Award-winning filmmaker Michael Epstein, who directed, wrote, and co-produced NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM, reveals how the project came about and its unique approach to exploring the American novel.
Q: Tell us about the origin of the project and how it became an AMERICAN MASTERS special.
A: This was something that [AMERICAN MASTERS creator and executive producer] Susan Lacy developed, along with a group of academic advisors. The goal was to figure out how to take something that does not seem to be television friendly, which is reading and books, and make it watchable, something different than what you normally see on arts programming or, more importantly, on American history [programming].
Our idea was that the American experience is often looked at through the biographies of great men and women, whether it's presidents or Rosa Parks. We look at it through our wars, our great epoch in time, but we very rarely look at it through our fiction. Yet, the stories that we tell each other say something about who we are and about our history. You can read these books and learn something about America.
Q: Is the idea of looking at our history through our fiction a new approach for the medium?
A: This has never been done before on TV. Interestingly enough, what's utterly unique is that when Susan asked me to direct the program we immediately decided we were not going to do any feature film clips, and we were not going to do normal reenactment. What was paramount was that you hear Fitzgerald's voice, that you hear Steinbeck, that you hear Saul Bellow. You can't do that if you have actors playing a part. The challenge became to try to find a visual medium that complemented the words, that held you in the thrall of what was happening.
Q: Please describe the visual interpretation.
A: Often when we do these re-creations we make sure that the clothes are period specific, that the set is period specific, and so on. Our idea here was to make sure that the photographic medium was period specific as well. If I'm treating novels like they say something real about our lives, well, why don't I treat the characters like they're real? In other words, what if Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange came upon the Joad family? I was able to use Photoshop® and After Effects® in all of these programs to create a kind of historical accuracy in the image, so that they looked like stereoscopic images -- like what hand-tinted postcards from the '20s would look like. The film was much, much more visually accomplished than I had hoped it was going to be when I set out to do it. I'm really thrilled with the way that it looks. We tried to expand the common documentary form and to push it into places that it hasn't gone before. It's something very, very different that I think will be engaging for viewers. Ultimately, it helps you hear the words of these great books. That's the key: see the show and you want to go read a book.
Q: How do you define the American dream?
A: For a lot of people, myself included, the American dream is about self-determination. You can be who you want to be. Birth, race, religion do not limit you. With hard work, perseverance, and maybe a little bit of luck, you can make of yourself anything that you want to be. It's a great motivating force. Yet, we also have a history of slavery and Jim Crow, quotas and sexism, and any number of other things that fly in the face of the American dream as we know it. Those things don't negate the truth of the dream. But they mitigate it.
What we try to do in the film is set up a sort of source for the dream. And the central idea in Ben Franklin's autobiography is the wellspring: we're all Americans and we're bound not by where we've been but by where we want to go. Every one of these books is in some way or another connected to Ben Franklin. They all riff on Ben Franklin, some of them quite specifically. At the end of THE GREAT GATSBY, after Gatsby's been killed and his father shows up for the funeral, he has a Hopalong Cassidy book from Gatsby's childhood. And in the back of the book Gatsby had written, as a young boy, a list of ways to improve himself. That's exactly as Franklin did it in his autobiography. Lutie Johnson walks down Harlem's 116th Street in Ann Petry's novel THE STREET, thinking about Ben Franklin and his loaves of bread. We tied all these disparate novels together through Franklin's autobiography.
Q: How did you choose the seven books included in the film?
A: This is not meant to be a canon. We're not saying, "These are THE great American books." We're not saying, "This is a show about the American novel." It's not. To my mind, the rather old debate over the canon strips most of the joy that comes from reading. At the same time, these books are all connected because they specifically say something about the American dream and, in particular, they all comment -- sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely -- on Ben Franklin and his dream.
Q: What role did the academic advisors and contemporary novelists play in the making of the film?
A: We took very seriously what people who are more skilled and thoughtful than us have to say. We also spoke to people who write for a living, to people like Maureen Howard and Gloria Naylor.
Q: The film also tries to get people excited about reading. Why is that important?
A: Well, take THE GRAPES OF WRATH as an example. My very first thoughts were, "I don't need to tell the story of THE GRAPES OF WRATH again. I don't want to be CliffsNotes. I don't want this to take the place of reading the book." Instead, I wanted to tell the journey that John Steinbeck took to get to THE GRAPES OF WRATH, what he went through as a writer. The craft of writing is like alchemy; it's a beautiful thing, this journey that writers all take; they're all putting some piece of themselves on the page. It's not just about the Depression, it's not just about the Joad family. It's a work of fiction that says something meaningful about America.
Q: Are these novels still relevant today?
A: I think everything is still relevant. I think you can still read THE GRAPES OF WRATH, even if there aren't Oakies out there, and see something important, not just about the '30s but about today. I make the point quite specifically in the film that migrant labor is still an issue in California. I think that's a sign of a great work of art, that you can always read it and re-read it and find something new in it. One book that I've made a resolution now to read every year is THE GREAT GATSBY. It's a bit of a cliché that it's "the Great American Novel," but God, it's just beautiful! It's like reading Lord Byron as a novelist. It's unbelievably poetic.
Q: Were any of the books a revelation to you?
A: The big surprise for me was THE STREET. It was not a book that I knew anything about. I had not heard of Ann Petry at all, and it's an absolutely powerhouse read. In every way, I was Petry's audience: sympathetic, white, comfortable. I was electrified by the way the book turned out. It shot out of my hands. An absolutely great read. I also loved re-reading Wharton and rediscovering Lily Barton in THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. It's an amazing book. And Gish Jen's TYPICAL AMERICAN was a really interesting, sideways look at our shared past. How great is it to look at a character like Ralph Chang and learn something about the immigrant experience rather than approaching it through, say, the history of the Chinese in America? It's a great example of how books can say something about the American experience. Which is the whole point of the film.
Major funding for NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the W.L.S. Spencer Foundation, Mary and Marvin Davidson, Ralph W. Voorhees, Rosalind P. Walter, and Dr. and Mrs. Julius H. Jacobson II.