With funding as shaky as ever, the craft of historical documentaries hits new highs

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Current Q&A Current: There was a long period when TV critics regularly wrung their hands over the death of the long-form documentary. Now PBS has several strong documentary series, and documentaries are the basic material of several cable networks. Some documentaries like Hoop Dreams have been hits in theaters. Should we stop wringing our hands now?

Judy Crichton: The truth is there was always an enormous appetite for nonfiction television, and we now know how to do these films a great deal better than we ever knew before. But funding has always been erratic and the funding problems now are absolutely dreadful. What makes it very, very sad, I think, is that we have more people doing very good work today than ever in the history of nonfiction television.

Judy Crithton, 1998


I’ve been in television my whole life and the entire life of television. I went to work in television first in the late 1940s as a kid. My father was a television producer before me and also produced nonfiction television. So I’ve watched it evolve. I know that the work being done today is ever so much more sophisticated.

But what is stymieing is, if you look at The American Experience, we still only have modest corporate underwriting, and are scrounging month after month. Everybody says they love us, but we don’t have the money to do a full series, and that’s terrifying.

Anybody who says cable is going to pick up the slack is just plain wrong. A very nice reporter from the New York Times came to talk to me a few months ago, and I said, “Go look at any of the shows that are similar to ours. Compare them.” And he said, “Point me to one.” And I said, “Look at any one you want. I don’t have to manipulate that.”

Nobody in the world is going to produce a film like David Grubin’s TR or Ric Burns’ The Way West or Austin Hoyt’s “Carnegie,” which is about to come up in a few weeks. The research, the resources put into those films, they’re not inexpensive.

Do you have a way of estimating the resources put into research compared with those put into the necessities of production? Is there a ratio that can express this?

For one thing, every film on The American Experience is produced with the guidance of academic advisers. And that is taken pretty seriously. We pay people a lot more money, as I used to say, to lie on the couch and read. For one thing, producers shouldn’t even go talk to those scholars until they have some real and genuine sense about what the devil they’re doing. Otherwise, it’s just a plain waste of time. It’s like interviewing a celebrity and asking him how to spell his name. We also give people more editing time. Editing is in a sense another form of research, it is where you come to understand the visual and intellectual connections.

There’s a clock ticking on that, too.

The cost of editing is the single largest element in all documentaries. Good editors are very expensive people and quite properly so. And most of our films today are edited on Avids, which are expensive to rent. We provide 21 weeks of editing per hour at minimum. That’s without sound work.

That in part reflects the peculiar nature of historical documentaries. That would not be the norm for a news documentary.

Is it because you’re going through a lot of archival film?

If you want to bring life to a lot of stills and static materials, and impressionistic landscapes, everything depends on the tension that you create by cutting it perfectly along with the words and music. It is the chemistry of those three elements working together that create the film.

If you took any of the big films or the best of the 19th century films like “The Donner Party” or “Murder of the Century,” and turned off the sound, and just watched the camera work, what you would see would be really quite static. You wouldn’t have any sense that there was energy or tension or excitement.

I’ll just give you one craft problem. If you look at Carl Charleson’s “Murder of the Century,” one part of the genius of that film is that gorgeous aria that the soprano sings in the background. It becomes almost a musical theme. That kind of marriage doesn’t just happen. It isn’t just the intellectual research that you need to do; it’s also the aesthetic. Ric Burns is known for his gorgeous landscapes and scenery shots, but they go out to shoot on many days when the light isn’t right, the mood is off, and they wait.

If you look at the things that appear on cable, it isn’t that the producers are necessarily less talented, although I think PBS has cornered the best in the country, if not the world. It is that they aren’t given the time. There isn’t the attention to matching mood, to all of that subtle stuff.

Let me give you another corner of it. Part of the health of any art form or craft is to have a large enough community of people who do it well, so younger people can learn and get an opportunity to study, so that you can grow a new generation of producers. And we finally have in this country a large enough group of people who have learned these skills to ensure that there is a healthy documentary community. But it could be wiped out, literally, overnight, if the funding disappears.

The second that you take public television out of the mix, you’re going to have a very different animal, because no matter how smart or dedicated or good people are at commercial stations and networks, they have to be driven by the bottom line. It is what pushed CBS out of the business, and ABC and NBC. They’re all fractionally there, but they don’t have large documentary units anymore.

The documentaries that most Americans see are the 15-minute segments on 20/20 and 60 Minutes. How close do they come to doing what a documentary ought to do?

Year in and year out, particularly 60 Minutes has been extraordinary. In a very abbreviated period of time they get across an enormous amount of information in a way that is interesting and responsible. But they are in a very different business than we. The short pieces are tackling what amount to one-strand stories. There isn’t much room for nuance or subtlety, the “by the ways.”

The difference between what they do and what Frontline does, or Nova or The American Experience or any of the longer strands, is to focus very, very clearly on one element of one story, to zero in with a kind of feverish intensity. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who does it better, but it’s the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel.

One of the things that filmmakers working with us today have learned is to deal with ambivalence, to understand that human beings have many sides to their natures and characters. All a stereotype is, in many instances, is taking one exaggerated quality of a person’s personality and blowing it up so that becomes the reality. Theodore Roosevelt is reduced to shouting “Bully!” and charging up the stairs. But if you give a producer as sensitive and curious as David Grubin an opportunity to work with that material, you discover that this is a very complex man, with many things that one could dislike and many things that one could applaud. Roosevelt comes closer to being a human being when you have the time and space to provide the details of his life. Pulling through those different character strands is the interesting challenge.

There was a time in my life when those short-form pieces had an excitement to them, because they have a different kind of challenge. The first pieces I ever did for CBS were short pieces. I just personally like this form a hell of a lot better.

When 60 Minutes or another network newsmagazine does a piece that has to focus in on one of those strands, what is the strand that they choose? What gets left behind when they treat a topic and choose just one strand?

Once again, you are talking about shows that are forced by their nature to look for the controversial, to look for the hot story. I’m not sure there is anything wrong with that, but if that is all that television becomes, then it’s like living on one kind of food. You don’t get any of the connecting tissue, and you get little of the context.

Television, because it has become so competitive, gives a feeling sometimes of constant hype. As a viewer, you’re never able to just lie back and put your feet up and watch it like a good tale.

Also, if the focus is on controversy, the program presents less of the noncontroversy — more of the differences between people and fewer of the commonalities.

Sure. I think you have to differentiate commercial strands that are enormously responsible in their approaches, and I would argue that 60 Minutes is one of them. Overall, if you studied the world according to 60 Minutes, sure, you would get a skewed world, but that would be true if you went into a library and only took out mystery stories.

What is dangerous is not the individual series — although there are some that have been reckless and vulgar and that I loathe — but that doesn’t worry me at all, if the rest of the menu exists. What frightens me is what happens if you take away public television. I am not fully convinced that people really understand what they have there. I see the pressures growing on PBS and on PBS producers, and I worry about it.

What are those pressures on an executive producer in public TV?

Judy CrichtonIt all goes back to funding. If people are forever worrying about where the hell their money is going to come from, when they finally get an underwriter, they’re going to start trying to please those people who put up the money. The whole reason for public television is to isolate producers from the tension that is generated when you have to go out and make a buck. Sometimes, the pressures seem benign. They’re just trying to get a larger audiences to keep “X” company happy.

Let’s face it, these companies are no longer putting money into public television for the good of mankind. They’re doing it very directly to get their own corporate message out. They want to be identified with a particular product that has a particular tone and that has a level of success.

Well, it’s easy to program for popularity. But in the old days we used to think that our job was not to follow an audience, but to say to an audience, “Here’s something very interesting that you ought to be thinking about.”

A great producer named Perry Wolff, who was my boss for a while at CBS, used to say, “Make films for your best friends deprived of the same opportunity to research.” It’s a marvelous way of going about it. If I have the freedom to read for three weeks, you know very well I’m going to tell my friends, “Guess what I just found that I was reading. It’s so interesting.” We shouldn’t have to be looking over our shoulder to see what the ratings are.

I can tell you in advance what our ratings are going to be, or I got to the point where I could.

What subjects push up the audience?

There’s a certain kind of accessible story. You always read comments in Current about how people love nature shows. Well, there is the equivalent in terms of historical documentaries. Some are fuzzier than others. People love shows about airplanes. [Laughs].

The rating comes in one point higher?

It would be three points higher than a show about women’s suffrage, I’ll tell you that.

What you are seeing less of on public television, and I contributed to this myself, towards the end, out of my own night terrors, is much less willingness to gamble on the unknown, on the idiosyncratic film made by the untried filmmaker on a subject that isn’t immediately accessible.

Such as?

I could give you an example of wonderful ones that we’ve done in the past that did not necessarily get great ratings but that I leave feeling very proud of. One was a film called “A Family Gathering” by Lisa Yasui. I think it was the only film she ever made.

She was a young Japanese-American woman who came to us with a 20-minute beginning on a film exploring her own family history. It began with the fact that her mother was Caucasian, her father was Japanese-American. She had always been fascinated by her own blue-eyed cousins. There was a secret on the Japanese-American side of her family that she wanted to get to the bottom of, and the secret had to do with both the fury and the humiliation of being interned during World War II.

I loved the film because it told us a lot about Japanese-American life, it told us a lot about internment, and the feelings of people who had thought of themselves and were indeed fine American citizens and got swept up in a force larger than any of us at the time had understood. It was one of the darkest chapters in American history, and yet Lisa came at it in a very delicate, very personal way.

There was a film on the air recently that I thought was a marvelous example of this that wasn’t ours — June Cross’s very wonderful film “Secret Daughter.” I very much admire the fact that Frontline took the gamble, because that film could have fallen on its face, no matter how talented June was, and she is very gifted.

It is those gambles, those idiosyncratic films like “Indians, Outlaws and Angie Dubo” or “Sins of Our Mothers” and other delicate stories that aren’t about big, famous people, where you’ll end up with a 1.7 or break even at 2 if you’re lucky. No series can survive doing that.

If you were making a film of your career, what scene would you start with? (You’re allowed to use flashbacks.)

There are too many, too many and I’d bore you to death. I was just enormously lucky. I grew up in a world that gave me the confidence to move into what was entirely a man’s world. Not that it was particularly generous to me at first. I was an associate producer for 17 or 18 years.

This was at CBS?

No, I started at a game show, I’ve Got a Secret with Garry Moore.

What young people don’t realize is that everything teaches you everything. It doesn’t matter where you begin. You can learn craft skills selling newspapers on the corner if you’re observant and curious.

I used to do all the preinterviews with the people who were on the show. I would find the stories. It’s how I learned to become a reporter, initially.

Was I’ve Got a Secret the show where three guests stood up and claimed to be the same person?

No, that was To Tell the Truth.

We’ve got a wonderful show coming up, “Big Dream, Small Screen.” It’s about a guy named Philo Farnsworth, one of the inventors of television, and features a clip from I’ve Got A Secret. Farnsworth came on the show — that was his secret — and nobody knew him. He had been in litigation with RCA.

The Farnsworth film, which is coming up Feb. 10, is a fantastically good single hour, and a very idiosyncratic one that truly works. It has a strange slant to it.

We heard that you had arranged to have Aleksandr Kerensky, the onetime ruler of Russia, to come on the game show.

I didn’t. I was mad as hell at that. I was much too dignified for that.

The show was produced by Alan Sherman, who recorded “Hello Mudda, hello Fadda, here we are at Camp Granada.” It was a very free-wheeling atmosphere. Another associate producer — not me, I was still a researcher — arranged to bring in Aleksandr Kerensky. We had a terrible battle. We had a similar battle when they wanted to bring in Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a great hero of mine, and I was not about to have her insulted and debased in that fashion.

We used to rehearse, but not with the panel. We didn’t cheat — we were one of the “pure” shows. Joseph Papp was our stage manager, and during the black listing days when Red Channels determined our collective lives, it was determined that Joe was a leftie. He already had this vision of bringing Shakespeare to the masses. How they went from that view to their vision of the Left, I’m not quite sure. But the powers that be at CBS said that Joe would have to go. Garry Moore said, “If Joe goes, I go.” It was the only time I saw CBS back down from the blacklist.

What happened with Kerensky?

He had just written a memoir, and was on a book tour. He came to the theater and saw two acts of the rehearsal.

I was in charge of the animal acts, and we had one that night. He took one look at what was going on in the theater and fled. We had to invent something to cover seven or eight minutes of airtime. We were live in those days, which was a great deal of fun.

In the late ’40s, I worked on another game show called What’s the Story?, where you worked backwards. You described the assassination of Caesar in contemporary terms and provided clues until the panel came up with the story. I was the secretary, the researcher. I did everything for that show — I hawked the tickets at Rockefeller Plaza. I did the warm ups. I tried to explain image orthicon cameras, which I didn’t understand then and don’t understand now.

Although you weren’t given the money or the title, there wasn’t anything that you weren’t allowed to do in those days. Every show was so understaffed and everyone was so overworked that, if there was anything you could do and do well, everybody was glad to have you do it.

You said you couldn’t help learning craft from this kind of television. What sorts of things did you learn that were useful when you made the switch to news and documentaries?

The first thing was just plain discipline. Live television has its own passionate momentum and you can’t make a mistake. You screw up, and everybody knows it. You also learned that television is produced by a team, and that a television program, whether it is live or on film, is vulnerable to the lowest person on that team. Anybody can destroy it, it’s that fragile.

Then you just begin to understand what makes a good story. Are people going to enjoy a story about a woman who has 21 children backstage? Well, damn right. Or the man who posed for the Indian Head nickel?

I would write the questions for Garry Moore, and had to figure out what questions best elicited the story from the guest in the most economical and dramatic fashion, and the running order of those questions — and all the things that you do in a lot more sophisticated fashion to actually produce an interview for film.

But I would never have made the cross-over. I was a school drop-out, I hadn’t gone to college, I had nothing in my background to recommend me except that, by the 1970s, I had put scores of hours of stuff on the air. Except for the fact that television had been so awful to women. They hadn’t trained anyone, and I got in on a women’s lib pass. I was, if you will, an affirmative action baby.

This is when you went into the news department?

Yes, in ’73. I had spent an interim period of time working for David Susskind, who was good about hiring women — underpaid us all. Everybody underpaid women.

At CBS, I discovered after I had won a number of major prizes, I was getting $20,000 less than the youngest, least experienced man on the staff. This was in ’75-’76. I went to Bill Leonard who was the president of CBS News in those days and I told him and he said, “But your husband makes good money.” And I started to cry.

Now that’s not a reaction that one of my daughters would have today. I was such a creature of my generation that while I had the energy and aggressiveness to get out there, I didn’t have the in-built assurance inside of me.

When you were in the entertainment side, looking across the border into news, what did you think of Murrow and CBS Reports? Were they like the shining knights of journalism?

Yes, they were indeed. My husband, who was a writer, was a very political animal. This was a very political household. I had worked for Adlai Stevenson in two different campaigns, 1952 and 1956, thereby confirming my rotten liberal connections.

Murrow was just a godsend. We literally would plan in advance to watch him. See It Now was never a great ratings-getter. It had its passionate followers, but the combination of taking on McCarthy and getting low ratings forced Murrow into giving up See It Now for a celebrity interview show, Person to Person. And all of a sudden he was interviewing Marilyn Monroe. His heart was broken, and so was ours. He didn’t do that very long.

What did your father do?

He was one of the first three producers at WCBW, which was the forerunner to CBS, when it was down at Grand Central.

Wasn’t it up in the attic of the train terminal?

That’s right, on the fourth floor. If you’re standing on the great stairs looking at the clock it was on the right-hand side, where you can see a walkway up there. In ‘44, my father Ben Feiner Jr., did the first television election. I had helped him prepare the blackboard with a list of the states.

Very few people had TV sets then.

No, but we did. Our home was connected by coaxial cable to Grand Central. People would come in — everybody did, the elevator man — to watch the prizefighter Joe Lewis. The reviews that my father got had to do with technical proficiency — whether the signal held, whether the picture went black. He was very ambitious. The whole studio was the size of this room, and to give it a larger sense of space, he used his very good sense of design. There were black and white diamonds on the floor in reduced size.

He got a choreographer to design a three-person ballet for him, to be shot with one camera. What they didn’t know was how to light people with dark skins, and the dancers disappeared because they were wearing very abbreviated leotards, and the light couldn’t register dark skin tones.

How did you make the transition into documentaries?

I don’t know whether I should tell Current the truth.

Just between us, as Connie Chung said to Newt Gingrich’s mother?

I had tried for years to get a serious job, and I had many friends, among them Fred Freed, who was the great documentary producer of the NBC White Papers. And I would beg Fred to hire me and he simply said documentaries are not girls’ work. It was not a world of great graciousness towards women.

At any rate, I kept trying and trying. I had by that time done numbers of different things. I had written and designed some multimedia shows that had been done at Lincoln Center and gotten some really good reviews. So I had some confirmation that I could write.

At any rate, Fred Freed died, and I went to his funeral. He was much too young. It turned into an extraordinary wake. Among the people there was Bill Leonard of CBS. And at Fred’s funeral, I told Bill he ought to hire me. I went to see him the next week. He asked me to critique a show, which I did, and I got hired.

The real truth to that story was that CBS had to hire me. There was just enormous pressure on Leonard to hire a woman, and they hadn’t trained any. There were so few around.

Esther Kartiganer, who is currently senior editor at 60 Minutes, had just been raising hell as part of a women’s group at the network. She had just led a strike to allow women to wear slacks to work.

What were the programs that you were most proud to be associated with while at CBS and ABC?

I did a bunch of shows on the environment that had some impact. This was in ’74-’75 for CBS: “Caution: Drinking Water May be Dangerous to Your Health,” “The American Way of Cancer,” “The Politics of Cancer.” They were introductory explanations that you couldn’t boil away all poisons. People still thought that bacteria was what would kill you off. We had to introduce concepts like carcinogens, and things that would cause genetic damage.

The best known film was “The CIA’s Secret Army” — a two-hour film that focused on the CIA’s attempt to overthrow Castro, which is now a very familiar story. At the time this had never been told on television. That led to more work on the CIA, which in turn led to The Defense of the United States, a five-part series that CBS did. It was very high-profile. I produced two of the five hours for that, including “The Nuclear Battlefield,” which I think won four or five Emmys and was one of the most extraordinary films I ever worked on.

CBS at the time was producing how many hours of documentaries a year?

About 25. In the course of some of these shows, I also made real news and got an enormous kick out of that, obviously. I did a film called “The Battle for South Africa,” which introduced the ANC to America. The ANC, considered a commie terrorist group, was hiding in Zambia, and I spent the better part of a year trying to get permission to film there. In those days, CBS would give me the time and latitude and money to do things like that. The central character in the film is Thabo Mbeki, who is now deputy president of South Africa.

I covered the ANC more when I moved to ABC doing hard news pieces.

Were you living in Africa?

No, I just would go and spend long periods.

Among the things that got me out of ABC, Peter McGhee had very generously invited me to go to ‘GBH. I couldn’t afford to for a long time. There were a lot of financial pressures.

I kept going back to southern Africa — Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana. I was the first American television journalist to go to Angola after the revolution. It took me eight years to get there. I went in with a crew in ’85 and decided that I never wanted to go back to another war zone. I was too old; I nearly got killed. We were nine miles from the South African line. I could hear the shelling.

I came back to ABC from this absolutely horrific trip, extremely proud of myself. ABC had been downsizing and was destroying their documentary unit, as CBS had before them. I was called in by 20/20 and asked if I wanted to do a piece on prenuptial agreements. I laughed without responding, went into my office and called McGhee and said, “If you want me, I really would love to come.”

This was when?

’85 or ’86.

How did The American Experience come to be?

Peter McGhee simply looked around and thought it was totally absurd that there wasn’t a history series on television. He decided he wanted to do for American history what Nova was doing for science. It was just that simple.

How did this idea get funded?

"The American Experience" Ron Hull, who was at CPB at the time, was extremely supportive, and so was Suzanne Weil, then the chief programmer at PBS. In those days we had to go out and sell all the stations in the Station Program Cooperative.

I can remember I went to one of those public television conventions before I knew what the initials PBS stood for, and I was totally terrified. God Almighty — 3,000 people! I went down on the floor and thought I was going to faint. It was worse than Beirut.

But bit by bit they put the funding together and we did get a corporate underwriter. On a percentage basis, I think we started off with more money than we ever got again.

Station people were terrified that we were going to be chronological — that we would start off with the Puritans in their britches and funny hats, riding through the woods.

I guess the most daring thing I did was to say we were going to do the San Francisco earthquake as the first show. I will never forget the producer calling up in a total panic from San Francisco saying, “My God, we’re cutting a radio show. There’s nothing to look at.”

There were great pictures, I recall.

I know, but you see in those days people weren’t used to using stills to produce a major documentary. The whole concept of television was it had to move, for God sakes, move. So it took a while. New producers to this day find it very scary.

The number of photos that Ric Burns had for “The Donner Party” was amazingly few, right?

That was one of the bravest pieces of work done ever. The arrogance of Ric and Lisa! That whole film is the work of genius and smoke and mirrors.

Margaret Drain

Margaret Drain, promoted to e.p.

What were there, 20 images?

Probably. And not only that, but they used the same images over and over. That’s the one program that, if I had to give a class tomorrow, I would chose. It is such a superb example of craft skill. It all comes back to what became our hallmark, which was the strength of the story.

The truth is, and Ric has never let me forget it to this day, I didn’t want him to do the film. I was terrified of the subject material and I didn’t know how the hell he was going to pull it off. Margaret Drain, who is about to become the executive producer, just leapt on faith, and the two of them talked me into it.

What are the outer bounds of the range of production styles used in the American Experience series?

We’ve not been wonderfully successful with actors, but I’m leading up to an exception. For the most part, that is best left to the people who are really experienced doing that work.

A documentary tries to recreate a world, and get people to suspend disbelief. All kinds of little, irritating pebbles come in to their path and break that thread when you mix in things like Dacron skirts and 18th century stories — they become irritants that viewers can’t get over. Everybody’s fingernails are always too clean.

But Laurie Kahn Leavitt, who was a researcher in the early years of American Experience, got the rights to do next season’s A Midwife’s Tale (Current, May 1, 1995), and talked Dick Rogers into doing it with her. That’s an almost full-fledged docudrama.

It is, I think, a quite fascinating piece of work. It begins by retracing the discovery process of a historian working on the diary of an 18th Century woman. It has a sort of detective-story quality, which gets a little beyond the standard docudrama and allows it to have some leeway, some rooting in current time. I think what that makes me most leery of docudrama, is that I never knew how to do it myself.

It’ll be interesting to see if Margaret Drain takes it up. I’m an enormous fan of Margaret’s — there are things she knows how to do that I don’t know how to do.

So you generally drew the line at docudrama. What else determined whether a program was acceptable for the series?

I think there is only one common denominator that runs through all the shows, at least the ones I would consider successful, and it all has to do with storytelling.

If we have done anything really well, it is to teach people how to use materials, whatever they may need, to support a story. Anything can lead you astray — the sound effects, the music, the lighting. All of those things can be used to abuse a story, to over-emphasize something. The responsibility is to make it as accurate as you know how, having done all that homework.

Everything goes into creating that mood, and if there is a mark of the best of our shows, it is that all the magic in a producer’s kit is subverted to the story. It never overtakes it. The music is no damn good if it’s just manipulating emotion and ignoring the most accurate emotional level of this story.

I hate things that are didactic, lecturing or pontificating. There is an obligation to deliver information, but the audience has gotten very sophisticated about how they absorb information. I think our films don’t condescend. We are still making films for our own best friends.

To make a film compelling there has to be a good story, a large character or event, but surely there’s a lot about the ordinary realities of life in the past that’s historically important. How do you create films that portray social history effectively?

Oh, boy. I’m trying, personally, right now. David Grubin is producing a film called America 1900 for The American Experience. I’ve written the script. That’s why I have all those old newspapers sitting there.

It’s hard. The French “new” novels were an exercise in trying to deal with everyday life, and they were so boring, few read them. The small stuff of life needs to be woven into a story.

The truth is that even if you told a friend about coming here today, to make that interesting you would turn it into a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The natural way we communicate is through narrative. You’re not able to just drift on a powder puff of nothingness.

You can tell a lot about history in the images, in the material that you use, surrounding the story. For instance, there was an awful heat wave in 1900 and hundreds and hundreds of people died. I spent weeks trying to figure out how did people cope with the heat and what it was like to be hot in 1900. That gets you right down to very basic issues about how people smelled and the limitations of laundry and all kinds of basic social detail. But you couldn’t just make a film of that. You could do an essay on that for a few minutes, and people will drift with you if you do it interestingly enough. But then you’d better damned well bring in your hero or your dramatic tension.

If you go back to “Donner,” among the things that people remember from that film were the double-decker covered wagons and the fact that people took out their best silver and china and that children carried their dolls. That’s the stuff that makes a story come alive. That’s what gives it texture.

That goes back to the very first thing we started talking about this afternoon, which is it takes a hell of a long time to get a hold of that material and to understand it, and you only do that with time, with giving people time to read and study their work.

What are the responsibilities of a historical documentary producer?

To know in your heart that you’re never, ever, going to be able to tell everything about anything. Anyone who believes he has done the definitive program on any subject is either a liar or a fool, as far as I’m concerned.

Even with 18 hours on the air?

No comment.

The thing about history is that it needs to be reinterpreted constantly, and no matter how objective you are, no matter how honest you are at trying to scrape away and get to the bottom of this story, you’re always going to filter it through your own sensibility. Your most serious responsibility is to try to understand that which you either inherently dislike or disapprove of, and that which you find unappealing.

It’s very, very easy to fall in love with the heroes, but your responsibility is, when you discover their clay feet, to reveal them. And to give viewers some sense of what isn’t known, or what can’t be known, or what are the limitations of your own work.

And, where necessary, to reveal your own prejudices. To say, “I grew up in an Armenian-American family, fed on the horrors of the Armenian-Turkish struggle from the time I was a child, and that is what drew me to this story.” That immediately tells the viewer where you stand.

Has that been required often in your series?

Not often, but every once in a while. I mentioned that because it was a film I helped on when I first got to ‘GBH.

I have no patience with objectivity. If you’re old enough to make a film, you have prejudices, you have points of view, you have a political sensibility. The job is to be fair; no one is objective. There isn’t a story worth telling that can’t be told from numbers of different perspectives.

What makes me sad is that the money is so limited, the hours are so limited, and once a subject is covered, there’s a tendency to say it’s done.

Among the things that I will probably never do, that I’ve always wanted to do, is to take a really good provocative character or event, and look at it “Rashomon” style — from different perspectives. I think it would be absolutely marvelous.

If every filmmaker has a different perspective, what obligation does this give the e.p. in selecting the filmmaker?

The obligation is only to hire people who are honest in terms of who they are, how they think, and their willingness to try and get beyond their own personal parameters.

I’ll give you a good example, and I hope I’m not talking out of turn, but David Grubin set out to do his long work on LBJ very much from an anti-LBJ perspective. Living with that character over a period of years, you could see him grow and shift and change. It was not that the areas in which he had always been critical of Johnson were diminished, he just discovered that he was a far more complicated fellow.

That’s really all that I’m saying. If you get involved in stories of race, you’re foolish if you don’t accept the fact that, in a society as complicated as ours, and as race-driven as ours, all of us have been brainwashed in varying ways as children by the times and the culture to have different attitudes towards different people. The obligation is to understand that about yourself and climb beyond it and to hear it in your own voice and to recognize it within your own work.

What all of the racism and sexism and all of those other “-isms” are all about — it’s the same thing we were talking about in terms of trying to produce a good portrait — is simply trying to make our work look more like America, and reflect the extraordinary diversity, not just in skin tone, but in the way people live, think and work. What has been so irritating about television for so many decades is that it was reflective of such a narrow world.

Not just television.

Not just television, of course. Books, movies, magazines, newspapers. I once asked a guy who had been the managing editor of the New York Herald-Tribune during World War II why there were so few pictures of African-American soldiers that made the newspaper, when in fact they were in the military, all over the place. He said “Oh, we threw them away. Our readers didn’t want to see those pictures.” It never occurred to him what profound and serious consequences that action would have.

Going back to your question about the responsibilities of the historical documentary producer, one is to recognize that history is very easily distorted. The obligation is to work like hell to limit the distortion. None of us are going to hit it perfect every time, but it is really to understand what the goal is.

That’s the other thing that make me furious about the comparison to what we do and what the cable networks are doing in historic work. A lot has to do with the central ambition of the piece.

What we set out to try and do with the American Experience, basically was not to produce disposable television. There used to be a psychological effect about producing television — we knew the program was going to evaporate and disappear forever — that discouraged serious people from coming into this world.

The second you began to talk about television that would have an ongoing life — television that would not only be repeated on the air, but used in the classroom, that would in fact be part of a video library, it gave producers permission to take themselves more seriously. Taking yourself too seriously has become something of a dirty word, but over the years, I’ve had to force people to take themselves more seriously, rather than less, to give people permission to swing for the fences. It’s very hard, there’s something about the ether that makes television seem frivolous. For years, my husband [Robert Crichton] would write books, but I was “just in television.”

Can you contrast some of the styles of documentary producers working today?

There are different things that people do better, and that people have learned how to do better. For a long time, images — stills and stock footage — really lived in films much like wallpaper. It was very much the point-and-tell school of filmmaking.

One thing that we have been influential in is teaching people how to move from one photograph from another, how to cut stock footage in sequences, so that it lives together and feels like an entire story.

If you look at stock moving images, it has a distancing quality. For years, it locked filmmakers into the focal lengths of the lenses used to shoot the old footage. We have been able to break through that. Now a lot of our producers are moving in close, so that you can feel the presence of a Theodore Roosevelt, even though he was filmed from a much greater distance. We often slow that material down. We seldom use that old-fashioned, hand-cranked newsreel footage. We put it back in real time.

There are a million ways of using those materials. Ric Burns and Lisa Ades are as good as anybody in the business at using a camera to paint one complicated still. More and more people who do that understand how a mind absorbs information. If you look at a picture, you look at what attracts you first, what has the intensity, and then you move to the next element. The trick within a film is to be able to recreate within the viewer the emotion that you felt the first time you looked at something marvelous. And that means trying to recall how your eyes actually travelled over an image, and what the impact of that photograph was. Why do you want to use it in the first place? And that tells you what you want to hear under the picture, the running order in which you want to see things, how you want to use it in the story. There are people who have gotten very very good at that.

Chana Gazit’s film “Chicago 1968” was superbly edited by David Steward. If you look at the way that footage was used, there is an immediacy and a storytelling quality. If you simply look at the raw footage, all of those elements are there, but what they were doing was finding the intensity within the images and putting them together in a way that would recreate, viscerally, the way people felt at the moment.

There are also people like Tom Lennon, who in a very simple way, did this. In “Hurricane,” he combined still photographs and images of waves in a way that made you feel as though you were in the middle of that hurricane.

People are experimenting all the time. In the Farnsworth film, which I’m really crazy about, [producer] David Dugan has recreated scenes in a laboratory over a still of Farnsworth. David had a problem similar to the one that Ric Burns had in “Donner,” in that there were just a tiny number of photographs of Farnsworth, and practically nothing in his laboratory. How he handled that and the wit and the style that he used to get there is absolutely extraordinary.

“Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern” by Jeanne Jordon and her husband Steven Ascher is a very very intensely personal story about Jeanne’s own family, on the verge of losing the family farm — it could become maudlin, but it doesn’t. The technique there isn’t a physical one of how you use stills, etc. It has to do with emotional balance. How do you make clear to the audience that Jeanne is at the emotional center of this, and not make it an exercise in personal tale-telling. It’s something much larger, and it’s exceptionally well done. That’s another experiment with technique.

People try things in different ways. In TR, Grubin was trying to do those impressionistic sequences for the first time. He had done a little bit in FDR, but very little. This was far more. My God, he used scene designers bringing in antique plates and setting the dining table for him and all that kind of thing. He was experimenting with mood.

He told a story Roosevelt’s father, who was trying to raise money for poor children in New York. He invited a bunch of his rich friends for dinner, threw open the dining room and there were all these waifs and orphaned and impoverished children at the table. Now that’s the story, and there are no images for it. How the hell do you put that on film?

Grubin found a way. He used an elegant dining room, but without anyone in the scene. Viewers supplied the poor children with their own imaginations.

Did he use sound effects and voices for this?


A number have moved one inch toward docudrama by using the sounds of hoof beats and cannon.

Well, the less experienced and less successful filmmakers put in every sound available. The best of them will put all those sounds in, and take most of them out. You are almost not aware of the clip-clops and the dog barks and the wolf howls, or the crickets. Crickets are to sound what the gulls overhead are to film. It’s the 1930s newspaper spinning around with the “EXTRA” on the front page. It gets you from here to there.

But that has to do with artistry. It’s no different than somebody crafting a really skillful sentence. Ultimately, what you’re really coming down to, is, “Is the thought pedestrian, or is it interesting?” That tells you whether the guy is going to use crickets. There are some sunsets in films that are superb and take on an almost metaphoric quality, and there are others that are so boring that you simply want to hit the fast forward. What is the difference? It is so many hundreds of little tiny things that build before you get to the damn sunset, and that’s nothing but talent. You don’t teach that to anybody.

What are the choices and challenges that await Margaret Drain when she succeeds you as executive producer?

I think the only thing that she’s going to have trouble with is money. She’ll do things differently than I. She’s already begun to bring in some producers I’ve never worked with, but that’s all to the good. I don’t think anybody should stay around too long.

One of the reasons, frankly, that I thought it was time for me to move on, was that I think the generation of people working today are now doing things better than I ever did in my life. I don’t think I have anything left to teach them. I think I did when I started, but they can produce and direct rings around me today, and I know it.

What will your role be and what other projects will you be involved in?

Margaret hired me as a consultant, and I will work on four or five projects a year for her. I’ve begun to treat her like a boss.

Did you work with her at CBS?

We had known each other. She’d worked with people I greatly admired, and ended up being one of the best friends I’ll ever have, and one of the closest collaborators I’ll ever have. But that’s in the realm of luck. It’s like getting into a good marriage — there are no guarantees.

What’s important for people to know about their past, and are there some things that producers keep coming back to?

All the boring things that everybody tells you are absolutely true, which is there is no way you can know yourself if you don’t know where you come from. That is true both of your psyche, and your cultural and political background.

Every group of people in this complicated society who were locked out of mainstream history have been fighting to get in. There is a psychic need that is absolutely powerful, and for my money indisputable. You can say you don’t like your own background. You can shift, you can change, you can reject it, you can do anything you want with it, but in order to make any of those decisions, as David McCullough says, you have to know where you came from and where your folks came from.

My husband used to say that our children were victims of the Civil War. What he meant by that was that he had a very tough and quite ungenerous mother, who was the daughter of someone who had been badly hurt by the consequences of that war. Her psychic withholding had influenced Bob, who in turn felt that, inevitably, it would wash over our children.

You have to get a little bit older, but there is a point that almost all producers get to where they really understand how short our history is. What was the film, Six Degrees of Separation? The truth is, we are only six degrees of separation away really from the Revolutionary War. And American history has been so convulsive. So much has happened in such a compressed period of time, that it’s really absurd that we don’t know more about it. It’s very sad.

Judy Crichton retired in December [1996] as executive producer of The American Experience. She is now researching and writing a forthcoming program for the series and acting as consultant to her successor, Margaret Drain. Before Christmas, Crichton set aside her sheaves of research materials for this interview with Currenteditors in her Manhattan brownstone.Crichton — winner of many Emmys and other major awards for her own films and as e.p. of TV’s leading historical documentary series — skipped over college and began working in game shows during television’s early years. She joined the staff of CBS Reports in 1974, moved to ABC’s Closeup in 1982 and was hired to start up public TV’s American Experience in 1987. Though she reported to WGBH, Boston, she worked most days in her Upper West Side home.


David Stewart profiles the series from its startup.

Crichton’s successor at American Experience, Margaret Drain, makes funding her top priority.

Judy Crichton dies in 2007, age 77.


American Experience website.

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