What I really want to do is... produce (2023)

What I really want to do is... produce (1)

David Wolper will be the first to tell you that he has absolutely no interest in writing or directing. "I'm a producer," he announces modestly. That seems like an understatement for a man who has produced no fewer than 700 films and received 150 awards, including two Oscars, 50 Emmys, seven Golden Globes and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, received the French National Legion of Honor and received the IDA's first-ever Mentoring Achievement Award.

What is Wolper's definition of a producer? He puts it in a nutshell: “I make it possible. I'm a man with a dream to make those dreams come true. Wolper sees himself as the conductor of an orchestra. “I bring all the actors: the writer, the director, the actors, the editor, the composer, the costume designer, everyone involved in the project. I make sure that they are the best in their field and then I organize everything.” It all sounds so easy with Wolper today, but it wasn't always that way.

In 1949, while a student at USC, Wolper met and became associated with Jimmy Harris, the son of a family friend. Harris' father had some old educational shorts that he couldn't sell, so Wolper and Harris formed their own distribution company, Flamingo Films, and sold those shows and more to television buyers, including their first film.The Adventures of Martin Eden. Wolper acquired the rights to Superman, which he had turned into a half-hour, full-length television series, and by the age of 23, Wolper was on his way, or so he thought.

Despite his early success, Wolper also knocked on network television doors during these early years, which would ultimately be locked in his face. "We don't accept documentaries from outside producers," the chorus rang in his ear. But the "father of independent television documentary" existed on his own, without the network's help or blessing.

A business trip to New York in 1956 had led to a chance meeting with a Soviet cartoon dealer with whom Wolper had previously worked. The dealer told him he had some Russian space images that online buyers were interested in. Wolper took the opportunity to acquire the never-before-seen footage, which he incorporated into his first documentary.The Space Race. Armed with the support of NASA and sponsorship from the Shulton Company, makers of Old Spice, Wolper approached all three networks with this incredible documentary package... and was flatly rejected.

Angry but undaunted, Wolper continued. A $100,000 investment was at stake, but Wolper had worked hard in those early years in syndication and laid the groundwork for forming his own coalition of television programmers. Ultimately, this would be mentioned on the first pageLos New York Timesas "the fourth TV channel".

In an ironic twist, in his previous incarnation as a television show distributor, Wolper had contacted and befriended almost every independent television production company in the United States. This resulted in an unprecedented 108 running television channels.The Space Race. Wolper topped the ratings network, received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and eventually launched his career as an independent television producer.

Wolper says of the experience, “It was very frustrating to see an incredible show and a $100,000 investment go down the drain. I just couldn't give up. My most valuable skill as a producer was being a salesman, especially back then. I had to sell my shows twice: once to sponsors and once to networks. It's completely different today: You just have to sell the nets."

In addition, Wolper cites the abundance of cable channels as a boon for the documentary filmmaker. “Back then I had to compete with the internal production companies. There are many more opportunities and doors open to filmmakers today."

Wolper produced other documentaries includingHistory of.., biography, men in crisis, and two groundbreaking shows about black American athletes Willie Davis and Rafer Johnson. It followedHollywood golden years, jHollywood die Sternefor NBC, which became the first prime-time documentary series produced by an independent company.

Wolper notes that while he makes it sound so simple, each production had its own problems. Rights, releases, stock clips and music were the biggest challenges. "Licensing is a nightmare, even for me and my production company. Today it is even more difficult to obtain permits. There is a law in front of the assembly that would give rights to deceased celebrities. If this law is passed, it will be a nightmare for documentary filmmakers and archive evictions, especially in film history. If the legislature had its way, it would require the release of Hitler's relatives. This protects the rights of the dead at the expense of the living.

Non-fiction bestsellers also appealed to Wolper, and he set about acquiring the rights to themThe Formation of the President 1960, by author Theodore H. White, whom Wolper considers the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time. "In fact," says Wolper, laughing, "White was so good that the other writers went through his trash can looking for some of the great words White had thrown out." Despite that arsenal of talent and a Xerox endorsement, Wolper became again rejected by the Big Three. Fortunately, ABC executive Leonard Goldenson had the foresight to override news chief John Daly, who subsequently resigned from ABC.

The Formation of the President 1960and have been recognized for their joint accomplishments with four Emmy Awards and the Television Academy's top award, Television Show of the Year. The film also won Best Documentary, Best Editing (William Cartright) and Best Music (Elmer Bernstein). Wolper followed up with another 30 historical specials from 1962 to 1968, including D-Day, which according to Time magazine "made Hollywood war movies look like a lot of stagecraft."

Wolper was offended that the always sensitive Hollywood community didn't take this criticism wellTime. Darryl Zanuck, who was preparing his own film,The longest dayShe told the press that Wolper's film was "a fake". Zanuck accused Wolper of misleading the public with library material and claimed that there was no actual footage of the June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. Tag that included a handwritten clapboard sign that read "Beach Invasion 6/6/44". Wolper ran an ad in the branches refuting Zanuck's claim.

The following years of Wolper production includedlet my people go, which documented Israel's 2,000-year struggle for statehood. This film created another controversy for Wolper, as longtime supporter Xerox was unable to do business in Arab countries for many years. Despite these controversies, Wolper continued to produce more human-interest documentaries, includingFour days in November,The Legend of Marilyn MonroejThe Unfinished Journey of Robert F. Kennedy. Wolper also established a political films division and produced films about the Democratic and Republican National Assemblies.

Television docudrama was another Wolper innovation; his company produced such re-enactments of historical events asThe Crucifixion of Jesus,Bark and Appomattox,John Dillinger's last dayjThe conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Wolper also appeared on National Geographic Specials, which ran for nine years;american heritage,prehistoric man,Smithsonian SpecialtiesjJacques Cousteau's underwater world– another long-running series.

That job alone would be a life of glory for most men, but not for Wolper, who was making his first foray into the feature film worldThe Devil's Brigade. 1968 followedRemagen's bridge, which became an international incident with the Soviet Union accusing Wolper of being a spy for the CIA. Wolper had hired numerous tanks and war equipment to film the story, which coincided with the 1968 Czech uprising against communist rule. The Soviets were convinced that Wolper posed a communist security threat. Filming on the film was halted when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, prompting an emergency evacuation of the cast and crew and relocation of filming to Hamburg, western Germany and parts of southern Italy.

This dramatic episode in Wolper's career was followed by more light-hearted fare, includingIf it's Tuesday, that must be Belgium, the film/documentary of the concertWattstax, jvisions of eight, the official film of the 1972 Olympics, which led to Wolper returning to the world spotlight with the terrorist attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes.

Wolper went ahead and clinched his first Oscar forThe Hellstrom Chronicle(1971). Wolper gives a lopsided laugh, pointing out that despite the Oscars, it was the film everyone remembers the mostWilly Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which was based on the work of Roald DahlCharlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wolper has teamed up again with director Mel Stuart to produce this cult children's classic. "It still amazes me that in all my work to date, Willy Wonka always gets the most response," admits Wolper.

The television miniseries became another first for Wolper with his 1967 show.Rise and fall of the Third Reich, which played on ABC for three consecutive nights. This three-hour documentary is based on William Shirer's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name. Wolper followed up with another miniseries: the six-hour dramatization of the Pulitzer Prize winner.Lincoln von Sandburg, a biographical tome written by Carl Sandburg himself. This six-hour saga garnered critical acclaim, earning actor Hal Holbrook an Emmy for his powerful portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln.

TV movies became Wolper Production's next work as 30 Pictures hit TV screens from 1973 to 1998. Comedy series also fell under Wolper's dominance, with two hits:Chico & the Man und Welcome Back Kotter. But the best was yet to come.

Wolper had met actress Ruby Dee at the Moscow Film Festival in what would become another chance meeting. Later, Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, were invited to the Wolper house for dinner. Between courses, Wolper shared his fascination with family tales that unfolded over many generations over the years. Dee revealed to Wolper that a friend of his, little-known writer Alex Hailey, wrote his own family history, which chronicled his ancestors' eight-generation journey from Africa through slavery in the United States. Fascinated by the scope and humanity of this historical epic, Wolper immediately acquired the film rights from Hailey before the book was even finished.

Wolper vividly remembers the startestateto ABC bosses in 1977, preparing for rejection: "It's a slavery story where blacks are the heroes and whites are the villains." Not exactly your classic Central American meal of the day. Clearly the network was taking a risk.

Later, Wolper, ABC and the largest African American television casting and production team in the television business watchedestatemade television history with nine Emmy Awards, the highest viewership of the season and the highest television ratings to date. HeestatePhenomenon continued with two years laterRoots: The next generation, which subsequently reached the second highest rated week in television historyestate. This was followed by a documentary about the life of author Alex Hailey, produced by WolperRoots: a year later.

Other network films and miniseries followed, including another generational epic, the critically acclaimedthorny birds, and a sequel calledThe Thorn Birds: The Lost Years. John Jakes Buchnorth and southbecame a 24-hour miniseries that ran between Wolpers' production of the four-hour opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics (which included working under a nerve-wracking bomb threat, among other things) and the big Liberty Weekend show that marked the 1986 100 die Statue of Liberty.

Wolper also worked on the theatrical documentary, which included the Elvis Presley special.this is elvisand the music documentary by John LennonIntroduce. He then turned back to feature filmssurviving Picasso, with Anthony Hopkins andLA confidential, which received numerous awards for best picture and Oscars for actress Kim Basinger and screenwriters Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland.

In 1998, Wolper attracted the world of cable television, leading to his first cable television production, The 10 Hour Discovery Series.Legends, Icons and Superstarsof the 20th century. Wolper remembers the endless bickering and arguments over who qualified for this prestigious list as the biggest challenge he faced on this production. This was followed by a review of the last 100 yearscelebrate the century, a 10-hour documentary series for CNN.

What's next on the boards for Wolper? Certainly not retirement. "I want to produceThe Debate on the Bill of Rights", he says. "What did our founding fathers really mean when they wrote our constitution? I want to dramatize and re-enact these discussions and see them actually discuss meaning." He pauses for a moment and thinks out loud, "What was 'freedom of the press' in those years? What did they mean by 'the right to bear arms'? I want to document how they envisioned our Constitution and its implications at the time they created it.”

Wolper also wants to dramatize the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book.case closedby Gerald Posner, who Wolper believes will solve the greatest murder mystery of our time: the assassination of JFK.case closedFind out what the Warren Commission got wrong and disprove key conspiracy theories, shutting down speculation about CIA, FBI and Mafia involvement and the alleged links between Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. Wolper is fascinated by the concept and says: "I would like to bury Oliver Stonejfkwith this. BelievejfkIt was the biggest pile of bullshit ever created."

Although Wolper's career seems to have a Midas touch, it alludes to a number of tragedies, including the 1974 plane crash that killed all members of his crew.prehistoric manCast and Crew - Remembered as one of the worst accidents in Hollywood history. Wolper is grim as he recalls personally calling all parents, wives and loved ones to break the sad news. "First they advised me how to break the bad news and warned me that the first reaction would be disbelief," he recalls. "The first question from everyone contacted was, 'Are you sure?', followed by screams and tears. This night will never leave me."

Despite this painful memory, Wolper acknowledges his many blessings and accomplishments. “I refused to give up in the face of adversity. He just couldn't take no for an answer. I broke many rules along the way and found my way through the back door when the front door was locked. He had a saying, 'You have to tell Shinola your shit'. I can spot the shit in a documentary right away."

How are times different for today's documentary filmmakers? Wolper believes documentary filmmakers have never had as many opportunities as they do today. "Unfortunately, there are also more outlets for the product, but less money," he admits. "Plus, there's more competition." What advice does Wolper have for today's documentary filmmaker? "Know your market," he says emphatically. "If you're doing something you're only passionate about, don't be surprised if you can't sell it. If you want to make a stool movie, even if it's the best damn stool movie, if nobody cares, you've just made a nice home movie."

For all his "firsts" in the world of television, Wolper isn't aspiring to conquer the Internet. "This is for the next generation," he concludes. Wolper also dismisses the so-called new documentary trend, the placement of web cameras in the home, as not corresponding to the documentary form. He cites his own personal definition of documentary as "The creative interpretation of reality". That means keeping a camera on a street corner all day is just recording activity, not telling a story. “Well,” he adds, “when you turn the camera on pedestrians and find that only one in four people are smiling and find out why, then you've interpreted that reality and you're creating both a statement and a story. .”

Wolper's quotesThe Formation of the President 1960as his favorite personal project. "I had a first-class director, Mel Stuart, and a first-class writer, Theodore White." He lists D-Day andRise and fall of the Third Reichas the greatest challenge of his career. "I started my career in documentaries and will probably end up in documentaries," says Wolper. "My goal has always been to offer entertainment and information at the same time."

Was there ever a show that didn't exist? Wolper laughs at this question and remembers his setbacks. “I called a program about a family with 18 childrenThe very big family. I couldn't find a sponsor for this program because they bought in bulk and never bought anything that wasn't generic. I ended up selling that show market after market. I've had other failures too. I never let it get to me. It's not like I'm curing cancer: it's just TV." Wolper pauses for a moment, then adds that there's only one show he hasn't sold to date:The orchestra of all grandmothers. "I haven't completely given up yet, though. I just heard there's going to be a cable channel for seniors."

Wolper seems to have salvaged everything from his illustrious career. In fact, he donated his entire archive along with $2.5 million to found the David L. Wolper Center for the Study of Documentary at the University of Southern California.

As Jerry Campbell, Dean of University Libraries, notes in a recent issue of USC Family Magazine, “The archive will be an unmatched resource for scholars, historians, and documentalists for years to come. It not only records the most important historical events of the last 50 years, but also preserves an important era of our culture."

Kathleen Fairweather is the editor ofinternational documentaryMagazine.

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