Matteo Brunetta is an Italian-born documentary film maker who lives in New York City.
His film The Highest Cost looks at the fight of two 9/11 first responders against cancer developed from months of working at Ground Zero.
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of speaking with him.
When did you get into film making?
I’ve been interested since I was little actually. I grew up in a very small town outside of Venice and we had a 1-room movie theater. The same exact movie would play for a month or longer.
In middle school, they opened a big multiplex. Not ‘big’ like here in America, but for us it was huge. There were five rooms. During high school, in the afternoon, instead of studying, I found myself spending time at the movie theater.
In college, I studied journalism, but movie making was always on my mind.
Documentaries are “in between” journalism and movies.
Was there a particular movie that you remember that inspired you?
It was one of the first things that made me think documentaries could be fun.
Growing up in Italy I thought documentaries were boring. Especially the ones they made for Italian TV.
Then I saw Super Size Me and Morgan Spurlock became my hero. The crazy thing was I worked for him from January until May.
What was it like to meet your hero?
It was great. I kept thinking to myself, here I am working for the person who made me want to pursue documentaries.
I even told him about this once at a party. Alcohol and hugging might have been involved.
What inspired you to make The Highest Cost?
When I moved to America almost 3 years ago, I was doing news for Italian television. I left to attend film school.
A few months after I started film school, I went back to the TV station to visit my friends. One of them is a journalist and he told me about the situation with the 9/11 first responders.
Out of curiosity, I went home and did some research. I hadn’t planned to make a movie. I contacted one of the activists (John Feal) online and arranged to meet him. This was 5 months before I made the movie.
He basically opened my eyes to this post 9/11 community. Great people. I became friends with a lot of them and that’s how I decided to make the film.
Eventually, he introduced me to John (Devlin) and Jeff (Stroehlin).
Did you know where the story was going to go when you started?
No. I had no clue where the story was going to go. Especially since I didn’t have any idea whether cancer was going to be added to the congressional bill.
The great thing about documentaries is that you start thinking about a story and you have an idea about what you’d like to portray and make, but it always changes. You just have to be open to that change.
The final product is never like what you thought at the beginning. That’s why I love documentaries.
Was it hard dealing with such an emotional subject?
What was hard was editing the film because you have to go over and over the same sentences.
Basically, they’re dying in front of you and you have to watch it and re-watch it and re-watch it.
When I first interviewed them, they were telling their story with so much passion that I was completely following them. It was like a conversation.
It didn’t feel that hard or depressing or sad. It was more powerful and passionate.
But re-watching it during editing was very tough.
9/11 First Responder John Devlin
I can imagine. Even watching it the first time, I felt myself really feeling for these guys.
You know when it was emotional. It was emotional when we went to Ground Zero. They hadn’t been there since a couple months after 9/11.
They’ve been interviewed by so many journalists over the years. So many of them ask them to go to Ground Zero to do the interview. They always say ‘no’. Both of them.
But for some weird reason they agreed to do it with me.
At one point John Devlin told me “You’re lucky that we like you. We came down here because of you. Not because of anybody else.”
You could see how powerful it was for them. In their eyes, they were seeing what it was like 12 years ago.
At one point, John asked me, “Can we please leave?” So we left.
What you see during a time like 9/11, most of us can’t imagine because we’ve never been there. Sure, we saw it on TV. But we weren’t there. We didn’t live it like they did.
I felt extremely honored at that moment. Because I know how difficult it was for them.
What was your proudest moment with the film?
When I sent the DVD to John and Jeff.
I wasn’t there with them when they saw it, but they wrote me back that they liked it. That was the best thing in world.
I didn’t care if anyone else liked it. I was just worried that they might not like it.
But they both wrote me back and called me and said they were very happy with it. That, unquestionably was my proudest moment.
Other moments you remember?
I also enjoy showing it at festivals. I’ve shown it at several. Recently, in Charleston and Sedona.
Perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the best word though. What moves me is how people have reacted. Their reaction was always positive in that they wanted to help.
They wanted to know what they could do. Sometimes they were angry, but the anger was because they wanted to make things better.
Is 9/11 perceived differently outside the U.S.?
I think it affected the entire world similarly. When a tragedy like this happens, the community comes together. People unite everywhere, even if they disagree.
In Italy, we were probably touched by the event more than other places in Europe because we have more U.S. bases located there.
Half an hour away from where I live there is an Air Force base called Aviano. It’s the second largest base in Europe. It’s a town. To get in, you need a passport. Basically, it’s like a town in American territory where you pay with dollars.
Have you ever gotten negative feedback about the movie?
At the film festival in Charleston though there was one woman who expressed a different kind of anger. I think she saw it through a political lens – Democrats vs. Republicans – and felt that the film took sides.
I think she didn’t see the story as a story about two peoples’ lives. I tried to explain that as a documentarian, you are letting your subjects talk.
I was sorry she felt this way. This was never my intention.
Of course you always have a position. But the position to me was doing the right thing. These are just people who are sick and fighting for their rights. Not one party or the other. To me, it seemed like something anyone could get behind.
On the flip side, what’s the best feedback you’ve gotten?
At the end of a screening in Sedona, a woman came up to me and said: “Please keep doing what you’re doing.”
For more information on Matteo Brunetta, visit matteobrunetta.com or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. If you want to know what you can do to help 9/11 first responders, contact or donate to the FealGood Foundation.
Matteo Brunetta was born in Trento, Italy and grew up in Conegliano, a little town outside Venice. From a very young age, he has been fascinated by the world of movies and journalism. He started pursuing his passion for print journalism by writing film reviews for several websites in Italy. Graduating with a degree in Communication Sciences from the University of “Roma Tre”, his final thesis focused on the history of American sitcoms and their relationship with the ancient Greek theater. In 2011, he moved to New York City to work at the subsidiary of the RAI (Italian National Television) and soon after decided it was time to pursue a film career. Matteo was accepted into an intensive documentary film program at the New York Film Academy, from where he graduated in 2012. The Highest Cost is his first film. He is currently living in New York City and working on multiple projects and TV shows (Mansome, Project Runway 12, The Face 2), including his two new documentaries Frequency of Resistance and Camp Greyhound.
Cross posted at: Daily Kos.