Frame By Frame: Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Laurens Grant Talks 'Jesse Owens', 'Freedom Riders,' Forging Her Own Path
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Frame By Frame: Emmy-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Laurens Grant Talks 'Jesse Owens', 'Freedom Riders,' Forging Her Own Path

Laurens Grant

Our next conversation in the ongoing Frame

By Frame series is with acclaimed filmmaker Laurens Grant, whose decades-long career includes directing the

2012 Emmy-winning documentary on Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, and producing

the Emmy and Peabody award-winning "Freedom Riders" in 2010.

 

Here, Laurens discusses how she found

her way into making documentary films, her cinematic influences, and the impact

of her work.

On her beginnings in

documentary:

I never planned on being a

documentary filmmaker. I received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and my lifelong

dream was to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to be the next Langston

Hughes or Ernest Hemingway because I loved reading their stories about covering

the Spanish Civil War. Like these men, I wanted to make a difference in the

world. But there were so few African-Americans, much less women of color with

foreign posts at major newspapers. So as a rookie reporter interviewing for

jobs, I was told it would be take me decades to get a foreign post, if at all.

But I was too impatient to wait. So I

worked at newspapers around Chicago, including The Chicago Tribune, and then got a job as a copy editor at an

English-language newspaper in Mexico City. I then learned Spanish at UNAM, what

they call the oldest university in the Americas, and was soon able to report in

Spanish. My experiences lead to other writing opportunities for American

publications, including Newsweek, the

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, San

Francisco papers, etc. Then I got a job with Reuters in Panama.

I covered so many topics and met so

many world leaders with the fascinating backdrop of Latin America that I wanted

to somehow bring my storytelling to screen. The TV documentary world was

exploding, so that’s where I made my transition to documentaries. I was hooked!

In hindsight, I ended up forging my own path. This ended up being a reflection

of my life – don’t wait for people to tell you "yes"; you’ll spend

your entire life waiting. It’s hard to get breaks in the business, so I guess I

didn’t wait for one. I found a way to get one and broke through the door.

What attracts her to a project:

Somehow I cling to this notion that I’d

like to make a difference in the world, so I’m drawn to projects that I hope

may do that. I also enjoy the process of discovery – what’s new that I can

learn? And I hope this excitement in discovery will come across in the

documentary.

I was wrapping up work on Hour 3 of

the four-hour series "Latin Music USA: The Chicano Wave" for WGBH

when the director Stanley Nelson called and asked if I wanted to produce his

next documentary called "Freedom Riders". It was the call of a

lifetime. I said yes instantly! I had no idea about the film’s impact, nor that

it would win 3 Primetime Emmys and a Peabody. We premiered at Sundance, Oprah

dedicated an entire show to the freedom riders and clips were licensed in "Lee

Daniels’ The Butler". Just a remarkable journey.

For "Jesse Owens," PBS’

American Experience series realized they hadn’t done a full documentary

treatment on this great American athlete, and the Olympics were approaching so

the timing was perfect. I really wanted to direct the film as I thought sports

would be an exciting gateway to address larger cultural and geopolitical themes

in a documentary. So I lobbied for the opportunity.

“Don’t wait for people to tell you ‘yes’. You’ll spend your entire life waiting.”

On film influences:

Before it was officially called "binge

watching" I binged on work by filmmakers recognized as the masters of the

documentary form – the Maysles brothers,

Pennebaker, Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, the "Eyes on the Prize"

series, Barbara Kopple, Ken Burns, Stanley Nelson, etc. The format, style

and tools have changed so much since then, but the desire to tell a good story

has not.

On the skill sets of a producer

and director:

I started on the producing track,

which was probably a natural transition from journalism. As a reporter, you need

to investigate, cultivate sources, learn how to read government documents,

navigate police or military and develop a moral compass that allows you to get

at a truth without unnecessary exploitation. It can be a fine line. In

journalism school, we discussed famous law cases along with law and ethics. I

think these skills translate well to producing. Then you add to that the nuts

and bolts of producing  – production,

offline, online post-production, and managing the production team, and you’ve

got your producing tool kit.

As for directing, you turn over a lot

of those responsibilities to the producer. I think as a producer-director, it’s

sometimes hard to let go of some of those producing tools because you know what

needs to be done and you know how you would like to have things accomplished.

But as the director, you have to realize that your main

responsibility is vision – that huge, amorphous yet

specific task – how to translate your vision to the screen and how to

communicate with your team to get your vision on screen. Some people got their

break on the directing track, so they don’t really have that conflict. But now

in this era, we’ve got to multitask so much and wear so many hats, that I think

it helps to have both producing and directing skill sets. So if you’re

directing a film and a scene calls for a 1900 steam engine train, for example,

and you have a limited budget, you can put on your producer hat and figure out

a way to creatively make the scene work by licensing footage or doing something

more evocative and cost-effective instead.

On the social impact of her

films:

For "Freedom Riders", PBS

spearheaded an effort to have college students go on a trip with actual freedom

riders from 1961 and stop in the same towns, where some of them experienced

incredible amounts of violence. The students used social media to describe

their experiences of riding in those towns with the activists today, some 50

years later. And young law students are intrigued by the case law and legal

ramifications.

"Jesse Owens" was screened

before a number of high school and college students, and their feedback was

really rewarding. They were really impacted by Owens’ experiences on the track

and in life and the skill sets he developed to survive and become a sports icon.

I think a lot of people presume

younger audiences won’t enjoy or benefit from documentaries, much less

historical documentaries, because they will be turned off by the archival

footage in "black in white". I hear that all the time! It’s really a

misconception. Younger audiences in particular are hungry for films that engage

them, inspire them and allow them to take life lessons from the past to help

them cope with school and life today.

***

Part 2 of our conversation with Laurens Grant is forthcoming, where

she breaks down the nuts and bolts of producing documentaries, including the

specifics of research and fundraising.

 

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