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Paving the Way: Dyllan McGee and Betsy West Q & A

Dyllan McGee and Betsy West
Photo Credit: Aynsley Floyd

The first time Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon, a race director tried to forcibly remove her from the competition. It was 1967 and women were excluded from the marathon – even the reporters following the race alongside the runners heckled and harassed her. Undeterred, she finished the race – becoming the first woman in history to officially enter and run the legendary marathon.

“I often say that I started the Boston Marathon as a girl and finished as a grown woman,” Switzer says in Makers: Women Who Make America, premiering in February on THIRTEEN.

Narrated by Meryl Streep, the film tells the story of how women have transformed America over the last half century. Interviews include Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Ellen DeGeneres, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, and many others.

THIRTEEN spoke with executive producers Dyllan McGee and Betsy West about the groundbreaking multimedia project from Kunhardt McGee Productions, Storyville Films and WETA Washington, D.C., in association with Ark Media.

 

What inspired you to do a documentary about women’s advancement over the past 50 years?

DYLLAN McGEE: I am 42 years old and I don’t think women — or men — of my generation really understand how much has changed for women over just 50 years. At the same time, there is still more work to be done. So I went to Gloria Steinem to ask her to do a story on her life, but she, in her egoless way, refused. She said her story was a part of a collective of stories: she wanted the bigger picture. I was amazed to find out no one had told this story. So my partners, Betsy West, Peter Kunhardt, and I decided to produce a documentary on the modern American Women’s Movement and develop the idea for an online archive — a living, breathing library of stories which became MAKERS.com and was made possible by an extraordinary collaboration between PBS, AOL, and Simple Facial Skincare.

BETSY WEST: When Dyllan approached me about this project six years ago, I was astonished that the story of the Women’s Movement had not been told on film despite the tremendous impact it had on American life and the generations of women who followed, including me. As an aspiring TV journalist in the 1970s, I was hired for jobs that just a few years before would have been men-only had it not been for lawsuits and protests that paved the way. A few years later, as a producer for ABC News, I witnessed the front lines of opposition to the movement when I covered the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. So I jumped at the chance to document this extraordinary tale and track down the stories of the gutsy, groundbreaking women who have remade American society in my lifetime.

 

Do you have a favorite moment from the film?

DM: First, I must say that it has been such a thrill to collaborate with our very talented senior producer Barak Goodman. But I suppose the moment that resonates most for me as a mom who works outside the home is the final segment where contemporaries of mine like Melissa Harris Perry and Abigail Pogrebin talk about work/life balance. We were the “you can have it all” generation and no one prepared us for the challenges of trying to build a career and raise children at the same time. I also love the surprising stories we uncovered, such as Oprah Winfrey talking about fighting for equal pay.

BW: Even though I have watched it over a hundred times, I still get a kick out of seeing Boston Marathon race official Jock Semple attack runner Kathrine Switzer, only to have her evade his grasp as her boyfriend sends him flying. So often gender discrimination is not visible; this is probably the most dramatic, graphic illustration of the fierce opposition to women stepping outside the boundaries society had set for them. And it is such a funny, inspiring moment.

 

Who are some of women who have inspired your life and work, and did you have the opportunity to meet any of them while working on Makers?

DM: I got into television because I wanted to be the next Katie Couric, so meeting her was an all-time career high. In addition to being a phenomenal groundbreaking journalist, she is so real and funny in person — she makes you feel like you’re her best friend. Meeting Oprah Winfrey was also thrilling. My mother had died from cancer two weeks before my interview with her, and while I didn’t tell Oprah, it was as if she knew. She sat down and politely pointed out that the lights were very bright, so we started fixing them. Then she looked at me — clearly reading I was a little stressed — and said, “Let’s take a deep breath.” So we meditated together. To be completely honest, as we were deep breathing I was thinking, “I hope we get the lighting right. Do you think she can tell I’m not really meditating? I hope she gives us more than 30 minutes!” As soon as we were done, the lighting was fixed and we were off to the races. Not only did she give us over an hour, she made me feel like it was the most important interview of her life. She was authentic, funny, and kind.

BW: Before she was a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued and won landmark cases that changed the legal opportunities for women in this country. Nearly 40 years later, it was thrilling to go to the Court to meet and interview Justice Ginsburg and get insights into the obstacles she faced and her strategy for fighting the unfairness.

I already knew Barbara Walters who, along with Diane Sawyer, was one of my mentors at ABC News. But it was exciting to hear how she fought her way into the world of network news, out-working and out-foxing the co-anchors and bosses who wanted to keep women in their place.

Before you created the Makers film, you launched an online video library featuring interviews with many of the extraordinary women featured in the documentary. How did this approach influence your creative process, and would you follow this production model in future projects?

DM: I was interviewing Susan Wojcicki recently, the top woman at Google, and she said something that really stuck with me. One of the pieces of advice that she gives is, “Work in a growing industry because that is where there is excitement, that is where people are needed, and that is where you can make the biggest impact.” Technology is turning the media industry upside down. I adore long-form documentaries, but if you want to make an impact today, films have to be coupled with a robust online and mobile strategy — that piece can no longer just be “the companion” — it needs to be the driver. It’s exciting to be a part of the changing industry and re-invent how a story can be told. That really makes me tick.

BW: Identifying and interviewing more than 100 groundbreaking women helped surface some of the most surprising stories in the documentary, like coal miner Barbara Burns’ battle to stop her boss from sexually harassing her, and writer Judy Blume’s quiet inspiration. I think that the “digital first” model could definitely work in other large-scale projects. And, like many filmmakers, I am convinced that stories need to be produced for a variety of platforms.

 

Can you talk about the unique partnership with AOL and PBS?

DM: Given how ubiquitous content is today, I think the old model of proprietary distribution is not going to be sustainable. Today, media production is all about partnerships and pulling together as many complementary distribution channels as you can to engage people on a variety of platforms and reach new audiences. Paula Kerger and Jason Seiken from PBS and Tim Armstrong and Maureen Sullivan from AOL all worked together and said, let’s not only make this happen, let’s use our collective platforms to really make an impact. And it has been an extraordinary collaboration.

 

How would your career be different if you didn’t have a relationship with public television?

DM: Kunhardt McGee Productions is dedicated to telling stories about the people and ideas that have shaped our world, and we love PBS for allowing us to do that with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s popular series and now with Makers. We never could have made Makers without the support of public television, AOL, and Simple® skincare.

BW: After a long career in commercial television news, I am grateful to PBS for providing a platform to produce stories that are entertaining, illuminating and important.

Read the complete interview with Dyllan McGee and Betsy West, and learn more about Makers: Women Who Make America at thirteen.org/makers.

FUNDER CREDIT: Major funding for Makers: Women Who Make America is provided by Unilever and its Simple® skincare brand. Additional funding is provided by The Charles H. Revson Foundation, NoVo Foundation, Ford Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Rice Family Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation and others.

 

  • Ailene Rogers

    One woman who we need to admire in this series is Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam creator and founder of the Student Conservation Program now head-quartered in Charlestown, New Hampshire. Liz wrote of such as program as a college student in Vasser College. The program was designed to help the National Parks in the 1950′s after WWII when burgeoning populations and economic success brought millions to visit these parks. The parks at that time did not have the resources nor funding to tend to all the necessary cares for both the parks and the visitors. Liz envisioned using the able young people from high schools, colleges and graduate schools to help the understaffed parks while giving the youth an opportunity to “learn by doing.” Many of the more than 50,000 volunteers who worked for the subsequent programs have become environmental activist, or career park service, forest service or other workers. The program’s first years was in 1957. I was a volunteer in 1958. The exper9ence changed and focused my life direction as it has for many others. Ailene Rogers akrogers@optonline.net

  • p. snowden

    My life has always been shaped by strong women in my life. My mother is a police officer and the strongest woman i know. My primary and middle school principals were also female and all pushed me to be the best! Thank you for this program!

  • Marianna

    “Thirteen Celebrates Women”. Perhaps more appropriate commentary would read “Thirteen Celebrates White Women” I thought we were over non-inclusive feminist movements? I’m incredibly disappointed with this documentary for briefly mentioning women of color feminists and tokenizing them in the process. The second wave of feminism is well known for excluding women of color, however this documentary gloats about it’s inclusiveness. While I appreciate the good hearted effort to make this documentary, there are many things that are worth revisiting with a more critical lens.

providing support for thirteen.org

About MAKERS: Women Who Make America

"Makers: Women Who Make America" is a multi-platform PBS project that will tell the compelling story of women’s advancement in America over the past 50 years.
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