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Alumnus Editor Explains Thinking Behind Norman Lear Documentary

According to producer JD Marlow ’08, the set of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You felt more like a “theatrical set” than a documentary.

He said directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s decision to begin filming long before interviews formally began accounted for much of the standout footage in the documentary. Marlow spoke to Emerson students, faculty, and Boston-area community members in a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film on October 11 in the Bright Family Screening Room.

“You get these moments with people before an interview,” he said. “They’re genuine moments. When you sit someone down and say, ‘We’re on,’ the mood changes.”

The biographical film documents legendary TV writer, producer, and Emerson alumnus Norman Lear’s life, from his photography job at Coney Island in Brooklyn when he was a child, to landing on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.”

Lear—best known for producing groundbreaking sitcoms such as All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons—released his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, in 2014.

The film walks viewers through the arrest of Lear’s father when he was young; the intellectual influence of his first wife, Frances; his confrontation with the Black Panthers over the problematic aspects of Good Times; and his transition into activism and founding of People for the American Way after the rise of the “moral majority,” or religious right.

Just Another Version of You featured appearances by Amy Poehler, George Clooney, Jon Stewart, Mel Brooks, and Michael Keegan, all of whom testified to the impact Lear’s work had on television. They all stated that Lear revolutionized the entertainment industry by bringing social issues—such as racial justice and women’s reproductive rights—to the forefront of public discourse through his work.

“I loved the film,” said Derek Siegel ’18, who attended the screening with his editing class. “I thought it was very artful. I thought the incorporation of archival footage was pretty incredible.”

Siegel also appreciated Marlow’s visit to campus. “I think you’ll learn so much about the filmmaking process from the people that actually work in this industry,” he said. “I think that’s so crucial.”

In a discussion moderated by Visual and Media Arts Associate Professor Miranda Banks, Marlow said even though they had so much archival footage to sort through, there were still gaps in the visual narrative. He noted the recurring presence of a 9-year-old boy in the film, who Marlow explained was used to tell stories they had no material for.

He also remarked on the importance, in his and the creative team’s minds, of showing Lear’s former colleagues watching the shows they worked on together decades later. Most laughed, some cried, and some voiced some frustrations.

According to Marlow, a main question for them on set was “How do we make this film about nostalgia, but still current and ongoing?” He said, “That was a challenge.”

Kieran McKeon ’18, who also attended the screening, said these insights into the creative process were the most thought-provoking parts of the discussion.

“I thought it was interesting how they have to go through so much archival footage, and hearing his thought process on what to cut and what to keep,” he said. “I thought that was enlightening, as a potential editor.”

What impressed McKeon more, though, was how relatable Marlow was as an alumnus of his own school on what he hopes to be his own future career path.

“At one point, he was in exactly our shoes, and now he’s been in the industry,” he said. “He’s made multiple films, and he has so much insight he can bring to the table.”

The film was screened as part of Emerson’s Bright Lights Film Series.

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