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The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
Rocky Collins

By Bob Frost
HistoryAccess.com, 2008


"Let’s face it, some of the stuff the History Channel used to run wasn't very good - it was sloppy filmmaking, sloppy research, sloppy editing, low budget - the Egyptian army crossing the desert and they show three pairs of sandals that they shot out at the beach."



Rocky Collins is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles, a writer, director, and producer of documentaries for History (formerly The History Channel), PBS, The Discovery Channel, and other venues. The film "Desperate Crossing" (poster shown above) is based on a Collins script; it first aired in 2007.

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Q. Mr. Collins, please tell how you became a filmmaker, and describe some projects you've worked on.

A. I grew up in Orono, Maine, and somehow, early in high school, I decided I wanted to be a writer and/or filmmaker. I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study those things. They've got a great film department - small but active. They have a specific approach to studying film, a key aspect of which is watching tons of films and analyzing them extensively from the auteur approach and the genre approach.

I graduated from Wesleyan in 1980 and started a little wanna-be video company in Baltimore with some friends. Then, within a few months, I got hired as a video assistant by John Waters, who was about to start shooting "Polyester." We shot auditions on video in his apartment. I operated the video assist recorder during the production. I was at his elbow the whole time, doing lots of different things associated with the production. John asked us to create the little TV news segments that are included in the film, which we did, having a lot of fun in the process. At some point I told John that I wanted to do editing, and he helped me in that direction in Baltimore. Later in New York I became assistant sound editor. The sound editor with whom I worked was Skip Lievsay, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for sound mixing for "No Country For Old Men"; he worked on "The New World" too, among other projects.

This whole experience with John was the best imaginable first job in the film industry. I got to watch the making of a film and participate in a lot of it - it was exciting and rewarding. After the shoot I ended up back in Maine; while I was there I hooked up with a documentary company as an editor and ended up working there for nine years, participating in a lot of PBS projects in various capacities. One of the first films I wrote and directed was "Sins of Our Mothers: The Story of Emeline." This aired on the "American Experience" on PBS in 1989.

In 1991 I started a film production company in New York called Elevator Pictures and I ran that for seven years. At Elevator I wrote, directed, and produced more documentaries for "American Experience." I also directed a feature film called "Pants on Fire" that came out in 1998. It did pretty well. It won awards. It played in 20 cities. But it was not a financial success. Surprisingly few films are, when you get right down to it. I've also done a lot of industrial films. Commericals. I executive produced a documentary feature called "How to Draw a Bunny" which won a special jury prize at Sundance. My company was involved with a few other features including a thriller by Richard Shepard and the documentary "The Cruise" by Bennett Miller.

In 2000 I moved to Los Angeles and optioned a few scripts to Hollywood, none of which were made. It was after moving to L.A. that I re-connected with Kirk and Lisa Wolfinger, who I knew from Maine. Their company, Lone Wolf Documentary Group, was a spin-off of the company that I had hooked up with earlier. I went to work for Lone Wolf as a writer, director, and producer.

Let's see - other highlights worth mentioning - I won an Emmy in 2002 for writing "Bioterror," a 90-minute film for "Nova" on PBS. I was heavily involved with History's "Conquest of America" series in 2005, writing, producing, and directing. I’ve been active with History's "Deep Sea Detectives" series. I created, wrote, directed, and produced a pilot called "No Jail Can Hold Me" for History. For the Discovery Channel I was involved in various capacities with "Forged in Fire" about the American Revolution. That got cancelled when John Ford took over Discovery from Jane Root in late 2007. In early 2008 I became vice president of development for Lone Wolf; I've sold some films to National Geographic and History which I'm now supervising.

So, I've done a lot of stuff.

Q. Isn't versatility of the type shown by your career common among successful documentary filmmakers - moving around from topic to topic, field to field, from science to history to reality?

A. Yes it is. A filmmaker needs to be versatile.

Q. You wrote "Desperate Crossing: The True Story of the Mayflower" for History. If it becomes an annual Thanksgiving program - as it really should - will you get a yearly residual check?

A. No. The answer would be "yes" if it were on PBS because of a Writer's Guild of America contract. But on History, no.

Q. "Desperate Crossing" is the best thing I've seen on TV about the Pilgrims - in fact it's one of the best televised depictions I've seen about the early colonizing of North America, the gritty feel of it. It's not a huge budget film but every dollar shows up on the screen with creativity behind it. You get a feel for what the wilderness must have felt like, and the ship, and the winter.

A. Thank you. It was a really interesting project. I wasn't on the set for filming but I went to Plymouth a couple of times for research. I also researched it by doing a lot of reading and a lot of talking to experts. For a project like that you're not just looking at the Pilgrims themselves, you're also looking at their clothes, their technology, their customs, how they talked. I got a lot of guidance from scholars who study Elizabethan language. I even lifted some dialogue from Shakespeare and from other writers of the time.

Q. You mentioned "Sins of Our Mothers" for PBS, which first aired in 1989. That film, then, opened doors for you at "American Experience"?

A. Yes. I had a chance to produce five films for them all told - "Insanity on Trial" in 1990 about the assassination of President Garfield in 1881, "Barnum’s Big Top" about P.T. Barnum for airing in 1992, "Telegrams From the Dead" in 1994 about 19th century spiritualism as an adjunct of the women's suffrage movement, and "Edison’s Miracle of Light" in 1995.

Q. To refer back to "Sins of Our Mothers" - I want to insert the PBS marketing blurb for it: "A Gothic tale of sin and redemption in 19th century New England. A small town in Maine reacts to the unconventional behavior of one of its young residents, a woman named Emeline Gurney. A fascinating examination of small town mores." Here's a short critique of the film and here's further information.

A. It's quite a story. It's about a legend in the small town of Fayette, Maine, about a woman who married her own son in the 1800s. We were in possession of some footage of Emeline telling her story when she was in her 90s, about four minutes of film. We used that as the basis for the piece. We analyzed the legend, proceeding as if we were doing a detective story, unraveling a mystery. The legend was sort of true and sort of not true, like most legends. We used documentary footage and dramatizations.

The novelist Judith Rossner based her book "Emmeline" on the story. An opera was based on it as well. The film aired as the last episode of the first year of "American Experience," the 1988-89 season. It was a success; it was well reviewed and well rated; it subsequently appeared in festivals and museums and so forth. I still get calls from college professors who use it in their classes, which is gratifying. And as I say, I ended up making more films for the series. Judy Crichton, the executive producer of "American Experience," told me later that "Sins of Our Mothers" was her favorite film in the whole series.

Q. I will insert some background here about Judy Crichton, an important figure in the story of history on TV in the U.S., who died in 2007 at the age of 77. Here’s a link to an interview with her. There was a period in the 1980s when you couldn't find much history on TV - this was after the great age of documentaries in the 1950s and '60s, when you had, for example, a lot of films about World War II, but before the massive impact of Ken Burns with "The Civil War" in 1990, although he did a couple of smaller-scale things in the '80s. In the interview, Crichton says, referring to the '80s, "Television people were scared of history. They stayed away from it. The networks had made a few excursions into the area, but there was no real confidence that Americans were interested in history or that history lent itself to television." Peter McGhee at WGBH in Boston then came along with this idea for a history series similar to what "Nova" was doing for science – engaging, watchable television that millions of people would look forward to. He asked Judy Crichton to help develop the idea, and the show launched, as you say, in 1988.

A. "American Experience" was awesome, especially in the beginning, when they weren't so clear in their minds about what they wanted the series to be, and there was room for experimenting - there was a lot of freedom for filmmakers to try new story ideas, new approaches to filmmaking – more freedom, really, than exists today in almost any history venue, whether PBS or History or whatever. They weren't so regimented in their first couple of years in terms of style or subject matter; they were willing to show social and cultural history. What happened was, they saw they got better ratings when they did a big famous topic: Lincoln. Nixon. Political history. I don't think they'd do a film now about a small town legend about a woman marrying her son. It's gotta be the Kennedys. George H.W. Bush. For the filmmaker today "American Experience" offers a little less freedom but it's still a great franchise.

Q. Did you have much contact with David McCullough, the host of "American Experience"? Did he have significant input at all?

A. He just did brief intros and outros for my films, he didn’t narrate or have input. I'd usually get a message from his office saying he liked the film. The one that he seemed to like the most was the one on spiritualism, "Telegrams From the Dead." He mentioned, in his intro, that his own family records from the 1800s included references to the spirit world.

Q. Please tell a bit about "Telegrams From the Dead."

A. I think we originally intended to focus on Victoria Woodhull. She was a spiritualist among other things. I decided to broaden the film out to encompass more of spiritualism. (Editor's Note: Woodhull lived from 1838 to 1927.)

Starting in the 1840s in America, and continuing for many years, a lot of people got involved with spiritualism - it was essentially a religion. One of its main beliefs was, we can communicate with the dead, with our ancestors. There are various other aspects to spiritualism but that's certainly a primary one. Spiritualism also took hold among many people in Great Britain during these years.

Seances became very popular. There was an attitude that women should be the leaders of these seances - that they make for better mediums. At the time women were excluded from a lot of professions, and here was a job where they were welcomed, so a certain number of women got into this. Victoria Woodhull would go into a trance and start channeling Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great. Amazingly enough, both of those guys would come out in favor of abolitionism or women’s suffrage. As the century progressed, seances became more of a money-making enterprise, and eventually, Houdini was out there making money debunking the money-making seances.

Some of this is difficult to put on film. For example, as I was doing the research and writing, I would come upon these descriptions of people seeing floating trumpets during seances, and voices coming out of the trumpets. Well. This poses some problems for a film. Was all of this staged by the medium? Were the people highly subject to powers of suggestion? Were they really seeing what they thought they saw? Were they lying? Were they fooled? I read a lot of books and articles about this topic that didn't address the core issue of, is this fraud, or is it not?

Historians don't much like to get into this aspect of the story. They’re interested in various cultural aspects of the story, not whether people were actually seeing trumpets or not. That's fine, but as a filmmaker you can't ignore this aspect of the story so easily, because you've got to show something! Are you, or are you not, going to put a floating trumpet in the script? If it's in the script, how are you going to film it? If you put it in the film, are you implying that people really saw it? If you imply people really saw it, are you implying that the spirit world produced it, or that the medium produced it by power of suggestion, or that it was all a fraud? Large questions for a program that's going to be watched by millions of people.

If you decide to put it in the film you have to go out and buy a spirit trumpet someplace. These trumpets have a very distinctive look to them – they look kind of like dunce caps. They were usually made out of metal. There are pictures of them in the Houdini Collection at the Library of Congress.


A spirit trumpet, right. The object
folds into itself and is stored
in the bag shown at left.


Q. Where do you go to buy a spirit trumpet?

A. When we made the film, and probably still, they could be purchased from businesses that cater to practicing spiritualist churchs. It's still a religion; it has churches all over the country. I went to a number of services.

Q. What we're talking about, in your film, is a dramatic re-creation, a dramatization. You, obviously, side with the camp that says these are an OK and appropriate way to present history.

A. I do. I find that the majority of filmmakers and historians are not against dramatic re-creations, although some people kind of look down their nose at them. The ones who are against them tend to be TV executives, many of whom come from a journalistic background. Newspaper critics are also often anti re-creation, which can lead to bad reviews. But this is changing.

If they're done well they're great. But they do require a lot of research and careful preparation and staging if they're to be done well. Many such re-creations are terrible - blurry impressionistic shots, trying to eat up screen time. Someone sitting at a desk with quill pen. Stuff like that.

I tend to really enjoy directing dramatic re-enactments. I can plan them and control them. They're fun. I've also directed a lot of interviews; that's kind of fun. The type of directing I don't particularly enjoy is going out for an indeterminate number of days following real people around in whatever they're doing, trying to get them to do things in front of the camera - I don't have the patience for it. I have immense respect for the people who shoot film on a crab boat or go diving 300 feet down for "Deep Sea Detective" but that’s not who I am. I'm more of a storyteller I guess; that's what it boils down to. Not everybody can take a hundred hours of footage and make a story out of it; I'm pretty good at that actually.

Q. How much time is required to make a good documentary film? For example, how much time was needed for "Telegrams From the Dead"?

A. I was on it for about a year. The researcher was on it most of that time. The editor was on it for half that time. There were two months near the beginning where we had a crew of maybe five or six people working full-time getting the shoots ready. And then the actual shoots took about eight days with about 30 people involved.

Q. How much did it cost?

A. $400,000, give or take 50K. That's what A&E paid us for the project. That gets the film done and makes ends meet for a year; you hopefully have enough time to line up a new project. One big trick to the film business is juggling the feast or famine nature of it. You get a couple of jobs at the same time and you go "Ah....great!" except now someone has to do them. So you work like crazy and tear your hair out.

I was working on several at once last year. The Internet helped a lot. I worked with a producer in London; I worked with Lisa Wolfinger in Maine; I had an editor in Maine, an editor in Portland, and an editor on the other side of L.A. in Silver Lake. They would put material for me to look at on Websites with limited access. You don't have to actually sit there with someone and watch them edit, the way you used to. It's not as essential to be in the same room although sometimes there's no replacement for that.

The way it works is, the job ends, you lay everybody off, and you've hopefully saved some money to pay for the dead period until the next production. You never know how long that will be. Truthfully, no one gets rich doing this kind of work. With the exception of Ken Burns.

Q. What is your opinion of Burns and his work?

A. A very, very smart guy. A talented filmmaker and storyteller. He and his editors have great eyes for footage and they've had the time and money to find the best quality archival material and to fix it up so it looks better. I don't buy into his marketing scheme, which seems to be that his way of telling history is the only way to tell history. I think that's sort of a p.r. machine at work; it's intellectually suspect. He often gives the impression in public statements that his signature style, a slow zoom into an old photograph, is somehow more accurate than, for example, a re-enactment. If you think about it, you realize that it's just as easy, if not easier, to lie with a narrator talking over an old photograph as with a re-enactment. It's intellectually dishonest to suggest that one style of filmmaking is inherently more accurate. There's no one style of filmmaking that equates to truth. Honesty exists independent of filmmaking style.

And frankly I get a little bored sometimes with his style. It's a little slow for my taste. You know, seeing Lincoln’s face for the 500th time – the slow pan across it – I get bored with that.

Q. Could you talk a bit about the show you won an Emmy for, "Bioterror"?

A. One day in about 2001, Kirk Wolfinger, who I hadn't worked with for a long time, but who I had kept in touch with, called and asked if I wanted to work on a "Nova" show for PBS. This was the show that ended up being called "Bioterror." It was based on a book, "Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War" written by three New York Times reporters. The film was a co-production of "Nova" and the New York Times. What happened was, we had a rough cut ready on September 10, 2001, and we showed it that day in Boston at WGBH. The executive producer of "Nova" said, "This isn’t scary enough." The whole subject of biological weapons - nobody really cared. The film was kind of put on the back burner; they scheduled it to air sometime in the next six months. The next day was 9/11 and of course everything changed. The exact same film became a major priority for PBS, they wanted it on the air as fast as possible and they wanted 90 minutes rather than 60 minutes. That was the craziest couple of months for me. As I was editing it, the anthrax letters were going around. One of the book's co-authors, Judy Miller, got one of those letters. It's like we were doing news coverage with that film. It won an Emmy, which was very gratifying.

Q. Did that film give you a new lease on life in terms of non-fiction filmmaking?

A. It did. I did a follow-up for "Nova" called "Dirty Bombs" and have done quite a bit for them since then, juggling various projects.

Q. Describe, if you would, a typical year for you in terms of project juggling - let's say last year, 2007.

A. OK, let's see, 2007. I finished up a show called "Pochahontas Revealed" for "Nova"; I was writer/producer and Lisa Wolfinger directed the re-enactments. I was the writer of a pilot for History about caving called "Journey to the Center of the World." That one didn't get picked up. For "Nova Science Now" I was a senior writer and kind of a producer guy. I created, wrote, produced, and directed another pilot for History called "No Jail Can Hold Me" about escape artists, history's greatest escapes. That one took up a big chunk of '07. And I was hired for "Forged in Fire," which I mentioned, this ten-part series about the Revolutionary War that a British company was going to make for the Discovery Channel. I was hired as the writer of three hours and co-writer of a fourth hour. That was going to be a major docudrama, a "Band of Brothers" type of thing. A big budget in cable terms. They pulled the plug on it just before Christmas. The producer in London called me to give me the bad news. We knew it might happen. The woman who was running Discovery, who had given the green light to the project, had departed her job, and a new guy was in, so everyone said, "Uh-oh." I honestly don't know if she got fired or left of her own accord or what. These network executives play a lot of musical chairs.

Green-lighting the production was a bold move on her part, to make this $12 million production covering 10 hours. Her attitude was, "The History Channel is abandoning history and we're going to take it over." The new guy didn’t want to spend quite that much per hour and he wanted to protect the brand. His thinking was, the Discovery Channel brand is not the History Channel brand. If you turn on the Discovery Channel you expect a certain type of programming. If you veer too far from that, people get confused, and you might lose viewership. Maybe, maybe not. I won't second guess them, but my belief is, when people switch channels, it doesn't matter to them where they end up, they're just looking for something they want to watch.

Q. I think that's totally the way things happen. Could you comment on the fact that History is doing a major shift of gears?

A. History is definitely trying to rebrand itself. They're trying to be Discovery. They're all trying to copy each other right now. They all seem to have a similar mixture - they want to get on the reality bandwagon - History does "Ice Road Truckers" like Discovery; they do a universe show like National Geographic. They're trying a bunch of things to try to make history current. I don't have a problem with that. Let's face it, some of the stuff the History Channel used to run wasn't very good - it was sloppy filmmaking, sloppy research, sloppy editing, low budget - the Egyptian army crossing the desert and they show three pairs of sandals that they shot out at the beach. (Laughs.) As a TV viewer I don't feel I have the time or interest to sit through a lame show like that, even though I love history. I've always loved history. The chance to make historical documentaries and get paid for it - I love it. I get to study; I get to learn; it's great. But I don't want to watch a badly-made show about history. I'd rather read a book.

Q. I want to insert another little piece here. It's a summary of a 2007 interview with Nancy Dubuc by realscreen.com. Dubuc in early '07 became the executive vice president and general manager of The History Channel. I will note that she got the job in the wake of The History Channel seeing a drop of 4 percent in its prime-time viewership in 2006 compared to 2005, according to Broadcasting & Cable, while holding steady in its target demographic of ages 25 to 54. I'll note too that Ms. Dubuc oversaw development of several successful reality series at A&E including "Dog the Bounty Hunter." Here's the excerpt:

When Nancy Dubuc moved from A&E to The History Channel she felt she was entering a channel that was already strong but still had some room to grow before it became unstoppable. (In an interview), Dubuc spoke about the challenge in making sure audiences don't associate The History Channel with their dry high school courses. "Ice Road Truckers" is one big step in that direction...."Truckers" became a series after Dubuc examined the highest rated programs at her channel and saw how popular it was as a one-off. Among its many attributes, the series brings history to life, which Dubuc sees as a key formula for the channel: making history relatable to the audience through its relationship with life today. Throughout the interview, Dubuc kept returning to the subject of The History Channel as a brand. "We should do for the subject of history what Target did for cheap retail," said Dubuc. "They’re a marketing powerhouse."

A. Interesting. I don't think it's impossible that they can pull this off - doing history in a new way. Connecting it to things going on today, coming at history in more active way. It's not a bad thing at all. The trick is to do it in a way that doesn't disappoint the truly loyal viewer. The channel has an extraordinarily loyal audience.

Lone Wolf is working on a two-hour pilot film for History called "Underwater Universe." It's a science show, really, with little bits of history. I have to say I love it. It's a tough subject, but it's fascinating and smart and I think it could be really good TV.

Q. How did your show for History about caving do in the ratings?

A. Surprisingly well. They aired it with no advertising beforehand and it did quite well. That made them want to air it again; they aired it at a weird time; it didn't do well the second time around, and they decided they didn't want a series. To be honest, the show was a little problematic. But there's a chance it will rise again in a slightly different form.

Q. What was problematic about it?

A. The idea. Going to the deepest, darkest caves for a history series. Those caves by definition have no history. History - the channel - doesn't need as much history as it used to, but it needs some. There wasn’t an honest collaborative attempt to solve this inherent problem in advance of the pilot. The proper communication wasn't there. I would say this was as much our own fault as theirs, because we just wanted the job and we didn't want to rock the boat in midstream. Anyway, the show would have been better for Discovery.

Q. You know what, I have an idea for a new cable network. You take history documentaries from 10 and 20 years ago, 30 years, whatever, and you air them again. There must be hundreds of them sitting on shelves. You could air Alistair Cooke's "America" series - where is that today? It's not cutting-edge TV anymore, but it's damn good TV, and it's just sitting on a shelf. Ditto for "Civilisation" by Kenneth Clark. You could air cool old stuff from the CBS archives - "The Twentieth Century" programs for instance. "Victory at Sea" from NBC. Stuff from PBS, from History, Discovery, the BBC, Thames. Half of that stuff isn't even for sale anymore - I can't find several of your films for sale anywhere. You toss in four or five good history movies a week, maybe a couple of slide lectures from the most exciting teachers out there, and you've got yourself a good network. I was watching some raw footage recently from Britain about combat in North Africa during World War II - if you had contemporary voice-over commentary it would be very watchable television. Maybe you have a host, maybe not. A host would probably be good.

A. It's not a bad idea. People do launch new networks. Most new networks are side projects of existing networks. There's a lot of material out there. With "American Experience," a lot of times those shows spend years just lying around on the shelf. It would take money of course. If you get a spot on a satellite it's not as huge an investment as it used to be. It's surprising, really, to think about how little equipment you need - you need some editing equipment and a satellite uplink. Making partnership deals might be tough, I don't know.

Q. What do you read regularly to keep up with the industry?

A. There's the weekly newsletter at realscreen.com that's good. I get daily and weekly newsletters on the Internet from The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. There are other daily and weekly industry e-mail newsletters, free and for pay: Cynopsis.com, CableU.tv. There's good PBS information at Current.org.

I get a lot of information by word of mouth – I talk to people who talk to people. Kirk and Lisa and I went to the Realscreen Summit in Washington D.C. last year. This is an event that has been going on for about 10 years. Maybe 1200 people go; most of the top TV documentary/factual/reality producers in the English-speaking world are there. You learn a lot - what they're buying, what they're not buying.

Filmmakers don't get into this business to sell shows, we're in it to make shows, but you need to keep up on the market aspects, devote a certain amount of time to that, or you're not going to make it. it's a challenge to create a show while you're trying to line up the next one. To juggle the two. It's a continual battle to try to find the right balance. Sometimes, it seems, I'll have a year or two when the balance seems to be there, and then things get out of balance and get tricky.

-The End-

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