What do you wanna be when you grow up?For me, that answer came in 1989, when I saw Michael Moore’s debut documentary Roger & Me. I was studying Psychology and Anthropology as a freshman at Berkshire Community College in my hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which—much like Flint, Michigan—was a once-booming corporate town that had recently fallen on hard times. In Flint, the big corporate employer was General Motors; in Pittsfield it was General Electric. They made cars, we made bombs.
Much like the namesake of Michael Moore’s documentary (General Motors CEO Roger Smith), General Electric CEO Jack Walsh had been equally ruthless in downsizing his company to streamline profits during the 1980s. He had mercilessly shut down the factories, laid off half the town, and left behind decades of criminally mishandled toxic waste that turned our bucolic New England town into a potential Superfund Site.
It was a devastating blow to the only community I had ever known. Everyone felt so betrayed, so powerless. A dark cloud hung over the town. So when I saw Michael Moore’s underdog approach to guerrilla filmmaking, I was instantly inspired. I decided that’s what I wanted to do: make innovative social documentaries that spoke truth to power.
After earning my Associate’s Degree, I transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1990. There I discovered a Liberal Arts program which allowed me to design my own Major, which I called ”Electronic Media”— an interdisciplinary approach that combined the traditional disciplines of Mass Communications, Psychology and Anthropology—the perfect curriculum for an aspiring social documentarian.
It was the dawn of the digital age, and I was heavily influenced by the writings of Marshall McLuhan—the media guru of the 60’s who decades earlier had written so preceiently about the electronic media revolution that was about to turn the entire world into an interconnected global village. Applying his seminal work Understanding Media to the unfolding digital age became my thesis, and I built a solid syllabus that gave me the theoretical basis to think critically about the new media landscape.
But I also realized that if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker, I would need some practical skills as well. While it was a great liberal arts college, UMASS offered me little in the way of hands-on access to the tools of media creation. So for my senior year, I took advantage of the National Student Exchange Program and attended the University of Colorado at Pueblo, which had a documentary filmmaking program and a PBS-affiliate television station on campus.
I earned 6 credits to make my first documentary called Emerging From The Margin, which examined Denver’s local music scene against the backdrop of the explosive success of the Seattle “grunge” scene. My film was selected as one of two student projects to be aired on the PBS affiliate KTSC that semester.
With the film as my calling card, before even graduating I had already secured a job with a production company in Colorado Springs called Windstar Studios, which was an in-house production facility for Graham Advertising, an agency specializing in automotive advertising. I started on the ground floor as a Tape Operator, learning the ins and outs of post-production.
In my down time, I started writing spec scripts for the car commercials I was watching the editors cut together all day, and in less than a year I was promoted to Writer & Director. While making car commercials was a far cry from socially-aware documentaries, I was making a living while many of my college cohorts were struggling to find jobs in the industry.
Over the next 6 years, I would go on to write, direct and edit hundreds of commercials, dozens of corporate videos and a couple of documentaries. Winstar Studios was essentially my Master’s Program in TV Production. I got hands-on training in every facet of production and post, including access to a brand new computer-based editing program called AVID.
In 1999, in hopes of furthering my career as a filmmaker, I polished up my resumé and demo reel and headed off to Los Angeles, where I quickly found that my skills as an AVID Editor were most in demand. I landed a job on VH1’s hit show Behind The Music, editing dozens of episodes over the course of 3 seasons.
While working on the Public Enemy episode of Behind the Music, the producer Todd Williams ran into an issue with VH1’s parent company Viacom over an interview clip we used of Flavor Flav invoking the “n-word.” Todd, an African American, was essentially told by a handful of white guys how he could or could not use the “n-word.” He was justifiably flummoxed by the incident. We should make a show about “that” we mused.
Cut to six months later, and I’m working with Todd on a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Boyz in the Hood for the 10th Anniversary DVD Edition for Sony Pictures. We would be interviewing the likes of John Singleton, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Regina King and Cuba Gooding Jr. What if, at the end of each interview, we asked them to give us a quick comment about the “n-word” that we could use to cut together a trailer in hopes of making a documentary on the subject. They all agreed.
We then crafted a compelling 5-minute tease tape that caught the attention of Whoppi Goldberg, who instantly signed on to help us produce what would eventually become a feature-length documentary called The N Word, which debuted at the Los Angeles Festival and earned a Peabody Award. As I sat in the theater for the premiere, I was glowing with pride to have finally helped co-create a socially-aware documentary film.
The following year in 2003, I would go on to produce, direct and edit another documentary for the Discovery Times Channel called Pictures From The Revolution which proved a difficult sell in the post-911 television landscape. I was learning first-hand how difficult it was to get funded as a documentary filmmaker telling stories that challenged the norm.
There was also a palpable shift taking place in the television landscape, as esteemed network brands like Discovery, History and A&E were moving away from traditional documentaries and embracing the new “reality” or “unscripted” formats. I had a roster of provocative documentary titles in development, but I struggled to find funding (through grants) or buyers (in broadcast or cable television).
However, the mid-2000s was a heyday for DVD releases, so I continued working with my colleague Todd Williams on numerous behind-the-scenes features for major motion picture releases from Sony Pictures, MGM, Columbia and New Line Cinema. But with the rise of Netflix and other digital streaming services, it spelled the end of our lucrative run making entertaining shorts for DVDs.
By the 2010s, I returned to the broadcast & cable television world and was finding steady work as an editor of various reality or unscripted series airing on Discovery, NatGeo and History Channel. Over the years I’ve built a solid network of relationships with many LA-based production companies that specialize in unscripted television, such as Original Productions, ITV America, Studio Lambert, Cineflix, GRB Entertainment and BBC Studios to name a few.
Between seasons, I often collaborate with their Development Executives in producing “sizzle reels” and “pitch decks” to help sell new show ideas to the networks. It allows me to play the role of “Preditor”—the clever contraction of the traditional Producer-Editor hyphenate—which suits my diverse skill set to a tee. I get to wear many hats: Creative Director, Writer, Producer, Editor, Graphic Designer. I get to have a strong creative hand in crafting both the sizzle reels and the pitch decks that the Development Executives take to their meetings with the networks, and I’m proud to say that my work has helped sell more than a few successful formats.
Now, with the onset of another decade, I’m reflecting back on a career that spans over 25 years. I’m grateful to have developed a craft that has allowed me to earn a comfortable living while working in a creative field. The industry has changed a lot, and there are certainly some major shifts looming on the horizon. It seems increasingly likely that the traditional broadcast model is about to be overthrown by the new digital model. Does that mean my run as a “Television Professional” is coming to an end?
Or is it perhaps signaling a new beginning? Could it possibly lead back to where it all began for me—the original inspiration to make more meaningful and socially-aware media? The barriers to entry that I faced 20 years ago have been eliminated. Now anyone can make a film about any subject and upload it to YouTube.
Viewing the situation as I am amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, I feel as if I’m getting a bit of a wake-up call from life. The message is crystal clear: our time is valuable and precious, we should spend it doing what truly matters.
So in the near-term future, I hope to collaborate with more like-minded individuals and forward-thinking companies who are motivated to create digital media that is meaningful and inspiring. By leveraging my 25+ years of experience and seeking to work on projects that aim to reconnect audiences within our increasingly polarized culture, my desire is to participate in the crafting of content that reaffirms our humanity and points the way to a happier, healthier and more sustainable future. Let what’s past be prologue.