New York Times Documentary on Elon Musk Pieces Together His Vision

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One of the first things you hear when talking with people who’ve worked with Elon Musk, even those who have worked with him for years, is that you never really know what he’s thinking.

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

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

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

Our team, including the story producer Liz Hodes; the archival producer Johanna Schiller; the editor Marlon Singleton; and the associate producer Melissa Bueno-Woerner, began to compile and organize every public statement that Mr. Musk had made about Tesla’s Autopilot program and self-driving cars we could find.

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Mr. Musk is a man who has lived his personal and professional life in the spotlight. He has talked about his and Tesla’s ambitions to media outlets, on panels and in speeches before shareholders.

We scoured this material and organized it chronologically and thematically in an effort to form a clear picture of Mr. Musk’s public position. We looked for the ways his views changed — or didn’t. We also compared Mr. Musk’s statements to those that Tesla, as a company, made to the public. What we found is that over time, Mr. Musk has largely remained bullish about the prospects of creating a fully self-driving car, sometimes overstating the capabilities of the technology.

But we also found occasions when he urged caution and acknowledged the limits of the technology. There were funny moments, too, that helped illuminate his draw with his employees and the public. As journalists, we wanted to offer viewers the fullest picture we could gather.

A unique part of Mr. Musk’s messaging about Autopilot and autonomous vehicles is that a lot of it happens on Twitter, where he posts to his many (now 94 million) followers. This Twitter activity was also a critical part of understanding Mr. Musk’s positions and the public’s expectations, so we decided to embed these posts throughout the film. (This was well before any announcement that Mr. Musk would try to purchase the social media platform.)

But gathering public statements were only part of the process. A crucial component of putting any documentary together involves finding people who can speak to the topic firsthand, which we did. It’s their voices that ultimately allowed us to interrogate Mr. Musk’s public messaging and transform the archival material into a film.

Convincing people to speak on camera about the world’s richest man, especially when he has a documented history of aggressively disparaging his critics, wasn’t easy. But even some people who admire much of Mr. Musk’s work were worried that anything they said might get misunderstood on the internet, where Mr. Musk’s supporters and detractors — there are many in each camp — are passionate and active.

That’s where working with Cade Metz, a technology correspondent for The Times who has covered Tesla’s self-driving pursuit, proved so important. Together, we spoke with many sources who didn’t want to go on camera but who provided insights and texture and were able to confirm key details. I’m deeply grateful to all those who agreed to share their perspectives.

One of the goals of documentaries is to tell stories that get lost in the day-to-day onslaught of information, to provide crucial context and, in so doing, reframe our understanding.

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