“Attending the Oscars was like having your finger in a light socket for five hours straight,” says David Heilbroner, L’84. “It was the most overwhelming experience of my life.”
It’s Monday afternoon, fewer than 24 hours after the 90th Academy Awards, and Heilbroner is speaking by phone from Los Angeles International Airport. After a long night, he’s energetic and voluble, eager to reflect on his red carpet experience before returning home to New York. “There were hundreds of reporters and cameras and microphones and klieg lights everywhere,” he recalls. “On one side of the carpet there was a big bank of reporters five deep and 100 long, and on the other side a bleacher full of people to cheer on the big stars.”
Heilbroner and his wife, Kate Davis, have been producing award-winning documentaries for the past 15 years. Their latest film, Traffic Stop, was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. It didn’t win—that honor went to Heaven is a traffic jam on the 405—but the Oscar buzz surrounding the 30-minute film catapulted it into the national spotlight: After being announced as an Oscar nominee in January, Traffic Stop aired on HBO and was screened for millions of viewers in 600 cities and 30 countries worldwide. As Heilbroner puts it, “All of a sudden there’s enormous interest.”
The film tells the story of Breaion King, a 26-year-old African American elementary school teacher in Austin, Texas, who is pulled over by a white police officer for a routine traffic violation that quickly morphs into a violent arrest. Police dash-cam video captures King being pulled from her car by the arresting officer, repeatedly thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and placed in the back of a squad car. En route to jail, King and a backup officer engage in a candid conversation about race. “Do you still believe that there’s racism out there?” she asks. “Yes,” the officer replies. “I do.”
“These incidents occur all around the country and often go unlitigated and unchallenged,” says Heilbroner. “People accept this as part of life and life shouldn’t be that way.” In a Q&A at the DOC NYC festival, where Traffic Stop premiered in November 2017, he expressed interest in teaming up with police officers and civil rights lawyers to “start a conversation.”
‘I’m here for the issues’
Heilbroner did red carpet interviews for 90 minutes, pausing only to have his photo taken: “Look here, look there, give me a smile.” He was dapper, dressed in an Issey Miyake vest and Kenneth Cole tuxedo. “Kenneth got me a classic tux,” he explains. “That’s me—East Coast and old school.”
At the awards show, Heilbroner sat in the so-called “parterre” section of the Dolby Theatre. It’s pretty close to the stage, “but not quite in the first 20 rows with all the superstars.” He didn’t mind—he was accompanied by Davis and King, the latter of whom he described as a “school teacher in the very deep waters of Hollywood” who “suffered a lot of indignity and was somehow thrust into this crazy whirlwind where people are making tens of millions of dollars per film.” For him, having King by his side was the highlight of the night. “I’m here for the issues. It’s nice to have my ego stroked, but I’m really here because I care about what happened to Breaion.”
“Attending the Oscars was like having your finger in a light socket for five hours straight. It was the most overwhelming experience of my life.”
Heilbroner met some of Hollywood’s biggest stars—Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, and Margot Robbie among them—and found host Jimmy Kimmel to be “soft,” “gentle,” “really charming” and “very funny.” Pop star Mary J. Blige “killed it” with her performance of “Mighty River” from Mudbound, he says, and the champagne was “very good.” The most dramatic moment of the night was a no-brainer. It was when Tiffany Haddish, star of the 2017 comedy Girls Trip, announced the winner of the best documentary short. In case of victory, Heilbroner and Davis had written out a somewhat political acceptance speech. “I wanted to thank the Academy and HBO for giving us an incredible platform to tell stories about disempowered people who have the courage to stand up for themselves and speak truth to power,” he says. “We were very much favored by a lot of people,” he adds, “but I wasn’t cocky in the slightest. You forget how lucky you are just to be nominated in the first place.”
Following the three-hour show, Heilbroner and his daughter, Katrina, attended Elton John’s after party, where they danced and dined on lobster tails. “It was loud and crowded and we laughed about the whole thing.” He tossed his acceptance speech in the trash—“not bitterly,” he says, “but because I didn’t need it anymore.”
‘A big check and a mandate to make a film’
Heilbroner didn’t grow up thinking he’d become a documentary filmmaker. He studied English literature at Harvard in the late 1970s, graduated from Northeastern’s School of Law in 1984, and then spent three years as an assistant district attorney in New York City. He’s written a memoir (Rough Justice: Days and Nights of a Young D.A.); a true crime book turned feature film (Death Benefit); and a score of investigate features for Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times Magazine.
Shortly after Death Benefit received the cover treatment from the Times’ Sunday Book Review in 1994, Heilbroner ran into A&E Television Networks’ then senior vice president of programming Michael Cascio while out to lunch in New York. “He said, ‘you should be making movies because you know stuff,’ I said ‘no, thank you,’ and he said, ‘here’s my card.’” After mulling over his future as an author, Heilbroner called Cascio. “Within two weeks, I had a big check and a mandate to make a film.”
Heilbroner solicited help from Davis, an accomplished filmmaker whose 2001 documentary Southern Comfort won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Award. He told her, “I don’t know one end of the camera from the other and you do. Let’s be a team.” They co-founded QBall Productions—which is named after their son, Quentin, who was “born as bald as a cue ball”—and the rest is history.
“These incidents occur all around the country and often go unlitigated and unchallenged. People accept this as part of life and life shouldn’t be that way.”
Over the past 15 years, they’ve written, directed, and produced more than 10 documentaries for A&E, HBO, Court TV, and the History Channel. Their subjects run from the labor conditions in horse racing (Jockey) to the persecution of homosexuals by the police (Stonewall Uprising). The Newburg Sting, a true-crime documentary positing that the FBI fabricated a case of domestic terrorism against four New York Muslims, won the 2015 Peabody Award.
In his acceptance speech, Heilbroner thanked those “who were afraid to speak truth to power and put their faith in us to tell their story about being abused by the FBI.” His filmmaking philosophy, shaped in part by his stint as a Manhattan prosecutor, is simple: “I won’t skew the facts in service of telling a good story.”
His next film—Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland—tells of the 28-year-old African American Texas woman who was found hanged in her jail cell after being arrested for failing to signal a lane change. It will premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Sandra Bland is a hot-button story for many people around the country,” says Heilbroner. “I actually hope to get nominated for it.”