Skip to main content

Anchors Aweigh! Ten-Part 'Carrier' Series Set for Deployment on PBS

By Shelley Gabert

As reality shows continue to dominate the airways, not even PBS is immune. But in Carrier, a new 10-part nonfiction series, the narrative is as character-driven as any scripted drama, telling the professional and personal stories of several men and women serving in the US Navy during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

With unprecedented access, the filmmakers take viewers on board the USS Nimitz, one of the largest war ships in the world, during a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. The resulting series is a compelling, in-depth portrait of life on this floating city as well as a revealing window into the lives of the enlisted who serve their country during an increasingly unpopular war.

"In the series, we follow a core group of 16 primary participants as they deal with issues of life and family, all amid the backdrop of their deployment on an aircraft carrier," says Maro Chermayeff, co-creator, co-executive producer and director of Carrier. "Carrier is full of thematic episodes that deal with their lives, their families, their beliefs, patriotism and why they serve when they know there's a very controversial war underway."

One episode, "True Believers," deals with faith among the enlisted, while another, "Controlled Chaos," is about working on the flight deck; the middle three episodes take place in the Gulf on a mission.

A producer and director on the 2002 PBS series Frontier House, Chermayeff also served as director of programming at A&E, where she executive-produced the Emmy Award-winning series Biography. "In this series we're approaching real life documentaries as an art form and not just part of a business model," she says. While National Geographic Channel produced and premiered a two-hour film last November, Supercarrier: USS Ronald Reagan, about another Nimitz-class warship, much of nonfiction programming that addresses this kind of subject matter fits what Chermayeff describes as "boys-and-their-toys programs on Discovery Channel." Here, the filmmakers made a deliberate choice not to focus only on the glamorous lives and jobs of the aircraft pilots, but to include the younger enlisted people working on the ship.

"We asked all of our subjects why they joined the Navy during this kind of conflict," Chermayeff explains. "Do they believe in what they're doing? And the answers run the gamut. But we found that there's a big difference in the hierarchy and that pilots do not have the same attitude as a 19-year-old girl working in the kitchen. So it's very eye-opening in that respect."

In addition to the long-form series, which premieres on PBS on April 27 and runs in two-hour blocks through May 1, a companion film, Another Day in Paradise, was directed by Deborah Dickson, whose previous work includes the Academy Award-nominated documentaries Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller, LaLee's Kin and Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse.

"This is the first time that a television series and a feature doc were made simultaneously," says Mitchell Block, an executive producer and co-creator of Carrier, and a producer of Another Day in Paradise. For some 35 years, Block, as head of Direct Cinema Limited, has handled the marketing and distribution of more than 64 documentaries and short live-action and animated films, including many Academy Award-winning films. He executive-produced Tracy Seretean's 2001 Academy Award-winning documentary Big Mama, and Ian Darling's 2002 documentary, Alone Across Australia.

"I had wanted to make a character-driven film on an aircraft character for years and worked with the US Navy for several years to get permission," Block says.

He initially pitched the idea of the series and companion film to WETA, and then brought Chermayeff on board as a partner in The Carrier Project, for which he serves as president. They worked with retired Navy Captain David Kennedy, a former Hornet pilot, who now works as a technical advisor on films such as Top Gun, Pearl Harbor, XXX: State of the Union, to gain the approval of the US Navy. "The Navy didn't want to sign a deal until we had our funding and distribution," Block notes.

So, Block and Chermayeff pitched the idea to Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, an independent production company responsible for such films as Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ and the Academy Award-winning Braveheart. "We felt that this series had heroic characters, action and the military and really appealed to Mel Gibson as an Icon brand," says Nancy Cotton, former president of Icon's Television Department, and now senior vice president of programming at Fox Television Studios.

Icon signed on, and Gibson, Cotton and Bruce Davey, president, CEO and producer at Icon, served as executive producers. After more negotiating with the Navy, the filmmakers gained approved and Chermayeff and Dixon, along with producer Jeff Dupre (Broadway: The American Musical) and field producers Matthew Akers, Michelle Smawley and Pamela Yates set sail with the ship on May 7, 2005.

Prior to embarking, the filmmakers conducted two scouting trips in February and March of that year, and found a few of their primary characters. "It's kind of a big floating high school, where the pilots are the jocks," Chermayeff notes.

While Chermayeff and her crew would disembark from the USS Nimitz in Hawaii for Liberty Ports, they had to bring all of their equipment, everything they could possibly need when they boarded the ship. According to Chermayeff, 90 percent of the show was shot on HD video. In addition, Randy Hepp of the Navy developed a jet camera mount, which allowed the filmmakers to place cameras on an F-18--a first for flights during an actual mission.

"The flight deck is the most dangerous workplace that I've ever been a part of," Chermayeff maintains. "There can be as many as 70 jets taking off and landing, and there are all of these wires that hold the jets; if they snapped they would cut people in half like butter."

Both Chermayeff and Dickson slept in racks on the Nimitz and dealt with the harsh conditions of the heat and life aboard the ship, and they worked almost constantly.

"After the scouting trips we knew that the film would have the voyage as an arc, that we would start when the ship left and finish when they got back," Dickson notes. "We acted in concert to get all this incredible material, and once we were back in New York, I focused on the film and she focused on the series. We ended up using some of the same material, but the film has only three main characters."

One of the characters, Chris, worked on the flight deck, loading and unloading bombs on the jets and checking them prior to taking off, while Randy, a Marine, served as a maintenance person for the Marine squadrons. "Randy and his sister were abandoned by their parents, who were carnival workers," Dickson explains. "So he has a lot of issues to deal with. His wife was pregnant and gives birth while he's out at sea, so he was really anxious about that and worried that he might not be a good father."

"Another character in the film is a pilot for the Black Aces who, during a previous deployment, fell in love with a woman in Hawaii," Dickson adds."When he came back he married her. All three of these characters made for a really interesting story."

During the editing phase, the team would sit down together. "The editors for the series and for the film stole from each other shamelessly," Dickson laughs. "They'd see how we treat something and then try to handle it in a different way. We didn't want to copy each other but there was definitely-cross fertilization."

When Block originally pitched the idea, the feature film was supposed to come out prior to the series, but it didn't work out that way. Plans for either releasing the film in theaters or airing it on PBS in June are currently on hold.

According to Cotton, the heart of the project was always going to be the series. "We shot 2,000 hours and everything turned for us during the second half of the shoot," she notes. "By that time they trusted us and they really did forget that the camera was there and we became part of the trip."

Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.