Capturing the Emperor

by Paul Hond
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Illustration by Ale+Ale

On his first day in the recording studio, the narrator collapsed. The director, Barak Goodman ’86JRN, rushed into the booth and helped the man to his feet. Was he OK? Goodman noticed that his face was swollen. After a moment, the narrator, Edward Herrmann, in the warm, intelligent voice that Goodman loved, explained his situation. Now Goodman had a decision to make.

Goodman was used to the challenges that come with monumental projects. In his documentary work for PBS, he had tackled far-reaching topics like the My Lai massacre, the women’s movement, and the colorful political life of William Jefferson Clinton. But his latest film, a six-hour adaptation of The Emperor of All Maladies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Columbia assistant professor of medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee, was Goodman’s most intricate assignment yet.

The documentary, which aired in March and April, would take on the history and science of cancer, and was slated to be one of PBS’s biggest broadcast events of 2015. Goodman could not risk any setbacks.

Herrmann, a venerable actor best known for his portrayals of FDR and his role as Richard Gilmore on TV’s Gilmore Girls, spoke with a self-possession that left a mark on Goodman. He revealed that he had stage-four glioblastoma — a brain tumor. (The facial swelling was from steroid treatments.) But Herrmann was resolved to narrate The Emperor of All Maladies. He assured Goodman that he could do it.

Goodman was reluctant. “I didn’t know if we would finish, and we were on a tremendous deadline at that point,” he says, seated in his dark-wood-paneled Brooklyn office. “But I rolled the dice, because I love the guy so much.”

Goodman, fifty-one, has wide, frost-blue eyes and the keen, engaged manner of a perpetual student. His films are immersive journeys into American history, eloquent and absorbing, and what he loves most about his job is the chance to dive into a topic and learn. The son of academics, he grew up in Berkeley and Philadelphia, studied US history at Harvard, and then went straight to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he was the youngest member of his class.

“That was the year I woke up,” Goodman recalls. “I immediately thought: ‘This is it.’ I had great teachers who completely turned me on to journalism.” Among them was Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who co-taught a class in constitutional law and journalism. “I wanted to be Tony Lewis,” Goodman says.

He took a step in that general direction by getting a part-time job at a Long Island newspaper, where, to his impatience, he had to cover things like local town-planning sessions. Meanwhile, some of his Harvard classmates were already at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Goodman sees the documentary not just as a historical survey of cancer treatment but also as a witness to its future promise.

One day, shortly after graduating, Goodman was visiting J-school interim dean Frederick Yu in his office when Yu’s phone rang. It was a TV station in Philadelphia. The station was looking for a young associate producer for a documentary series. Yu looked at Goodman and said, “You’re from Philadelphia, aren’t you?”

Goodman had never considered television. But he knew the station, knew the city, and decided to apply. He got the job and went back to his hometown.

The situation was not as advertised. The producer was hardly there, and the bulk of the responsibility fell to Goodman. “It was the craziest year,” Goodman says. “I had to come up with the stories and shoot them. I learned on the go. And I came to love all the tools in the toolbox. Music, visuals, writing: you could do all these things and put them together, and there it was. I was really converted to documentaries.”

Goodman returned to New York and got a job adapting the books of former Times Washington bureau chief Hedrick Smith for TV. (His exposure to Capitol Hill would serve him years later on his 2012 PBS film Clinton.) “It was a great education,” Goodman says, “but somewhere in the middle of it I decided I wanted to do my own thing.”

His catalyst was a 1985 documentary about Louisiana politician Huey P. Long, made by the filmmaker Ken Burns (with an assist from his brother Rice Burns ’78CC, ’83GSAS). Goodman saw Huey Long in 1989 and thought it was brilliant. Inspired to attempt something similar, he searched for a colorful character who hadn’t been covered in film and hit upon Richard J. Daley, the former mayor and Democratic Party machine boss of Chicago. Daley was just the sort of complicated, morally ambiguous figure that appealed to Goodman. After recruiting Burns’s cinematographer, Buddy Squires, and his writer, Geoff Ward, Goodman made his pitch to the National Endowment for the Humanities and got the funding. The film, titled Daley: The Last Boss, aired on the PBS series American Experience in 1996. Says Goodman: “Everything started with that film.”

Goodman embraced historical filmmaking. “You could make something moving and beautiful in a way you couldn’t with news,” he says. In 1996, he and his wife, Rachel Dretzin, a producer and director for PBS’s Frontline, formed a production company called Ark Media. Two of their PBS documentaries — the Emmy-winning Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, about the rape trials of nine young, innocent black men in 1930s Alabama, and the Peabody winning The Lost Children of Rockdale County, about teens in an Atlanta suburb who fall into a subculture of sex — sealed Ark’s stature. When Henry Louis Gates Jr. asked Ark to produce his series Finding Your Roots (2012-), the outfit went from a small boutique production house to a company of fifty people.

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