Filming Living History: An Interview with Award-Winning TV Documentary Producer, Michael Rossi
By Noah Charney.
February saw the release of a new, highly-acclaimed documentary film called The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, about the sadly-demolished, once-magnificent architectural wonder of a train station in the heart of Manhattan, one that made Grand Central Terminal look pale in comparison. Michael Rossi was a producer on this documentary, part of the award-winning PBS public television series, American Experience. It is just the latest in a long string of admirable documentaries that Rossi has overseen over his twelve-year career. This includes an Emmy Award, for his work as Coordinating Producer of an engineering television series for children called Design Squad Nation. His latest project is a feature-length documentary about Barry Duncan, whose mind works in odd and wonderful ways: he is able to instantly produce palindromes of dizzying complexity. Keep an eye out for The Master Palindromist. Film International spoke to the Brooklyn-based producer about how one begins a career in TV documentary production, what his job entails, and how winning an Emmy changes one’s career.
Where did you grow up, and where and what did you study?
I grew up in a small New England town in Massachusetts. I earned both a B.A. and M.A. in history at Boston College focusing on US history with a minor in black studies. I decided early on to pursue documentary filmmaking, even though my university lacked a film program. I felt that a liberal arts education would provide me with a strong background in research and writing, both of which are integral parts to producing and filmmaking.
Was there a film that you saw early on that was formative in your decision to become a filmmaker?
I don’t think it was a particular film that influenced my decision to become a filmmaker. When I began studying subjects in college that I was not exposed to in my youth, it opened my eyes to other points of view, and I asked myself “what is the best way to reach me as a young person?” I felt motion picture was the answer. Film perhaps didn’t offer the same level of in-depth analysis that a history book could provide, but its advantage was the reach it had to a larger audience. It didn’t hurt that I was interested in shooting photography and playing music, and I looked forward to combining those areas of interest with my love of storytelling, which was nurtured by the oral history tradition passed on to me by my Italian immigrant parents. Hearing their stories time and again made me extremely proud of my heritage and appreciative of the details that comprise every person’s history. As a result, I’m a good listener and curious observer, which I feel are the most important traits of a documentary filmmaker.
Can one study to be a film producer? Or do you learn more as you go?
There certainly are established film programs where one can study to be a producer, but not having gone to film school, my path was quite different. The first film I made was a brief immigrant history of East Boston, and was done as my honors thesis in college, which I produced within the history department. It wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms by the department, because there wasn’t an established tradition of making a documentary, instead of writing a paper. So, right away I didn’t have the guidance that one would hope for. I was forced to learn as I went, whether it was coming up with the story structure, shooting on location, or figuring out ways to borrow equipment to shoot and edit. That learning has never stopped. During my professional career, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from many talented producers and directors, and I carry this knowledge forward to each new project.
You were part of a team that won an Emmy Award. What was the award experience like for you, and how did winning the award alter your career?
It was exciting. It’s really nice to receive recognition for one’s work, and the award certainly made me appreciate the long hours spent developing the series with my fellow producers, travelling for film shoots, and collaborating with my production team. The television landscape is a crowded field, and it’s not easy to make one’s mark. The fact that an Emmy is a known quantity to folks outside of the industry, gives it a bit more notice. We’ll see where it all leads.
Is there a personal favorite among the films you’ve made?
Building the Alaska Highway (2005), directed by Tracy Heather Strain, was the first American Experience film I worked on. The Alaska Highway was constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, so the main interviewees for the film were veterans – all in their eighties at the time of production. I was the Associate Producer and had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time poring through their photograph and film collections, often times by their side at their kitchen table. When you produce these types of historical documentaries you become so engrossed in the subject matter, so fluent in the nuances of the story, that when you touch and feel the photographs depicting the events you’ve learned about and then turn to the person in the image and pose a question…it’s amazing. It’s living history for me, and the expression on their face, when someone is so invested in hearing and telling their story, is really why I choose to make documentary films. On one occasion, I had the opportunity to transfer 16mm film shot by Ruth Gruber, the Special Assistant to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, when she was assigned to the Aleutian Islands on a fact-finding mission during the war. I brought her a VHS copy of the film and we watched it together in her home. This was film she hadn’t seen since it was first processed and developed in the 1940s, and here we were, watching footage of her swimming in the Bering Sea some sixty years earlier. It brought her to tears.
I love the concept of your documentary about a man who can make elaborate palindromes in his head. Where do you find ideas for documentaries? Or perhaps the better question is, as you read stories or hear about possible subjects, what is it about a story or a person or an event that inspires you to make a documentary film about it? Are there certain qualities that must be present in order for a story to scream to you “film me?”
I kind of feel you can make a documentary about anything, if your heart is in it. But that’s just it, you need to be intrigued and hungry to learn more as the story unfolds. Visual potential and access to the story are the other key ingredients. The Master Palindromist is my first independent feature-length documentary. And it is “independent” in every sense of the word. I am producing, directing, and shooting everything myself. Filming one-on-one has created a specific relationship between the camera and the subject that is now sewn into the fabric of the film. I enjoy cinematography a great deal, and ideally, I am able to interact with the subject freely in this way. Unfortunately, that is not possible for every type of documentary. I’m not sure “quirky” is the right word, but I do find myself gravitating toward stories that are off the beaten path. I think if you focus on the minutiae and bring out universal themes, people will relate.
What is the role of a producer in a documentary film like this? Walk us through what you did before filming began, and then during the filming process.
It’s always hard to define the role of a producer, but in essence, the producer does everything necessary to get the film made. For The Master Palindromist, I essentially approached the main character of the film and asked if he was interested in doing some filming at some point. I was intrigued with his unusual skill and passion for writing palindromes and wanted to find out if there might be a story. Initially, I intended to make a short profile film, where I might be able to do some interesting things visually with the subject. But after a few days of filming, significant things started to happen to him. I sensed a larger story emerging and had to decide if I should keep filming, which would require a large investment of time. I did not have preconceived notions of what that story was, but I made the leap and moved forward with chasing the subject.
European documentary filmmakers, who often rely on national funding (which requires elaborate applications and can have a political element to who gets funded), will be curious to know how your films are funded and distributed. Could you walk us through the process and various options?
I think the challenge of raising money for one’s film is similar in the United States. Most independent filmmakers apply for grants that require a lot of time and are extremely competitive. Crowdsourcing is now a major tool for filmmakers, but its increased popularity has created a more competitive field requiring filmmakers to be very targeted in their outreach. In the end, it’s still a filmmaker asking for money, but the playing field has been leveled a bit.
What are three films that you consider the epitome of the great documentary, the sort that inspire you in your own work?
Two of my favorite documentaries are The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968), directed by Les Blank and Titicut Follies (1967), directed by Frederick Wiseman. Both are relentless observational films that allow the camera to find the story and, in turn, the viewer is allowed to do the same. The cinematography follows the action smoothly, and the camera allows the subjects to enter in and out of frame on their own. The editing is minimal, and used mainly as a way to change scenes. Sweetgrass (2009) is a more recent film by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor that does this even more severely, employing extremely long takes. It might seem odd in today’s landscape of quick-cutting, short form content vying for your attention on the various screens in your life. But I think the power of the film lies in the discomfort it causes the viewer. You are forced to examine what you are seeing and hearing. It’s beautiful.
Rossi’s latest film, The Rise and Fall of Penn Station, is currently playing on PBS. To learn more about Rossi’s work, visit www.rossifilms.com.
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author. Learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or connect with him via Facebook.