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Public Television's Triple Crown: In Practice

By Stephanie Mardesich

David Grubin, producer and director of <em>Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided</em>. His previous award-winning presidential biographies for American Experience include <em>TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt</em>; <em>FDR</em>; <em>Truman</em>; and <em>LBJ</em>.

While it may not have been producer Carol Fleisher’s lifelong ambition to make a film about El Niño for NOVA , Chasing El Niño certainly was the experience of a lifetime, considering the challenges. But with a lifeline to a program and broadcast venue, she couldn’t have been happier working with the esteemed program.

Fleischer was attending the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 1997 when she and her co-producer Mark Hoover sat down with Beth Hoppe, an executive of WGBH, and pitched 26 ideas they thought would be suitable for NOVA. “Predictions were coming about El Niño and we wanted to make a scientific adventure quest that would reveal the nature of this weather system," Fleisher reflects. "At Jackson Hole we were able to get NOVA and a fantastic international distributor, Devillier Donegan Enterprises (DDE), both interested in the project. I’ve rarely seen a deal move that quickly.

“There was an urgency to make it happen because of the weather element,” she added. “The weather won’t wait for television deals to be made. From when we sold this program to the height of El Niño’s impact was just about seven weeks. We had to expedite complex shooting in Peru and Ecuador (the Galapagos), which was challenging because Peru was already being hit with terrible flooding.”

NOVA had editorial supervision, with executive producer Paula Apsell making the ultimate decisions. Along with Greg Diefenbach, senior producer for DDE, she gave Fleisher her notes. "She knows her audience and her series well,” Fleisher recalls. “NOVA has a very respected name brand to protect and works with lots of different producers and productions all over the world—like the BBC—and it keeps a good eye out, which is why it’s so consistent.”

It was Fleisher’s duty to carry out the budget, so, for example, when a car rental company in Peru tried to charge her $10,000 for a week’s rental, she opposed the extreme fee and got the charges in line. In contrast, Fleisher's crew met Peru's President Fujimori, a big fan of NOVA, who was able to intervene and arrange helicopters to get into the flooded areas where roads and bridges had been washed out, as well as personally explain what Peru is doing to combat El Niño.

While Chasing El Niño was a first collaboration between NOVA, DDE and Fleisher, DDE has co-produced many of Fleisher’s other programs, including Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry and Future War for The Discovery Channel. “Everyone was incredibly practical in making it happen in a timely fashion," Fleisher remembers. "Because of the conditions, we had to be incredibly focused and make sure NOVA and DDE were informed, and they worked together beautifully."

Sharing the same vision seems to be the difference between the exceptional experience Fleischer had and that of another independent producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He attributes his relatively negative experience to NOVA's lack of involvement from the inception of the project. “Their reps saw some of the dailies and decided to buy the film before it was finished," he says. "Then they saw a rough cut of a nearly completed film and said it needed a lot of changes, but couldn’t say what those changes were; ‘we won’t know until we work on it ourselves’.”

The filmmaker and NOVA eventually came to an agreement. “The upshot was that we couldn’t get an answer," he says. "And when they eventually put the film on air, there was very little change.” Furthermore he speculates that in spite of a signed contract and what he and his partner understood in terms of completion budget, NOVA probably didn’t have the money and was looking for excuses so it could take the film and finish it itself. He also believes that there is a formula that isn’t really clear to a first-time filmmaker working with the program, and his or her film actually might not have complied with that undeclared agenda.

“Ultimately, the film was finished, and NOVA contributed a big chunk of the budget, " he says. "But the result was it cost them a great deal less money. They have their own attitude, and they like their stuff heavily narrated, which our film wasn’t. One thing they changed was to take out the humor—ours had a fair amount—that didn’t seem to suit them.” He also thinks that what NOVA wants or is used to is taking over projects and putting its own people on them. The original musical score for his film, for example, was rejected for one that was considerably less costly and, in his opinion, less complimentary. The final result was that NOVA took over the project, but the original filmmaker retained foreign distribution rights to his own version.

Paula S. Apsell, executive producer of NOVA, responds, “You know, it’s one thing to say ‘I want to do this film my way,’ but sometimes the film is not consistent with the standards we’ve set for the series. The main things that I look for when I see a rough cut or a fine cut are, Is this accurate? Is this clear? Is this story told the best way it can be told? Obviously all of these things are subjective, but it’s my job to establish those standards for the series, and if the film doesn’t live up to them, we turn ourselves inside out to work with and support the producer and figure out a way, if we’ve got a problem, to solve that problem in the most amicable way possible.

“I’m a producer myself,” Apsell continues, “and I understand the pressure and tension that’s on producers. And I do not want our independent producers to go broke. I’m very conscious that my demands in a screening are going to cost the producer money, so we really extend ourselves—not just me, but the whole staff—to try to work together to work out any problems that we may have and get a film that we think makes a good NOVA and that the producer’s proud of, because everybody loses if you can’t do that. That’s why it’s been so rare; we almost always work it out. There are some times—very, very occasionally—where you just can’t, and I think it’s very sad. But even in the handful of cases in which we have had to take over the film—take a film in which we’ve got a lot of money invested in it, because with most of these films, we pay for the whole thing—and fix it and bring it up to standards, we’ve had to do that very occasionally.

“But we always give the producer the appropriate credit that the contract calls for,” Apsell maintains, “and even if we essentially recut the film, we share any awards with the producer. And we really try not to fight the producers because that gets you nowhere. And there’s nothing that’s poison for a series more than for independent producers to feel that they just can’t work with you.”

Carol Fleisher's positive NOVA experience was tantamount to that of another independent of some renown, Rachel Dretzin, who has worked with another favorite in the PBS pantheon, Frontline, for about ten years. She most recently produced Merchants of Cool, broadcast last month, and the sequel to Lost Children of Rockdale County, which aired in October 1999 and a won a Peabody Award. Dretzin began with Frontline shortly after graduating with honors from Yale University, where she majored in history. She’s been working with them almost exclusively since then, completing six programs.

“It’s a back and forth process where they will often have a set of issues or ideas they want us to look into, and we have some our own. David Fanning, who created the program and is senior executive producer, and Karen O’Conner, senior story editor, are very active in developing ideas, as is Mike Sullivan, executive producer. We’ll brainstorm in a meeting or over the telephone…sometimes on a research contract to see if there’s a show. If so, we go into a production agreement.”

According to Dretzin, Frontline doesn’t have staff producers; it’s “decentralized.” Almost all of its films are done by independent production companies; there’s a different relationship with every producer. Dretzin confers with other independents for advice and crew recommendations and feels there are very few outlets that produce such quality so consistently. Her only criticism: “Sometimes, because we’re not working in the office in Boston, there can be some confusion about how we work. In terms of editorial input, it’s a pretty good system. Most people are happy, and it really depends on autocratic decision-making. After ten years they have a good sense of how I work, and I have a good sense of how they work. They say that I’m my own worst critic. Generally, I have the time, not like on a network schedule, and a lot of choice and control over my own work, to make it as good as I want it to be.”

Similar sentiments regarding autonomy and support from the powers that be are echoed by David Grubin, who has worked almost exclusively with PBS for nearly three decades and has earned kudos for setting a standard for historical documentaries such as LBJ and FDR. Grubin’s most recent production for American Experience, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, was broadcast in February. When queried if he felt there were any limitations placed on him creatively or financially, he responds, “The only limit is how much time you have. I’m not complaining about the time; it’s not necessarily a limit. Maybe it’s a good thing to tell the story in four hours – it’s a lot time for television – but if they’d said tell it in an hour, I wouldn’t have done it. If you’re going to do a subject, an historical subject, it’s got to have some length.”

"And if you’re going to be a filmmaker," he continues, "you have to make the film according to your own reactions, your own ideas and feelings as you watch the film. Fortunately, what I like, other people have liked. If you’re going to give somebody money for a four-hour program, it’s going to be somebody who’s already proven themselves.”

Grubin appreciates the funding available in connection with PBS productions and doesn’t just assume it’s an endless supply. “I’ve always known just about what it’s going to cost me to do it and I work within those limits," he says. "You can always do a bit more. With Lincoln, for example, we were fortunate to get some last-minute money, and I was able to use some special effects that actually make the movie. How do you assassinate Lincoln? How do you show that? I think we came up with a way to do it that, which we could not have without the extra funds. So bringing in feature film or commercial techniques to documentary takes the funds. You don’t get any opportunity to do that with the cable stations or the networks.”

Another filmmaker who’s worked with American Experience, Carl Byker (The Duel, February 2000) reflects Grubin’s experience in how a successful, completed project can contribute to getting the next one going. On the heels of the accolades for The Great War, which was a stylistic presentation narrative, using first-person quotes juxtaposed with the visuals, archival and re-enactments, he was considering his next topic and hit upon the story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. He thought the same technique would work in telling the story of their adversarial relationship and its morbid outcome. There was interest from PBS, and he elaborated with a two-page treatment on spec and flew to Washington, DC for a three-hour pitch meeting, where he laid out the whole show. “I felt they’d buy it and they did, though it wasn’t one of their bigger budgets. I saw it as an investment and took less. If we proved it could be done it would pay off and it did.”

Byker has no complaints on PBS affiliation and acknowledges it as “the best working experience I’ve ever had professionally. They’re very smart, very talented, and very experienced.” He is currently shooting Wilson, again for American Experience, which will be a three-hour profile of the 28th US President.


Stephanie Mardesich is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who divides her time between California and the UK.