David L. Wolper

Docudrama: The Test of Truth

VTR Date: June 8, 1985

Guest: Wolper, David L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David L. Wolper
Title: “Docudrama: The Test of Truth”
VTR: 6/8/1985

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and this is another of a series of programs on mass media, basically on whether “seeing is believing” or “reading is believing” or “hearing is believing” are safe enough guides through these media dominated last years of the twentieth century. And today, to help explore this rather cosmic issue I’ve invited the indefatigable David Wolper, for decades now unquestionably our most prolific and best known documentarian and docu-dramatist.

His production of the visually astounding opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics may have brought David Wolper to the dazzled attention of more people around the world than anything else he’s done on television and on film. But I’m even more aware of, and surely made greener with envy by David’s long career in bringing past and present together in the media; from his “The Making of the President” from 1960, to “Roots”, to the scores of documentaries and docu-dramas he’s brought to us. From one who used to teach history, I know where the teaching power really is today. Not with me and others in the classroom, or in the texts we’ve written, but in this medium; and in film, where dramatic presentations – fiction, faction, docu-drama – label them what you will, are more and more understood to be the weapons of choice in any battle for hearts and minds, for good or for bad.

And today I want to ask David Wolper: “How much for good and how much for bad?” Mr. Wolper thanks for joining me. Is it an unfair question to ask you whether there’s a downside to the fictionizing of fact?

WOLPER: Yes, there probably is a downside in some respects, but I think we first have to understand what historical drama…and maybe we ought to call it instead of “docu-drama”…historical drama, which is really an old and honorable way of telling a story, from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare, through stage and books, and now into television. I think there’s a lot of good to come out of the docu-drama. I think if people understand what we’re doing in television, then there will be an understanding of what we’re trying to do and what we try to accomplish. We are not…if you think of a docu-drama, you’ll probably see it once in your lifetime. Maybe you’ll see a re-run if you liked it the first time, but you’ll never see…it’s not something to research, to look at, if people go by. If a historians or students say “I wonder what happened with Columbus at this incident”, they won’t go to “Christopher Columbus”, the docu-drama that was seen on television. They’ll go to a book. So you have to find out what is docu-drama trying to do? What we’re trying to do is to give you a sense of what it was like to be in that moment…a place in that moment at that time; a sense of feeling, an emotional sense of being there. We’re not trying to tell you dates, we’re not trying to tell you individual incidents. We’re just trying to give you a feeling of being there. Now, if you understand and just use it for that, not for research, which nobody does anyway, I think you will…the audience and we who make docu-dramas, will be much happier with each other. And the critics, too.

HEFFNER: Yes, but that’s from your point of view.


HEFFNER: That’s, I’m sure, the motivation that you have. What about the viewer? What about the reader, what about the listener? What about the person who is just passing by, as you suggest so quickly, and just for once in a lifetime? He or she may think that there is more there than meets the eye or the ear.

WOLPER: Well, that’s true, and the answer is “so what”? If they’re just passing through just to get a little bit of a touch of history, and they’re not using it for anything and it’s not becoming their historic background or what they base their life on, I think the audience knows what a historical drama is. They know what it is in a book form, they know what it is in a stage form, and I think they know what it is in a television form. They certainly knew what it is in a movie form. Now, you and I know that we didn’t believe that Alexander Graham Bell as it was done in the motion pictures was exactly the life of Alexander Graham Bell detail for detail. There…we should be a little more…we should be better than they were in the films of the 40s and 30s when they did use historical dramas, and we are. We are more careful. And people say we should be more careful because news is on the same medium as we are; news…although newsreels were in the theater, people didn’t perceive it as a news medium. People may perceive a docu-drama…from 7-7:30 they see a news broadcast…at 8 o’clock all of a sudden they see a docu-drama and some of that may carry over. But I still think that the audience knows that what they are seeing is a compilation of characters, that what they’re seeing is a feeling of what the time was. I don’t think they believe every single word, because, you know, truthfully…first of all, we’re putting words in everybody’s mouth. Let’s start with that, because with the exception of a courtroom trial or a congress, or Richard Nixon’s office…people who talk aren’t recorded all the time. So a lot of the things we do is made-up dialogue, and I think the audience knows it’s made-up dialogue and appreciates that. Otherwise we could never do a drama at all. You know, it’s…a lot of made-up dialogue is in history books over the years because they couldn’t record it.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you say everyone knows that…you say it several times over…I wonder whether that’s really so true, or whether most of your viewers…admittedly they’ll never go to look at, perhaps, a book on Black history after they’ve seen roots; perhaps never a book on Christopher Columbus, perhaps not a book on the making of the President in 1960. But won’t they get what they sense, what they know about America and its past, and maybe even their own past, from what you do by way of docu-drama?

WOLPER: Yes, they will, and maybe the show encourages them to go to that book. Maybe…as you know, there are more books sold about a subject matter after a docu-drama’s been on the air, especially if it’s a book…based on a book. “Roots” sold a lot of books after it went on the air. I’m trying to think of…”Winds of War” sold many more books after it went on. That wasn’t exactly a docu-drama. It was more a historical drama with historical background. But there are people…if they are interested in a subject matter…if we’ve interested them, got them interested in a subject, and they go to a book, that’s one of the purposes for what we are doing. Let me ask you something else, too. I think enough people have read about it now and like this show…it’s been done by the critics, and they’ve all said in the newspapers and magazines and books that docu-dramas aren’t exactly like it was…there’s a lot of things made up. I think by now the audience knows, has seen those articles, read those things, and now has a sense of what they’re watching when they watch a docu-drama.

HEFFNER: Then you, perhaps, attribute to the audience, the American public, a great deal more sophistication than many other people do. Maybe this is a faith in the people.

WOLPER: Well, it isn’t. I think they read the papers. They know what’s going on.

HEFFNER: You really think that they read John O’Connor’s comments about David Wolper, and David Wolper’s letter to the editor refuting what O’Connor said back…

WOLPER: No, they may or they may not. I…let me say this: let’s explore what’s the difference. Let’s be able to explore…

HEFFNER: That’s fair enough.

WOLPER: Let’s explore what’s the difference. Okay. You’re sitting at home and I combine two characters…You see, first of all, just like a book, you’ve got to remember who’s making…you’ve got to…when you see a subject matter, you’ve got to know whether the person who’s making or bringing you the information. No different than a book. Two newspapers, The New York Times, The National Enquirer…you’ve got to make the judgment of which newspaper you believe in. Same thing when you look at a docu-drama. Either one, you’ve got to make a decision on the author who created the piece and the producer who brought it to you. That means that some authors you may believe and some you may not. You have to…people have to make that choice, just like they do in newspapers, just like they do in books. There are a lot of books written about Lincoln. There’s Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, there’s Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln…there’s, you know, seven different ways of presenting Lincoln; and you as an audience has to pick and choose which one and decide what you believe and what you don’t in each one of those books. The same with a docu-drama. You have to believe or not believe based on the person who brought it to you.

HEFFNER: Yes, but with a docu-drama I know that David Wolper has an agenda that’s not hidden by any means, but he has an agenda that’s different from a historian that writes a book. And his agenda has to do with it being a mass media…

WOLPER: Correct.

HEFFNER: …and it being a tremendous need to entertain…

WOLPER: Correct.

HEFFNER: …as well as enlighten. I, I…as we sat down here I was thinking of the comment you made at the conference dealing with this subject. You said, “Don’t waste two hours of time with two fellows sitting around talking about a historical subject”, or I suppose any subject. “Give me the two hours and I can much more effectively transmit the information, ideas…be enlightening”. But the judgment I have to make is that I have to know that you have this other motivation. And what you do with history, what you do with the “docu” part of docu-drama has to do with the size of the audience you want.

WOLPER: Well, yeah, but it’s no different than with an author. There’s lots…There’s In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. There’s no difference there. That’s a docu…that’s a docu-drama book. There’s…you just as an audience have to decide. You can’t…in other words, nothing is going to be perfect. You just have to decide. An audience has the ability…although…a lot of the press…has a sense of knowing when they’re getting something straight and when they’re not getting something straight.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I had a young colleague recently who was working with me and then he went back to teaching. And he wrote me a letter the other day. He’s teaching in New England. And he said with great despair where most of his students get their ideas about the world around them; and they get them, perhaps from docu-drama; but usually from film, from fictionized materials that give them the picture of the world. And they’re not that discerning as you seem to believe people are.

WOLPER: Well, they may not be discerning, but you know, sometimes there’s more truth in fiction than there is truth in truth, as you know. And…

HEFFERN: But you’re not going to hang by that…

WOLPER: No, I…No, what I say when I do a docu-drama, I present it in the most honest and best way I can. There’s no docu-drama writer…I read a lot of reviews from reviewers who say “Well, we spoke to a historian and he said it was incorrect”. He doesn’t give the writer credit who spoke to twenty historians. That writer might have read twenty books before he wrote that script, you know. And I, as a producer, might have read ten books myself to check whether the writer, or the network has what they call a Standards of Practices Department that have their own historians that check you script. So we have gone through some processes before it reaches you on the air. It isn’t just a helter skelter that I just make a show any way I want; I just sent it over to the network and they put it on the air. There is a process that you must go through before you get it on the air, which I’ve described to you rather rapidly. But my writer…we’re doing a show…I’ll give you an example. We’re doing a show on Truman and MacArthur landing on the…meeting…when Truman fired MacArthur.


WOLPER: Okay. Now, we have to decide what point of view we’re going to tell that story from.


WOLPER: We decided to tell it from Truman’s point of view. So we took Truman’s book as a background to it. Truman told a different story than MacArthur in the same incident. A lot of things that took place, they…But we decided we would tell it from Truman’s point of view, which we did. And our author, our writer, the script writer, not only read Truman’s book, but read a lot of books on the subject. He interviewed a lot of people. Now, after he writes the script, I get the script, and I read it. By that time I’ve read two or three books, too. I discuss it with the writer and I say “Wait a second. I read a book and this is not exactly the way it is.” Well he says, “In my book it is”. And sure enough, in two books it’s different. So we say, “What is Truman’s point of view”? That’s the one we’re taking. That’s the historical point we’re taking, his point of view. And we take his point of view. When we’re all finished with our process, it now goes to the network. And the network has their own department. They have something called Standards of Practices, where they hire their own historians to look at our script and be sure that we’re right. If a historian comes back and says “Where did you get this information? How did you write this? Where is it?” And we have to tell then where we got the information. And the process goes on and we put the show on the air. Now we put the show on the air and I hear from Mrs. MacArthur. And she says “It didn’t happen that way. If you read MacArthur’s book, it’s something different”. And I say, “Yes, but we’re telling it from Truman’s point of view”.

I have the same thing when I do other historical pieces. I do a piece on the Civil War; I used to use Bruce Catton as my advisor. There are other Civil War advisors that might give me different information. But I am not a historian, so I have used Bruce Catton as my point of information. If he tells me that what I have presented is accurate in his eyes, that’s the historian that I used.

HEFFNER: You know, I remember, in ancient times when I did my documentary history of the United States and I got a call while I was reading the galleys from the publisher who said “You have to stop. You can’t go this way. You have a glaring inaccuracy”. They said my chapter on The Liberator was biased, was wrong; that the Anti-Slavery, the Liberationist Movement, the Anti-Slavery Movement had to come in after the pro-slavery argument. And he said that isn’t true. We had to tear up that chapter, the galleys. I asked him whether the reader to whom he had sent the volume…I didn’t even know his name…wasn’t a Southerner, trained in the South. And he said “Yes!” Well, there it is. Sure, perspective; one person can have one point of view, someone else another. But in a book, generally, you advise your reader to be aware. You perhaps quote as I did, Charles Beard, who said that “all history is an act of faith”. You said something as we began our discussion: You indicated that as long as you make it clear…Do you think that docu-dramatists and networks, and advertising people, and promotion people make it clear enough, so that the viewer understands that here is a necessarily faulted…because human interpretation of a period of time with liberties taken…do you think enough is done along those lines?

WOLPER: I think so. Yes, I think there’s enough. You can always do more. You can always (???). You can always add another disclaimer. You can say, okay, now, in this show, in this program we combine two characters; instead of one character, we combine two characters. Therefore this character is a combination of character “A” and character “B”. When we do a docu-drama combining characters, as an example, we don’t combine…we don’t combine George Washington and James Madison. We don’t combine Thomas Jefferson. We don’t combine the main people who make a story go, or telling a story…we combine minor characters. And sometimes we even create a character to get a point across, to explain something, to make it simpler and more clear for the audience. We don’t change history by doing it, we don’t take it away. If a character…for example, if I’m doing something on the Bill of Rights, I’m doing a show on the Bill of Rights and how it came into being…I find out now that there were 25 people debating the subject…well, I can’t have 25 people debating the subject. Of the 25 people, 25 people you’ve never heard of and will never hear of again, and probably will not hear after my show is on the air…so I combine some of the lesser characters into one personality so that one person can give those arguments. Now you may say, “Well, factually…Where is Jones, Smith, and Anderson?” But that’s not what my purpose is. You know, if you want to find out the details of how the Bill of Rights was argued, about Jones, Smith, and Anderson, you’ve got to go to a book. My show…you’re going to get an impression and a feeling how the people argued the Bill of Rights at that time. You’re going to get an overall…you’re never going to take my film and study the words that I did. You’re just going to sit back and enjoy it for an evening; get a sense of how they argued all the points of the Bill of Rights, get an understanding of how it took place. And if you really are interested to use it in another place, you go to a book.

HEFFNER: David, do you remember some years back when CBS put on a very interesting documentary with Bill Cosby as the narrator called “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed”?…which Cosby, on the air, was making a point with illustrations, not two guys sitting around talking, but with all the film clips necessary; making the point about how our minds have been massaged through the years by fiction, by faction…We didn’t talk about that at that time, the documentaries…talking about the image of the Black in this country and how important it had been, that perhaps liberties had been taken in “Birth of a Nation”, in “Gone With The Wind”, in print…that our sense of ourselves and of all the people around us, had been created by liberties taken, inaccuracies. But who knew, who cared? You could go to a text and know that it wasn’t true. Isn’t there that danger?

WOLPER: I think that the text had been making the same errors, too.

HEFFNER: Morrison and Comminger (???????) text exactly…

WOLPER: Same errors, so it was a changing sociological time for the whole…for all the media at one time, not just television and movies. I think it was historians, history books and everything else had been doing it so that I think that’s a bad example…a docu-drama…I think the docu-drama, well, it’s been going on…I don’t know…You could even say Shakespeare was a docu-dramatist in a way. You could even say that when they told the story of the Peloponnesian Wars, people who reported history at that time…nowhere do we have recorded voices of people, yet historians and historical dramatists for years have been saying words and putting the incidents in their own way of doing it, you know, creating characters to go with the actual characters to be able to tell the historical story. And I don’t see why there’s so much pressure on the television people if it isn’t on the books, stage plays, or even the films of the past.

HEFFNER: But you must know. The word is “power”. You have power. And that’s why I said to begin with, I’m green with envy, because who teaches history today? You do. More than any…

WOLPER: And I’m proud to do that.

HEFFNER: Okay, and I’m delighted with what you’ve done. But here in this…let me just read this quote from Emmy magazine in ’83: “What happens when peoples’ concept of themselves and their history comes from a source not quite true, yet not quite false, where real names and lives are created anew and fact and fiction merge into a single whole, that creates a new reality, a new history for millions? In a single night, television, because of its power, can virtually change the mood, the thoughts, and the perception of the past and present of millions of people”.

WOLPER: Well, that’s making the assumption that we’re not telling the truth somewhere. That’s very important to say, that we are telling the truth.

HEFFNER: Not quite the truth…

WOLPER: We’re telling the truth. We don’t change…maybe I’ve got to get this clear so the audience understands it…we don’t change the historical truth. We don’t change the historical truth. What we may do dramatically is add characters, or add other…let me give you an example of how…of what happened. Alex Haley writes a book called “Roots”, okay? Now, in the book there’s a whole passage when Kunta Kinte’s in the hold and he’s thinking, while he’s in the slave ship coming from Africa to America. And it gives you all his thoughts about life and about what he’s thinking and what’s going on in the strangeness around him. Now, that’s ten pages. Well, I can’t have a character sit there and think for ten pages. So I created another character; another character who sits next there to Kunta Kinte, who sat next to him, and he told him things, and they interacted with each other. I created a character; didn’t change the book any, didn’t change Alex Haley’s story any. But I created a character so there would be some way for Kunta Kinte to speak to somebody and get a reaction. I didn’t change the way. Dramatically, I can’t have a man sit for half an hour in a drama and just spit out words of what he’s thinking. So I had to create another character to make that incident play. I did not change history, I did not change Alex Haley’s book, did not…but I added a character to dramatically…we do that a lot. I don’t feel we’re changing history. I don’t feel…I feel we’re using our medium, the tools available in our medium, to use them to be able to tell a story. And sometimes our tools require adding another character into the moment, combining two characters that have done something…It’s not relevant that it was two people. It’s relevant…the truth is this thing…this happened. If it required three people, and two of them are really unknown and not important and one is, I can combine the two, and the one that is important to the cause. Instead of having three or four characters, only have two. I haven’t changed history. I haven’t changed the moment. I’ve used the form that I have…a drama…at my disposal to be able to tell a story without changing it.

Now, there’s a fine line of who does it and how you do it, just like there are some books that are written that you would say to me today that are awful. They did a terrible job in changing history. And there will be some docu-drama filmmakers who will do some terrible things too. But we don’t want to throw away the form. It’s a great way to reach people. You yourself said I reach millions of people with this form. And it’s a great way to tell a story. It gets their attention. And I say to you that if they, if they want to use this for something other than just an experience, an hour’s experience, or three hours’ experience, if they want to use it other than that, they will go to another source and use it. Hopefully I will encourage them by this film, to do it. You know, they will not take that source and do anything with it. They may never look at another book about the subject matter, and they, in their minds, say “That’s Christopher Columbus, that’s the way the story was”. But who does it hurt if it doesn’t go any further than in his own mind? If he wants to do something with that thing, he will go to a book and expand his knowledge on it.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but “Who does it hurt? The only place he has it is in his own mind”…But he votes on the basis of what’s in his mind; and a picture of Christopher Columbus may not be so devastating if there’s some combination of truths, let’s say, or if it’s not quite true or not quite false…

WOLPER: But I never say “not quite true or false”, you see. I keep fighting it.

HEFFNER: I know you do.

WOLPER: I keep fighting you in that thing…and I say that we do not…not tell…let’s say Christopher Columbus, and let’s say that in the journals about Christopher Columbus there was a line about Christopher Columbus and a woman, okay? And now, the people who did the Christopher Columbus show, and I’m not familiar with the facts, I’m just making up an incident, and they decided to take that one line out of a diary, that I met this woman and I had a bad affair with her. They probably took that one line and wrote a whole story about Christopher Columbus and this woman, okay? Okay. Are they changing history? Are they affecting the efforts? Or are they just trying to flush out the…are they flushing out…or they might have read about Christopher Columbus, that he lived with a woman, that he lived with a number of women, and they take all the information they have and they create it into a single character. As long as she doesn’t affect the history. “Now, that’s the woman you said should go to America, Christopher Columbus”, then you’ve changed history. If it’s just a romance, a sidebar of the story having no effect on the story, the historical event, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

HEFFNER: See, I’m just a little bit more concerned with the hip bone, which is connected to the thigh bone, and connected further on, and so…I don’t care about Christopher Columbus’ liaisons, but I suspect there are areas where there is concern.

Going back for a moment, when John O’Connor said about the terrific works you did; He said, and you were pleased in a sense with what he said, he said: “The results are astonishingly seamless holes. Challenging the viewer, however, is the spot where the actual ends and the fake begins”, he said. And you’re saying there is no fake.

WOLPER: No. What he was talking about…I did a docu-drama called “Appointment with Destiny”. My point is this…I think there is another point, which I’ll bring…”Appointment with Destiny” is I combined real footage and footage that I shot to look like newsreel footage in the same thing, to tell a story, okay? And what he was saying was that I made the footage that I created so well, so good, that the audience couldn’t tell the difference. I said, well gee, yeah, I accomplished my task. At the beginning of the show, however, it did say at the network that this was a combination of real footage and footage that I shot. He was arguing that the footage looked so real.

HEFFNER: You know I was most impressed with your response sometime later, in a letter to the editor: “How else can we approach the past? Shall we leave it defeated and ignorant because we can not fully reconstruct it any more than we relive it?” I was very much impressed with your saying that we can get a sense of what it was like. That’s maybe the best we can do.

WOLPER: That’s what I’m still saying today…

HEFFNER: Now we just…

WOLPER: …ten, twenty years ago, and I’m still saying the same thing, I guess.

HEFFNER: Do you think that anything has happened in terms of the power of the medium?

WOLPER: The medium has been powerful for a long time. It just reaches more people now. And I think a docu-drama is good. I think maybe the title is lousy. Maybe we should…I know we’ve been talking about that for years…the title “docu-drama”…I think historical drama is better, because we’ve used that before in books. I noticed in bookstores they say it’s a historical drama. They don’t call it “docu-drama”. And that’s basically what we’re doing.

HEFFNER: That’s why, I guess, I ask about truth in advertising some way or another to alert the public. You’re looking for a better title.

WOLPER: I’m looking for a better name for it. I don’t know where docu-drama came…I guess because there were documentaries and there were dramas, and some writer somewhere came up with the name “docu-drama”. I think historical drama would be a little better in some cases.

HEFFNER: In just a few seconds remaining, are you satisfied generally…stay away from David Wolper Productions, because I know the answer to that, and it’s the correct one…Are you satisfied with the balance in the docu-dramas, to use the term again, between “docu” and “drama”?

WOLPER: I am satisfied, personally. And I think the audience perceives what we’re doing, understands what we’re doing and that we’re not really hurting. We can always improve. I never said we can’t improve. But I think the docu-drama’s good, and I think we should continue, and we should take chances, take risks, because a lot of people are learning about a lot of things that they would not learn normally through the regular educational process. If we’re not giving them a hundred percent, if we’re giving them eighty percent, that’s better than zero.

HEFFNER: Okay, I’ll go along with that. David Wolper, thank you so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions about the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me at THE OPEN MIND in care of this station.

Continuing production of this series has been made possible by grants from The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The New York Times Company Foundation; and G.D. Searle and Company.