Susan Lacy, An “American Master”
VTR Date: June 23, 2005
Richard Heffner speaks with American Masters executive producer Susan Lacy.
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GUEST: Susan Lacy
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And over the near half century since I began this program, I’ve certainly almost always admired the men and women I’ve invited here each week to share with you our modest half hours of what I trust you’ve always considered civilized and important conversation.
But seldom have I as much envied a guest as I do right now … which is why I’ve titled our program today, “Susan Lacy, an American Master”. For season after season this creator and Executive Producer of public television’s extraordinary “American Masters” series of prime time documentaries has enjoyed an association with so many artistic giants who have made a significant impact on American culture. And that IS to be envied!
Just think of the names of just some of the American Masters Susan Lacy has helped bring us on public television over so many years now … Paul Simon, Judy Garland, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Luce, Alice Waters, Richard Rodgers, Gene Kelly, Clint Eastwood, Norman Mailer, Norman Rockwell, Buckminster Fuller, Richard Avedon, Benny Goodman … and on and on and on.
Well, my guest has also been associated with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, Time-Warner, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. She has BA and MA degrees in American Studies, was both a Graduate Teaching Fellow and a Smithsonian Fellow, and completed a residency at the American Academy in Rome. Which, of course, leads me to ask Susan Lacy what’s next on her agenda. Fair question?
LACY: Well, it’s a fair question. First of all, let me say I’m delighted to be here today. We’ve tried to make this happen for a long time …
HEFFNER: True. True.
LACY: … and I’m very glad to finally be here. What’s next? I think seeing American Masters through to the 20th year on the air, which will be next year … is, is a pretty big agenda item. And are you asking me that in terms of who’s next on the big list …
HEFFNER: Well, if that’s the right question … who’s next?
LACY: Well, we’re in production right now on probably one of the biggest programs we’ve ever done for this current season, will be on the air in September. Would you like me to talk about the Bob Dylan show?
LACY: Well, we’re doing this big film on Bob Dylan, which will be on the air September 26th and 27th; it’s a three and a half hour film directed by Martin Scorsese and it is the culmination of a lifelong dream for me. I started trying to make this happen about ten years ago.
Now a lot of people think that just because you want to make a film about somebody, that you could just go out and do it. Well, that’s not true. You can, I suppose, if you don’t want to show any of their work. Or hear or any of their work.
HEFFNER: You mean there’s trouble getting excerpts?
LACY: Oh, it’s a huge part of, of the whole enterprise is being able to gain the access to the work, whatever that is … whether that’s music or film clips or the art, the literary excerpts, whatever it is. That would enable us to make the kind of program that we want to make, which is a serious, intelligent and complex look at the work and the person behind the work.
If you can’t show the work, or hear the work, you can’t do it. And Bob Dylan controls all his music. He has written every song he’s ever sung and he controls it and you can’t make a film about him without, without his wanting that to happen. And that took a long time and involved a huge number of people to make it happen. I mean it’s really an international co-production in the best sense of the word. We are working with Spitfire Pictures, which is a Hollywood company … Nigel Sinclair, he used to run Intermedia, responsible for a lot of really wonderful pictures. The BBC. Ah, NHK in Japan. Paramount is putting out the DVD; SONY which is putting out the CD. Simon and Schuster which is doing a book. I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. But it’s, it’s major.
HEFFNER: You are an entrepreneur, aren’t you?
LACY: (Laughter) Well, I haven’t put it all together myself. But a number of us … oh, Apple is this corporate sponsor and Starbucks is making Dylan … September is Dylan month in every Starbucks in America. So, hopefully a lot of eyeballs will be on the screen.
But you know, yes, entrepreneur-ship is a part of it. I never thought that when I started. I thought it was all about art. But you need the entrepreneur-ship to make the art possible.
HEFFNER: Susan, could it have happened on anything other than public television?
LACY: This series?
HEFFNER: No. Yes, this series … not just this program.
LACY: This series now. Absolutely not. Could Bob Dylan have happened someplace else? More than likely, I mean it’s a pretty hot property. I was delighted that after all those years of effort and believe me, I wasn’t the only one calling … but after all those years we were the first port of call. I mean this is where the call came when it was clear that this program could happen.
HEFFNER: It had to be because he had seen … they had seen so many other programs …
LACY: I think so.
HEFFNER: … that you did.
LACY: I mean I think that we have … we are held in high regard by artists because they, and the people that we make films about … because they look at these films and they see that we are really about exploring the work. I mean … the life … for sure they are biographies, but they are biographies that … first of all our selection process is so stringent … you don’t, you don’t get to be an American Master because you’re the flavor of the hour.
It is about a body of work that has had a substantial impact on our culture. So, since that’s the criteria, that’s the thing that we’re primarily looking at. The center of the program is the work. And the life to the degree that it illuminates that … of course, because they are biographies … but we’re very respectful.
And I think we’re intelligent in the way we look at it. They are complex films. They are … they’re not telling you how to feel and what to think, and it’s not informational, they are textured, structured, beautifully crafted films. And we’re respectful of, of the artist. So I think that …
HEFFNER: What do you mean “respectful of the artist”?
LACY: So that the … we are … we don’t put the work out there in 30 second snippets, you know, which I think is one of the problems with a lot of these kinds … which of course, adds greatly to the cost. But if I feel we can’t do justice to that, I’d rather not make the program. When we did a program on Ella Fitzgerald a few years ago …
HEFFNER: I know.
LACY: It was a phenomenally wonderful program that has 32 songs, not entirely complete performances, because that would have been about an 8 hour show. But as complete as you could get so that 100 years from now, if somebody says, who was Ella Fitzgerald and why was she important, they can look at this program and not only will they know something about her life and who she was, they will experience her work, they will experience her as an artist. They will experience that voice. And it will be clear why we still remember Ella Fitzgerald. That’s what I mean, we’re respectful of the work in that sense that we want to show it and we want people to experience it. And, and want to know more about it.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting … you say a hundred years from now … last night I was re-watching Leonard Bernstein’s American Masters and I was just so taken by its magnificence, its beauty, its thoroughness, and I thought to myself, because I trained as an American historian, “that is for the ages”. And I have the feeling that each and every one of your programs that you’ve thought of them as for the ages. And maybe that has to do with the fact that you, yourself, have a background in American studies …
HEFFNER: … American history.
LACY: Well, I think that’s very astute, obviously. I mean I always say, “American Masters came right out of graduate school.” I was an American studies major with an emphasis on American art and architecture, but I had to pass exams in literature and American history and American intellectual thought. And I was always … I mean I loved the interdisciplinary nature of American Masters for that very reason. And was always interested in the cross-currents that happen in American cultural history. And when I got to public television I couldn’t believe that there had never been a series (laughter) that looked at the lives of our … of American artists.
There really had not been. There’d been an occasional special here and there. And when I first proposed this whole thing … was actually met with such skepticism that it’s really hard … it’s hard to go back that far … was about 23 years ago now … that I was actually told things like, “if this was such a good idea, it already would have happened.”
LACY: (Laughter) Yes.
HEFFNER: Creative …
LACY: And, “Who wants to watch shows about artists in prime time?” And I always knew that the stories of, of true creative genius … is, is always a great story. Because it’s usually about having to overcome something. Whether it’s the, you know, the times, being ahead of the times, trying to create something new. Artists often have great personal demons that they have to overcome. They are very human stories, and they are inspiring. And they usually end … ultimately are in some way transcendent because there is some kind of human triumph in it. And this extraordinary work.
HEFFNER: what about Producers and Executive Producers? Do they usually have some sort of devil beyond …
LACY: (Laughter) What’s my devil?
LACY: (Laughter) Oh, that’s a complex question. Let me come back to that one; think about that.
You asked about … so anyway … what I wanted to do was to make this library. We have the technology; we should be doing this.
HEFFNER: You think of it as a library, an archive?
LACY: I think of it … I think absolutely. From the very beginning I’ve thought of it as a library and an archive. And television is kind of the icing on the cake, in a way. I’ve thought of it, I’ve approached it … intellectually I’ve approached it as a library.
Unfortunately it hasn’t … I don’t think it’s perceived that way. I think that our …the irregularity of our scheduling up until now, when we finally have this weekly slot … has meant that it’s … it’s … you always have to look at a list, and you go “Oh my god”, you know 150 programs by the end of this season. It’s hard to remember that because of the way in which we’ve sort of been scheduled over these 19 years, going into our 20th. And I’m very much hoping that we will be able to figure out some way to use this library in creating some kind of teacher guides and curriculum … I mean there, there’s wonderful ways to use this stuff in the schools, particularly in the high schools.
And I think it’s one of the most important things we can do. Because …
HEFFNER: What stands in your way … mostly?
HEFFNER: Money. Money. Money. Money. Money.
LACY: It’s always about money.
HEFFNER: Because of rights?
LACY: Well, yes. Clearing these things in perpetuity. I mean I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about all that, but it’s a nightmare. And the … every … people don’t realize that every single you see in a documentary from every still to everything you hear, every, you know, frame of archive footage, or feature film footage … everything … it all has to be paid for.
And it’s very, very difficult to get these things cleared in perpetuity. I’m trying as much as I can to do that. Where we have stumbling blocks is with some of … with music … particularly if you’re going into the DVD markets. It’s a nightmare. And feature film clips are also, studios are very reluctant to give “in perpetuity” licenses. So … and then I think the technology is such that now it’s very … I can remember the days of film strips, when you were going to have a film strip … it’s not happening anymore … it’s all in the computer, it’s all excerpted and, of course, that’s a whole other layer of cost to do that; to take these 90 minute, two hour programs and, and figure out a way to, to thematically group some of them and create a curriculum around it. It could be beautifully done, but it would require going back in, doing some re-editing, you know, so forth. It’s all about money.
HEFFNER: To what extent has technology made American Masters possible?
LACY: Well, the DVD market I think has really opened up … first of all, documentaries are getting to be more seriously taken in the marketplace. So there is more of a DVD marketplace for them.
But American Masters is an odd series because … odd … not “odd”, but we’re not only doing pop stars, we’re also just locking picture today on a film on Ernest Hemingway.
HEFFNER: Who you don’t consider a pop star?
LACY: No. No. I wish … I mean I wish the public did, but they don’t. So, it’s a very interesting dichotomy in that I’m trying to make sure that this series has integrity as a library of American cultural history, at the same time needing to feed an appetite of, of … sort of household name recognition to some degree to keep the series going. So, it’s, it’s a real balancing act there.
HEFFNER: How do you begin? Where do you begin? Is it that list that you made up when you were a graduate student?
LACY: (Laughter) Yes. Absolutely. And I go back and look at that list … I’m constantly changing it. I have all these lists. I have lists of theater and dance and, you know, composers, and pop music and actors and directors and photographers and I look at them periodically to see who we’ve done and who is still left to be done that important to do.
I think of them in terms of like chapter headings. You know if you were doing the book of the 20 most important American photographers of the century, who would the chapter headings be?
And, and they’re not always household names. You know, the idea of “mastery” is about legacy. It’s about influence; it’s about sometimes being first; changing the whole stripe of a discipline, that everything that followed after that was affected by it. Sometimes those people, or those movements are not that well known.
I remember when we did the group theater many, many, many years ago … I was asked you know, why the group theater, nobody outside of New York and Los Angeles ever heard of them … and I said, because out of the group theater came four of the greatest acting teachers America has ever known. And those acting teachers, if you look at the roster of people that they taught, they changed acting and they changed movies.
It all started with the Group Theater. And to me that’s what it is about, but I’m afraid it’s harder and harder to be quite that faithful to the notion of it.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, I began the program by talking about how envious … or let’s put it another way, a softer way … how much I envy you, it’s a little bit different. Do you appreciate fully enough …
LACY: Oh …
HEFFNER: … how fortunate you’ve been?
LACY: I do. I feel so lucky every single day. I do … I mean there are days I feel like I really do have one of the best jobs possible.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “one of the best jobs”.
HEFFNER: The best job.
LACY: I love making these programs. I love artists, I love meeting them, I love … I love figuring out how to take a story that may seem that it’s been told before, find a new way to tell it. And for me, every single show is a learning process. You know, I, I don’t … I direct some of them. I certainly don’t direct all of them. But I get involved in all of them. I did direct the Leonard Bernstein show which was very close to my heart. So how could I … I mean, who could be luckier than that?
HEFFNER: You say the Bernstein was very close to your heart. I haven’t seen all the Masters .. but I thought when I saw it again that this has to be the most glorious experience that you could ever have had working on that …
LACY: It was.
HEFFNER: … on that film.
LACY: It was. I was very lucky to be able to do. And very lucky that the family so trusted me. Because they are a big part of why I think that film worked. Their honesty, their ability, these three wonderful kids to, to talk about their father the way they were able to. And everybody to talk about him the way they were able to. I mean he was an extraordinary man, but he wasn’t a perfect man. He was a complex man, conflicted man. And what an amazing story.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter … I mean I would always say, anybody could say anything they wanted about Leonard Bernstein, he so great … he’s so transcendent … none of it matters. But I was given this amazing privilege of really being, being able to, to go deep into his life. And I was given all the letters and the, the correspondence and his diaries and extraordinarily intimate things. Some of which … I mean many of which I ended up not using. But they informed my …
LACY: … knowledge about him.
HEFFNER: Does that happen often? Often I’m sure not, but does it happen at least occasionally that people will make available to you “that” level of material?
LACY: Sometimes. Not always. But, I mean that degree of it … part of it, I think, is that … with Leonard Bernstein, there’s a huge room at the Library of Congress … that’s probably bigger than this studio, filled with Leonard Bernstein stuff. You know, maybe not everybody knows everything that’s there … I mean like including little, you know, ziploc bags of the pencils that he used to … for his scores. And all the scores. And his white suit. The original suit he wore when he first came to fame at the age of 24, when he substituted for Bruno Walter; I mean it was quite amazing.
But we do work very hard at gaining the trust of the subjects that we are profiling so that they feel comfortable letting us in … and providing us with those wonderful things that sometimes make the difference between something being sort of standard and really … and really shining.
HEFFNER: Susan, what’s your objective in all of this?
LACY: Well, I mean I come out of an academic background so some of this really is … started as pure … as pure historian of wanting to document this stuff and doing it right. Not cookie cutter, not drive-by. Really make these extraordinary films. But I think also as I, I started it when I had … when I first had the idea my children were really young … they’re now 27 and 28 … well, just turning 27 and 28 and the series is going to be on the air next year … 20 years, so it’s been a huge …
LACY: … part of their life. But, sometimes in the early days when it was really difficult … I think one of the things that kept me going was watching … as they got older, I would ask them to look at things.
And there’s one story that … always I remember because it had such an impact on me and I think on them … was, we made a film about Martha Graham. And my, my daughters had been at the Geoffrey Ballet School doing very nicely. And were always selected and were in the City Center Nutcracker production every year and all that. And I was dying to make this film on Martha Graham … it was one of those “had to make” this film on Martha Graham. And so I took them out of the Geoffrey Ballet School and enrolled them in Martha Graham … to which …for which I’ve never been forgiven. But we did this wonderful film on Martha Graham and I wanted them to come to the screening. And it was like … “aw, Mom … homework and we don’t want to do that.”
And I said “Just come for a little while, just come for a while and if you feel you need to leave when the lights go down, you know, you can slip out.”
And we showed the film and at the end of the film I looked over and my daughter Jessica was sitting there with just tears running down her face, because she was so moved. She had really witnessed a tremendously powerful woman’s story, an artist’s story, someone who overcame real difficulties. And created this whole new art form. And she was riveted, she could not move. And I thought “that” is what it’s about.
HEFFNER: That was your reward.
LACY: Yes. That’s what it’s about. It’s, it’s getting … and that’s why this educational part is so important to me. Because kids have … I mean … what … in what role models … what inspiration.
There are stories about people who were really committed. And it’s about excellence and it’s about believing in yourself and overcoming … one of the things I have learned in every program I’ve made is that artists are some of the most insecure people in the world. And that they have to really, really overcome tremendous insecurities every time out of the box. And they do it. Because they have this commitment and this belief in themselves, and this belief in what they’re doing. What better message could we get out to young people than that?
HEFFNER: What pain?
LACY: Tremendous pain. I mean … everybody who’s ever had to make something, I think really understands that. We have this new film on Frank Gehry that’s not out yet, that Sidney Pollock directed … wonderful. And the beginning of the film is Sidney asked Frank … you just hear … you see these extraordinary drawings … Frank Geary drawings are almost like scribbles. And you hear Sidney say, “Is it hard to begin?”
LACY: And Frank says, “You know it is”. I mean every time … out of every single time, it’s like denial, you know … postponement, make all these ridiculous appointments, do everything because you’re so sure you can’t pull it off again; the next time you can’t pull it off. And then … you watch this drawing become this amazing building, you know, these scribbles. And he said, “And then I get started and somehow it works out.”
And I thought when I watched that … I just watched that again the other day, which is why it’s on my mind, because we’re just finishing that film. That this is the way everybody feels when they have to create something.
HEFFNER: Is it the way you feel when you create these films?
LACY: Oh. Absolutely. My husband laughs because there’s always a point at every single film I’m doing, where I say, “I don’t know” … I crawl into bed at 4 or 5 in the morning, coming from the edit room and I say, “It’s going to be awful, I know it’s going to be awful. I don’t know whether I should jump out the window now or just wait”. You know. And I feel this way every time. But I think all of us do. Artists have tremendous insecurities and, and overcome them somehow. Maybe they don’t always. Maybe they don’t.
I mean “Lenny” is a perfect example to me. I mean the whole theme of that film, for me, ultimately was … here was this amazing man, this extraordinary genius, who could be … he was everything … and he was good at everything he did … to his dying day … composer of both serious music and Broadway music and a great educator and a great television personality … one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. And he went to his grave thinking he hadn’t done it. Because the one thing he wanted was the recognition as a great serious composer. And that eluded him in his lifetime. How sad is that?
HEFFNER: The “pop” culture wouldn’t permit that.
LACY: Well, I think it was the, the academic … some serious academic musical community, at that time …
HEFFNER: I mean his involvement in …
LACY: Yeah. His involvement. I think the fact that he was a Broadway composer and, you know … but he can do that, but he can’t write serious music.
And I think he wanted … he as a result of that … that’s the thing that made me the saddest … was that he let that go, he let it affect him. Here he was this incredible composer and he let this criticism affect him and affect his own sense of self.
HEFFNER: Susan, our time is up. Sometime you’ve got to come back and talk with my audience about the creative impulse. And you also have to consider, at my request, at least that the art of politics becomes something that you pursue.
LACY: I’m going to take that under serious advisement. And …
HEFFNER: Susan Lacy … thank you so much for joining me today.
LACY: Thank you I enjoyed it very much.
HEFFNER: Good luck. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.