Skip To Content

The Reel Deal

Annette Insdorf can hardly believe it has been 20 years since she launched her popular cinematic interview series, “Reel Pieces,” and so she is consequently in the mood to reminisce. For the Columbia University professor who is also a film scholar and a master interviewer, the occasion of her series’ anniversary offers the opportunity to reflect on its legacy, and on the nature of her longstanding association with its host, New York City’s 92nd Street Y.

Insdorf, author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust” (originally published in 1983), has attracted a sterling roster of guests over the years, including Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Michael Douglas, the Coen brothers, Al Pacino, Robert Altman and Sean Penn, and this year’s series should be no different: Confirmed guests include Kate Winslet, Ed Harris and director Bill Condon. But only with the passage of time has Insdorf become able to appreciate how her series has changed, and how much ground has been covered.

“The first edition of ‘Reel Pieces,’ the first version, had one of each of an editor, a director, a cinematographer, a screenwriter, a composer, a producer and an actor,” Insdorf remembered in a recent interview with the Forward. “We came up with the idea of giving the audience a chance to learn about each of the major components of the filmmaking process, because it is such a collaborative enterprise. [And] the first ‘Reel Pieces’ in 1987 had something that I’ve not had the luxury to bring back: namely, lesser-known people in lesser-known crafts. It was great! I didn’t have to check with anyone about the star caliber of any guest. I just invited the people who were most talented in their fields.”

Insdorf’s work at Columbia and her position as chief film buff for the Y audience, appear to her as two points on a single continuum. “I consider myself first and foremost an educator, but the kind of educator who is less an academic — you know, in quotes — than a populist or a popularizer. I don’t consider the Y audience to be students in the strict sense of the term, but I suspect they come to the Y for the same reason that people choose my classrooms at Columbia. They want more than mere entertainment.” Seeking to bridge the gap between brainy cinema-chat and a more accessible form of movie talk, Insdorf carefully prepares for her interviews by poring over old interviews, scanning filmographies and reviewing her 20-plus year collection of notes taken on every film she has seen.

These resources allow her to prepare a finely balanced list of questions, one that may be tossed out entirely depending on her guest. Insdorf asserts that she has never been able to ask any guest all her prepared questions. And in the case of particularly chatty or assertive guests, like late director Alan J. Pakula, she says she was only able to ask two or three in her allotted time. Her job also requires her to carefully gauge the responses of not only her guests but also her audience, and this sometimes takes precedence over the answers themselves.

Having written, in addition to “Indelible Shadows,” well-regarded books on directors Krzysztof Kieslowski and Francois Truffaut, Insdorf is currently at work on a study of the works of maverick filmmaker Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”). “What draws me to his work, if I have to summarize it briefly, is the combination of a profoundly humanist vision with a cinematic style that is about as rich and formally exciting as any director working in the United States mainstream cinema,” Insdorf said. “His versatility has denied him the auteur status so readily heaped on those who repeat themselves.”

With all the remarkable guests Insdorf has interviewed for “Reel Pieces,” a few have still eluded her grasp — including, among others, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and George Clooney. “There are so many that I have been trying to get for years and years,” she noted, “and the only reason I keep trying is that there has been some degree of encouragement along the way. I wouldn’t bother otherwise.”

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.