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First Look: History Lesson, Top Doc Maker's Look at America's Past in Landmark TV Series

By Tamara Krinsky

From the film Massacre at Mystic, of the year 1637, when the Pequots in New England were the strongest Native American group in the region. Part of 10 Days That Changed America, a ten-episode series that will premiere on The History Channel

This spring, The History Channel steps it up a notch with its new special event series, 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. Each of the 10 one-hour films has been created by a different award-winning documentary filmmaker or filmmaking team and focuses on an event that triggered a major shift in America's political, cultural or social landscape. The series premieres in April.

The idea for the series was developed by Susan Werbe, the channel's vice president, historical programming. "We're always challenged as a programming group to come up with 'big ideas,'" Werbe explains. "I had been thinking about inviting independent filmmakers to do a project for The History Channel. We came up with the idea of giving the scope of American history in some fashion, and then focused on 10 days that unexpectedly changed America, which grew into the title of the program."

Werbe and filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Brother's Keeper) had been talking for almost a year about another project when she conceived of this series. She knew that Berlinger had many established relationships in the independent film world, so she invited him to join the project as co-executive producer to help shepherd the creative aspects of the series.

"When Susan asked me to come on board and do this, I was interested because there was a goal of going to people who hadn't normally worked for The History Channel, or hadn't even done that much television," says Berlinger. "It was interesting to me to work on a project where The History Channel was interested in bringing a new and fresh approach to these kinds of films.

"The most important thing for me was to transcend the genre and make it much more story-driven," he continues. "Everyone on our list was a good storyteller whose films I've admired."

The combination of slightly higher budgets, an unusual opportunity and a relatively large amount of creative freedom attracted an A-list group of talent, including James Moll ( The Last Days, Price for Peace ), R.J. Cutler ( A Perfect Candidate, American High ), Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein ( The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175), Michael Epstein ( Final Cut, The Battle over Citizen Kane), Rory Kennedy ( American Hollow, Pandemic: Facing AIDS ), Kate Davis ( Southern Comfort, Jockey ), Barak Goodman ( Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, The Fight ), Marco Williams ( Two Towns of Jasper, I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education) and Bruce Sinofsky ( Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records ), among others. The events explored in the films range from the story of the Pequot War to the Gold Rush to Elvis Presley's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The History Channel mandated the show length, a five-act breakdown and an opening tease, but within the body of each piece, filmmakers were free to do as they pleased. Berlinger fought very hard to make sure that each filmmaker was able to decide how to approach his or her particular subject in the way that felt most comfortable to them, including re-creation, narration and even animation.

For his own episode, Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of President McKinley, Berlinger chose to focus on character development, exploring the assassin Leon Czolgosz and President William McKinley through striking, stylized re-creations shot on high-definition video. "For me, the McKinley story could have been a very traditional straightforward rendition of the history," the filmmaker maintains. "In order to be consistent with my previous work, I wanted to make a film that demonstrated the quirkiness of these characters. By focusing on the human drama, audiences get emotionally involved, and the by-product is that they then learn the history."