Larry Hott's Notes on Directing

Acclaimed Director Larry Hott of Florentine Films discusses his latest historical project THE HARRIMAN ALASKA EXPEDITION:

Making a documentary film out of "The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced" is almost as daunting for the filmmakers as organizing the original voyage was for Edward Henry Harriman. In fact, the indomitable Mr. Harriman gathered his crew, launched his ship, completed his voyage and published the first two volumes of his findings in far less time than it is taking us to make a film about his story. What's more, Harriman didn't have modern communications and travel at his fingertips. He did have, of course, money and power and charisma -- an unbeatable combination at any time.

In spite of Harriman's great powers, he may have been overwhelmed by the challenges of turning history into a good television documentary. What do you show when you want to tell the biography of a famous 19th century scientist, like R. Swain Gifford or Charles Palache, when only one or two fuzzy photographs exist? How do you hold the viewers attention when the events you are retelling, the near capsizing of Edward Curtis's canoe in Glacier Bay for example, were never captured on motion picture film? What voices do you use for the characters, when no recordings of their speech were ever made?

A few years back we produced a two-part series about environmental history that presented all of these problems and then some. The first film, The Wilderness Idea, told the story of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the first great battle for wilderness: the fight over flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. John Muir, not surprisingly, was one of the most famous scientists on Harriman's boat. Pinchot, who was at one time a friend of Muir's but was to become a bitter enemy, was the protege of Bernard Fernow, the forester on the 1899 Alaska expedition. Luckily for us, both men had been photographed extensively, but the sound of their voices was lost to time. A few frames of a motion picture existed for Pinchot, he was after all, a two-timed governor of Pennsylvania, but there was none at all for Muir. What we did have were both men's diaries and memoirs; an advantage shared by the Harriman film project as well. The actual writings of the protagonists allowed us to weave together their life stories, which naturally have a beginning, middle and end, into a dramatic narrative.

To enliven the story we used professional actors for their voices. Ken Drury, a well-known Scottish performer, added charm to Muir's already irrepressible energy. (In an odd twist, Drury played Muir's overbearing father in our dramatic film, The Boyhood of John Muir.) Philip Bosco, a Broadway star, added just the right patrician touch to Pinchot's well-bred tones. Each man was in love with the American wilderness and that was the film's salvation; wilderness by definition changes little and wilderness landscapes today stand in quite well for those of the 19th century. A frisson of film clips and archival footage added historical context to the men's biographies.

Biography was also at the heart of the second film in the series, Wild By Law: Bob Marhsall, Aldo Leopold, Howard Zahniser and the Wilderness Act of 1964. Here we had the problem of telling the story of three men whose lives barely overlapped; they were more like relay runners handing off the baton of wilderness preservation. Here, too, we had few motion picture images and no sound recordings. But now the men's lives unfolded in the 20th century against a backdrop of Hollywood movies, commercials, and advertisements. The visually energetic material helped us develop an underlying dramatic tension: would Congress pass the Wilderness Act and save the country's wildlands from development?

"The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced" allows us to use some of the same techniques -diary readings, archival photographs, and stunning original cinematography. Each scientist, writer and artist on the boat has a compelling biography, giving us side bars and stories to accompany the mainevents: the voyage of 1899 and the voyage of 2001. Filming history is storytelling and here we have one grand story to tell.