Bret Marcus, executive producer of California at War, KCET vice president of programming, publicity and promotion talks about California at War, which airs on Thursday September 20, 2007 on PBS.
Alan Gray asks Bret about his role in producing California stories including the story of how the war changed California and how California contributed to the war and to the world.
AG: How long have you been associated with California Connected?
BM: I came out to California from New York about a year and a half ago and I knew the president of KCET and I came out here to be the Executive producer of California Connected.
AG: How did you become involved in the “California at War” special
BM: We knew about the Ken Burns project. It’s probably the biggest PBS initiative of the year and we began doing some informal research and we realized that while Ken was dealing with the national story, of the United States, there was a great story about California itself. About how the war changed California and how California helped change the war. It was really the most incredible turning point for California. So we thought it would be interesting to do a program that would run predominantly in California, just about California, not the whole country.
AG: What I thought was so interesting is that people didn’t really believe it.
BM: One of the fascinating things about it was that Pearl Harbor really changed everything. Until Pearl Harbor, World War II was really very abstract – it was a war fought in Europe and California was nominally separated from that war by the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland of the United States. Suddenly, after Pearl Harbor, it became a Pacific War and we learned that in the days and weeks that followed Pearl Harbor, there were Japanese submarines right off the coast of California, that were torpedoing merchant shipping. What is amazing is that people didn’t realize that subs from the Japanese Imperial Navy were just a few miles off the coast of California, actually sinking American ships.
The fear after Pearl Harbor was that California would be the next target and that fear was proven true.
AG: Did you have any interaction with Ken Burns?
BM: A little – he’s been out here quite a few times talking about the series. One of the hopes of the Ken Burns crew and PBS was that stations all over the country would do some of their own programming. One of the things that was inportant to Ken Burns was that up to 1500 of the World War II veterans are dying every year – these are people in their 80s. The second thing is that people in this country really don’t know their history very well and he frequently cites s figure about the number of young peole who think that we founght on the side of the Germans. – As hard as that is to believe. So what he wanted to do was to tell people some history.
Once we decided to go ahead and do it, it really became an expedition to find not only the people to talk to, but the sources of video and still pictures, we went to archives to look through pictures and old film and in the course of the production, which lasted about three months, we went to more than 50 archival sources. From universities to individuals.
I remember one day our archivist came back from the UCLA library and they had shown her some old film of VJ Day in Los Angeles and it was film that almost nobody had seen before.
You’ll see that at the end of the show. You’ve seen the footage of New York in Times Square when the war ended, but I’d never seen footage of Los Angeles and it was really exciting to see that footage and stills. So it really became like a treasure hunt for three months.
Not just lookg for the best people to talk to and the best stories to tell but also looking for the pictures to reporesent that and we went through thousands and thousands of pictures and films. It was very exciting,
I remember we were interviewing an 85 year old woman who worked for Douglas Aircraft in World War II and she riveted wings on airplanes. In the middle of the interview, she said “I’ve got a lot of stuff in the garage, would you like to see it. She had old photo albums, a lot of really interesting stuff that nobody had looked at for years. It was very exciting to make those kinds of discoveries.
AG: How did you select or find the underwriters and sponsors for this special?
BM: Two of then, the California Endowment and The Annenberg Foundation have supported California Connected previously and the Elizabeth Hofert-Dailey Trust was an estate interested in the subject and Kaiser Permanente came in. That was very interesting because Kaiser was an example of the history of many companies – the aircraft companies, the Kaiser shipyards. They either started in World War II or grew to significant size then. So we said to them “This is your story and we’d like you to be a part of it.” Kaiser was a big part of it, not only because they were building so many ships in Northern California, but Henry Kaiser was this incredibly enlightened person who set up healthcare, cafeterias for the workers and daycare – and what is amazing is that these were the 40’s – and these are things that aren’t even being done today. It was really the golden age of American labor.
AG: How has the noise about support for public television affected your work.
BM: There are lots of different sources of information and many different forms of media, some traditinal, some non-traditional and I think that public television is even more important now than previously. The networks are owned by giant conglomerates that don’t seem particularly intrested in news and information these days and I don’t think a documentary like California at War could have been made on one of the traditional networks. They’re just not interested in doing that type of thing. I think it is more and more a challenge for those of us that work in Public Television to stress to the public and government what a unique service Public Television has to offer.
All the research I’ve seen, shows people are very anxious to see it survive. It would really be a shame if it went away. It’s incumbent on us to keep producing quality content, that you can’t get anywhere else. We don’t have any political agenda. It all keeps you on your toes because you know that people who are looking at Public Television are looking very carefully at what we’re doing, so its very important that we are very honest and balanced.
AG: How has that affected your publicity and promotion for this special or other shows?
BM: I come from commercial TV, so I’m a firm believer that you have to make a big splash and Public Television tends to be a bit laid back. I’m proud of what we’ve done and we want to get as much publicity for what we’re doing as we can.
AG: I really liked the opening, the opening shots and the prologue Judy did.
BM: We really wanted to show people what they were going to get – we didn’t want to do a dull documentary. There were a number of themes we found, we thought it was very imprtant to delve into those themes and get them up-front. There are some very powerful stories here that people just don’t know.
AG: California Connected recently won a prestigious award.
BM: Yes, we got an Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia University Award which is like a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t remember how many submissions there were, but there were only 14 awards. It was for a program we did called “War Stories from Ward 7-D” which was about traumatic brain injuries in Iraq, where soldiers were hit by IEDs. We filmed this in Palo Alto at the VA hospital where they have a special trauma center and it was truly fascinating. These soldiers all have different injuries and in some cases, you look at them and think nothing is wrong, yet with some of them, their short term memories are destroyed and some their long term memories too, so they’re having to reconstruct their lives. It was an incredible experience for us, that we got to spend time with people who were victims, watching them trying to retrain their bodies and their minds. It was a problem the military was not prepared for and in some cases, people were completely misdiagnosed.
One woman had an accident with physical damage to her knees and back and her attitude seemed to change. They basically demoted her and shipped her home and didn’t realise until after the year she was at home, that she had a brain injury. It wasn’t that she wasn’t following orders because she was disloyal, it was because she couldn’t process the orders. That was an amazing story.
So we were very proud of that award.
AG: What other projects are you working on?
BM: We’re working on some interesting pilots including one program that looks at how the rest of the world see the United States.
AG: Thank you for talking to me today and thank you for doing “California at War.”
“California At War” is a special not to be missed, so remember to check your local listings for stations and times. The show airs on Thursday September 20, 2007 on PBS.