Jared Leto reveals his snapshot of American culture in his documentary ‘A Day in the Life of America’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo 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.

Jade Jackson in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Gabe Mayhan and Gabe Gentry)

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.

DeAndre Upshaw and Stuart Hausmann in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Evett Rolsten)

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.

Renan Ozturk in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Renan Ozturk)

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].

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Day in the Life of America’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

A Day in the Life of America
DeAndre Upshaw and Stuart Hausmann in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Evett Rolsten)

“A Day in the Life of America”

Directed by Jared Leto

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival  in New York City on April 27, 2019.

Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto, who is also the lead singer/songwriter of the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, has been steadily building a portfolio of interesting work as a director—beginning with Thirty Seconds to Mars videos, and progressing to the award-winning 2012 documentary feature “Artifact” (which chronicled the band’s fight to get out of its contract with EMI Music) and the non-fiction digital series “Beyond the Horizon” and “Great Wide Open.” The documentary “A Day in the Life of America” is his most ambitious directorial project so far. Inspired by National Geographic’s “A Day in the Life” book series, the documentary is a fascinating mosaic of people in the United States, all filmed on a single day: July 4, 2017. Leto solicited video footage from the public, but the majority of what made it into the final cut of the movie is footage that was professionally filmed by the 92 camera crews that Leto dispatched across the United States to capture everyday people on Independence Day. The documentary is also a companion piece to Thirty Seconds to Mars’ 2018 album “America.”

Because we’re living in an era where millions of people have put their video diaries on the Internet, one of the documentary’s biggest accomplishments is that it takes all of that type of noise and shapes it into an eclectic and riveting symphony of varied human perspectives. Not all of it is easy to digest. There are so many contrasting viewpoints expressed in the documentary, that people watching this film are bound to see things that will make them angry, sad, offended, entertained, hopeful and inspired. The movie’s top-notch editing, seamless cinematography and compelling Thirty Seconds to Mars music score all contribute to making “A Day in the Life of America” an engrossing cinematic journey. The movie does not interview political pundits or news commentators to give their distracting opinions. The people in the movie are not identified by name when we see them talk. It’s a wise decision, because what everyday people have to say in this movie is more important than the possibility that anyone could become a star by being in this film.

“A Day in the Life of America,” whose main scenes are shown in chronological order, begins with a pregnant woman going into labor during a home birth. During the course of the documentary, viewers hear from a wide variety of people from just about every region of the United States. In Arkansas, two drunk redneck men fire assault rifles in the air, and complain that white Americans are a dying breed. In California, a porn actress is shown working on the set of one of her movies and talks about how much she loves her job. In New York, a Hasidic trans woman shares her experiences of what it feels like to be discriminated against in and outside her religion. In West Virginia, a young, white single mother who’s addicted to meth smokes the drug on camera, and expresses shame and guilt for not being a good parent. In Texas, a gay black man at a skating rink expresses his thoughts on LGBTQ rights and the ongoing fight to be accepted in the same way as heterosexuals.

On the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., people who are gathered at the Capitol Building range from Donald Trump supporters to anti-Trump protesters. Trump and wife Melania are shown greeting the crowd outside the White House. Speaking of Trump, his administration’s Muslim ban—and people’s contrasting views about it—are given notable screen time in this movie.

For many viewers, the most emotionally triggering aspect of “A Day in the Life of America” is the movie’s raw look at racism. In North Carolina, male and female members of the Ku Klux Klan are shown planning for a race war and spewing hatred against people who aren’t white and Christian. In Louisiana, African American adults talk about how there are two Americas: one that gives more privileges to whites and one where people who aren’t white still have to struggle to be accepted as equals. Meanwhile, the black kids in the Louisiana footage express more optimism about the future, saying that America represents freedom to them.

One of the movie’s effective devices is how contrasting viewpoints are edited right next to each other. After the KKK members from North Carolina are shown ranting that immigrants are ruining America, the next footage shows Native Americans in South Dakota celebrating their heritage. In another scene, there’s a ceremony where people are becoming U.S. citizens. The next scene is of white nationalist American Freedom Party members gathered for a meeting and talking about how they want their own country so they can have stricter laws against immigration. There’s a scene with people dressed as Revolutionary War-era Americans during a patriotic ceremony in Virginia. That footage is followed by a scene of a Muslim teenage girl in a boxing ring talking about how she won a hard-fought legal battle for her right to wear a hijab while boxing.

The documentary also takes a searing look at crime in America, particularly in how crime disproportionately affects black people. In Chicago, black residents in a working-class neighborhood express fear and sadness on the Fourth of July when they can’t tell if they’re hearing fireworks or gunshots. During filming, police arrive because a boy got shot. (The shooting is not in the movie.) In Detroit, young black residents on the streets are jaded and pessimistic about their future. In Oklahoma, a black man in prison (the details of his criminal record aren’t mentioned) talks about not getting justice and feeling like he’s invisible.

Health care is another big issue that’s covered in the movie. Tennis player Sebastien Jacques (who recovered from a life-threatening brain tumor) is shown in Kansas during his Walk Across America campaign to promote hope in dealing with health problems. That footage is in contrast to the next scene that shows a bed-ridden man dying from cancer.

Of course, it’s impossible for one movie to capture all the subcultures and issues that exist in the United States. For example, the wealthiest “one-percent” of people in America are noticeably absent from the film’s featured interviews. It would have been great to include the perspective of a self-made billionaire—not necessarily someone who’s famous, but someone who represents what is often described as the ultimate American Dream. Even though the super-wealthy aren’t really given a spotlight as a contrast to all the poor and middle-class people who highlighted are in the movie, “A Day in the Life of America” does a fairly comprehensive job of capturing a great deal of the contemporary diversity that exists in the United States. Simply put: “A Day in the Life of America” just might be the most honest documentary about the United States that could be released this year, because it’s the collective voices of people in America speaking their truths.

UPDATE: PBS’s “Independent Lens” series will premiere “A Day in the Life of America” on January 11, 2021.