Jun 24, 2017
BOB NIEMACK is the zealous executive producer of Discovery’s long-running docudrama medical series “Untold Stories of the ER.” Bob began his action-packed production career as an editor and won a national Emmy for editing the groundbreaking documentary “Scared Straight!” – a film he says came dangerously close to never being seen. (49:13) EXPLICIT
EPISODE NOTES - Posted June 24, 2017:
Tomorrow will mark my 25th appearance as the announcer at BOB NIEMACK’s mostly-annual softball game. Bob loves to celebrate his birthday by playing softball with friends, family and TV colleagues, and I’ve had the privilege of providing live, amplified commentary over the years at what he calls the BBBB: Bob’s Birthday Baseball Bash.
But Bob’s PIERSON TO PERSON episode STILL SWINGING has nothing to do with baseball – or softball, for that matter. Although the title is certainly a nod to our summertime tradition, this episode is really a profile of one of my first production mentors who, after 45 action-packed years in the television business, is every bit as enthusiastic about the work he does as he ever was.
I met Bob when he and his producing partner and wife, Ann Hassett, hired me as an associate producer in 1990. Bob and Ann had produced several award-winning documentaries for HBO and were just starting up a new one when I went to work for them at Niemack/Hassett Productions.
NHP documentaries focused on a wide range of difficult human experience: alcoholism and drug addition, teen pregnancy, suicide, drunk driving, prostitution, mental illness, incarceration and parole, etc. As a former sociology major at UCLA, the topics that Bob and Ann covered were right up the darker part of my alley and learning how to make films about complex social issues, while assisting them in that process, was an amazing opportunity.
The two years I spent working for Bob and Ann was like going to film school – albeit a very small, private one – and I “graduated” not only with invaluable production skills, but a filmmaking ethos that I’ve carried with me ever since. I’m talking about a compassionate and respectful approach to telling personal stories of real people, which Bob summed up beautifully when we sat down to record this podcast episode:
“The job of a documentary filmmaker is very much akin to the role of a therapist. You open up with a question and then you patiently listen. And my guiding principle for the entire process is that when we’re dealing with people who are troubled, if we’re not part of the therapeutic process, we don’t deserve to be there. Those people are not our subjects, they are our collaborators. And if you portray them in a way that they can’t live with, you’ve done them a disservice and, I think, have done something that is irresponsible."
For as long as I have known Bob, we’ve never really talked that much about his early days in production. I knew he began as an editor and that he’d edited Arnold Shapiro’s groundbreaking prison documentary “Scared Straight!” But I had no idea how enormously challenging that doc was for Bob to cut.
“Many people don’t know that when the film came back to us in the edit room, all the footage covering the convicts who were ranting at the kids had been scratched by one of the two cameras. We thought we were going to have to abandon the project. So we were forced into a curious kind of filmmaking where most of the show had to shown on cutaways – the reverses on the action. So we lingered long and hard on these kids who were being terrified by these convicts who were screaming at them, and it turned out to be very effective. And it taught me a really important lesson, which is that the story is often where the silence is. Not where the noise is. You’re attracted to the commotion of the convicts in this thing, but seeing the impact on these kids as tears well up in their eyes was so powerful.”
Necessity is, as the saying goes, the mother of invention. “Scared Straight!” went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1978 and Bob won himself a national Emmy for outstanding individual achievement in editing.
Bob and I also talk about his directorial debut on a documentary called “Shoot/Don’t Shoot,” which deals with a topic that’s as timely today as it was in 1982: the use of deadly force by police. He also recalls the humiliating moment when he and Ann were accused of lying at a public screening of their HBO film “Kids in Crisis.” And we discuss the Niemack/Hassett film that he and Ann are most proud of and that has, undoubtedly, helped save countless lives over the last 20 years.
Bob is now wrapping up his 8th season as executive producer of Discovery’s “Untold Stories of the ER” and I’m honored to have him as my guest on the 25th episode and Season 1 finale of PIERSON TO PERSON.
Many thanks to the composers of the music featured in this episode royalty free through Creative Commons licensing:
1. "Strings & Blips" by Adam Selzer - needledrop.co/artists/adam-selzer/
2. "Slow Driver" by Blue Dot Sessions -sessions.blue/sessions/
3. "I'm So Glad That You Exist" by Will Bangs - needledrop.co/artists/will-bangs/
4. "Dry Air" by Podington Bear - soundofpicture.com
5. "Ringling" by Podington Bear - soundofpicture.com
6. "Don't Go" by Podington Bear - soundofpicture.com