Montclair resident produces and directs CNN docuseries on Giuliani
Mention the name Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani in a crowded room, and a number of arguments are bound to occur. The controversial former New York mayor turned advocate for President Donald Trump has garnered both positive and negative media attention over the last couple of decades. His drastic career fluctuations have led to wavering opinions about his legacy. This weekend, television viewers gain perspective on what happened to this complex political figure, in a docuseries produced and directed in part by a Montclair resident.
Valerie Thomas, a longtime filmmaker, producer and storyteller, has lived in Montclair for about 15 years. She has a long history of telling diverse stories through a wide range of genres. On Sunday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., the first two episodes of her latest project – the four-part “Giuliani: What Happened To America’s Mayor?” – will air on CNN.
“I'm really just interested in anything that is a good story,” Thomas said, “whether that be in the political realm or in the arts and culture.”
Thomas stepped into the film industry early in life, when she assisted director Jonathan Demme, known for such films as “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia.” For about 10 years, Thomas oversaw the making of dozens of projects working in both development and production.
After working with Demme, Thomas decided to move in a different direction and headed back to school. With the aspiration of becoming a print journalist, Thomas attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University where she received her master’s degree.
Once she graduated, Thomas decided to take a couple of years off to care for her newborn child. Her career then took another turn when she decided to return to work, this time, pursuing screenplay and novel writing.
In 2010, Thomas published her first novel, co-written with Stacy Kramer, titled “Karma Bites.” Two years later, her next book, “From What I Remember,” was published. Thomas continued to navigate through a creative career and also wrote a screenplay for Twentieth Century Fox.
Eventually, Thomas came to balance her talents of storytelling and writing and dived into the world of documentary filmmaking.
“I thought, ‘You know what, I think I should sort of transition into documentary films, if I can,’ because it's a good mix of print journalism and filmmaking,” Thomas said. “So I started writing documentaries. And from there, I started producing and directing. And that's been about the last 10 years or so. So, yeah. That's the path.”
Before directing and producing two of the four episodes in the Giuliani series, Thomas directed two episodes of “The Murdochs: Empire of Influence,” a six-part CNN series about the Murdoch family. And before that, Thomas produced a feature documentary called “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for outstanding writing in a documentary.
In a variety of genres, Thomas has unwrapped and displayed the hidden stories behind niche topics.
“It's a vast array of different subjects, but I think what links them all together is just stories that I'm interested in telling others that they may not have heard of, and that are compelling and that teach us something about the bigger world in which they live,” she said.
The Giuliani series took a little more than a year to produce. In the early phases, Thomas was heavily involved in research, spending days with the production team to unravel Giuliani’s history and sociopolitical ties.
This research led the team to what may be the most rigorous element of production – deciding whom to interview. To begin, Thomas, who conducted many interviews in the series, reached out to some of the more obvious players in Giuliani’s life, including print and television reporters who have covered Giuliani for years and writers who have written books about his career.
For a deeper look at Giuliani as a person, Thomas and the production team tried to contact the people closest to him, those who worked directly with or under him or knew him on a personal level. However, given the complex nature of Giuliani’s character, Thomas said, about half of those they asked declined to be interviewed.
“A lot of people didn't want to talk about him,” Thomas said. “One of the things that we came up against, I would say, across the board, is that people who knew him well, who for the most part are fairly disillusioned and frustrated with the way in which things have gone in the past few years, didn't want to talk about that. They had positive memories and positive experiences working with him, let's say, and they didn't want to be the one to say that they were angry or disappointed.”
Giuliani also declined an interview request. Although the lack of response was no surprise for Thomas, it was also not necessarily predicted.
“On the one hand, I thought, ‘Why would he talk to us? It's clear that we're not going to necessarily tell the story that he wants told because it's going to be pretty critical, factual, and therefore kind of doesn't make him look too good,’” Thomas said. “But at the same time, he's such an attention grabber and he loves to be in the limelight, and he loves to be the center of attention, and we all thought there was a good chance that he would say yes, simply to be on camera and tell his side of the story, but he never did. It was disappointing.”
Although the production team received a number of interview rejections, Thomas interviewed a surprising number of people who make up the pieces of the Giuliani puzzle. Those interviews revealed the many ups and downs in his political career. From his days growing up in an Italian, blue-collar family, through the peaks and pits of his time as New York City’s mayor, to his aggressive Trump endorsement and the Hunter Biden “investigation,” all the way through to his persuasive speech before the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, “Giuliani: What Happened To America’s Mayor?” covers it all. And while the highs and lows of Giuliani’s life may leave people wondering what happened, Thomas hopes this docuseries provides clarity for them.
“I think it adds up to a portrait that makes sense,” Thomas said. “This is a person who, while he's made some unexpected decisions and taken some strange turns in his life, there's also a lot of consistencies. There's themes and character qualities or behavioral trends and so forth that have been there from the beginning. I think that that's what I'm hoping people see.
“It's hard to make sense of it. I mean, even if you do know everything about him, it's hard to make sense of, because he's a brilliant man. He was a brilliant lawyer. He led the city and the country through 9/11. There's so many things about him that are positive and run against and cut against what he's done. It makes no sense on some level, like, ‘How could someone who's done that do this?’ But if you look at the whole picture, it does kind of add up.”
The four-part series “Giuliani: What Happened To America’s Mayor?” will air over two consecutive weekends, with the first two episodes premiering on Sunday, Jan. 8, and the third and final episode premiering on Sunday, Jan. 15. Viewers can tune in to the premier starting at 9 p.m. on both days on CNN.