April 29, 2019
by Carla Hay
“A Day in the Life of America,” directed by Jared Leto, is a documentary that’s exactly what the title says it is: It’s a compilation of footage filmed in various parts of the United States over the course of single day. In this movie, that day was July 4, 2017 (Independence Day), when Leto dispatched 92 camera crews to get footage of people living their lives and voicing their opinions on what America means to them. (Click here for Culture Mix’s review of the film.)
The results show a wide range of emotions and opinions that reflect the diversity—and divisiveness—of the United States. “A Day in the Life of America” had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. After the screening, Leto (who is also the lead singer/chief songwriter of rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars) sat down for a Q&A, where he answered questions from a moderator and some members of the audience. Here is what he said.
You’ve said this documentary was inspired by National Geographic’s “A Day in the Life” book series. Can you elaborate on why these books captured your attention?
I just think it’s the idea that you could use creativity, use art to further understanding about culture, about society. As a kid, I was just compelled by the images. I encourage everybody to check out that book [“A Day in the Life of America”], because it’s still fascinating to see.
The artists, the photographers, they all found images you didn’t really expect—things that you didn’t necessarily see every day, and it showed you a part of the world that you hadn’t visited. I always love when films do that. I guess that’s what I love about documentary films—they take you to a part of the world or to parts of someone’s life you’d never been to before.
There are parts of the film I don’t agree with, but I thought it was really important to … not censor who we are, who our neighbors are, who America is, and try to give an accurate depiction of the nation in this really tumultuous and important time. Watching the film with everybody made me want to spend more time with certain characters.
You mentioned that we’re living in a tumultuous time. Was there a particular incident for you that inspired you to make the film?
It started with the music. It started with the album [“America,” Thirty Seconds to Mars’ 2018 album]. I am in a band. And I had an idea to make an album where I would travel around the country, I would interview people, and I would write songs loosely wrapped in the people and places that I heard.
But I did it kind of backwards. I ended up writing this album, and I thought, “Man, maybe this is that ‘America’ album that I’ve always wanted to do.” And I ended up making the companion piece [the documentary film], and did a couple of other crazy things across the country, but that’s another story.
What criteria did you have in deciding which footage would go into the film?
That’s a good question. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hundreds of hours of footage we have. We were just buried in footage. We couldn’t make a film much longer than this. It was really hard to decide what to include or not. There are so many stories that are compelling. And when you make a film, that’s part of the challenge. What do you include? What don’t you include?
It’s interesting to see people you may not agree with. I’m not so sure I agree with Mr. Drinking Man With a Gun, but I really want to spend a little more time with him. That’s what’s kind of cool about the movie … You don’t have to agree with everybody on all fronts to get along with them, to have them be your neighbor, to have them be your friend. And that’s kind of a really nice thing. But it was hard.
And 10,000 people [from the general public] also contributed. We had our 92 crews, and most of the footage—I would say 95 percent of the footage—came from the crews, because the quality of footage was better, the storytelling was a little bit more succinct and consistent. But some of the footage that you saw at the end was from the footage that was crowdsourced.
Part of this documentary project involved asking people who don’t live in the United States to give their opinions of America. That footage wasn’t really a part of the film. What did you find out from that footage?
Should I tell you the truth? You can probably imagine. I did ask people from all over the world to send in their thoughts, because I was thinking of including that. You’ve got to ask your neighbors if you want to get an accurate depiction of who you are.
We did end up using that footage. We kept [the movie] in the States, with the exception of the Space Station. Things that were broadcast on the news or radio were also fair game. This [footage in the documentary] is all one day, and it’s just a tiny tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot that happens in this country. But the footage that we got outside the States was interesting.
What was the most important lesson you learned through this process?
It’s always a good reminder that ideas are pretty worthless unless you do something about it. This is a film that was an idea for a really long time, and it’s fun to see it become a reality, to dig in, get a great group of people together, and go make something happen.
I love to tell stories. I love to make things and show things with the world, and it’s an absolutely amazing thing to do. I never take it for granted. It’s great to watch it with you guys. I learned so much talking with you. [He says jokingly] And I’m going to take the film now, and totally ruin it, and make into five-minute episodes for Instagram.
This movie seems awfully dark. Did you did find a lot of people who were patriotic, or did you think it wasn’t worth including?
We did find quite a bit of optimism. We didn’t ask people to film dark stuff. I think we were specific about some things—events we wanted to capture, certain people we wanted to spend time with—but we didn’t dictate what stories people told. We didn’t dictate a point of view. We went to every single state in the country, so we didn’t avoid areas.
It is dark, but I do hear a surprising amount of optimism. I hear people go, “Yeah, shit’s pretty tough right now, but I still think we can do it,” which is pretty incredible. What’s so important about America and the American dream is that we have instilled inside of us this idea that with hard work, with passion, with help from our friends and neighbors, that anything is possible. And I still took that away, personally, from the film.
It’s a tough world out there for a lot of people in this country, and that’s what we see. But I didn’t write the script. I’m just the messenger, so it’s really your movie. It’s not mine. I just held up the mirror with 92 other [camera crews].