An American Experience
Mark Samels has been the executive producer of American Experience since 2003. Produced by WGBH/Boston, American Experience is television's most-watched and longest running history series. Under Samels's leadership, it's been honored with nearly every industry award.
During a visit to San Francisco in late 2010, Mark was kind enough to take time to talk about the series and its current (23rd) season.
How do you and your team decide which films to include in the series
American Experience produces just ten films each year, so we certainly don't claim to touch on every aspect of American history. There are a million topics, but few that involve a compelling story. As a general rule, history defaults to the dry and boring. We're looking for a dramatic arc, substance, and focus with historical meaning. That's our filter.
Recently we've been focusing on more contemporary history—on subject matter that's relevant to audiences that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Freedom Riders and Stonewall Uprising are consciously aimed at people who remember and want to re-explore those eras.
Our goal isn't to bring the same audience along week to week. Rather, we're looking to tap into the deeply emotional attachment that various audiences bring to history.
We've also adopted a film style that is a mix of the classic form, with archival footage, talking heads, and a narrator, and the witness/experiential film with no narrator. The experiential is a more lived, more contemporary presentation of history. We're also moving to new venues—for example, scheduling theatrical releases for films with a more cinematic quality.
How involved are you in the creation of the films in the series?
We commission most of the films. So, while we're very involved in the development of concepts and ideas and script treatments, we're not so involved in the filming.
What are your thoughts on the growing use of "dramatic re-creations" in
Interestingly, I do a talk called "The Borderland" about the space between fiction films and documentaries. Each is trying to emulate characteristics of the other. For example, from the first scene in the feature film Milk, you'd think it was a documentary.
We're on a downward arc in terms of producing re-creations. They're hard to do well and make believable. They also raise questions about veracity and are hugely expensive.
How is technology impacting documentary filmmaking?
The impact is not profound, but it is interesting. While there is a new generation of cameras that are remarkably affordable and produce stunning quality-composite exposures, it still takes time to write sentences and shape good scenes. Technology doesn't help with that.
Do you have a favorite film of the current American Experience season?
I think Freedom Riders has the greatest potential to lay down a marker for why public media should exist. The event was the coming together of 460 individuals who took hold of history and ran with it. It was a turning point. Afterward, they dispersed and went back to their communities, so the reach of their experience is broad.
The film raises profound questions about how change and engagement happen today. It's an extremely powerful film. It's taken a good 40 viewings of the trailer for it not to be an emotional experience for me.
Any surprises from this season?
One thing that's great about taking your time to get it right with films is that you discover things. For example, the Panama Canal is well-known achievement. But in addition to telling about how it was constructed, during the making of our film about it, we were unearthed two stories that provide a new, human dimension to our understanding of the Canal's creation. In one, we follow a couple of families who went to work on the Panama Canal. You hear from the wife of a worker, who kept a diary. You feel what it was like to live there in the disease-ridden jungle of Panama. In addition, we look at Caribbean workers--workers from Barbados, specifically--and tell their story.
What's in the works for next season?
Next season, we're looking to aggregate films around themes. Public media could draw from cable television's example when it comes to rebroadcasting films. Our repeats are often more popular than our new films! Look for a new documentary about Billy the Kid packaged with Wild West-themed films we've aired before. We're also looking to present a new film about Vietnam along with rebroadcasts of previously aired works.
You co-wrote and directed A Brilliant Madness,
a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and schizophrenic, John
Nash. Do you have any plans to direct again?
I'd love to think that is still possible. I really enjoyed it. But right now fundraising takes most of my time.
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