Conversations: Mike Kirk 07/22/2012
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Mike Kirk

We talk with FRONTLINE producer Mike Kirk about the challenges of producing political documentaries.

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About the Episode

FRONTLINE producer Mike Kirk joins us to talk about the challenges of producing political documentaries.

About Mike Kirk

Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk has produced more than 200 national television programs. A former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, Kirk was the senior producer of FRONTLINE from the series' inception in 1983 until the fall of 1987. Kirk has won every major award in journalism, including the Peabody Award, duPont-Columbia Award, 10 Emmys, and six Writers Guild of America Awards. He also owns a production company, the Kirk Documentary Group.

Enrique Cerna:
Mike Kirk, welcome to conversations.

Mike Kirk:
Thank you. It's great to be here.

Enrique Cerna:
Actually, I guess it's a welcome back. Because you worked here at KCTS, mid '70s?

Mike Kirk:
Mid '70s, 1970.

Enrique Cerna:
Into what, about late '70s, early '80s?

Mike Kirk:
Early '80s. I went away for a year to a journalism fellowship at Harvard called the Neiman fellowship, and came back, and I think I left in late '80, or '81 to start frontline with David Fanning, the producer.

Enrique Cerna:
Actually, you were at the old KCTS.

Mike Kirk:
I was.

Enrique Cerna:
This is the not so new KCTS.

Mike Kirk:
But it's new to me and it's wonderful.

Enrique Cerna:
You actually are from Idaho.

Mike Kirk:
Boise, Idaho, right. A University of Idaho vandal.

Enrique Cerna:
Yeah, I was across the way there at WSU, so did drive over to Moscow a few times, particularly when the drinking age changed. [LAUGHTER] When did you, ah, know that what you wanted to do in life was produce documentaries?

Mike Kirk:
I was mowing lawns in Boise, Idaho, and one of my clients was the anchorman for the local TV news. And I was just talking to him one day in the backyard, and he said, why don't you come on down to the station and see if you can push a camera instead of a lawn mower? And I came down and became a cameraman part time at the TV station. And I couldn't believe that they actually paid people to do this. It was just fascinating. And I got to go along on an interview once with the Governor of Idaho. And I didn't really know any better, and there were three TV stations, and they had their three cameras there, and I asked a really hard question, a harder question than anybody else did. And he kind of blanched and didn't really know what to say. And I saw his press guy look at me and kind of write my name down, and be a little angry. And I thought, if you can get paid to make the Governor of the state nervous, that's a great job. And since then, I've been making Governors nervous every day if I can.

Enrique Cerna:
Governors and senators and other politicians and people deep inside Washington D.C. And from all walks of life.

Mike Kirk:
Yes.

Enrique Cerna:
You worked in mission in Idaho in public television in Idaho.

Mike Kirk:
Yes. I worked at KUID in Moscow, Idaho, it had an audience of about half a herd of cows and a full herd of goats, and a handful of farmers and college professors.

Enrique Cerna:
Working here at KCTS, we went into the vault to see if we could find Mike Kirk stuff. And you should know that we're going to make sure that we show the young Mike Kirk with the mustache. He had a mustache back there.

Mike Kirk:
Yes, I did.

Enrique Cerna:
You looked good. But you did quite a few documentaries there.

Mike Kirk:
The great thing that I love to do, I didn't know that I would love to do it, I thought I'd be a news person, probably read the news if I got lucky. Because that seemed to be where the authority and power was. And I really wanted to change the world. That's sort of why you go into journalism back in those days, especially around the time of Bernstein and woodward and deep throat and the Nixon administration. You were determined to help people and to catch the bad guys. And often, the bad guys were in politics. What I discovered when I was in Idaho, and then when I came to KCTS, was that you could do a lot more with a 30 minute documentary than you could do reading a news story or even making a minute 10 or 2 minute news stories. And that's what I was lucky enough to be able to do here. Richie Meyer ran the station at the time. He was an amazing general manager who managed to get some money from the community and the university, and I learned how to spend it chasing politicians.

Enrique Cerna:
You were part of the founding team with Frontline.

Mike Kirk:
I was. I was very lucky to be there on the ground floor with David Fanning, who's still the executive producer 30 years later, and a man named Lewis Wily, who's very bright, a lawyer, kind of Mr. inside. David was the brains behind and the charm behind the outfit and had the big vision. And I was there learning and sopping up everything I could. And trying to help as a senior producer. And it was, it was fabulous to be inside the invention of something that had as its goal being a serious piece of broadcast journalism that would run at least an hour long, 26 to 30 times a year, at the very time that the networks were all walking away from documentaries. We thought it was a niche that belonged on public television, without commercial interruption, without influence from anybody. And to be really serious about it. There was, there wasn't then and there isn't now a lot of really serious television, and we were determined to make it. And much to my surprise, especially given how rocky it was at the very beginning, here we are 30 years later, and hundreds of documentaries, and in some ways, the only long form documentary series on television that's of its kind, of public affairs. There's other kinds of documentaries made to be sure. But a serious public affairs show that stays on the air for 30 years must be doing something right.

Enrique Cerna:
With the depth that it brings to the table.

Mike Kirk:
Yeah.

Enrique Cerna:
Which is pretty incredible. When you say it was rocky there in the beginning, what do you mean?

Mike Kirk:
Well, the first film we ever made was called an unauthorized history of the national football league, of the NFL. And in it, we made a couple of fairly serious charges. One was that the Super Bowl with the New York Jets, the Joe Namath Super Bowl, was possibly fixed. That the mob was all over the NFL in those days. It ran as our very first broadcast. We had as the anchor a woman named Jessica Savage, who was an NBC news star and a handful, but she herself was determined to change her image, to not be just another pretty face, but to be a serious journalist, and inside Jessica there beat the heart of somebody who really did want to do the right thing. But she was a handful. And we made a lot of headlines with that program. Our very first time out of the box. I think it was the highest rated public affairs show on public television, maybe still, it came out right around the Super Bowl, so it was perfect timing. And many critics and many others, including our own board of directors, called us to task for many of the things we did, which we, we went just a little too far. We backed up a little bit. And by the next week, we were being lauded again as a great idea that went on and on. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we didn't. We started out saying to ourselves, well, maybe we'll be an anthology and we'll come up and have different shows by different producers and have a different idea, and we can afford to be kind of eclectic. But it really wasn't a smart thing to do at the very very beginning. We kind of landed on our feet by the second year and we've been on the air ever since.

Enrique Cerna:
Take me through the process of coming up with a topic, and then taking that topic and making it a documentary film.

Mike Kirk:
The hardest part is trying to take something that is trying to gauge what people are interested in, what do they really need to know? It's an old cliche in journalism that it's all about the need to know, but it actually is. One of the ways that I tell myself when I'm looking for a story, this is one that matters, is I've got to come up with a story and a way of talking about something that people need to know, maybe they're going to go in the ballot box and vote about it, maybe they need to make some civic decision, maybe they need to make some decision vis a vis their government or power in some way. So that's the first thing, what kind of a story is it? And I use the word story intentionally. We are very interested in narrative journalism, that is a story. Anybody can sit down in a room. We can sit down here now and come up with 26 topics, we've got to do something about the environment, something about the automotive industry, you know, all of it, abortion and everything. Or a better way that evolved for us was thinking about it as a story about an individual or somebody who's doing something that leads to Washington, starts in Washington, then leads to Washington, somehow, you get inside of a narrative that has a character at the heart of it. People love to watch films about characters and about people. I made a film that aired the other day about the economy, the character in that film was obvious, it was Barack Obama, but it was also Tim Geithner, his secretary of the treasury. Where did they grow up, who are they, all the things that you're interested in. And on top of that, we framed it with big important ideas and problems that faced those characters. Once we learned how to do that and once we figured out that was what it was, then you start to research everything you can find. I have a staff of five who dig, investigators who dig very deeply into everything. I basically work all the time and I read everything I can get my hands on about it. And so do they. We create a thing called the time line, which is a chronology of everything that happened on that story and everything we can find that was ever written about it and ever made a television show about it, or maybe even a movie about it, and they're all put in a big book, every word of it. And then we go out, when we figure that out, we say, okay, there's the story, there's the high points. We'll go out and do some interviews. We'll do 30, 40 interviews, shoot them for a couple hours, sometimes three hours long. People aren't used to it, the people we interview. I always tell them, you're going to think of things in the middle of this interview that you haven't thought about, even though you've been interviewed 10 times on Chris Matthews show, new things are going to come out of you because we're going to talk about them long enough, and I kind of know about it. So we'll go back and forth and go through it. And then we'll edit it. We'll shoot those interviews and get them all together and we'll edit for about six or eight or 10 or 12 weeks. And then we'll put it on television. But here's the thing about that whole process that I've just talked to you about. There's an element that exists for us to be able to do that, and that is the word "time." Time to research, time to think about it, time to shoot it, time to interview people, time to edit it. Time for me to write it. It's a six month idea, it's like writing a book every time. For a television program that goes up and in 54 minutes, it disappears into the ether or goes onto the Internet or whatever, it's a very expensive, costly, time consuming, but critically important job that we all take very, very seriously.

Enrique Cerna:
I want to ask you about the production style. There's a couple of different elements here. How you guys shoot it and we talked about this a little bit before we got on here, and that is that when you sit somebody down, you pay great attention to the lighting, but you shoot them very tight. Very tight.

Mike Kirk:
Yeah. I actually have a camera that's also shooting them a little wider just so I can cut away. But I think there's probably nothing more interesting when you're talking about something really important than being able as a viewer to be able to look in the eyes of the person who's asserting it, whether it's an elected official that you've trusted with your vote, whether it's somebody you don't like or you're trying to decide that you like, whether it's somebody who runs a corporation, whether it's a bad guy or a victim or whatever. There's nothing more powerful on television than that face. When you read a book, you know, you can make your judgments based on the characterization of the author or the writer but in television, it's your face, it's my face right now. It's, do you trust me? Do you believe what I'm saying? What do you think about me? It's all revealed in the face. And we work real hard to make sure that everybody, both sides, in our stories, or all the sides in our stories, are set up and given the same respectful place on the screen so that you have the opportunity to see them. I think of making these films in just a practical sense, as having a dinner party. So it's like a lot of people around a table, maybe 8 or 10 that you watch all through the hour. They come back and you like some of them and you know what role they all play and you know kind of what their positions are. And if I tell my story right and I bring those people in and out, just like a great person at a dinner party, I say, Enrique, now, you had a position a little while ago, and now you've heard from the other two people over here. Tell me more. What's the next thing I need to know about that. That's sort of the way, that's the armature of the documentary, that's how it unfolds, but it's all based really on those people and what they think and what they're saying. It's not so much fancy camera tricks or other things we do, although we care about setting scenes up and all of that. And I care about how I write about things. But it's really the people in the interview that carry our stories.

Enrique Cerna:
I'm always amazed how you get these people to open up. And maybe it's the fact that you spend so much time with them and interviewing them and trying to get every angle out of them.

Mike Kirk:
It helps. And it helps to just sit there and talk to them. There's so many people when they get interviewed, in the first place, we have to confess something. There's nothing better for somebody's ego than to be a rapt listener to them, right? They're talking, they worked hard at something, they know something, they're running for office, they want to tell their story, whatever it is. If they're willing to come and sit in a chair with a camera and all the technology around them, then they have something they want to talk about and my job then is to guide them along through that process, so that we get the maximum of what they know. I always say to people, what I'm done with you, I like to think what I'm doing is I'm making a commercial with you, I'm selling your idea the best way I can. That means I know as much about it as you do, that means I help you through it, that means I'm on your side all the way along. I'm not here to be adversarial with you. If you say something that doesn't comport or doesn't seem right or doesn't seem true, whatever truth is, I may challenge you on it, but that's just to help you get your position out there. Now, what you need to know is, tomorrow, I'm interviewing a person on the other side, and I'm going to say this exact same thing to them. And my job I see is to try to get their side of it out too. And then lay it out and let the public make a decision as fairly as I can. And I also make one other promise to everybody, especially people who don't want to do it. I made this promise to only one person whoever really took me up on it. I'll tell you who that is in a minute. The promise is, I'll come watch this at your house when it's on television if you want, or your office, you want to punch me in the nose, that's your moment. It's a promise. And I mean it, I really will. Nobody's ever taken me up on it except one person, Dr. Jack Kevorkian. [LAUGHTER] And he really did want me to come. And I couldn't. So we did it on the phone in a conference call. I could hear him howling and yelling at the screen and all that stuff. But I would have, if there was any way possible, I would have loved to be there for that moment. [LAUGHTER]

Enrique Cerna:
Something that happens every four years, you have done it how many times now?

Mike Kirk:
I did Bush/Gore, and I did Obama/McCain.

Enrique Cerna:
And now you're in the midst of it.

Mike Kirk:
And now I'm in the midst of just having finished this money, power, and Wall street. I've been sort of doing double duty. I've been editing wall street and reading and getting ready for the Obama, now Romney, we're presuming it's Romney, campaigns and stories. The choice is a real honor to get to make. Nobody's ever made two. And I'm about to make three. The third one, ah, are it's an honor and a challenge and a burden all at the same time. Partly because the idea is it's a biography of the two candidates that runs a lot in October in the United States and around the world, but it does not involve an interview with either candidate. The rules are no interview with that candidate. So it's really character, who they are, what they've done, and what it is about them that will make them a good president. A president for the people now who want whatever the people now want. So I have to kind of guess what do people want, what is it about the characters, all the things that have happened to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney that I can line up and weave together, so that you and your viewers can watch it and make at that moment in October sometime, a decision about who they're going to vote for. And it's not about necessarily about issues. It's not about their stand on different policies, although it's about those things. It's really, I'm going for character in their life narrative. If you, like me, believe that there are six or seven moments in anybody's life that really matter, where who you are, or what you're turning out to be, is challenge tested and you've made a decision. I spend an unbelievably inordinate amount of my time today walking around Seattle try to think about moments in Barack Obama's life. What mattered, how important was that. Especially now that he's president. One of the candidates, one of the people in this film is a sitting president, an incumbent president.

Enrique Cerna:
And that's got to be different. Because when you did Bush/Gore, they were running for the office.

Mike Kirk:
Right.

Enrique Cerna:
Same thing with McCain/Obama. But now he's been in office before.

Mike Kirk:
Now he's been in office and he has a record that you can test. And I've made three films about that. So about the things that things that he's done as president, I've been following him very closely, been in and out of the White House, talked to most of the people who worked with him, almost all the people who reported on him. I have my own sense of who Barack Obama is. And so you might think, well, he's going to do, parts of the film are going to be about health care, parts of the film are going to be about the financial crisis, parts of the film are going to be about the other things he's dealt with, the war president, the guy who got Osama Bin Laden. Maybe that guy, he is, I know a lot about his militaristic side. Shocking and surprising other side of Barack Obama. But maybe there's parts of who he is and who he was that I did in my last biography that I've seen revealed in what he's doing. And maybe that's what I want to emphasize. I haven't decided yet. And some of it will be informed by getting to know Mitt Romney and all of the ways that he is and the influences and the things that have influenced him, and trying to line those two up side by side. And test Obama's record and Romney's record, but also get to know who the characters are. Endlessly fascinating. And as I say, a real honor and privilege to do it.

Enrique Cerna:
How do you get around the spin. I mean you're going to be talking to people that know them, maybe know them the best.

Mike Kirk:
Yep.

Enrique Cerna:
Don't know if you'll get the wives or if you want the wives...

Mike Kirk:
We usually do.

Enrique Cerna:
But how do you get around the spin?

Mike Kirk:
Ah, it's not easy. These people, this is what they do for a living, all the people around the president and around the candidate. They're spinners, they're really good at it. What you try to do is you try to know as honestly as possible from people and things you've read and things you've seen, and your own gut, what you're after, before you actually start interviewing people. So that when you're being spun, you know you're being spun. Half the battle against spinners is to know they're spinning you at that moment. And the good ones are really good at it. And skipping a lot of the people who will spin, why even interview them if you're going to do that. The great challenge is to cut through all the chaff, all the stuff that comes flying at you as a journalist and as a citizen, to try to get these two men and their essential qualities. When the choice has been successful as a television two hour documentary, it is when it has found those moments that, where you suddenly know something. And you as a producer know it. And whoever you interview and whatever you're doing is really helping you get to that finish line. There were many people who tried to sell us on different versions of who Al Gore was and different versions of who George W. Bush was, bad and good. And the challenge was to get right through the essential truth about each man and try to then build the film around that. And that's what I'm doing, that's the process I'm in right now, which is an interior process to me and the producers I work with, to try to sort out who is the real Mitt Romney or the Mitt Romneys, and who is the real Barack Obama or Barack Obamas, because there are multitudes in each of us, and especially them.

Enrique Cerna:
Couple minutes left here. This job that you have, it's in essence, you're really doing political documentaries for the most part. But you're also getting at the heart of people and the American way of life, and even beyond that. Because some of these are international. But it seems to me that for you, it's all consuming.

Mike Kirk:
Yes. Yeah. It really is. It is the greatest, I mean it's beyond a job. It's the greatest calling, whatever you want to call it, there's not a real phrase for it, I've never been able to identify what it is. But it consumes me in a way that is completely edifying, you know, I'm grateful for the opportunity to do it. I never forget that I have a tremendous responsibility as I do it. It never feels like work. It's hard, but it never really, it never really is something that I regret doing. I live very well because of it. And I'm, you know, endlessly grateful and glad that I get to do it. Because it is, as you say, it's all consuming in a way that you couldn't do if it wasn't about something so important. I mean the presidency of the United States, health care, I made a film last year on top secret America that was all of the billions and hundreds of billions of dollars of secret things that have been built since 9/11. The privilege to learn all of that, to have that in your head, to know about it, to be able to sit and just talk to someone and have it come out as a... It's astonishing even to me that it's me that's doing it. But yeah, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Enrique Cerna:
Hey, it beats mowing lawns.

Mike Kirk:
Well, it's kind of the same thing. [LAUGHTER]

Enrique Cerna:
Mike Kirk. Thank you very much. Everybody at KCTS is proud of the fact that you had a little time here.

Mike Kirk:
I loved it here.

Enrique Cerna:
And look forward to seeing more of your work. It's great stuff.

Mike Kirk:
Thank you.

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