In the Fall of 1971, I was a scraggly sophomore at Amherst College with blonde hair down to my shoulders.
My draft number was 8.
That same Fall, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was a scraggly freshman at Hampshire College with black hair down to his shoulders. His draft number wasn't very high either. We were both verbally quick—often obnoxiously so. There was never a double (or even triple) entendre we didn't think worth making. We both liked music, girls, and drugs—sometimes the same ones. We both thought that the Vietnam War wasn't a particularly good idea. We also both worked at our respective college bookstores, which were managed by the same person. It was inevitable that we'd meet.
Over the next forty years, we both got married, had children, and started businesses. We also talked incessantly about our latest dreams and schemes, as well as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes—our own and those of family, friends, and country. But we never worked together. Why ruin a beautiful friendship? But, about five years ago, Ken began to executive produce films that were developed by people other than his usual directing/editing crews. And these films were about science. He preferred to stick to history. I preferred to stick to anything that grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go. Since then I've worked on several of his films, as described below. Thankfully we're still best friends. It was inevitable.
THE MAYO CLINIC: Faith - Hope - Science
This two-hour documentary tells the story of the organization that has been called a “Medical Mecca,” the “Supreme Court of Medicine,” and the “place for hope where there is no hope.”
Mayo began in 1883 as an unlikely partnership between the Sisters of Saint Francis and a country doctor named William Worrall Mayo after a devastating tornado in rural Minnesota. Since then, it has grown into an organization that treats more than a million patients a year from all 50 states and 150 countries.
In the process of researching and writing the film I had the opportunity to dig deeply into the institution's extensive archives, look deeply inside the brain of a cancer patient in surgery, and debate deep details with a 100-year old sister who is the official historian of Mayo's St. Mary's Hospital.
Winner of a Christopher and Gabriel Award. Produced by Ewers Bros. Productions.A companion book is available from Rosetta Books.
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.
This three-part 2015 film about cancer, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Emperor of All Maladies. provides a solid history of cancer through the ages along with an up-to-date look at the latest diagnoses and treatments through the eyes and experiences of patients, physicians, and researchers.
Produced by Ark Media. Written in collaboration with Barak Goodman, Ken Burns, and Geoffrey Ward.
This four-hour film based on the book by Siddhartha Mukherjee's combines history and science in a way that explains this remarkably complex (and misunderstood) subject as clearly as possible. It also shows how breakthroughs in genetics are rapidly changing the diagnosis and treatment of serious illness and explores how those same breakthroughs are beginning to raise very difficult questions about eugenics.
Produced by Ark Media. Written in collaboration with Barak Goodman and Geoffrey C. Ward.
Works in Progress
THE MENTAL HEALTH FILM SERIES
In 2018 I began working with Ewers Bros. Productions on three two-hour films about mental health for PBS as part of the ambitious multi-platform project that the network is rolling out over the next 10 years.
The main goal of Film 1 is to establish awareness and empathy—to show how everyone has been touched by a mental-health disorder—whether in their own lives or the lives of family, friends, and colleagues.
The focus of this first film will be people under 25, the years when most mental health conditions first appear. The film will include conversations with experts and relevant examples from history, as well as current neuroscientific, pharmacological, behavioral and other developments in prevention and treatment for brain disorders. Most importantly, however, it will feature the intimate stories of young people and the families, friends, and professionals who try to help them—in schools, youth groups, the military, the juvenile justice system, and on the street. The film will make it clear how many "regular" kids suffer silently and invisibly from the wounds of adverse childhood experiences and factors such as the
impact of 24/7 media, bullying, and ever-more powerful drugs. While there are an increasing number of ways to identify kids who are "at risk," the services available are still inadequate. The results are often tragic—major depression, bipolar, addiction, homelessness, and suicide.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
I am also in the early stages of development with Ewers Bros. Productions on the life of Henry David Thoreau. Most people know Thoreau as a 19th century author who moved to Walden Pond in Concord, MA, and wrote a book about his experiences. He certainly wrote Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (although he lived there only two years), but he also wrote more than 34 other books and essays, including one of history’s most influential pieces of literature: Resistance to Civil Government or Civil Disobedience, which has inspired some of the world’s greatest leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoreau’s life story, however, is far more multi-faceted, and his influence on our ideas of environmentalism, social reform and quality-of-life is far more extensive. An accomplished botanist, his meticulous observations of nature helped local farmers in his lifetime and provide scientists today with data about climate change.
At the same time, ironically, his work as a surveyor ultimately contributed to deforestation, and the machinery he developed for his family's pencil business involved mining precious resources. A committed Transcendentalist, Thoreau was unwavering in his support of abolition, yet he also expressed the stereotypical prejudices of the time when writing about Native Americans, Irish immigrants, and women.
This will be the first feature-length documentary on Henry David Thoreau that focuses on his very human life as well as his transcendent insights. It will illuminate not only what we need to do to restore the earth (and ourselves), but why we find it so difficult to do so.