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Lizzie Gottlieb talks 'Turn Every Page' documentary

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

The relationship between a writer and editor can be a tenuous one, like any partnership, you know? You have a shared goal in mind, maybe slightly different ways to get there. Maybe something one of you says rubs the other in a weird way. But, you know, you find ways to make it work. Across five books for 50 years, writer Robert Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb have been making it work. From the 1970s, when Caro started writing "The Power Broker," his momentous biography of New York City urban planner Robert Moses, up until now, when they are knee-deep in the fifth and final volume of "The Years Of Lyndon Johnson." Filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb has gotten as close to this partnership as anyone can. She's Robert Gottlieb's daughter and is out now with a documentary about the two titled "Turn Every Page." Now Lizzie Gottlieb is here with us to talk about it. Lizzie, welcome to the show.

LIZZIE GOTTLIEB: Thank you so much.

LIMBONG: All right. So you've been directing for years. You know, you began writing plays and moved to documentaries. And now you're doing one about your dad. I'm curious what made you want to tell this story?

GOTTLIEB: Here is this collaboration between two brilliant, highly accomplished, very strong-willed men who've been working together for over 50 years, and the relationship is not an easy one. It's prickly and contentious and - is combative too strong a word? I don't know. But it's also wildly productive. And I think they have an incredible admiration for each other. And even after 50 years, they're still grappling with the complicated nature of creative collaboration. So that really fascinated me, as well as this notion that Bob Caro is 87 years old and my dad is 91 years old, and they are in a race against time to finish their life's work.

LIMBONG: You know, it's funny. They both didn't want to do this at first, right?

GOTTLIEB: That is right.

LIMBONG: And how did you talk them into it?

GOTTLIEB: I approached my dad first, and he was absolutely not interested. He was like, absolutely not. He said, I don't think it would be good for my relationship with Bob. And really, the response was that what goes on between an editor and a writer is private and nobody else should see it and nobody else should know about it. You know, it's secret because you want the book to stand for itself. You don't want people questioning how it came to be, right? And I just kept asking and asking. And finally he said, well, fine, you can ask Bob Caro, but he'll say no. So I called Bob Caro, and he said, you know, no. I don't speak publicly about my work process. And then he very graciously said that he had seen another film I'd made and I could come and speak to him. And so slowly I talked to him about why I thought this would matter. And he said, I've never seen a film about a writer and an editor. And I think this could be meaningful because people don't know, really, how books get made unless you've been in that process yourself.

And he gradually said, OK. And then he had this crazy condition. He said, I'll do it, but I don't want to appear in the same room as your father because it might get contentious. So I thought that was a kind of hilarious and a little bit endearing and sort of maddening and also sort of irresistible challenge to try to make a film about these two men who were reluctant to even be together but love each other in some way and need each other in some way.

LIMBONG: Fatherhood is a major theme of the documentary, which features Robert Gottlieb talking about his own father.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TURN EVERY PAGE")

ROBERT GOTTLIEB: My father was an angry person. And some of his anger, I think, was deflected to me. So I was never good enough.

LIMBONG: Along with examinations of Caro's relationship with his father. And I asked Lizzie Gottlieb if that emphasis on fatherhood was something she knew she wanted going into this project.

GOTTLIEB: I knew that a small element of this film was going to be about my relationship with my father, though that is so to the side, right? There's so many more important things here. And I knew that my father had had a very difficult and painful relationship with his own father, but I didn't know how many other father relationships would kind of emerge as an important theme in the film. So Robert Caro, as you hear in the film, had a very difficult father who was very critical and judgmental and not joyful and didn't believe in books or music in the house. And I think it was a really hard part of Bob Caro's childhood. His mother died when he was very young, so it was him and his father. Then Bob Caro tells a really incredible story about how he unearthed the truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and his father in his childhood. And LBJ's father was critical and harsh and really quite awful to the young Lyndon.

So I didn't know that this theme would emerge, and I find it fascinating and very moving. These men who went on to achieve a lot in very different fields all, in some way, seemed to be fueled by fathers who didn't believe in them and put them down. Of course, there are moments when I thought, oh, gosh, do you need to have a terrible father to achieve a lot? Am I screwed 'cause I have a great father? No. But it's poignant and sad to hear how much all these men suffered from not having that essential loving relationship in their childhoods.

LIMBONG: I'm curious, were there any sort of, like, frustrating moments in interviewing him and in the process of making this movie?

GOTTLIEB: Really the only disagreement we had was once he saw the movie. He said, I have to tell you, I feel very strongly that the title should have an exclamation point in it. It should be "Turn Every Page!" It's an exhortation. And I sort of braved his disapproval and left the exclamation point out. So it was scary to not take his advice there.

LIMBONG: I feel like Caro's having, like, a - I don't know if I'm just, like, graduating into the age where all of my friends are now also, you know, reading these books. But I do feel like he's having something of a moment now, right?

GOTTLIEB: Well, I think - I mean, yes. I mean, maybe he's always had a moment, ever since "The Power Broker" came out in 1974. But I think a lot of us maybe feel that the world is falling apart or we're not sure where we stand and we're looking for grounding. You know, we have Twitter and Instagram and everything happens so quickly and is sort of disposable. And I think that people feel that Caro, who takes so much time to perfect his books and takes so much time to research and really uncover the truth of what has happened in America, the truth about how power has been wielded, can be wielded, the truth about how power affects the powerless - you know, his books are so filled with unbelievable revelations about our country. So I feel that maybe people are reaching for those books because we want something that we can trust and look to to kind of understand how our world came to be the way it is and maybe how we can try to make it better.

LIMBONG: That was director Lizzie Gottlieb. Her new movie is titled "Turn Every Page." Lizzie, thanks so much.

GOTTLIEB: Thank you so much. So great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.