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October 5, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Lynn Novick

by David Laurila

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Lynn Novick is the co-producer, with Ken Burns, of “The Tenth Inning,” which aired last week on PBS and is available on DVD. An Emmy Award winner who has collaborated with Burns since 1989, Novick talked about the making of the film and some of the criticism it has received.


David Laurila: What is your background as a baseball fan?

Lynn Novick: Ken asked me to produce the “Baseball” series that premiered in 1994, and I was thrilled to do that, but I didn’t come to it as a true baseball fan. I came to it as someone who really liked baseball, but didn’t know that much about it and didn’t root for a specific team. I was truly excited about the challenge of telling history through baseball, and curious about what could be learned about America through baseball, as opposed to coming in with the perspective of loving the game.

Over the course of spending four years working on the film, and being around people who knew a lot more about baseball than I did, and doing a lot of reading and going to a lot of games, and meeting some really amazing people in the world of baseball, I really became a fan over the course of that project.

DL: Did your having come in with a different perspective add a checks-and-balances component to the making of the films?

LN: I was on a steep learning curve with the original series, having never produced anything on that scale, so I was sort of just trying to understand how Ken worked. I think that my perspective was, like I said, less as a fan than it was about, “What does baseball tell us about America?”

I think the difference in perspective has less to do with our relationship to the game than whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. In general, with our perspectives of history, and also baseball, I think that Ken tends to be more positive, or optimistic, where I tend to be negative and pessimistic. I think that helps to create a healthy tension in trying to figure out what to make of all of the stories that we have to tell.

DL: A lot of people view the film as “Ken Burns’ The Tenth Inning.”

LN: In this case it really is a film by two people. I understand that Ken has become hugely successful and famous, and recognized as a great filmmaker, so it’s hard for people to maybe think about it being a collaboration. But I think that if you asked him he would say that it really is, creatively, sort of our shared vision. What that means is that every decision was basically made by both of us. That includes who to interview, what to ask them, which stories to tell, what kind of mood—what was the perspective?—all of that was shared by us. It really is our film.

DL: What went into choosing the talking heads who appear in the film?

LN: It was sort of a process that evolved over time. We didn’t set out, at the beginning, with a master list. What we always do is start with a few people we want to talk to, and once we hear from them we realize what is missing. What did they give us and what didn’t they give us? Who would potentially be good to add a fresh perspective? Who would have particular knowledge of a certain story we want to tell? That kind of thing. So it sort of accrues over time.

We looked at the people who were involved in the original film and wanted to know which of them had continued to follow the game, were still alive, and had an interest in participating. We didn’t want to talk to only people who were in the original film, but this is a chapter in an ongoing series, so it would seem strange to have a clean break and not talk to any of them.

From there, we thought about how a lot had happened in the game and about how there have been a lot of great writers, and reporters, who have been covering it. We wanted to hear from them, some of whom were barely getting started when we were making our original film 20 years ago. Tom Verducci and Howard Bryant, for sure, were on the top of our list. But in all fairness, there are a lot of people that we could just as easily have spoken to that we didn’t. There is a limit to how many different interviews you can do in a project. We wanted to have a balance between people who have followed the game as fans, people who have reported on it, and people who have been involved directly in it.

We knew in the beginning that we wanted to talk to Joe Torre, because he was a very important figure in this era, so we were very happy to get him to participate. And we knew that we wanted to cover the rise of Latin players in the game, and Marcus Breton came to our attention because he had written a terrific book about that subject. So we gravitated toward him, and also to Pedro Martinez, as he was an extraordinary performer in the era, along with his background. Each person has their own reasons for having been chosen.

DL: One criticism I’ve heard is that more players should have been involved.

LN: We’ve heard that criticism, but first of all, let me say that we did try to contact, and have interviews with, a number of players that did not want to participate. So it’s not that we didn’t try. We also felt, from experiences we’ve had in the past, that there are many great baseball players who do their job extremely well but are either very guarded when talking to the press or just don’t say much. I’m sure that they could say something off camera, but when a camera is in their face they tend to speak in a kind of a programmed fashion with a certain modulation of emotion. They have been taught, and have practiced and perfected, how to deal with the press.

We were very selective about the players we talked to. I’m sure we could have talked to more players, but I’m not sure how much we would have gotten from them. I will say that we sat down with a list of some of the top stars of the era, and we talked to reporters and asked, “Will they tell us anything more than, ’I played my best and we had a great season as a team?’—generic stuff that doesn’t add much—and ended up basically crossing those people off our list based on that.

DL: In the film, Thomas Boswell said that a player talked of taking a “Jose Canseco milkshake," but left he his identity a mystery. As the co-producer, what are your thoughts on that?

LN: I wasn’t there that day, and he didn’t say, so you’d have to ask him. But I didn’t take it as him hiding information. I think he was just making a more general statement about the fact that supplements and steroids—performance enhancement—was not unique to Jose Canseco at that time, and that he had a sense that it was spreading. He wasn’t going to name a name, probably because, what evidence did he really have? Somebody said that he was taking a “Jose Canseco milkshake,” and that can mean a lot of different things.

I don’t think he would have named a name, but we didn’t feel it was important to know exactly who he was talking about. I don’t think that was actually the point of the comment. But I do think that we sort of get sucked into this kind of “gotcha” mentality of trying to find out who specifically tested positive. Of course, we all want to know that, but it doesn’t really address the bigger question, which is that we understand, from the Mitchell Report and from reporters we’ve talked to, that it was pervasive certainly before 2003 when the first, initial anonymous testing started. There was no reason not to use, and many hundreds, if not thousands, of players were using. A tiny portion of them have been outed. We could chip away at that list, and it would be interesting to know who else tested positive, and what else we don’t know that‘s concrete, but it doesn’t begin to address the larger issue, and the context, in which so many players used and got away with it. We’ll never know.

DL: In the eyes of many viewers, there is too much Red Sox and Yankees content in the film.

LN: We’re aware that is a criticism some people will have, and we are willing to accept that on face value. Baseball rooting is very provincial. People root for their hometown team, so it is understandable why people who aren’t from New York or Boston would feel like there is too much Red Sox-Yankees. On the other hand, given the period, in terms of actual screen time it’s not that much. The Yankees were the dominant team from 1995-2001, and that’s a large chunk of time, so we really believed that they deserved all the screen time they have.

And the Red Sox actually don’t have that much screen time, really, in the scope of a four-hour film. That comeback, and the 86-year drought, in addition to the fact that what the championship meant to fans in that region is fairly unique, I feel justifies the amount of time they were given.

We realize that if you’re from somewhere else, and we didn’t cover your team, of course you’re going to be disappointed. We understand that. But we really feel that the film is balanced. It has a lot of other teams and players.

DL: You obviously had more material than you could fit into a four-hour film, but was there anything cut that, in retrospect, maybe you should have kept?

LN: What we tried to do was make a film that was watchable in two two-hour increments. We cut a lot in our first attempt to put everything together; it was something like six hours long. But we really didn’t cut any full stories, we just trimmed down, and sort of boiled down, the material that we had. We pretty much told the stories that we planned to tell.

One of the things we did was hone the way we unfolded the story of the steroids scandal, from the beginning to the Mitchell Report and afterwards. We had long discussions with everybody we interviewed weighing in on what they thought of particular events that happened, or a particular player, or a particular revelation, and there was just too much. That’s really a lot of the weeding that we did, as opposed to hacking off entire stories and not telling them.

There are a lot of things we wish we could have gone into more detail on, but that’s always how it is. We get really involved with the stories we’re telling, so we always end up with a lot more detail than we can incorporate into a film. If we used everything, we would have just overwhelmed it.

I’d have loved to have had 15 more minutes on Ichiro, because I found him utterly fascinating. And I’d have loved to have gotten into more detail about the reasons why baseball took root in Latin America. Not just the fact that it’s there and people play it, but how did that come about? I think it is very important for us to understand why baseball is popular in the countries it is popular in, and how it got to be there. That’s a wonderful story that we weren’t able to tell. There were many things like that, but the main themes, the main stories, are there. We just had to boil them down to make the film watchable, basically.

DL: The White Sox winning their first World Series title since 1917 got very little screen time. Also notable is the fact that Ozzie Guillen became the first Hispanic manager to lead his team to a championship.

LN: I agree it was historic, and if it had been a more exciting World Series, in terms of the actual games and how they were played, that would have perhaps made it possible. But it really had more to do with the narrative structure of the episode and how the story was unfolding. It was going to be very difficult to do the Red Sox and then do another story that would be somewhat similar.

In the midst of Barry Bonds, and the steroid stories we were trying to wrap up, dramatically speaking, in terms of the Aristotelian poetics of the structure of the episode, it was difficult to find a way to really open that up and make it into a scene. I’m sure that it deserved to be in there, so we apologize to White Sox fans. It was a great story, and we hope to someday tell it. I think that Ozzie Guillen is a fascinating and really important person in this era as well.

DL: Had the Cubs won the 2003 World Series, I assume they would have been a far bigger part of the film?

LN: I’m sure. I mean, how would they not?

DL: Why do you think the Cubs are so much more popular than the White Sox from a natural perspective?

LN: Like I said, it really had more to do with the timing of how the episode unfolded. Had [the White Sox winning the World Series] happened in 2003, structurally—when happened chronologically, when—it would have been different. But “what ifs” are always interesting questions.

I think that the Cubs have had great PR over the years for being these lovable losers. They’ve had Wrigley Field, certainly. They’ve had a loyal fan base, and they’ve seemingly been bulletproof until very recently. No matter what happened, the fans were there, which I think is a very interesting story. Maybe it’s misjudged fan loyalty, I don’t know. But people love to go there, and maybe it‘s partly because of Wrigley Field, because it‘s such a gem. I think that’s a big part of the story.

DL: Do you feel that you did an adequate job of covering the statistical revolution in baseball?

LN: Well, I’m sure that people who are very interested in that will say no, but I think that it was imbedded in lots of different ways. We felt that we handled it the way we wanted to handle it. We could have gone on at length about it, but I think we fairly covered it. Look, we love the fact that people are talking about the film and arguing about whether we did, or didn’t, do things the way they would have. That’s what we look forward to, frankly. If the film spurs that kind of discussion—was there too much of this and not enough of that?—that’s great. The statistical revolution is very, very important, and we did a scene about it. We’ll stand by that.

DL: Is it a bigger challenge to chronicle recent history than it is older history?

LN: Yes, 100 percent. I’d say that was our biggest challenge, because you don’t have the perspective; you don’t have the benefit of hindsight. If you’re looking back 30 or 40 years, you know which players people still care about all these years later. You know which stories, which championship teams, which fan bases—all of things. Once time has passed, a lot kind of falls by the wayside and other things endure. It’s not rocket science to figure out which stories to focus on.

Here, it was happening very recently and we all remember living through it. What we tried to do was tell a story that really serious baseball fans will be familiar with. If you’re an adult, over the age of 25 or 30, we’re pretty sure you’ll remember. What we tried to do was give a deeper perspective, particularly when it comes to steroids.

I’m 48, and I remember being suspicious. I remember revelations coming out and I remember sort of assuming that certain people were probably doing something. I didn’t really understand where it came from; I didn’t understand the context in which it happened; I didn’t understand why they didn’t have testing; I didn’t understand the different forces at work. And I think that’s true for all fans. They kind of knew that something was going on, but they didn’t really know why, or how, or what. By putting the pieces together in a narrative, we shed… not new light in terms of revelations of who in particular was and wasn’t doing it, but rather the broader picture of what was going on in our society, and what was going on in baseball, including who should be held responsible. All of that is laid out, hopefully in a compelling way.

So it was a challenge. Things were happening while we were making the film. It caused us to have to think about how to tell the stories we were telling. We had to rewrite and rethink events as they were happening. We started working on the film pretty seriously during the 2007 season. The first interviews were filmed in the late fall, early winter, of 2008.

When the first film came out, it was very successful. It had a big audience and generated a lot of discussion, and now “the hot stove” is a different animal with the Internet and the way we communicate nowadays. We’re excited to think that people will be talking about the new film, and we welcome their input and thoughts. I think that it’s a really different time to be involved in making films because you’re able to have conversations with your viewers in a way you couldn‘t in the past. It’s kind of exciting. We recognize that baseball fans are knowledgeable about the game, so the bar was set pretty high for us. 

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