It’s a challenging film to edit because there’s so many stories that are quite beautiful and touching. People were really brave and generous with us in sharing their lives, and I hope that we do them justice with the story that we filmed.
Your documentary subjects opened themselves up entirely to you, even if it meant exposing their addiction or Klan membership in front of the camera. How did your crews foster such trust with people around the country, in such little time?
I think that people wanted to share their stories, and understood what we were doing. They all understood this time that we’re living in. I sent out five questions and encouraged everyone to share those questions with all our subjects, and there wasn’t a shortage of opinions. It’s quite shocking to me, some of the stuff that’s in the film—birth, death, drugs, the Klan, Trump, hope, dreams, heartache, failure, but still a lot of optimism, which is pretty incredible, in the midst of all of that. Or a desire for change, improvement, betterment, a better tomorrow for themselves and their families. It was quite inspiring to look at the raw footage.
I think everyone did a great job building a rapport, and I think that all the filmmakers were really transparent and honest, whether they were in the south side of Chicago or at a mansion in Beverly Hills.
As you noted, the film is fundamentally apolitical. But there seems to be a prevalent notion, and skepticism—among people in certain areas of the country, with certain beliefs—of the “Hollywood liberal.” Is that something you feel you had to fight against?
I don’t think so. As you can see from the film, people were quite content being themselves. I don’t think they really gave a fine f*ck who was behind it; they just were, I think, happy to share a little bit about their lives, and who they are. I think a lot of people feel misrepresented—not heard, or seen—and I think that has created an opportunity for both sides to capture that story and to create that portrait.