Michael Ori for Canon Creative Studio, Sundance Film Festival 2020


Behind the Scenes

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman is no stranger to the front lines. His latest, American Symphony, is a portrait of an artist behind closed doors.

Emmy Award–winning and Academy Award–nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman is as serious about filmmaking as the subjects he documents. He’s filmed Mexican drug cartels (Cartel Land, 2015), ISIS in Syria (City of Ghosts, 2017), inside the ER at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (The First Wave, 2021), and the end of America’s twenty-year war with Afghanistan (Retrograde, 2022) – to name just a few. The Sundance Film Festival called Heineman one of the most talented documentary filmmakers in cinema today. And he accomplished all that before the age of forty.

His newest project, American Symphony, fits into and expands his oeuvre. It follows Grammy Award–winning musician Jon Batiste as he composes and premieres his first original symphony at Carnegie Hall in the midst of family hardship. The film, which debuts on Netflix on November 29, is already attracting Oscar buzz.

When Heineman is not hunkered down with his subjects, camera in hand, you might find him at his Chilmark home. He’s also a familiar face at The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, where he showed his first feature-length documentary, and he sits on the advisory board for Circuit Arts, the parent organization of the film festival.

Martha’s Vineyard Magazine caught up with the always-on-the-go documentarian to chat about his start in filmmaking, how the idea for American Symphony came about, and what he’s got planned next. An edited transcript follows. 

MVM: You didn’t study film at Dartmouth, where you attended college. You did, however, go on a post-grad cross-country road trip in an RV with a video camera and some of your closest friends to interview kids across America with the hopes of learning more about your generation. Was that your first glimpse at a career in documentary filmmaking? 

Matthew Heineman: I studied history in college, and I had no idea I wanted to be a filmmaker. I thought I wanted to be a teacher, and I tried to do Teach For America and got rejected – and most people don’t get rejected from Teach For America. So, we rented an RV for a few months, drove around, raised money, bought a video camera, and that was my film school. That was my first foray into filmmaking. 

MVM: Since then you’ve filmed Mexican drug cartels, ISIS in Syria, the ER at the beginning of Covid before anyone knew what Covid was. You seem to embed in dangerous situations, often with a front row seat for violent and traumatic situations. What draws you to these subjects?

MH: I think some people think I’m a thrill seeker, or adrenaline junkie, or that I love being in danger, but that’s certainly not the case. Whether it’s a Mexican drug war, or ISIS in Syria, or the end of the war in Afghanistan, or the beginning of Covid, it’s [about] trying to take these large subjects and putting a face to it in order to humanize the story for audiences. That’s something I’ve tried to do throughout my career. 

MVM: I assume you’ve had to maneuver out of some dicey situations?

MH: Of course.

MVM: At a recent Sundance Film Festival panel, you spoke about the mental toll that filming some of these documentaries has taken on you. It’s a serious issue that’s widespread throughout the industry. What compels you to keep going and telling these stories? Have these experiences changed the way you work?

MH: They certainly change the way I work, and they certainly change the way I view the world. It’s such an unbelievable privilege to make films, to tell stories. It’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. To be able every couple of years to dive into a new subject and explore, learn, and grow, and try to convey that to the world, it’s really something special. Each film has changed me in different ways. 

MVM: Given the toll it can take, do you ever think, “I should make a lighthearted documentary about a whale, or ladybugs – something a little more serene?” 

MH: Ha, I guess in some ways that’s what I set out to do with my new film.

MVM: Yes, American Symphony, which follows musician Jon Batiste as he composes his first symphony. The week he was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, his longtime partner, Suleika Jaouad, found out her leukemia had returned after a decade in remission. That sounds beautiful, but also emotional and heavy.

MH: It’s certainly a departure from my past work. It was an amazing experience documenting two artists at this critical moment in their lives for American Symphony. A lot of people in my life have been trying to get me to stay away from dangerous subject matter. I don’t make films because I enjoy it; I make films because I believe they are stories that need to be told. 

MVM: What sparked your interest in making this film? 

MH: Jon co-wrote the music for my film The First Wave. We were having dinner one night and he was telling me about his plans to write and ultimately perform American Symphony at Carnegie Hall. We both kind of looked at each other and thought it could be an interesting film. We didn’t know he would win Grammys, and, of course, we didn’t know his soon-to-be wife’s cancer would be back. Like most films in my career, I started out making one thing and ended up making something completely different.

MVM: So it didn’t start as a personal film?

MH: Everything I do is personal. It was going to be a portrait of an artist, but the twists and turns weren’t something I conceived of in the beginning. When I was twenty-one I heard a mentor of mine say, “If you end up with a story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way.” 

MVM: I like that.

MH: Yeah. Don’t be dogmatic; be open to the story changing – that’s something I’ve held close to my heart. Within each shoot day and in each moment, look beyond the frame. That certainly was the case here with American Symphony. 

MVM: American Symphony was picked up by Higher Ground, the Obamas’ production company. What was it like when you heard they had seen and were picking up your film? 

MH: It was picked up by Higher Ground along with Netflix. It was very surreal, and they are the perfect partners for this film. I’m so humbled to be partnering with them to get this film out in the world.

MVM: You have a property in Chilmark, and you’ve been visiting the Island since you were two years old. What do you love about being on the Vineyard? 

MH: I mean, the Island has been such an unbelievably special place for me my whole life. I love the community. I love being on the Island, and it’s just an unbelievably special place for me. 

MVM: Looking ahead, in 2018 you directed the critically acclaimed A Private War, your first narrative film. Do you see more narrative filmmaking in your future?

MH: I have a project that’s been announced, a narrative limited series with Jessica Chastain for Apple TV+ called The Savant, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do that.

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Richard Paradise
Vineyard Haven
AMERICAN SYMPHONY will be screening at the MV Film Center on January 17th at 7:30 pm and includes an interview with Matthew Heineman afterwards. Details at
January 2, 2024 - 7:52am