Suzanne Bauman is the producer, director, and writer of more than eighty films, both documentary and drama. Suzanne recently produced, directed and wrote "Jackie Behind the Myth," a two-hour definitive biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for PBS, which was People Magazine’s "Pick of the Week," and is now a runaway best seller for Warner Home Video and PBS Home Video.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College and the NYU Institute of Film and TV, her two student films, "Button Button" and "The Father" starring Burgess Meredith, won numerous festival awards. She started her first production company in New York at the age of 26, and has taken crews all over the world, including Costa Rica, Cuba, England, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Haiti, Italy, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines, Peru, and Turkey. She received an Academy Award Nomination for her documentary feature "Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey," and an Academy Award of Special Merit for "La Belle Epoque".
With NEH grants she produced and directed "The Artist Was a Woman" about the history of women painters, and "The Women of Summer," about the experimental Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers. For these films she won the American Women in Radio and Television Award and a Special Jury Prize at the San Francisco Film Festival. Her clients include The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian, Vogue Magazine, ABC, CBS, and PBS. Films from this period include "Suleyman the Magnificent," "Cuba in the Shadow of Doubt," "The Vever Affair," "Light of the Gods," "Merchants and Masterpieces," "In Vogue," and "The Vision of Vanity Fair". She produced and directed the concluding documentary for "Art of the Western World: In Our Own Time" hosted by Michael Wood.
In Los Angeles, Suzanne wrote and directed "Maya" for the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, and directed several plays for the Malibu Summerstage. She created and became Executive Producer of 65 episodes of the highly successful series "Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures" (formerly "ZooLife with Jack Hanna").
Suzanne has worked with an eclectic group of celebrities, including Jane Alexander, Jules Dassin, Sir Ian McKellan, Fidel Castro, Gloria Steinem, The Rockefeller family, the Kennedy family, Gianni Versache, Ralph Lauren, Stacey Keach, Norman Mailer, Tina Brown, the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon, Barbara Cartland, Colleen Dewhurst, and Diana Vreeland.
I met Suzanne, a matronly short-haired blonde woman about 5'6" tall and around 50 years of age, at Starbucks on May 15, 2002.
Suzanne: "For the first time, I've been teaching [at UCLA Extension about producing documentaries]. The name of my company is Film for Thought, and I may call my book that. Maybe there's a jazzier title.
"I'm of the generation that fell madly in love with the art form of the 20th Century. And I've been experienced its transformation. In the '60s and '70s in New York City, there was an explosion of experimentation and openness to what film could do... And yet exclusivity as well because not a lot of people knew how to do it. It took a certain amount of hustle and chutzpah to get the $25,000 to shoot something. Film is so much more expensive than video. In that environment, if you got something done, that was enough. But now you can't even make an entry with a finished film. You've got to have a marketing plan and buzz and branding. There's just a sea of material.
"There was not a single person in my class who understood how film went through a camera.
"I think digital will take over in five years. The metaphor I use is what happened to painting when acrylic took over oil.
"I was in the first graduating class (1970) at the NYU Film Institute. Marty Scorsese was hanging around. Director Jeremy Kagan and producer David Axelrod were in my class. There were only three women in my class and 27 guys.
"I've heard people say that women can get big jobs as producers easier than directors because producing is essentially a maternal action.
"At school, I was more interested in producing drama than documentaries. A film like American Beauty would be the kind of film I'd like to make. But I've never made a feature. I've written screenplays and pitched projects but they didn't click.
"I made two documentaries about Cuba. Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey was an Academy Award nominated documentary feature tracing the Mariel boatlift from Cuba to Florida. Cuba in the Shadow of Doubt  was a history of Cuban-American relations. I did 17 hours of interviews with [Cuban dictator] Fidel Castro over two nights.
"After Shadow of Doubt was locked, meaning we had made the final cut on the documentary, I received a visit from a representative from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The documentary was already approved by WNET in New York. He watched a late night screening and said, 'The film as it is will never air.' Because in the one hour documentary, seven more minutes were given to pro-Castro speakers as opposed to anti-Castro speakers. I said, 'We are making a film about Cuba. Most of the Cubans still live there. And when you have people speak in Spanish, needing translations, every soundbite is going to be longer.
"The CPB had no right to do that. Only PBS can say whether a film can air. It was horrifying. We were shocked. I learned that day that public television is corrupt.
"We [Suzanne and her husband Jim Burroughs had a documentary producing company Seven Leagues Productions] argued through the night that this was not right. But we had $350 left in our bank account. We made changes. We took out three minutes of Cuban talk and put in more pictures of Cuban art.
"A reporter at the New York Times got wind of what we'd gone through and he wanted to blow the whistle. But I declined to speak out. We'd been through hell and back making this film. We'd been asked to spy when we went to Havanna.
"We happened to be in Key West, Florida, during the Cuban boatlift in 1980."
Luke: "Were your phones tapped?"
Suzanne: "I know it was on the second one. I had a relative whose job it was to tap phones, checked my phone and confirmed that it was tapped.
"I don't know if it was worth it. I remember thinking that thought after Fidel said goodbye at 6AM after driving us into the ground with hours of monologue. So I've met Fidel Castro. He's tall and he talks a lot and he's brilliant."
Luke: "Are those two Cuban documentaries the most controversial thing you've done?"
Suzanne: "I think the one we're doing now about dying in Afghanistan. We're waiting on ITVS (International Television Service, a branch of public television). It's one place you can go for funding for an independent view of a subject that might be controversial and of interest to an underserved audience. It's the antithesis of Ken Burns [producer who made a PBS series on the Civil War] doing baseball. Those are the type of mainline series that big corporations will underwrite without blinking an eye. I can't imagine a major corporation underwriting a serious look at the last 25 years of painful and tortured history of Afghanistan. We have footage that never got made into a film that was shot originally of the Soviet war. We went back in November. We happened to be in Jallalabad when they were bombing Bora Bora and journalists were being killed on the roads.
"Every once in a while, a documentary comes along that is an epic. This has got that potential. We have the Soviet story, then the Taliban thing and whatever you want to call the post 9/11 thing. And we have people who've lived through all of the devastation. The people are so strong. They grow like weeds through rocks."
Luke: "What's so controversial?"
Suzanne: "I think we're learning that the Soviets were not as... The Afghans think that they were really evil."
Luke: "Didn't the Soviets kill or maim a million Afghanis?"
Suzanne: "They did. Some of them did. We're understanding now that there was this Islamic [resistance to the Soviet Union] who had an agenda that has now become clear to us. The Soviet Union got it way back then because they were having their own problems. The Soviets had a point. And the kind of actions that the United States is taking right now are extraordinarily self serving. And the people aren't getting any help. Everything is getting blocked at the borders. The story of what they're going through is not being told whereas we are allowed to see American heroes marching in to save the day. We're being managed to the hilt with our news, up to and including bin Laden's relationship with the United States. We have some interviews with a Taliban guy who was with bin Laden and says that bin Laden was conferring with Americans at a certain point. I'm not clear when this was and what it was about.
"I don't have a political agenda except please stop the wars. The documentary is non-political except what is really going on here. I get really annoyed when people manipulate information."
Luke: "So you feel the American news media is being spun about Afghanistan?"
Suzanne: "I think it is obvious. This isn't even news anymore. If you got out of the United States for one second, or talked to anybody from Europe, you'd know that that's what the whole world thinks. Of course we're being spun. We got good practice at it during the Gulf War [against Iraq]. It's a well-oiled machine and hard to crack.
"There is a poetry to my documentary. I didn't want to go to Frontline with it. I don't want it hardline investigative. It's meant to be about what these people have been through. What is it like to be the chess board for the Cold War. What does that do to generations of people? It's about covering a story that no one wants to hear about.
"I moved to Los Angeles in 1989."
Suzanne has one son and four step children.
Luke: "How did you come to make your documentary on Jackie Kennedy?"
Suzanne: "I was editing a documentary on the life of John Kennedy for the Kennedy Memorial Library. I had the luxury and pain of watching every frame of footage from his entire life. And I became intrigued with her. I met her one painful day [in 1977] when she came in to screen the rough cut. She still hadn't recovered from the pain of the assasination. She was still dressed somberly.
"In the 1990s, I wrote out a five page proposal and we pitched WNET, public television in New York, about a documentary on Jackie. We figured that the only place we could make a sober documentary on Jackie and get cooperation from her estate would be PBS. If we went to A&E or some other cable place, they would want to know about her clothes and affairs. And then her estate would say no to cooperating with us because they wouldn't want Jackie sensationalized.
"I made the documentary to correct misperceptions that the woman wasn't really smart and effective. She wasn't just a pretty face. She helped form the cultural identity of the Kennedy administration. After Onassis [Greek shipping tycoon and Jackie's second husband] died, she became a book editor in New York. She would just tap people, like a millionaire, and get them to write a book."
Luke: "As a journalist, I'm always suspicious of documentaries because they are limited to what the camera can capture."
Suzanne: "I agree. That's why I wanted to do drama because then I could recreate anything I needed.
"Worse than that, when you're making documentaries, you're stalking horrible scenarios. It becomes predatory."
Luke: "Have you ever made a movie that's changed you?"
Suzanne: "Yes. Repeatedly. That's always a sign that you've done it right. Every film is the filmmaker's journey."
Luke: "That may be a benefit of documentaries because most producers I ask this question can't say yes. You work on projects you believe in."
Suzanne: "Most people would rather see a film on staying beautiful than a film on Afghanistan. So commercially I should be doing something else."