Interview with Filmmaker Sam Katz (Gradually, Then Suddenly The Bankruptcy of Detroit)


Once heralded as the spirit of American manufacturing, music and democracy, Detroit descended into disrepair and insolvency over five decades culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013. Gradually, Then Suddenly is the story of one city’s climb into and out of bankruptcy toward a future of possibilities.

Interview with Filmmaker:

1. What motivated you to make this film?

I spent a large portion of my career in municipal finance and urban politics. I saw the Detroit story as a powerful reflection of what happens when public officials fail to face realities and choose to defer hard choices. I also saw it as a story of resiliency. The drama that encircled Detroit’s bankruptcy struck me as worthy of the investment in a film. I was not disappointed.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this film?

The idea started to interest me in 2013 but I had too many film projects already on my plate. At the end of 2015, I moved ahead setting up meetings in Detroit in February 2016. We finished the film in April 2022. Almost 6 1/2 years. And now the next phase of distribution begins.

3. How would you describe your film in two words!?

Riveting. Timely.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

Getting the story right and making it understandable challenged us every day of this project’s life.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I was pleasantly surprised by so much positive reaction. And as I watched more, I felt proud of the film and my colleagues, particularly my co-producer/co-director James McGovern. The bankruptcy of a city is a complicated and scary thing. It might scare away audiences. James and I wanted people to be able to touch and feel this story. The reviewers who appeared in the video responded to everything we hoped to accomplish as filmmakers.

Watch the Audience Feedback Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

Filmmaking is a late in life career pivot for me. I started producing historical documentaries about my home town, Philadelphia, in 2008 just as I turned 58. The audience, local mostly, loved the film series which was broadcast on the ABC affiliate, 6abc. From the first one, I really enjoyed the process of building teams, finding the story and acquiring a large audience to enjoy the content. I have consistently been surrounded by young and talented writers, directors, cinematographers, editors and archivists which has made my job fun and unusual. Co-Director James McGovern was among the best.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

The film I have probably watched more than any other is The Big Short. I was constantly looking at the ways they made complicated financial stuff understandable and it’s a great cast in a great Michael Lewis story. In truth however, I probably watched Happy Gilmore with my son more than any other film.

8. What other elements of the festival experience can we and other festivals implement to satisfy you and help you further your filmmaking career?

I’d like to know more and perhaps be helpful. I look forward to learning more soon.

9. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway. How has your experiences been working on the festival platform site?

Everything has always been easy of FilmFreeway. I am never sure that a submission really gets anyone’s attention as I generally believe in direct contact to get things done. That said, we are deeply honored by the recognition that this was the Best Political Film.

10. What is your favorite meal?

The one I am eating.

11. What is next for you? A new film?

I have one new documentary film project ready to start production. I am working on the idea of a podcast for Gradually, Then Suddenly. And there are a couple of films in development.


By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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