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A Conversation with Judy Crichton

HUMANITIES, September/October 1998 | Volume 19, Number 5

Judy Crichton began her career in broadcasting at the age of eleven at her father's radio station. Her work since that time as a reporter, director, and producer for ABC, CBS, and PBS has brought her a number of awards, including the Alfred I. du Pont -- Columbia Journalism Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, and five Emmys. She is perhaps best known for her role in creating the PBS documentary series, The American Experience, in 1987. How she helped shaped the art of the documentary over the subsequent decade was the focus of her recent discussion with Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris.

William Ferris: Where did the idea for The American Experience come from?

Judy Crichton: If you go back to those days, there was a remarkable lack of history on television. Television people were scared of history. They stayed away from it. The networks had made a few excursions into the area, but there was no real confidence that Americans were interested in history or that history lent itself to television. It was absurd, but that's a pretty accurate portrait of how things stood. Peter McGhee, who was -- and still is -- the vice president of national programming at WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, looked out on the field and decided there had to be a history series that would do for the past what Nova did for science, and I was invited to become part of that experiment. It was the most wonderful assignment I ever had.

Ferris: What would you say has been the guiding philosophy behind the series?

Crichton: It grew out of certain very basic reflections. History is filled with magnificent stories. Some of the most exciting stories anyone has ever read are in history books. But when people moved to try and translate the past to television, producers were -- I don't know how to put it except to say, inclined to be stuffy. They didn't realize that the requirements for attracting people to historical television were much the same as the requirements for attracting people to good drama, good music, good noncontemporary nonfiction. You couldn't simply take a historical work and translate it whole. Television is a very stingy medium. It will only digest a narrow amount of material, and people went into it very often with unrealistic expectations. So we tried to teach people how to move from subject to story, to identify the corner that interested them the most and that had a strong narrative drive.

Storytelling is really everything. You can't go back and reread a television show. There has to be an understanding between the creator of the film and his or her viewers, a contract if you will, that the selection of material within that film is not arbitrary, that it is selected to stand in for a great deal more material than there is time to tell, that it is all tied to the spine of the story, that the reasons for the selection of an anecdote or a sequence will in time become clear, and the viewer will understand the links that are being presented as a narrative whole. Does that make sense?

Ferris: Yes, total. Let me ask you this: What is the role of an executive producer in this whole process?

Crichton: It's akin to an active editor in a book publishing house or an old-fashioned editor. When we first went on the air, we selected the stories, commissioned them, and found the people we thought would be best able to translate them to film.

The next step really was setting the standards. We take for granted now that producers and academics work comfortably together, but there were very few people at that time who understood that relationship. WGBH had a tradition of working with scholars. Ken Burns did. But most producers had never experienced that kind of alliance. I brought with me the same kind of standards that we had worked under in long-form nonfiction at CBS, which were very, very stringent.

That role changed over the years. In the early years, it was very much a teaching function. Many producers came out of journalism, and they needed to understand that investigating the past was no different really than investigating the present.

Ferris: Were there ever any subjects that you would have liked to treat in the series but did not because of controversy or funding problems?

Crichton: That's a very sophisticated and extremely complicated question, but the answer is yes. There has never been -- that I know of -- direct imposition by any government, public television, or corporate entity on The American Experience. Nobody ever stepped in and said, "You can't do that." But the people who work in public television are not unsophisticated about the social and political pressures under which they're working.

There really are two forms of self-censorship that I believe everybody is working under every day. The first is really pernicious in that it's the desire to be popular. The only way, the only widely accepted proof of success in television -- it shouldn't be -- is the ratings, and that has been a growing pressure on all producers over the years. It means that the small films, the gambles, the ones where you're not sure precisely how it's all going to come out, where the subject material may not be very popular but could be wonderfully informing, get less and less attention as time goes on.

The second form of self-censorship is political. I think that one of the great sadnesses is that, as a consequence of the Cold War and the anti-communism feelings in America, producers have over the years stayed away from bringing up subjects dealing with the American Left.

When I retired at WGBH, I was asked to make a little speech to my younger colleagues, and I talked to them about this. It is a narrow vision of the world. When I went into television initially, it was a world -- both behind the camera and on film or video -- made up primarily of white males. Over time we began to change that, perhaps not as much as we should have, but we did actively work at making television look more like the real world. We openly discussed the need to be more accurate about race, about gender, about the role of different groups of people in this society, but we never got around to discussing the role of people who took unpopular positions.

Some years back on The American Experience we did a portrait of an American communist, and there was an enormous amount of nervousness about that film. I think it was an honorable film. It did not argue in favor of communism as a political system, but I think it tried to explain who these people were and what the energizing forces in their lives were, and it was just one small element out of this patchwork quilt of history. We know very little about labor history, about the political left, about the dissenters, really. There is a powerful instinct to play it safe. I would have liked to see more discussion really analyzing the "isms," if you will.

Ferris: Let me ask you a little more generally, why is it important that there be a regularly scheduled prime time historical documentary series?

Crichton: There are numbers of reasons that are perhaps less obvious than the need to talk about who we are as a people and as a society, which I do believe in passionately.

Producing historical documentaries is a very difficult craft, maybe a high craft when it's at its best. And you need a place where people can develop their skills and learn the craft of producing historical documentaries, which have their own grammar, their own very difficult-to-learn skills. It's like the old artisan system. You need to go in and work as a researcher, work as a production assistant, and as an associate producer, and learn how it's done. Ric Burns, who is such a superb documentary filmmaker, learned from initially working with his brother and was co-producer on The Civil War. Every single one of the people who are really good at this work spent years and years in some kind of apprenticeship. If there isn't a place for young people to go, if there isn't enough work to support them over the years in which they learn their skills, we just won't have people who know how to do this, and we will always be reinventing the wheel. We're trying to do things now that are much harder than the things we started with ten or more years ago.

NEH helped a whole generation of people learn how to approach new subjects in history and what standards to apply. NEH also contributed to some of the best work that The American Experience has presented. Projects as ambitious as the presidential series could never have been done without considerable help. Nobody ever totally enjoys writing a grant proposal -- it's like going to a final. But it's enormously important.

Ferris: How crucial is research time to producing a quality documentary?

Crichton: That is the absolute given. If I were to write a series of commandments, that would be the first. If you commissioned a book on a historical subject, you would assume that that person would probably take years to learn the subject. Documentary producers are generalists, and they are often assigned subjects about which they know little. They may know something about the context or the general area of the story, but they don't know the story. The presumption that they can get up to speed in a matter of weeks is absurd.

CBS producer Perry Wolf used to say to me -- it was the most delightful thing I'd ever run into in my entire life -- he said, "Listen, you're being paid to lie on the couch and read." I took that over to The American Experience, and I would say to these guys, "You're being paid to study. Just go off and spend months studying. Read everything you can get your hands on, and when you are beginning to be conversant with the subject, then go off and talk to the specialists and talk to the historians and talk to the people who know in detail something about the subject." But you can't select the best witnesses unless you really are comfortable with the materials. You don't know what an absurd slant is or what is idiosyncratic. It may be valuable to your story, but you have to know where it stands on the continuum. You only can do that by just plain doing your homework.

Ferris: Does a filmmaker have an idea about a story they want to tell and then go do the research? What is the process?

Crichton: The films that interest me the least are those produced by someone who has set out to support his or her preconceived ideas. The best producers -- and you might think of them more as reporters and writers in the initial stages of the work -- do not necessarily start out with a declared position or are very comfortable in listening to ideas that are not necessarily their own. You can't expect that anybody who is old enough to produce a film doesn't have an opinion. We all have opinions, sometimes very strong opinions. The obligation is to open your ears and consider those positions that you don't think you agree with, to be open to change.

One of my favorite films on The American Experience was David Grubin's wonderful multi-hour series on Lyndon Johnson. David is of the generation that came out of the arguments over Vietnam and had very strong personal feelings, negative feelings, about Johnson. Over the years in which he developed the NEH proposal, David began to understand the complexities of this man and to get a different and often colliding vision of Johnson, and you sense that in the work. If you look at the film, the strength of the film is that it deals with ambivalence. It's not a tidy, good guy/bad guy story. The best television is when people have grappled with difficult subjects and are able to hold very contradictory intellectual and emotional facts in their head at the same time. Most human beings are both good and bad. Many policies have these contradictory factors within them. That's a very hard thing to teach. People either are born with that capacity and need to be encouraged, or they don't buy it.

In the early years, documentary television was extremely ideological. Even when you might agree with the slant that it took, it was often anticipatory and boring. I think we're beginning to get work that's a lot more sophisticated and complicated. This goes back to why you need a series.

I used to fight like hell to convince people that no one program could be the definitive work. I object very much to the idea that this will be the only film made about Lyndon Johnson or the Civil War or whatever the subject is. There will be other writers, other producers. There is a need for seeing the major stories of our past from a variety of perspectives, personal as well as political.

Ferris: You've said that a common denominator of The American Experience series has to do with storytelling. What kinds of stories lend themselves to a good documentary?

Crichton: I think all stories lend themselves to good documentaries. I think the danger is being too ambitious. What you're always trying to do is to construct a script that balances between providing context and facts, and the drive of the story. You have the same dramatic imperative that you do in film or drama. In the best stories, the heroes go down a well and have to be rescued. The well may be an intellectual one, it may be a real one, but it is a story of conflict and resolution. What is difficult on television is using a central character who is not sufficiently interesting, although he may be extremely interesting in the abstract. Television is not very kind to the abstract. And if you're dealing with the far past, it really helps when you have someone who has written or been quoted extensively because you have an opportunity to hear the voice of your central character. We love people who wrote letters, and I do worry about what's going to happen a hundred years from now when everything that was done on the Internet has floated away.

Ferris: Is there a difference between how a filmmaker would approach the life of a public person like a politician as opposed to a more private life like an artist?

Crichton: From my point of view, it is essential to discover who the public person is as a human being. In our presidential portraits, we have always gone back to the biographical beginnings for precisely the same reason that every good biographer goes back: that's where you find the seeds of how someone's thinking developed. That's where you see a human being's psyche being shaped. If you come to understand it and aren't too simplistic about it, eventually that becomes essential in decisions about legislation, about the need for attention, about all the qualities that make a public man. What you're really doing in every area that you can think of is trying to get past a stereotype. The George Washington I learned about as a child was not as interesting and complicated a man as the George Washington I know sixty years later, having done a lot of reading about him.

Ferris: When a filmmaker is working on a subject like Washington, is there an obligation to explore multiple points of view in telling the story? And when we do that, how much speculation is a filmmaker allowed in shaping the complexity and the ambivalence of the person's life?

Crichton: That's a complicated question. I feel -- and I'm speaking for myself now -- that on occasion, producers know a subject so well that they can take the same latitude as any serious reporter or historian in developing a point of view. For the most part, unfortunately, we haven't had that opportunity. So when it comes to speculating about someone in the far past, I think you are probably more dependent than you may want to be on the work of those who have spent years coming to a position. You at least have an obligation to learn what the most serious and important work on the subject has been. If there are multiple points of view -- and there always are -- I don't see anything wrong with a producer over time coming to favor one point of view or another. If the controversy is considerable, then you have an obligation to let the viewer know that the scholarly world out there is not in agreement on a subject. You don't have the obligation to overstuff a relatively short film with on-the-one- hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that because although that touches political bases, it isn't intellectually very satisfying. You come out of those films not knowing a damned thing except that the arguments exist. You don't have time to explore anything in sufficient depth to really absorb a new idea, to take anything away as a viewer.

That goes back to my hope and desire. I would love to see someday multiple films on Jefferson or Franklin or Washington or Hamilton -- on all the really controversial figures in the American past -- because there are marvelously contradictory opinions about these men. But I don't think you can put all of it in one film.

Ferris: Does the availability of visual images play a major role in determining the kind of story that you ultimately tell?

Crichton: Yes and no. We have learned and gotten good at understanding how to use still images. That's a relatively new development. In fact, one of the things that we learned at The American Experience was that at times, even when moving images were available, we opted to use stills instead because stills allow you to absorb a complicated thought by virtue of the fact that they don't move. You can also look into someone's eyes and think about their soul or their brain for a moment, which is much harder to do if the image is moving.

How you handle pre-photographic stories is much more difficult, and there have been some marvelous attempts. A Midwife's Tale, which was on The American Experience -- and was also supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities -- was a magnificent attempt to get back into the late eighteenth century. It was a revolutionary period story.

Different people will experiment with different ways of doing that, but it's difficult. Ric Burns and Lisa Ades, in their extended work on New York, which is going to be finished next year, have re-created the Civil War riots in New York very effectively and impressionistically. It's partially how you handle the visual materials, but it's partially the strength of the underlying narrative, which has to be so strong that it locks you into a story and lets you suspend that critical, analytic corner of your brain that says, "Is that petticoat really an eighteenth-century petticoat, and are her fingernails too clean?" It's both fighting the tidiness of images that we produce in the late twentieth century, and it is also learning how to write and structure films in a way that the story holds the viewer. If you look at The Donner Party, it was made with about six stills and magic and mirrors and a lot of snow scenes, but the narrative really holds you. I think the films that have worked so far in the pre-photographic period have been reasonably narrow and direct and have had a real drive and energy to them.

Ferris: Some of the documentaries use historical reenactments while others focus on archival materials to develop the story line. What are the benefits and what are the problems of using historical reenactments?

Crichton: Different people have different goals at the outset. What I like best and what I was trying to do was to propel a viewer into a situation in which the film allowed him to really feel as though he was living intensely through a particular event or story.

Very often the re-creations, because of the limitations of time and money and expertise, do not work. You abandon floating in the past and come back into the present.

If you think of it in very simplistic terms, in the early years of The American Experience we did an awful lot of wagons moving across the plains or the log cabin where somebody was born or the locomotive that was first crossing the continent. And over and over again, the elements were too shiny, too clean. No locomotive across the continent in the 1860s had that pristine, just-polished look. It was a dirty, mucky ride through dust and mud, and the engines looked as though they had been through that. The wagon wheels weren't new wood that looked polished. The grass hadn't been mowed to the edge of the cabin by a gasoline-powered engine. So we began to learn how to deal with those problems. We may even say to the National Park Service, "Please don't mow your grass before we film that cabin." It may be as tiny as that.

I think A Midwife's Tale was at times -- given the skill of director Richard Rogers -- as good at re-creating elements of the past with actors as any film I've seen on the eighteenth century. It was very difficult and very expensive.

Ferris: One of the presences on the documentary historical film is the on-camera interview with the scholar. What is the role that historians and other scholars play in shaping the documentary?

Crichton: You've got two very separate ways that scholars work with producers. The first is behind the scenes in simply guiding them. It's really akin to the kind of guidance you get going after a master's or an advanced degree of any kind. They point out the lapses in your reading. They point out the areas that you haven't covered. They help you narrow down the themes and issues that must be covered within your story. They also point out the areas where there is ongoing controversy and differing points of view so that you can understand how you have to handle that.

On camera, the best of them are marvelous storytellers. They can help re-create a period with the kind of detail or fear or anxiety or excitement that you can't provide with stock footage. And very often these people can become, in the best sense, like an ensemble of brilliant actors. Where they're well used, they take on a character so that the viewer identifies with them. What used to be dismissed as talking heads has really become, in the hands of skillful producers, academics, and historians, an inherent part of these films.

But simply turning to someone who knows his subject is insufficient. There are brilliant men and women who write superbly and work off camera extremely well, but freeze when they get in front of the camera. They don't have the ability to make eye contact with the viewer and carry them along. There are other people who put out their hand and pull you up an intellectual embankment. The really good filmmakers will interview scores and scores of people before they select their on-camera witnesses.

Ferris: Let me stray a little afield into commercial television. There are some very gifted producers and writers. I'm thinking of Steven Bochco, David Milch, and John Romano, who all studied at Yale in fields of humanities and now are brilliantly successful at what they do in commercial television. Can you talk a little about the figures who are professionally trained in academic fields and are working in a very different sort of arena?

Crichton: I think that what you're talking about is what is the mission: What is it that you're trying to accomplish with your training and your talent and your likes? Those guys work under a kind of pressure that very few documentary producers have ever known. It's very easy for people on one side of that divide to be dismissive of those on the other side of the divide. I am not. I think that some of that work is absolutely brilliant. I suspect that they would be superb if they ever wanted to wander over into our field. Intelligence, as you know, is translatable. There's no reason why someone who's done one thing can't do another. But what is so seductive about commercial television is the size of the audience. Writers say, "My God, fifty thousand people bought my book," and that would be a great number. Then it's put on television and six million people see it. You get into the commercial arena and it's three times that number.

Ferris: On a more personal note, you are carrying on a legacy from your father. Can you talk about what things you carry from him?

Crichton: When my father went into television, there was no television. It was 1944. He had one camera, and technical survival was the name of the game. He wrote an essay about the future of television, and he took the position that television wouldn't be really successful until producers began to think of it as a medium in itself -- not film, not print, but something entirely new with its own set of disciplines and grammar. That thought has stayed with me all my life.

My father did some of the first multi-hour miniseries on historical figures. He did extended portraits on Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. In fact, David Grubin used a fragment of an interview my father did with Eleanor Roosevelt in his film on FDR. Through the years there was no great appetite for material of that kind, and the networks forgot that these series had ever been on the air and had had success.

A great deal of the problem in terms of advancing serious work lay in the fact that an awful lot of people working in television did not take it seriously or were psychologically on the defensive. Serious work was done for print. My husband was a novelist, and I worked in television. He was important, I was just "in television." That was very much the attitude of those of us who had grown up in television. I had seen my father basically lose his campaign to do serious work on television.

But I guess there was some corner in me that never gave up hoping that there would be a place for work where you didn't have to make excuses and where you worked as hard and as seriously as your colleagues in print.

Ferris: What is the difference now that you're moving from executive producer to writer?

Crichton: It's been a very confusing, complicating, and interesting experience. I began America 1900 while I was still at The American Experience. Initially I tried to get other producers interested and, for one reason or another, failed. So I wrote a script, and then David Grubin picked up on it. Simultaneously I wrote America 1900 as a book, which is coming out this fall. Everything I had taught for years I simply ignored. I made the same mistakes that everybody makes in hoping to put more in the film than the film could possibly hold. David very wisely resisted my importuning. At the same time, I had the fun of writing a book that could hold a great deal more information. It was working on two totally different planes at the same time, and sometimes it became very confusing.

Ferris: Let me ask you one final question. What do you see as the elements of a good documentary?

Crichton: Honesty and a gripping story that pulls you in where visuals are used to advance the story, not to simply lie there like wallpaper.

Ferris: Judy, this has been wonderful, and I want to thank you for sharing this time with me.