“The Philadelphia Inquirer” called it “the best biographical series ever to appear on American television.”
A “terrific series of creative artist profiles,” “a treasure” and “marvelous television” are just a few of the other kudos critics have lavished on AMERICAN MASTERS since its premiere in 1986. Today, the award-winning series from Thirteen/WNET New York is still going beyond biography to examine the lives and achievements of the greatest visionaries of our times. The series’ vast archive includes more than 100 revealing portraits of writers, musicians, composers, theater and film greats, architects, media innovators, and other leading figures who have left an indelible impression on the nation’s cultural landscape.
The visionary behind the series, and the keeper of its invaluable archive, is Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS.
In the following extended interview, Lacy talks about the past, present and future of the series:
Q. When it premiered, AMERICAN MASTERS was the only series of its kind on television. What was your inspiration for the series and how did it all begin?
A. A combination of things led to my vision for the series. Part of it was my own academic background, a master’s degree in American Studies and the work I completed toward a doctorate. I’ve always been interested in looking at American culture in its broadest context. I thought about becoming a journalist, and then I got bitten by the film bug. At Thirteen, I was involved with the Great Performances and American Playhouse series. And I always felt that there should be a place on the schedule for a biography series, a cultural history series that would examine American culture through the lives, achievements and impact of the visionary people who helped shape it. And I’ve always envisioned the series as more than just a collection of individual profiles. I’ve always seen it as a comprehensive library of the giants of American culture whose individual stories are interconnected.
Q. What were some of the challenges in creating a series basically from scratch?
A. Initially the series didn’t receive as much support as I would have liked. It was perceived as just another arts series and nobody thought there would be a large enough prime-time audience for films about art. But I knew that at the heart of the series was compelling drama because of the fascinating lives the subjects led. It didn’t have a permanent slot on the schedule, and, as is usually the case with public television, the funding was hard to come by. And the truth is, it costs a lot of money to make a great biography. I made a commitment to deliver a series that would be worthy of prime time.
Q. How has the series evolved over the years?
A. To get the series off the ground during the first two years, we weren’t doing any original productions. We looked to the independent film community to find the very best of the projects in production, American projects, mostly unfinished. When we took a project on, I worked very closely with the filmmaker to bring it to completion. Since then, we have become a production company, producing approximately 80 percent of the films in the series.
Q. How do you choose your subjects? What are the criteria that make a “master”?
A. Some of the obvious choices from the very beginning for me were icons like Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein. To me, the true masters are the people who created the forms that everybody else followed in a given field or discipline. And I didn’t want to create visual lectures that took an encyclopedic approach. I wanted to make real films about incredibly fascinating people who were complex and had struggled a great deal because, of course, it’s never easy to be a pioneer. It was important to me to tell their stories clearly, using original research, in the historical, political and social context of their time. So, it did actually become much more than a biography series or an artists series. It’s a cultural history of the 20th century in America.
Q. When you do work with collaborators — co-producers, directors, filmmakers — how do you choose them? How do they enhance the creative process for you personally?
A. I always want to work with the very best filmmakers, usually ones that are very experienced. Though on occasion, I have worked with up-and-coming filmmakers who have exhibited a lot of talent, vision and commitment to the subject. The most important thing to me is to try and make a match between a filmmaker’s sensibility and the subject I want covered. I want to bring the filmmaker’s intelligence and sensibility to bear on a particular set of materials about a given subject. It’s crucial to choose the right filmmaker for the right subject and, fortunately, I think we’ve been successful with that so far. I’m not interested in these big production companies that are in the business of cranking out a film every ten weeks. It takes us about a year to complete a film. That’s one of the differences between an AMERICAN MASTERS film and a lot of the other films of this genre that are on television today.
Q. What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned from your colleagues in the film industry?
A. I’ve learned something from every filmmaker we’ve worked with, both what to do and what not to do. When I started this series, I had never made a film, though I knew a great deal about film history and had viewed most of the important documentaries. But I think I knew instinctively that the most important thing is how you tell the story, and to do that well and with originality, you have to take the time to research the subject. I eventually started writing and directing some of our films, including Leonard Bernstein, for which I received a DGA nomination.
Q. What is your foremost goal when you set out to make a film?
A. Whether we’re working with collaborators or independently, our job is to make the best films we can — films that are educational, enduring and will make a difference. One of the many wonderful compliments the series has received from critics came from a local New York daily newspaper. The writer said that the series can profile an artist so completely and convincingly that it makes you want to immediately rush out and experience or re-experience the artist’s work. More broadly, the goal is to create an oral and visual archive of American history and culture in the 20th century. And I think we’ve done that over the past 14 years.
Q. Where do you see the series going in the next 14 years?
A. These past 14 years have already been so surprising and rewarding for me personally. And the entire AMERICAN MASTERS team, as well as our many fine collaborators, deserve a lot of the credit for its success — six Emmy Awards, Peabodys, an Oscar, and even a Grammy. I’m really looking forward to introducing more great masters to our viewers so that we can continue to build upon the archive. I’m also very excited about some new scheduling plans that are in the works. Our plan is to group the subjects according to categories, so that in a given month, we may feature a number of programs about writers, for example, under the umbrella, Writers Block.
Q. What have been some of the most surprising moments along the way? Do you have any interesting anecdotes you’d like to share?
A. There have been so many. But one project in particular was filled with surprising, interesting and very challenging moments! When Paul Simon agreed to allow us to make a film portrait of him, we ended up following him around on his world tour. Our visas to China were denied so we enlisted the help of a very creative concierge in Hong Kong to get us in. At that concert, there were policemen everywhere, controlling the crowd and essentially warning people not to dance. But slowly, singing along to Simon’s songs in their own language, the people started to dance. And the communist leaders finally just let it go. It did not turn into another Tiananmen Square, but it was very scary because it could have. In South Africa, a radical youth group that was part of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, was protesting Paul’s concert. At that time, Mandela was president but the blacks didn’t have the vote yet. Paul was going to South Africa at the invitation of Mandela and the musicians union. Our plan was to film the entire concert as part of our film, so if we didn’t have the footage, I didn’t have the film. The day Paul arrived, the building where the sound equipment was stored was bombed. Much of that is captured in the film because that concert was so interlocked with the whole political situation. It was much more than a concert. In the end it went off without a hitch, but it was very tense, like a war zone, and we all felt very vulnerable.