Camilla Rockwell | Producer

Camilla Rockwell served as the co-producer on Thomas Jefferson. Rockwell has known filmmaker Ken Burns since his days as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, and had worked at Florentine Films for nearly ten years before producing Jefferson.
 

CAMILLA ROCKWELL

Courtesy of Florentine Films

“ ... one of the most important aspects, it seems to me, in film-making is that everybody gets to put in their perspective.”

  What's the role of the producer in this process?
Funny you should ask, because when I jumped in I didn't know what a producer did. I kind of found out as I went along. The producer normally takes care of all the funding, but because the funding had come in for Jefferson that wasn't as great a concern to me. That was more Ken's doing.

But in terms of the film itself, arranging all the shoots including cameramen, sound men, finding people to interview and then arranging interviews with them, all the research and the reading on Jefferson, and trying to hone down the scenes and getting material to Geoff as he was writing the script, along with my points of view about the material. Getting scripts out to consultants and collating their feedback for Ken and Geoff. Going back over the scripts and arranging consultant meetings and screenings. Arranging for all the recording of the voice-overs with actors and for the narration with Ossie Davis. Setting up the sound mix and attending the sound mix and communicating you know back and forth with WETA about the standard length and the finishing aspects of the program.

  Ken is obviously the director of the film, but are you also bringing your authorial vision to this process?
I can't help it. I think most of the producers probably do, but because I was researching by myself for a long time, I was introduced to Jefferson by myself. I didn't know much about him, and so of course was developing my point of view as I went along, and carried my point of view pretty much through and couldn't help speaking out.

Of course in the editing room it's kind of a free for all in a way. And that's one of the most important aspects it seems to me in film-making is that everybody gets to put in their, their perspective and of course Ken has the final word. But it's a synthesis I think.

I was so deeply touched in the beginning by the sensibility in his writing, his aesthetic sense and his vision, and a kind of tenderness that I felt in him.

  How did your view of Jefferson evolve over the course of making the film?
Well, I was so deeply touched in the beginning by the sensibility in his writing, his aesthetic sense and his vision, and a kind of tenderness that I felt in him. And because I felt that so strongly, he really had a place in my heart, I felt protective of him.

So as we were going through the development of the script and as we were in the editing room, trying to find our way with how to present him -- and every decision is so critical when you're condensing somebody's life who's had so many accomplishments, in just a mere three hours -- we would have passionate arguments back and forth in the editing room, and of course one of the places that the arguments centered was around the issue of his being a slaveholder and what that meant. So by the end of the film I feel a little bit more objective and perhaps historically mature. But Jefferson still has a strong place in my heart.

Any film by Ken is going to have race as a central focus ...

  Did you know that the issue of race was going to be, in many ways, at the heart of the film when you began this process?
Any film by Ken is going to have race as a central focus, I know that. But no, when I began reading about Jefferson, I didn't realize how deeply the race issue would affect it. And I think Ken's right, that it's kind of the beginning of the struggle that we've been undergoing for the last 200 years. You can trace it all the way back to Jefferson, not to say that it's Jefferson's fault, but to say that he represents the problem, his life represents the problem.

It's so hard to get past that hardened image, both visually and in our mind, about who Thomas Jefferson was.

  What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film?
Well, I think chiseling away at the icon to find the human man underneath, and making the man come alive without photographs or newsreels or any sense of the sound of his voice, was really difficult. It's so hard to get past that hardened image, both visually and in our mind, about who Thomas Jefferson was. And he seems almost one dimensional in a certain way, and we were trying to find the layers and the levels.

I think anyone who researches Jefferson at some point has to either give up and say it's hopeless, or say I'm going to rest at this particular place ...

  Do you feel like you know him now?
I think anyone who researches Jefferson at some point has to either give up and say it's hopeless, or say I'm going to rest at this particular place because this is as much time as I can devote to him. And so yes, I, I feel that I know him better but I also feel like I have just chosen--it's just an endless examination. So I feel as if I'm at a resting place with him that's comfortable for me but I'm well aware that I could spend the rest of my life continuing to explore his personality.

  Talk a little bit about how long this film took to make.
In some ways it seemed endless. It took four years. I think I researched pretty much on my own for a year and went to conferences and spoke to people. The shooting was stretched out over a longer period of time than I think is usual, just because we wanted to keep going back to Monticello. And we did go back in every season, we went back two or three times a year for those four years. Our last shoot at Monticello was in May last year and we locked in July so we were still shooting you know two months before we were locking the film. And the script was in constant evolution too right up until the very end.

  Talk a little bit about the choice of music and the importance of music in this film and in Ken's films in general.
Music is critical in Ken's films, it's a critical factor. Some people love that and some people think that sometimes there's too much emphasis. But I think it has a great deal of influence in how deeply the material goes into people's emotions, and I think it has a great deal to do with how he can transmit the essence of whatever subject he's exploring.

  Talk about Peter Hutton's stop-action cinematography.
Oh! Yes. That was magical. That kind of flickering feel that he brings to it makes it seem as if it was shot right in the period, like it's an old movie in some way, that it has a mystery to it and a life to it, that we absolutely loved. And because we loved his footage so much we went back and shot some more black and white. We hadn't really planned to do that but, and it was so helpful in bringing the life of the places that we went to, the slave cabins in black and white were as if it was right in the period.

Our plan was that we were going to make Jefferson human, that this film was going to get past the icon and bring the man alive. And ... then we discovered how difficult that was going to be.

  Describe what you're doing during the conceptual stage of making the film.
Well, you have an idea of how you're going to approach it and what you imagine you're going to be able to do. And our plan was that we were going to make Jefferson human, that this film was going to get past the icon and bring the man alive. And we expressed that with great confidence in the beginning, and then discovered how difficult that was going to be.

  What research did you do?
I compiled, when I was doing my reading, at least a thousand quotes, most by Jefferson, but also by people who knew him, by John Adams and others of the revolutionary generation that he was working with. And also from his family. So that you would get the language from the period and a feel for how it was then. That really was critical in giving me a real taste of the times and of Jefferson himself.

I also would take script notes. Interesting things that we might be able to use in the script to make a story come alive. Before the script was ever written and I was taking down thousands of things because I wasn't sure exactly what direction we were going to go.

And then, as the script begins to take shape, you begin to realize the things that you're going to have to let go, which is difficult. Also, as you're shaping the script, the people that you're interviewing have a great deal of influence because they can take you in directions that you didn't expect to go, make certain ideas resonate. So their input was critical.

  How do you select people to interview?
Well, some people Ken just knew that he wanted to interview. Some people were obvious.

But one of our most beloved talking heads, Clay Jenkinson, I discovered when I went to a conference in San Francisco. It was a day long conference on Jefferson in celebration of his 250th anniversary of his birth. And the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco was filled to capacity for the entire day with people delivering papers on Jefferson, and his life, and his character. And then at the end of this long day, where everyone had been sitting and totally fascinated, Clay Jenkinson got up, dressed as Thomas Jefferson, and proceeded to impersonate him, to talk and then to answer questions as if he were Thomas Jefferson. And he was brilliant. And the minute I saw him, and I saw the quality of his responses, I knew that this was somebody we were going to want to interview.

The ... thing that I loved about shooting was that it was always an adventure and you might go with an idea of what you would want, but then come upon these unexpected images along the way.

  What were some of the highlights of the shoots for Jefferson?
Dawn. Dawn was always the highlight. Getting up at 4:30 a.m. and being on top of the mountain at Monticello, when the sun would be coming up, was always just an overwhelming experience, no matter how many times we did it. Every morning was different, and the light would just be amazing and the peace and the sound of the birds and no tourists anywhere so that you would feel what Monticello must have felt like when Jefferson lived there, before there were no tour buses and people with lawnmowers.

And the other thing that I loved about shooting was that it was always an adventure and you might go with an idea of what you would want, but then come upon these unexpected images along the way. The sun might be hitting a book just so and I would know that it was a tone or a color that Ken would love, so I would drag Allen [cinematographer Allen Moore] over and say here you have to shoot this.

One day there was a rainbow, the last shoot we were there. There was a storm, and I ran outside to check the light and there in the distance from Monticello was a rainbow. So Alan came running out with his camera and his rubber boots and chased after it, and that's in the film.

All the time that I've known Ken, I've been intensely aware of his strong feelings about this country.

  You've worked with Ken for a long time. What do you think he is trying to achieve in these films of his on American history?
He has a very strong awareness of the possibility of this country. That's one of the things that doing this film helped me to tap into, why doing Thomas Jefferson was so important, and why understanding the birth of this country was so critical. He saw this film as the precursor to The Civil War.

All the time that I've known Ken, I've been intensely aware of his strong feelings about this country. I was never drawn to history in the way that he is. But this film helped me to appreciate what he's talking about. The possibilities inherent in the foundation of this government, and this country, are so profound -- for all mankind, I think. And one of the things that touched me so much about Jefferson was that he seemed to understand that, too.

  Do you have a a favorite scene from the film
Yes. I think in the third part, "Pursuit of Happiness," when we talk about the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson. And these two, the north and the south poles of the American Revolution who have been through this long life of friendship and political disagreement, are coming back together at the end of their lives and looking back at all that they've been through and healing the split that happened to them in the middle of their lives. The image of John Adams' handwriting, all shaky, it just touches you so deeply.