What does Elvis Presley's 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show have in common with the 1901 assassination of William McKinley? And the onset of the Pequot War of 1637, for that matter? They are three of the 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America, as revisited in a History Channel series airing for five consecutive days starting Sunday at 9 pm/ET. (A detailed schedule appears at the bottom of this page.) To gain insight into this trip down memory lane, TVGuide.com spoke to acclaimed director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), a coexecutive producer on the project who also helmed one of its installments.
TVGuide.com: This is precisely the type of series that the History Channel was made for, isn't it?
In many ways, yes, but also what I'm proud of and what I think is interesting is that we've sort of pushed the envelope a little bit and gotten around the clichés of historical programming.
TVGuide.com: Such as?
First of all, we didn't burden the series by saying these are the 10 most important days. The emphasis was on storytelling, not history. But by picking unexpected days versus "the most important days," we kind of found days that really had good human drama and good storytelling potential.
TVGuide.com: What was the litmus test you used in picking what to include and what not to? For example, some might assume JFK's assassination would be here, and it isn't.
I think you hit the nail on the head. We wanted to pick days that don't have well-worn tires, days that have not been covered before, or ones you might not even think are important. For example: my episode on the assassination of William McKinley ["Murder at the Fair," airing April 10]. We barely remember McKinley was a president let alone that he was assassinated, let alone that his assassination led to major changes in American history. As you'll see, Teddy Roosevelt never would have become president on his own. His presidency was so important and we consider him one of the great presidents, so we all probably assume it was inevitable he would become president, but in fact he had alienated the Republican machinery as the governor of New York, and he was being put out to pasture as vice president to McKinley. So if it wasn't for an assassin's bullet at precisely that time in American history, he never would have become president. And as president, despite being a Republican and despite coming from a wealthy background, he had a very sympathetic ear for progressive needs at a time when progressivism was very much needed in this country. Because McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt could ascend to the presidency and make major changes to policy that fundamentally changed this country. We wanted to pick days that on the surface you may not think are that interesting, perhaps, or are that seismic in the changes that they brought, and yet when you get into them, you realize there's an interesting story to tell. That was my litmus test.
TVGuide.com: Which day proved the most difficult to re-create?
The most interesting approach to re-creations was taken by R.J. Cutler in "Shays' Rebellion: The First American Civil War" [airing April 13]. There is very little original material, as you can imagine, so he used [Oscar-nominated animator] Bill Plympton, which could have fallen flat on its face and been an absolutely disaster. It was a very risky decision, but I think his episode is quite gripping and the animation works quite interestingly. The thing I like about the series is that most series television... take Frontline on PBS. Every Frontline, very much on purpose, feels like it's part of the same series. It has the same pacing, it's very writer-driven, it's heavily narrated by the same narrator.
TVGuide.com: But each of the 10 Days' episodes boasts a unique fingerprint.
Exactly. Even though it holds together thematically as a series, each show stands on its own with very different storytelling approaches and production techniques. We have the animation from R.J. Cutler; we have very beautifully lit, cinematic-quality re-creations from James Moll ["Massacre at Mystic," airing April 9]; Bruce Sinofsky's episode about Elvis ["When America Was Rocked," April 11] uses no narration and a cinema verité approach; some people use celebrity narrators. It shakes up the documentary genre a little bit. I am known as a kind of hard-core, cinema verité filmmaker who has made some very aggressive movies about social injustice and murder and a heavy-metal band going through psychotherapy. On paper, I'm the last person one would think would be brought in by the History Channel to curate a historical series. But that's precisely what got me excited, that they wanted to push the envelope a little bit. As a coexecutive producer, I recommended that they continue in that vein.
TVGuide.com: As a producer, is there one hour in particular that you are most proud to have pulled off, perhaps because of the breadth of research demanded or the dearth of source material?
Like the parent of a big brood of children, I would never pick my favorite. Every filmmaker met the challenge of their episode really well. Rory Kennedy ["The Homestead Strike," airing April 12] rose to the occasion of staging re-creations, what she had never done before. Everyone knocked it out of the park. We went after 10 very independent filmmakers and gave them a lot of creative freedom.
TVGuide.com: Elvis' rise to fame has obviously been well documented. Does "When America Was Rocked" offer up any major revelations?
Just how important that initial [Ed Sullivan] broadcast was, in that it represented a seismic cultural change that we totally take for granted today.... The mixing of races and white America listening to "black music" and the sexual energy that it released represented a milestone.
TVGuide.com: Looking at some of your own previous work, which was more disturbing material to delve into, Gray Matter or Paradise Lost?
Paradise Lost was very disturbing because it involved the murder of three 8-year-old children. That was the film where I felt I lost my innocence as a father. I became a father while making that film, which made me stare into the abyss of evil. And Gray Matter [about the preserved brains of hundreds of children killed at a Nazi "euthanasia" clinic ] was a very disturbing story of an entire nation just willing to accept its Nazi past without really caring or accepting responsibility for its actions.
TVGuide.com: Did I hear you might be going back to the Paradise Lost story a third time?
Actually, we are just starting for HBO Paradise Lost 3, because [accused killer/death-row inmate] Damian Echols is involved in the final round of his appeal, and there is some DNA testing going on, so we feel that over the next 12 to 18 months, the story is going to come to its conclusion. So we're going to follow that case again.
10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America airs as follows:
· Sunday, April 9, 9 pm: "Antietam" (Sept. 17, 1862); 10 pm: "Massacre at Mystic" (May 26, 1637)
· Monday, April 10, 9 pm: "Einstein's Letter" (July 16, 1939); 10 pm: "Murder at the Fair" (Sept. 6, 1901)
· Tuesday, April 11, 9 pm: "When America Was Rocked" (Sept. 9, 1956); 10 pm: "Gold Rush" (Jan. 24, 1848)
· Wednesday, April 12, 9 pm: "Scopes: The Battle Over America's Soul" (July 21, 1925); 10 pm: "The Homestead Strike" (July 6, 1892)
· Thursday, April 13, 9 pm: "Freedom Summer" (June 21, 1964); 10 pm: "Shays' Rebellion: America's First Civil War" (Jan. 25, 1787)