Interview: Susan Bellows, Director, 'American Experience: JFK'

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Susan Bellows spent nine years on the development side of the highly acclaimed PBS series American Experience before taking on her first directing assignment, the two-part American Experience documentary JFK.

What did you think about taking on your first producer/director assignment?

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Susan Bellows: It was daunting, particularly because of the subject. People still have strong feelings about JFK. There had recently been a spirited debate in the New York Times about whether he accomplished anything at all while in office or was our greatest president. Gallup polls show him to have very high approval ratings even today. We had a responsibility to go in and create a portrait of someone people feel very passionate about. Some love him and others hate him.

How did you decide on the structure?

I was working with a very talented writer, [frequent American Experience collaborator] Mark Zwonitzer. We started with simplistic and what turned out to be shortsighted formula. His presidency was only 1,000 days, so we thought we were looking at a two-hour biography and that’s how we planned it. We didn’t expand to four hours until well into the editing process. Eventually the structure became: get him elected in the first part and then take another two hours to explore his presidency.

Obviously you want something visually interesting. Would you start out by seeing what you’ve got archival footage of and then writing around it, or the other way around?

We approached this by thinking about what we wanted to talk about and then thinking about the images. There’s an enormous amount of [visual material] on Kennedy. Often the problem was about cutting something we didn’t have space to show.

I’ve produced films where it wasn’t that way. Say we have one photograph of Billy the Kid. How do we tell a story about him? I oversaw a series about slavery in America and first three hours of that series took place before 1800. We didn’t face that kind of limitation here.

Where did the archival material come from?

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Senator John F. Kennedy in Boston, 1957. Photo courtesy of Douglas Jones, LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Twenty years ago, PBS did a four-hour miniseries called The Kennedys. WGBH had a database from that, which helped us find things that wouldn’t have come up from other archives. There are outtakes from a Kennedy campaign ad that someone rescued from the trash can of an ad agency. A number of things like that help present a picture of what he was like beyond what the official films and press conferences show.

When did you realize you had a two-part show?

We had an assembly about six weeks into the editing period that was two hours 35 minutes. Part of the problem with that cut was there was no room for any of the visual imagery to breathe. We finally made the decision to let the accordion expand and take in some air.

He’s such a rich subject. If we’d started with the idea of four hours, we could easily have come in with a five-hour cut and had our hearts broken when we had to cut it down to four. So it was good that we started out thinking in terms of two hours.

During the editing phase, did everybody collaborate in one room or did you follow the editing room’s progress remotely?

We started with two editors here in Boston [Jon Neuburger and Glenn Fukushima] and I worked with them in person. Mark Zwonitzer was in New York and the editors would post cuts to Vimeo so he could see how it was developing and send script changes.

In your nine years at American Experience, has the process of making shows like this changed significantly?

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John F. Kennedy leaving hospital on gurney following spinal surgery, as wife Jacqueline stands over him. Photo by Dick DeMarsico, courtesy of Library of Congress.

One thing that’s different is that editors spend time finding material themselves. They’ve become ‘editor/archival researcher.’ They’ll find a picture or some footage and cut it in, and then the associate producers will find out if it’s clearable, and clear it.

There are so many photographs on people’s web sites and Tumblr pages. We have a good relationship with the archivist at the [John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum], who could look at a picture and usually point us in the right direction to try to get the rights.

Was there anything heartbreaking you couldn’t use?

A photograph of Kennedy in a back brace dated 1954 in Palm Beach, when he was recovering from back surgery. We don’t see him at the house in Palm Beach at all and it would have fit perfectly with that part of the story, but the picture was part of Jacqueline Kennedy’s private collection, which hadn’t been opened yet. There were some other images that were available but prohibitively expensive.

Even so, there was obviously far more material than you could use. Did the amount of footage present a challenge?

Whatever you think of his presidency, he was obviously very charismatic, and he had a great sense of how to use the camera to win people over. If it was a challenge, I think it was about not being seduced by that charisma.

American Experience: JFK can be streamed in its entirety until December 11th.

Watch Part 1

Watch Part 2



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