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

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act August 8, 2014 at 7:45PM

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.
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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.

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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, fundraising, and building an effective community engagement campaign.

This article is related to: Laurens Grant, Stanley Nelson, Documentary, Freedom Riders, Interview, Interviews, Frame By Frame


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