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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: The Wolper Documentary

By Eric Trules

Four large, soft, black leather chairs in front of a blank white movie screen. Four gray-haired maverick documentary pioneers sitting around talking... about themselves, each other, and their work together. Such was the IDA and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' joint tribute to David L. Wolper and his large circle of friends, here represented by Jack Haley Jr., Alan Landsburg, and IDA President Mel Stuart. Entitled "The Wolper Documentary: Creating New Concepts for Television," the evening was a nostalgic, informative, and intimate look at a remarkable period in the lives of a group of filmmakers (200 strong in their heyday) who literally sold and created (only sometimes in that order) the documentary film to network TV in the late 1950s and '60s and '70s.

Introduced as "an evening of remembrance of things past," the program began with a montage of titles from some of the most famous nonfiction programs of early American television: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, The Making of the President, The Helstrom Chronicles, Biography, and Jacques Cousteau—only a handful of the hundreds that the Wolper Company produced so prolifically for more than three decades. Wolper gave a brief history of the organization he had started in 1957 when he had to bypass all three networks to sell his first documentary film, The Race for Space, because of the networks' uniform rejection at the time of all independent films on current affairs. But with his legendary salesmanship and determination, Wolper called 120 independent stations around the country and sold his film. Along the way, he recruited New York stock footage salesman Mel Stuart and his next door neighbor, Alan Landsburg, both then working for CBS, in addition to aeronautical footage provider Jack Haley Jr. The rest, as they say, is history.

Haley spoke about the birth of the Hollywood compilation film, the nonfiction genre that, although today we take for granted, was in the late 1950s such a new concept that the MPAA gladly provided footage to Wolper at no charge, whereas today, they charge $6,000 per minute. Haley, who later followed up his Wolper years with the highly successful That's Entertainment series, was responsible for such early network series as Hollywood and the Stars, The Great Stars, and Hollywood: The Fabulous Years. He fondly remembered what he facetiously called "David's largesse" by recalling the $1,000 he was paid for the first ten weeks of work on the Hollywood series, which naturally became 20 weeks for the same fee.

Now it was Alan Landsburg’s turn to talk about his stewardship of the Biography series. Apparently the result of another sales miracle by Wolper, the series was sold to one of the networks with a commitment for 13 half-hour shows—due in two and half months. Landsburg blanched at the order, but with the help of Haley and a now quickly growing cast of technical and creative experts, the Wolper organization was able to rise to the occasion. "We liked one another.  We trusted one another.  We competed with each other. And we loved the work being turned out" is how Landsburg described the group of 26-and 27-year-old men who attempted to tell each other the "absolute truth" about the films they were making. The trial-by-fire ritual of screening one's rough cut in the critical intimacy of Wolper's living room—to the discriminating eyes and ears of one's colleagues and peers—was something never to be forgotten, according to an amusing video recollection by Wolper alumnus William Friedkin.

The next category of[ film that the Wolper organization "created" was the National Geographic-Jacques Cousteau nature documentary. Taking miles of uncut but fastidiously shot footage from scientists such as Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Robert Leakey, it was Wolper's editors and directors and narrators and film scorers who condensed the raw stock, crafted it, and confirmed it into story lines and finished films. It was also Wolper and his team, led by Stuart, who took nonfiction books such as Theodore White's The Making of the President and William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and made them into effective, moving films that were seen by national audiences.

In moving beyond the "clip stuff" of its early efforts, while at the same time rejecting the Drew-Leacock­ Maysles' paradigm of cinema verite, the Wolper organization chose to embrace a "Hollywood style of making documentaries."  Finding the drama of ordinary people's lives in The Story Of... series, his team was able to combine visual elements with complex narrative, sound, and music effects to devise films that were their director's "creative interpretation of reality." And then finally, running out of stock footage, biography, and compilation material, it was also the Wolper organization who "invented" the modern-day docudrama in its Appointment with Destiny series. Using actors for the first time in its reality "reenactments" of the Crucifixion, the shootout at O.K. Corral, and Admiral Perry's journey to the North Pole, Wolper was clearly the pioneer of the modern network's proliferation of reality programming.

And so, many clips and several questions from the audience later, the tribute attendees were treated to the full-length screening of D-Day, a quintessential Wolper documentary, employing all the strengths and strategies discussed over the course of the evening.  During the cocktail reception following and on our divergent drives home, we could not help but be moved by the monumental size of innovation and accomplishment this group of filmmakers had achieved. They were leaving us with a legacy, not unlike the '60s themselves, one filled with high ideals and new ways of thinking. This, combined with hard work and the entrepreneurial imagi­nation of the likes of David Wolper, could take us, not unoptimistically, into the next century of documentary filmmaking. 

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special