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History Lesson: A Quarter-Century of 'American Experience'

By Katie Murphy

Mark Samels' experience working in "just about every capacity of the business," including as a producer, director, cameraman, editor and sound recordist, has helped shape his decade-long tenure as executive producer of the PBS history series American Experience. Under Samels, who first joined the series as a senior producer in 1997 before being named executive producer in 2003, American Experience has been honored with Oscar nominations, Audience and Grand Jury Awards at the Sundance Film Festival, multiple Primetime Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia Awards and several IDA Documentary Awards. As American Experience celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Samels spoke with Documentary about his time at the helm of the most-watched history series on television.





Documentary: What makes each film in the series an American Experience film?

Mark Samels: There are some things our films share that make up an American Experience identity, but I think that there's tremendous variety. Just like in a family, we're not trying to have everyone be right-handed or left-handed or trying to have everyone in sports. We're trying to have each filmmaker and genre and subject find its own expression. We have films that feature dramatic re-creations, we have films that are non-narrated, witness-driven films, and we have films that are more of the classic template of archival footage and photographs and talking heads and narration. Whatever the subject requires to tell the story well, we do. What unites them is a strong sense that history, to be brought to life, has to be brought to life in the form of a story. The story has to be compelling, it has to involve character, it has to have some arc through it, it has to have conflict, and it can't be too laden with information, but at the end of the day, it's got to give you some understanding or increased awareness about what happened and how it may or may not have shaped the present moment.


D: How do you decide which stories to tell? Do current events play a role in that decision?

MS: There are multiple factors at play with the decision to commission a film and put it into production. One is looking at the range of things we're currently doing and making sure we're doing the best that we can do with our resources of representing a variety of perspectives, a variety of time periods, a variety of geographic locations for stories, and a variety of styles. Then when we get to the analysis of an individual idea, it's got to have story, it's got to have some strategy for visualization, and it's got to be matched with the right filmmaker. Each one of these steps is an obstacle or a hurdle for a film to get over, and if it makes it past that and into production, then we've got to try to make it as good as possible.

Once you're adding in an element of relevance, there's another dimension that opens up. I personally believe that the past is inherently relevant to the present, but you also look for those opportunities, like three years ago when I read a book by Drew Gilpin Faust called The Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War, about how the whole concept of death was changed in America by this unimaginable catastrophe called the Civil War. I recognized that by the time [the American Experience film] Death and the Civil War would be ready for air, we would be leaving or ending at least one and maybe two wars, and I thought, "It'll be on people's minds, at the end of the day, looking back: What is war? What does war produce? How do we assess a war in the 21st century?" Looking back at how it was assessed in the middle of the 19th century, I thought, Would it be thought provoking? And in that case it turned out to be. But we certainly don't try to chase headlines; our production process just won't allow for that, and I think it's a bad idea.


From Ric Burns' Death and the Civil War, which aired on American Experience in 2012. Courtesy of Library of Congress


D: How does your day-to-day as an executive producer differ from your day-to-day as an independent filmmaker?

MS: When you're making a film, any documentary filmmaker knows it becomes all-consuming, and your whole world starts to become shuttered around the film and your struggle to get it from idea and dream to reality. My position now is looking down on a number of people and, in a way, setting them off on that journey and being there all along the way as hopefully someone who's helpful. But I'm looking out for the whole enterprise as well: I've got fundraising responsibilities, I've got to make sure our schedule works for PBS, and to make sure our programs are maximized by all the things you need to do now to maximize them, from websites and apps to engagement campaigns with communities around the country to film festivals. But still, the thing I enjoy the most is going in to a cut of a film and spending hours and sometimes days looking at a film trying to emerge. I usually leave with some feeling of nostalgia for when that was all I was doing, but I'm really happy in my position too.


D: How has American Experience changed in the ten years that you've been executive producer?

MS: I would say that what's changed has been just by degree. When I was senior producer, we were starting to evolve a subgenre of programs that I would call, in some ways, the more recognizably filmic documentaries that don't have narration, that are witness-driven, and that can, because of that, fall within the last 50 years of subject matter. We've been able to expand that and find some great subjects to work on that. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we made a decision when we launched a big Native American series five or six years ago that we simply couldn't do it visually unless we got more aggressive about how we were going to visualize these scenes for which there were no archival images. So we leapt into this drama documentary hybrid, which we're now working in pretty extensively, and that's allowed us to do some subjects that have very little documentation or that lie in what I call "the shadows of history." I feel that even though the form is extremely challenging, the opportunity to tell those stories is really worth it.


From Chris Eyre's After the Mayflower, part of the 2009 American Experience series We Shall Remain. Photo: (c) Webb Chappelle


D: How are you celebrating the 25th anniversary of American Experience?

MS: We're incredibly grateful that we're still around at 25, but it's like people of a certain age on their birthday: At some point, you just don't feel like blowing out the candles! You want to feel like you're leaning in to the next five years, rather than leaning back into the last 25. We're actually not reflecting on it a great deal; we're noting it, but there's been so many people involved in making that possible that it's really a shared acknowledgement with PBS, with WGBH, with all the stations around the country that we've worked with and grown close to, and all the documentary filmmakers that we've worked with. It's a real tribute to all of them, but I'm more interested in the next five years, next ten years, and hopefully the next 25 years.


Mark Samels. Courtesy of PBS


Katie Bieze recently graduated from the Film and Video program at American University and works as a graduate fellow at American University's Center for Social Media. She graduated from Duke University in 2009 with a BA in literature and certificates in documentary studies and film/video/digital.