Summer 2018

Deep Dives

The directors of the American Masters series approach their trailblazer subjects on their own terms, with no stone left unturned


Mel Brooks the raconteur in Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (Photo: WNET/American Masters)

The idea was deceptively straightforward: to create a television series that delved into the life-work/work-life continuum of America's most influential artists. These would not be dogged, dutifully narrated hagiographies so much as original works themselves—documentary films that in tone, substance and execution would achieve a spiritual kinship to the cultural forces they were chronicling.

"I would say to filmmakers, 'I want this film to be as original and appropriate as the subject matter,'" says Susan Lacy, the series creator and former longtime executive producer. "You're not going to make the same film about Lou Reed that you're going to make about Leonard Bernstein. Lou Reed had to have a gritty, black-and-white, downtown feel to it. And Leonard Bernstein needed to have a kind of majesty. Every film sort of took its temperature from the subject."

When it was conceived in 1986 for WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York, American Masters was not composed only of original films. But Lacy knew there were filmmakers making work about cultural pioneers—writers, painters, singer-songwriters, filmmakers—that they couldn't afford to finish. "Because there was no place for it on TV, an idea for an umbrella title where like-minded films could exist was kind of new," she says.

American Masters hasn't just soldiered on but continues to produce films that win awards and stay true to its original vision. In this regard, it occupies a space that—for all the streaming documentaries and "Behind the Scenes" programming over the airwaves—remains otherwise largely vacant.

In a way, American Masters can't quite be called a TV docu-series. In execution, the films are acts of discovery, at times archeological. "In the broadest sense, American Masters relies on the filmmakers to keep turning over those rocks, to keep digging in those closets and writing those letters to people so that that kind of rare material that may have been used for one purpose decades ago, turns up and it's thrilling to audiences," says Michael Kantor, the director of American Masters' Quincy Jones: In the Pocket, who replaced Lacy as executive producer.

(Top) Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning; (Above) Director Dyanna Taylor with Rondal Partridge, longtime assistant to Dorothea Lange (Photos: (From Top) Screenpull: American Masters; Eileen Olivieri)

Buried Treasure

For Dyanna Taylor, director of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2014), that rare material was film footage sitting in rusted cans in a Marin County carport. The mag tracks had turned to "vinegar." The documentary about the landmark photographer of Depression-era America would become a major reclamation project. Not only did it take several years to restore and digitize the 16mm footage, but the sound was unusable. The original quarter-inch recordings, about 55 hours of audio, were at the Oakland Museum.

Working with her editor David Leach, Taylor listened to "every inch" of the tracks, trying to determine when the camera was rolling. "I would then know that hopefully, there was picture corresponding to that," Taylor says. "Then I had to figure out who was talking and what sound effects I could possibly sync up. Like a cup being put down, or a laugh."

Lacy—who left American Masters after 26 years in 2012 to make documentaries for HBO (including last year's Spielberg)—recalls the unexpected gift that arrived while she was editing Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind (2003).

"This guy showed up, I can't remember his name anymore, and he had all this homemade movie footage, shot by Graham Nash, of Joni." Included was footage of Mitchell in a red cape, twirling on a Southern California beach. That ethereal image became the leitmotif of Lacy's film.

In 2014, when co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack were in the editing room with their film Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, Angelou died. They already had more than 300 photos in their film, culled from some 3,000 images. Now more became available, from under people's beds and in their closets. Even after And Still I Rise had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, a photo of Angelou's paternal grandmother, a key character from the writer's upbringing in the Jim Crow South, was waiting to be discovered in a locker at the Angelous' Harlem residence.

(From top) Co-directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack and the subject of their documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. (Photos: (Top) Christopher Howard; (Bottom) Wayne Miller/Magnum)

Digging Beneath the Public Veneer

Say "Maya Angelou" and one thinks of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or the all-caps poet who stole President Bill Clinton's inaugural and went on to become a much-in-demand speaker and Oprah Winfrey Network spirit guide. "When it's an icon, people think they know her," says Coburn Whack. "Our job is to tell you the parts you didn't know." (It's revealed that Angelou directed the 1998 feature Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard, who's quoted in the doc.)

The Clintons and Winfrey appear in the film—which was released theatrically in 2016 and went on to win a Peabody Award after airing on PBS last year—but the memorable witnesses are more Angelou's son, Guy Young, and actress Cicely Tyson, who in 1961, appeared onstage with Angelou in Jean Genet's avant-garde play The Blacks.

Tyson also knew the men in Angelou's life in the 1960s and '70s. "By the time she got to Oprah, she had stopped talking about them, whereas Cicely Tyson knew them. So that was another way to know where to go with the story," Coburn Whack says of Angelou's relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, which took her to Ghana, and marriage to the British construction worker-turned-arriviste Paul Du Feu, which remarkably had Angelou morphing into a Northern California homemaker and hostess.

On American Masters, narration tends to be used sparingly, lest it jibe with the sense the films give of a self-guided tour by the subject and their intimates. And Still I Rise is a good example of the work involved, a seamless blend of Angelou's voice from across the years, whether in archival footage, recordings of her reading excerpts from a memoir, or in interviews conducted for the film itself.

Coburn Whack already had a relationship with Angelou through her work as a producer for Winfrey's radio network. For the film, Angelou sat for two interviews, several years apart, yielding about five hours of footage total. During the second interview, Angelou was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which required oxygen most of the day.

The idea was not to have too much of a script—to let it flow as organically as possible from where Angelou went in her recollections. Coburn Whack recalled the time Angelou was recounting a 1961 march from Harlem to the United Nations to protest the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"If you're really listening, when Maya Angelou says something like, 'Rosa Guy's sister shouted "murderer" in the U.N. and a fight ensued'—I happen to know that nothing happens in the U.N. that's not recorded. So now you tell a researcher, 'Find the fight in the U.N. And if you can't find the fight, find some articles.'"

And Still I Rise is bookended by footage of Angelou singing Negro spirituals.

In Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, the subject enters singing as well.

"Here I am, I'm Melvin Brooks, I've come to stop the show. Just a ham, who's minus looks, but in your hearts, I'll grow!!"

Brooks, an octogenarian no worse for wear, has just pulled up in a speeding town car to an empty soundstage on the Paramount lot. He bounds in and sits at a sawhorse table. The music stops. Brooks sings.

"It's Mel," director Robert Trachtenberg says. "Mel's gotta make an entrance."

Mel Brooks interacts with director Robert Trachtenberg. (Photo: Drew Schwartz/WNET/American Masters)

Exposing the Process and Staying on Track

Trachtenberg is a longtime celebrity portrait photographer who jokes that he got into documentary filmmaking "because I couldn't watch one more where there was a vase of flowers behind someone." Visually, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise establishes its home base immediately. The space is raw, the lights and boom mike and crew and Trachtenberg himself, sitting opposite Brooks in a director's chair, are briefly glimpsed. Ultimately, all the subjects interviewed for the film—including Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers and Susan Stroman, who directed The Producers on Broadway—visit this loose filmmaking space. It's Mel Brooks' world; we're just living in it.

The location also enabled Trachtenberg to shoot Brooks at a more medium depth, as opposed to close-up. "It's always puzzling to me because people talk with their hands," Trachtenberg says. "You see people's physicality and it helps tell their story, watching how they're moving. So I always try to put the camera at a place where you can see them."

Make a Noise is Trachtenberg's fifth film for American Masters, and it won him the 2013 Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for Non-Fiction Programming. His other subjects have been Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly and Cary Grant. His first American Masters outing, in 2000, was about director George Cukor.

"You have to show the audience why and how their life influenced their work," he says of the artists.

Invariably, this means navigating what Trachtenberg calls "tender areas" on films that are authorized by families or estates. Making On Cukor, Trachtenberg found himself weighing how to contextualize the director's homosexuality in terms of his life and prodigious work in Golden Age Hollywood. "Here came the sage advice of Arnie Glassman," Trachtenberg says, referring to his editor on the film, the late Arnold Glassman, who co-directed and edited Visions of Light, about the art of cinematography. "We were sitting in the editing room, and there was a certain moment where we could have taken it a step further, and Arnie just looked at me and said, 'The train has to stay on the tracks.' And he was right."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, was budget. Trachtenberg wanted to convey that Cukor's career was prodigious but less heralded than those of Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock, both of whom had publicists. This necessarily involved licensing clips that spanned decades, dating back to the 1930s. "When you license a clip from the studios, more often than not, the clip has background music. OK, so you're not paying actors residuals for films made before 1960, but there's usually music tied to the clip, and then you're paying the sync license, and the publishing license—and it could be $15,000 a cue for music you barely hear in the background. Back then they didn't do split tracks, so you can't dim the music down or take it away for the clip."

During the editing of On Cukor, Lacy came out from New York. "She looked at me and she said: 'I have a decision to make. I can save the money and make this a 60-minute film, and wreck it, or I can find the money and let you tell the story correctly,'" Trachtenberg recalls.

On Cukor came in at 126 minutes.

(From top) Susan Lacy, former longtime executive producer of American Masters, and her successor, Michael Kantor—both of whom have directed profiles in the acclaimed documentary series. (Photos: (Top) Lorella Zanetti; (Bottom) Jayme Roy)

Beyond Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl Americana

Dyanna Taylor wasn't just intimately familiar with Dorothea Lange's work, she'd lived with it, literally, growing up in San Francisco as the photographer's granddaughter.

Over a decade in the making, Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning features between 800 and 900 of Lange's photos, from her early studio portrait work to her emergence as a documentary photographer on the streets of Depression-era San Francisco to the photos she took of her own family in later life.

Lange's best-known image, "Migrant Mother," became synonymous with Dust Bowl-era America. But the film doesn't give it particular weight. "I really with great intention wanted the decades of other kinds of work to come to the fore," Taylor says.

She also wanted to find a way for Lange, who died in 1965, to narrate the story. The answer was in those rusted cans.

As a cinematographer, Taylor has shot three other films for American Masters, on Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Rauschenberg. Around 2004, she pitched a film on Lange. The series doesn't necessarily underwrite films from the beginning, leaving the filmmakers to canvas the nonprofit world themselves.

"When you're raising money, you are modifying your drafts for the funder from whom you're hoping to get the money," Taylor says. The film she pitched for a while focused on Dorothea Lange's personal life—her two marriages, first to painter Maynard Dixon and then Paul Taylor, the pioneering agricultural economist whose own work with migrant farmworkers provided Lange's entrée to her seminal work documenting the Dust Bowl for the Farm Security Administration.

As a legacy of that family history, Taylor could narrate the story as a participant-observer, making her film a kind of memoir. But then she found her theme. They were in the outtakes of two decaying, half-hour artist process films made in the 1960s by Lange's teaching assistant, Phil Greene. They included footage of Lange working with John Szarkowski, photo curator at the Museum of Modern Art, as the two put together a Lange retrospective that opened in 1966.

Taylor did not want to score a film about the photographer of "Migrant Mother" with, say, the anthemic Woody Guthrie. She wanted to find "a sound for Dorothea," which led Taylor to commission Jami Sieber and Evan Schiller to compose music.

To this, Taylor quilts her own sparing, unidentified narration, periodically reading from her grandmother's journals. There are biographers and art historians helping to tell the story, and staged reenactments of the dark room process in the 1930s, filmed as abstractions. Most compellingly, Taylor lets Lange's photos simply stare back at the viewer, without moving the camera, as evidence of the sacrifice and the achievement.

Throughout, we return to Lange in her Berkeley living room, putting together her MoMA show in 1965. She died of cancer three months before the opening.

With all these elements, Grab a Hunk of Lightning is a film about a photographer whose work led to social and cultural change, as well as the story of how a wife and mother carried her own guilt as she drove herself to reveal something essential about the human condition.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on documentary films.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly features a focus on television, including a DGA Interview with director Dan Attias, articles about crime comedies, late night talk shows, the documentary series American Masters, a Shot to Remember featuring Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée, and more!