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Q&A with Brooklynite Cara Buckley: Rolling out the red carpet

September 12, 2016 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Cara Buckley. Photo by Fred Conrad
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If one Googles the word “carpetbagger,” the first words that appear are “noun: derogatory.” It doesn’t get any better after that: “a person perceived as an unscrupulous opportunist.” Dictionary.com’s definition is equally unflattering: “any opportunistic or exploitative outsider.”

Don’t seek refuge in Harold Robbins’ best-seller “The Carpetbaggers.” In 1961, upon the book’s publication, The New York Times book review opens with: “It was not quite proper to have printed ‘The Carpetbaggers’ between the covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.”

In 2005, shortly after Thanksgiving, The New York Times itself became a carpetbagger, albeit a far more benign, good-natured one. More accurately, the Times gave the green light to the late David Carr’s The Carpetbagger, an awards season-focused blog covering the Toronto International Film Festival, the Golden Globes, the Sundance Film Festival and culminating with the Oscars. Nikki Finke, creator of Deadline.com, claims the origin of the name for the blog was both a play on Carr’s last name, “but also captured the notion of an NYC elitist coming to Los Angeles to poke fun at the film folks.”

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However, according to a much more informed source, Cara Buckley, the current Carpetbagger writer — who, along with a former editor of the column Lorne Manley — confirmed that the actual origin story is much simpler. “In those first [Carpetbagger] videos, [Carr] would actually lug a red carpet around, into Times Square,” Manley recalled.

Carr ended up reporting and writing the column for four Oscar seasons. His successor, Melena Ryzik, took over in 2009, and in 2014 Buckley replaced Ryzik. Buckley had arrived at the Times in 2006 from The Miami Herald, where she was the Key West bureau chief. At the Times, she spent seven years on the metro desk. She covered a range of stories: an Upper East Side apartment blowing up, the thoughts of a Rabbi who was about to bury the children of Newtown, and, on a lighter note, family squabbles over Christmas lights. In addition, she had already been contributing to The Carpetbagger, so the learning curve wasn’t too steep.   

Which is not to say she hasn’t added her own imprimatur. For one thing — and this counts for a lot in our frenzied, fractured media landscape — she’s polite and gracious. She asks direct, non-convoluted questions, and then has the good manners to actually wait for the full answer. (Are you listening, Charlie Rose?) For another, she brings a gentler, more nuanced take on all the hoopla. More Rachel McAdams in “Spotlight” than Sela Ward in “Gone Girl.”

Recently, the Brooklyn Eagle sat down with Buckley, who lives in Prospect Heights, to discuss the column. We met for coffee at one of her favored haunts, Sit and Wonder. We began our conversation by discussing how closely she coordinates with the Times’ Los Angeles-based entertainment reporters Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply.

 

Cara Buckley: Well, Michael has left to join Deadline.com. When he was still at the Times, he and Brooks covered — and Brooks continues to cover — the business side. However, with Michael having left, Brooks and I are planning on coordinating more closely. Brooks is in the soup all year ‘round and I just sort of dive in for four months during awards season, and then I dive back out, so Brooks is doing the day-to-day coverage of the entertainment business.

 

Brooklyn Eagle: In your column, introducing yourself as the new ’bagger, you took a wry, self-deprecating tone. To what extent did David, and then Melena, set that that template?

CB: Even before writing The Carpetbagger, David had that irreverent, mischievous style. He never took himself too seriously. I mean, he would show up on the red carpet looking like a homeless guy, in his ruffled, dirty tux. I don’t really want to do that, nor do I need to. We each set our own tones, while still having fun. I went in bemused by all the fuss, and I still feel that way, but I do know that, culturally, there can be real reverberations from the column. For example last year, #OscarsSoWhite blew up, so you never know what fault lines might occur.

 

Eagle: Is The Carpetbagger assignment always finite?

CB: No … well, yes. David did four seasons — and, apparently, he was ready to jump off the building after three. Melena did five seasons. She also was well and done with it by the time she finished. I mean, I can’t imagine [The Carpetbagger assignment] being longer than five years.

There are only so many “takes” you can get on the awards season merry-go-round. Then it’s best to pass the baton.

 

Eagle: Now, more than ever, stars are surrounded by their “teams”: the agent, the manager, the publicist, both studio and personal. Have you experienced any difficulty dealing with these gatekeepers?

CB: Actually, it’s not too bad. Because I’m from the Times and because their jobs are getting coverage for their clients, they’re actually throwing names at you all the time. It’s a symbiotic relationship: they know we need material and we know they’re the ones who provide us access.

 

Eagle: Do they ever tell you upfront certain topics are off-limits?

CB: Again, not really. I mean, I’m writing an entertainment column. Unless someone has done something really egregious, I’m not going to bring up their personal lives. A professional or personal scandal … that’s something Brooks would deal with — the day-to-day business. What I’m focusing on is the four months of awards season, leading up to the Oscars.

 

Eagle: In terms of access, when you are talking to, let’s say, Ethan Hawke or Patricia Arquette, do you find there’s always a publicist at your elbow?

CB: No, not [at] all. And that surprised me. I’m handed off to Patricia or Ethan or whoever and we’re pretty much left alone. The publicist doesn’t sit there and monitor me; they don’t jump in to say “that question is off-limits.” The one thing [the publicists] will do is signal that time is up by pointing to their watch. I have had blowback from one major star because the director felt I gave away too much [of the plot] in a column.

Eagle: Do the publicists give you any guidelines or warnings that certain topics are off-limits?

CB: You mean “don’t talk about this or this”?

Eagle: Yes.

CB: No, but I edit myself. For example, I was interviewing Kristen Stewart about “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” and it was just about the time she and Robert Pattinson had broken up, but I thought it would be irrelevant to go there. Plus, women always get hit harder with those questions, which are essentially frivolous and have nothing to do with their work. People Magazine might be interested in that stuff, but that’s not what I’m there to ask about. To give you another example: I interviewed Reese Witherspoon right after her DUI, but I thought, “we all know what happened,” and she’s already addressed it in other forums; why bring it up?

Eagle: What if it’s a less-tabloid driven, more substantial issue?

CB: Well, that’s a different matter. I did interview Nate Parker in Martha’s Vineyard and I did ask about the rape charges. And he gave me the same pat answers he had given Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, but I feel that’s different than asking about a celebrity break-up. You know, it’s a real fine line: how much do you want to delve into someone’s personal life.

Eagle: But if you do feel it’s newsworthy, as opposed to celebrity-driven, will you ask the harder questions?

CB: Yes, absolutely. Again, in reference to Nate Parker, one of the key scenes in “Birth of a Nation” is the gang rape of a black woman, so the news cycle of that movie and of Mr. Parker’s past is inescapable. [Note: Buckley has continued reporting on this story, most recently covering Parker’s tense Sept. 11 news conference at the Toronto International Film Festival.]

Eagle: Switching gears, I notice the ’bagger never covers the Cannes Film Festival. Why?

CB: The Times always sends Manohla [Dargis, co-chief film critic] every year. And Manohla is such an excellent writer and covers Cannes so well, that there’s no reason to add it to my dance card, which is already very full: Toronto, the Golden Globes, sometimes Sundance.

Eagle: Finally, what are your favorite Brooklyn bars, restaurants, museums, rambles?

CB: In terms of restaurants, I want to give a shout-out to a great Thai place, Plant Love. In terms of theater, of course BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music]. And I particularly like the summers in Brooklyn: the annual Soul Summit in Prospect Park, visiting the Brooklyn Museum and Botanic Gardens, and, of course, the essential Brooklyn summer experience: Coney Island. Also, taking my dog for runs — but I’m not going to tell you where, because it’s actually not permitted.

Eagle: That’s a shame, I was hoping to get a scoop.


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