Putting together Elon Musk’s messages

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One of the first things you hear when talking to people who have worked with Elon Musk, even those who have worked with him for years, is that you don’t really know what he’s thinking.

As a journalist and filmmaker, I used to translate difficult and complex stories on screen. But I knew that pursuing a project about the world’s richest man – without his participation – would be a different matter.

I am the producer and director of Elon Musk’s Crash Course, a new New York Times documentary that examines Mr. Musk and Tesla’s pursuit of a self-driving car. To put the story together, our team spoke with dozens of people, including Tesla employees who worked closely with Mr. Musk.

What Tesla insiders have often said is that many of the key decisions were made by Mr. Musk himself. But without Mr. Musk’s participation in the documentary (he did not respond to our requests to participate), we had to look elsewhere to understand his motives and represent his views.

Our team, including story producer Liz Hodes; archival producer Joanna Schiller; Editor Marlon Singleton. and co-producer Melissa Bueno-Warner, they set out to compile and organize every public statement Mr. Musk made about Tesla’s autopilot program and the self-driving cars we could find.

Mr. Musk is a man who has lived his personal and professional life in the spotlight. He has spoken about his and Tesla’s ambitions to the media, at seminars and in speeches to shareholders.

We researched this material and organized it chronologically and thematically in an effort to get a clear picture of Mr. Musk’s general position. We looked for the ways in which his views had changed—or had not. We also compared Mr. Musk’s statements to those made by Tesla, as a company, to the public. What we found is that over time, Mr. Musk has remained largely optimistic about the prospects of creating a fully self-driving car, and at times overestimated the technology’s capabilities.

But we also found occasions where he urged caution and acknowledged the limits of technology. There were also funny moments that helped highlight his lot with his staff and the public. As journalists, we wanted to give viewers the full picture we could put together.

A unique part of Mr. Musk’s messages about self-driving vehicles and autopilots is that a lot of it happens on Twitter, where he posts to his many followers (now 94 million). This Twitter activity was also an important part of understanding Mr. Musk’s attitudes and audience expectations, so we decided to include these posts throughout the film. (This was long before the announcement of Mr. Musk’s bid to buy the social media platform.)

But collecting public data was only part of the process. A critical component of putting any documentary together includes finding people who can talk about the topic directly, which we did. It is their voices that ultimately allow us to interrogate Mr. Musk’s public messages and turn archival material into film.

It wasn’t easy getting people to talk on camera about the world’s richest man, especially when he has a documented history of vigorously demeaning his critics. But even some people who admired much of Mr. Musk’s work worried that anything they said might be misunderstood online, as both Musk’s supporters and detractors – there are many in each camp – are enthusiastic and energized.

This is where working with Cade Metz, a technology reporter for The Times who has covered Tesla’s pursuit of self-driving, proved so important. Together we spoke with several sources who didn’t want to go to the camera but did provide insights and feel and were able to confirm key details. I am very grateful to all who agreed to share their views.

One of the goals of documentaries is to tell stories that get lost in the onslaught of everyday information, to provide critical context and, in doing so, reformulate our understanding.

I hope viewers will walk away from Elon Musk’s Crash Course with a new perspective. But regardless, I also hope, one day, to hear directly from Mr. Musk about his thinking.

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