If you have ever turned to PBS and found yourself steeped in the inspiration of a great American cultural luminary, it is likely by the influence of Susan Lacy. It’s been 30 years since she launched AMERICAN MASTERS, the documentary series that celebrated America’s creative leaders.
In addition to being the former executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS, Susan has written and directed documentaries on David Geffen, Judy Garland, and Joni Mitchell.
Now focused on projects with HBO and Comedy Central, Susan shares her reflections on the art of documentary storytelling and the impact of AMERICAN MASTERS.
Did you set out to be a documentary filmmaker?
I thought I was going to be an academic. After my MA, I worked at both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. At some point, I wrote an article about television and the arts, and upon reading it the then-president of WNET/Thirteen called me, as he was interested in meeting. It was a great conversation. He ended up offering me a job in what I thought was program development, but it was actually a fundraising job – which I could do because of my experience at the Endowments with grant proposals. Within six months, I was taken under the wing of the great Jac Venza, who had shaped arts programming at PBS almost single-handedly. I became his deputy director and we worked to strengthen the already long-running GREAT PERFORMANCES series.
How did AMERICAN MASTERS come about?
I was at Thirteen in the 1980s, at a time when you could really make things happen. Jac was very committed to the idea of original American drama, and for us not to rely entirely on British drama imports. Out of this grew American Playhouse. While working on all this, I realized that there was no place on television for telling the stories of the people responsible for creating our artistic heritage. I believed in the power of their stories, whether they were painters, filmmakers, architects, musicians, choreographers – the whole mosaic of American culture. At the time, no one thought it was a good idea, but there was no question in my mind that I was going to make it happen. Before I could get AMERICAN MASTERS off the ground, I was offered a job with the Sundance Institute – I took it but continued developing the series simultaneously. At Sundance, I met the screenwriter Waldo Salt and because I had this potential series on my mind, we sat him down and filmed a long interview with him, which became the basis for a later film about him for AMERICAN MASTERS (a film that was nominated for an Oscar).
So you just had an idea for AMERICAN MASTERS and it happened?
I didn’t allow myself to believe this wouldn’t happen. It was always a bigger idea than just a television series. Perhaps I didn’t realize it then, but my goal was to build an archive of American cultural history – which we did. Before I left a few years ago, we had produced, co-produced, or acquired over 250 films. But back to the beginning… when we received a start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it paved the way. AMERICAN MASTERS premiered in a summer primetime slot in 1986. There were no other new shows on at that time so the TV critics ate it up and we got all the television magazine covers, because everyone else was doing repeats. Remember, at that time there were only three networks, plus PBS.
How did the AMERICAN MASTERS films change over time?
Our first films relied heavily on narration – and many thereafter continued to – but as time went on, we began increasingly relying more on the voices of the artists themselves. It was a long haul to finally have a monthly series, with 8 new and 4 repeat films a year. We were always operating by the skin of our teeth, with a very small staff. I believe the series survived because we met the appetite for very big names but still provided a good mix representing the full diversity of the arts. We would do Leonard Bernstein as well as Paul Simon; Martha Graham as well as Bill T. Jones; Ella Fitzgerald as well as Joan Baez – just to name a few. We did not shy away from pop culture.
When people ask you for advice in developing a documentary story, what do you say?
With documentary, there is no particular format and there shouldn’t be one. The film should reflect the person being profiled. For INVENTING DAVID GEFFEN, the documentary was punchy, funny, and musical. LOU REED: ROCK AND ROLL HEART had a real downtown feel. You know, ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ LEONARD BERNSTEIN: REACHING FOR THE NOTE had a majestic quality because he was a majestic, larger than life person. You don’t want a stock film; you want insight and depth. You are making something with the goal of having the audience walk away with a greater understanding.
What are you most proud of related to AMERICAN MASTERS?
One of the things I am really proud of is that 30 percent of Time’s 100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century were figures we featured on AMERICAN MASTERS. The series has survived close to 30 years because our focus has always been on excellence and quality filmmaking. Each film is unique and original. There is a reason we’ve been awarded 12 Peabodys and 28 Primetime Emmys (10 of which are for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series). I’m really proud of that. Michael Kantor, the current executive producer, is doing a great job in continuing the work of the series and expanding upon it in creative ways.
So you moved on from PBS to HBO a while ago, what are you working on?
Since PBS, I have started my own production company, Pentimento Productions and am currently in production on documentaries about Steven Spielberg and Jane Fonda, both films under an exclusive deal with HBO. Pentimento is also working on a documentary series for Comedy Central. I love being able to focus on purely filmmaking now, after spending so many years dealing with fundraising and the changing marketplace (which is providing many challenges to the future of documentaries).
Is there someone who you wish you could have captured in documentary for AMERICAN MASTERS?