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Sitting Down with the Director of “The Rise of Jordan Peterson”

(Patricia Marcoccia)

I would say the social aspects of making the film were really difficult for me because a lot of my network and friends and social circle is progressive, and, obviously, progressives are not a fan of [Peterson’s].”

Following up on his recent two-part interview with Maziar Ghaderi, the producer of the 2019 documentary The Rise of Jordan Peterson, Kambiz Tavana now sits down with Patricia Marcoccia, the film’s director (and Ghaderi’s wife). In this discussion, Marocccia walks Tavana through many of the artistic choices she made in directing and editing the film, as well as commenting on the feedback—both positive and negative—she has fielded since the film first screened.

So, first of all—congratulations. Great movie. Loved it. Tell me this: How did you decide to make this movie—because when you first met Jordan Peterson he was not famous. Am I correct? 

That’s right. Yeah. So the backstory is that I’ve known about Jordan Peterson’s work for quite a long time: his work as an academic, his work on the psychology of meaning. Those are really the ideas that drew me to him initially.  

So I used to study psychology as an undergraduate student at McMaster University. And at that time, I came across his book Maps of Meaning. This is probably in 2003, and I was taking a lot of philosophy classes as well, studying Nietzsche and such. I was very interested in the big existential questions. And so when I came across his book, I found it really fascinating—in particular the way he talks about the nature of reality: this kind of metaphysical idea of how there’s the reality of objects. Then another way of looking at reality is a sort of narrative with these characters in a story. And when you look at it from a psychological perspective, it’s sort of just as true to look at reality from these two different perspectives as a narrative and as objects. 

So I found this all very fascinating at the time, and I also was interested in the way [Peterson] studied ethical and moral questions—and the nature of evil and topics like this. I came from a pretty religious upbringing. My family is Italian, Roman Catholic though I sort of moved away from I guess those religious beliefs when I was in late elementary school or early high school, but I always kind of felt this gap of still being interested in having a space to think about these ideas. And so I actually found there was something about the way [Peterson] would engage with them that I found really interesting. 

Then fast forward to 2015: this is when I decided to finally approach Peterson about making a film, and it’s an idea I had in the back of my mind for quite a long time. I thought that we were looking at—I’m not sure how familiar you are with his book Maps of Meaning—but in the introduction, he tells some of the back story of what led him to want to address these questions about the nature of evil. As a teenager, he was plagued by nightmares about the end of the world, and it wasn’t just this abstract problem; it was something very personal to him, as well. So I was interested in these ideas, and I was interested in the person behind the ideas; and his ideas had come to be influential in my life. When I was in my early twenties, I knew that he was a very influential professor to a lot of students at the University of Toronto as well. So I approached him with this interest in mind about making a film in 2015 and little did I know that a year-and-a-half later, he was going to release those videos that ended up going viral—and then sort of everything changed. If the order of events had been switched around and I had just heard about him through this controversy around him criticizing Bill C-16 and pronouns and political correctness, it probably wouldn’t have been the story that I would’ve been chasing. So it was more like the controversy came to me. 

That’s what I wanted to know. Because now, no one is surprised if one wants to make a movie about Jordan Peterson. He’s very well-known; he’s controversial. People have heard about him and know him, seen him. You brought up his book, and I read the Maps of Meaning actually. It’s a tremendously dense book; it’s very hard to read. I love it actually, but when I read it, the prose reminds me of Thomas Hobbes because Peterson’s writing is so dense and so meaningful. But again, I don’t know how—at the time you did—that made the decision to make a movie about Jordan Peterson, someone whose book is so dense and hard to follow. What were you thinking at that time? 

Yeah, again, I found the idea just so fascinating. I felt like there was something really deeply important there. I didn’t quite even understand why, but I felt like this was a really important topic for me to pursue. It’s really as simple as that. One of the ideas that stuck out to me in Maps of Meaning is in the very last chapter when he talks about the idea of the divine individual and, you know, the irony is that there are a lot of people who look at Jordan Peterson as this larger-than-life celebrity figure because of how he’s impacted their lives. I think in a way that’s what he was to me at the time when I was in my twenties—and when I first had these thoughts of being so curious and digging in to see if there’s something really profound here and wanting to understand what it is. So for me, at the time, it was that—and, now, he’s this larger-than-life figure for a lot of people, while also just being a human being. So, there’s this reverse order of things, I guess. 

In terms of having access to Peterson, how did that work out? Because when you started your movie, there was not too much attention surrounding him, but then it got very, very different.  

Right, so it had been a year-and-a-half of already filming with him, his family, getting to know him and his family. So we already had an established relationship by the time things became controversial and more and more people started approaching him. There was a time when there were a ton of filmmakers and journalists all vying for his attention. But I think it was definitely beneficial that I was already there previously and that we already had built a relationship of trust. You know, I wasn’t just coming to film him because of the controversy. He knew I had come with a different interest, and we had already done that before. It did start to become more difficult when he became more and more famous—and more and more people were wanting his attention. Then, it was just basically trying to find time in his schedule. 

We wanted to find a time to film an interview with him to get him to respond to the article written by his friend, Bernie Schiff, who we featured in the film. And the only way that we could do that was to fly to L.A., and that’s when he had a free time in a time slot. And so, we live in the same city. It’s kind of ridiculous that we had to fly to L.A. just to find an interview spot with him. But we did what we had to do, and it was important to really just kind of roll with things. We had to be flexible to make it work with his schedule because he was so busy. The kind of style of documentary filmmaking that I really like is when it’s not contrived—when people forget that I’m in the room filming and you can just be yourself. And so to do that, you just have to be really flexible and go with the flow and recognize if things have to change a lot. So there were a lot of sacrifices. But touring the film over the last month-and-a-half has made all those sacrifices really feel worth it now that we actually have been able to share the film with people. 

And you worked on previous documentaries before this one? 

I had only done short films before this. This was my first feature film. Documentary filmmaking is something I’ve been interested in and wanted to pursue for a long time, but it always seemed so impractical to me, to be honest. So I did other things around it. I did digital media producing; I did journalism; I worked as an associate producer on other people’s documentary films. But I had always wanted to direct my own story ideas. But this is the first one that I pursued, though it had started off as a completely different film idea in 2015. 

That’s the thing about projects; they take you where they want to go. It’s not up to you. They have a mind of their own. This is something that I was curious about when I was watching the movie: you capture some interesting moments. At the same time, when you search for Jordan Peterson on YouTube, you see lots of lots of good footage. Have you ever felt like, “God, I wish I was there for this moment, and I captured for my film instead of finding it on YouTube”?  

I certainly had moments where I’m like, “Oh, I wish I was there for this day or that day for this.” It’s almost impossible to have the camera rolling all the time. It can’t be everywhere all the time. And then there’s the reality of budgets and time and the crew—and also finding a balance of giving your subjects some space. It’s impossible to be filming all the time, but then when you’re in the editing room, you wish you had everything. So that did happen sometimes where I wished I were there, but we captured the most that we could. And I think given all the circumstances and because a lot of new things, we were having to make decisions on the fly. Which events do we need to go out to? Is this something we need to fly out to? And for the first stretch—until Fall 2017—that’s when we actually got a budget, which was amazing. But before that, it was all self-funded. So we had to make decisions on when it was worth it to spend money on traveling here and there with him. 

If I read Maps of Meaning and I wanted to direct a movie about the author I would find it extremely hard because that book is layers and layers of different types of knowledge together. I really admire that you even found your way through them. Because I was watching it and I looked at you and said,  “How do you approach this?” It’s almost impossible to do that. 

Well, it took a long time—a very long time, I would say. But, it was complex. It was layered. I realized through this process—maybe also because it was my first feature film that I filmed enough for there to be like three different types of documentaries. I initially thought, “Well, all of these topics are related,” but you have to be so hyper-focused to make a cohesive film. So we ended up focusing in on it being intimate and behind the scenes: looking at the human being going through this tumultuous period because that was really the unique picture that we could offer that isn’t already out there. Of course, there’s already the saturation of content of Jordan Peterson in the media, his YouTube channel, and other people’s YouTube channels. For some people, what could there possibly be that isn’t already out there? And we tried to really make sure we brought another dimension to the story that isn’t already out there. 

Right, and if it were up to me, I would want to see something about the deep meanings of how he interprets the world, but, at the same time, you also had this opportunity to walk his life story with him.

I know there are some people that are really interested in his ideas, and they wanted the film to be about going deeper into his ideas. I can understand that, but at the same time—one: it’s a 90-minute film, and many of his lectures are even longer than that. So how deeply can we even go into the ideas of one question? We would have to really hone in on just one. But again, it’s already out there, and I wasn’t interested in making a ‘talking head’ film. And I’m also interested in this idea of what is it like to see these ideas manifesting in real life when you see the human being trying to live out these beliefs in the messy world. And I think the visual aspects are also the strengths of a film. So, for a lot of those reasons, that’s why I decided to hone in on the film in this way. 

I’d like to ask you about your editing of the film. I have biases that kick in when I’m watching because I’m interested in Peterson. I’ve followed him, but, at the same time, you are not just a fan making a movie. Instead, you’re treading this line that’s more objective. How can you do that—keep your biases out of it? I couldn’t do that. 

Well, I would say there are a few things that kind of kept that in check for me. First, though I did come in with the bias of being really interested in his work and inspired by it and having already known him and his family for a year-and-a-half when this started, I also had the bias of being more left of center politically. So I think that put me in a position where I often felt conflicted by some of the things he was saying, so I went and I met with the people who were disagreeing with him. I really listened to them. And so I empathized not only with him, but I also empathized with the others, and it was important for me to really care about what was at stake for people coming at this from different sides. So it made it conflicting and uncomfortable for me, but I think it was really important to stay grounded in that—in order to offer a more accurate picture through the film and not just try to sway viewers one way or the other. Then we also held test screenings as we were editing the film with everyone—from people who knew nothing about Jordan Peterson, to super fans, to people who really were against what he was doing. And we would listen to how they would react to things and see where they brought up points that we thought were valid in criticizing the film. So I think taking all of those things into consideration—it helped to shape the film into what it turned out to be. 

Was there anything that you captured with your camera, but, for some reason, you couldn’t put it into the film? If so, was there a reason that it didn’t make it in? 

Well, there’s a lot of things that didn’t end up in the movie just because of the number of hours of content we had and having to shorten it down. But I guess one that popped up in my mind was that there was this private investigator. In the early days of the controversy with Jordan, this private investigator was actually looking to collect evidence in order to raise a case against Jordan Peterson with the Human Rights Tribunal. We got to interview him, and he kept his identity anonymous. So it was a dark interview, with his face not lit, and that didn’t end up in the movie because—no matter how many times we tried editing it—it was just one of those things that left people really confused, and we would have had to have gotten deeper into it for it to work. Like, sometimes there are these things that work in theory, but, then in practice, you put it together and it just doesn’t really work to be clear enough for viewers. So it was a lot of trial and error and writing and rewriting the film, and we had so many different edits of it. So that’s one example of something that just didn’t really work in the film but was really interesting to follow.  

The last question I want to ask you involves something that happens to me from time to time if I try to make the case that I agree with something Jordan Peterson has said. I’m often attacked for defending him, but I know that some women who defend Peterson have an even tougher time. Part of it might be because of that New York Times piece discussing “forced monogamy” and such. Do you ever have moments of, “Why me?” “Why am I the Jordan Peterson person?” In the minds of many, women should be really against him. How do you handle these moments?

I think I don’t get into those kind of debates very often because I try to stay away from them; I’m not trying to convince people of whether he’s good or he’s bad. But that New York Times article was just awful. It was so inaccurate, and for someone who has been closely following [like I have]. Maziar and I even met that journalist backstage at one of Jordan’s events when she was there, and we just had such a different impression of her when we spoke with her. I was so shocked when I saw the article because it really wasn’t nuanced at all. It didn’t give him a break at all. It was just this like one single note the whole way. 

I would say the social aspects of making the film were really difficult for me because a lot of my network and friends and social circle is progressive, and, obviously, progressives are not a fan of his—in some ways because of the news they see about him. In some ways, I can understand why—because, sometimes, he would be pretty abrasive and not cut much slack to the social justice Left. But, in other ways, there have been progressives that have been incredibly unfair in mischaracterizing him. But anyhow, the social aspects for me were difficult—like going to some documentary networking events and whatnot—I was pretty uncomfortable to talk about, “Oh, I’m working on the Jordan Peterson film” because there was this sort of automatic judgment of: “Oh, you’re giving a platform to him; this is something unethical that you’re doing.” So it has been challenging, but it was never enough of a reason for me to not pursue the film. I just do the best that I can to be honest with people and then state my case. I think this is important—and also to show that I understand where they’re coming from, as well. I think that sounds sometimes helps for them to feel like, “Okay, well at least you’re not just a total brainwashed person; you are understanding where I’m coming from.” I think that helps to open up some trust with people. But I do feel like I’ve been following this situation enough that maybe you read that New York Times article and you have that impression of him, but there’s a lot more that I can say about Jordan than just that. 

After that New York Times piece, I remember I wrote or said something about Jordan Peterson on social media, and people were either reporting me or blocking me. They thought I was a horrible person, but I never understood it. When I see people who are against him and then they don’t want to hear anything about him, but they still call themselves “progressive,” I tell them: “You’re not progressive if your eyes and ears are closed.” Quick follow-up question: What’s next for you? 

So I actually intend on going back and finishing the first film that I was making before this controversy started. So I was following Jordan; I had approached Jordan with an interest in his ideas, but the film ended up turning into a film about his friendship with Native carver Charles Joseph. Maybe Maziar also told you about this. But, when I first learned about different things happening in Jordan’s life, he was telling me he’s adding a third floor to his home, which is modeled after an indigenous longhouse. And I thought, “Okay, well this is really interesting.”

And his friendship with this carver is very interesting. Charles’ family was actually going through the process of adopting Jordan into their family. And I don’t mean that legally—but through the protocols of their customs and traditions because of the significance of their friendship. So this ended up being what I was focusing on for that first year-and-a-half. This film was tentatively called Mixala, which is in Kwakʼwala, which is Charles’ first language. He’s from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, and most of them live on Vancouver Island, the Northern part of Vancouver Island. And “Mixala” means “to dream.” And the film focuses a lot on the idea of the ‘dream world’ in forming reality because Jordan is interested in the Jungian perspective and it’s also very useful for their nation, it seems. And Charles is a very vivid dreamer and has dreams about what he’s going to carve, and his great-grandparents visit him in dreams. He’s also a residential school survivor. So there’s a whole rich story there that I want to go back and finish. So that’s one of the projects that I’ll be working on immediately once we’re finished with this film.

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