Welcome to On Production, the podcast that brings you the inside scoop on the world of production. Each week I sit down with production professionals across film events, live tours, unscripted photography and project based industries to hear the stories, insights and advice on the art and science of making things happen. This week, we have Chuck Braverman, he is an incredible filmmaker with a long and storied career. And he is an expert on documentaries and unscripted television. I actually met Chuck at the Realscreen Conference in Austin, Texas, a few months ago. And, Chuck, we're really happy to have you here. Thanks for being here, man.
Cameron, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Chuck, let's jump in. I'm very curious. How in the heck did you get into filmmaking?
When I was six or seven years old. My mother took my brother and I to what was be known as a cattle call audition for a show called The Edwin's show that was live every week from the El Capitan Theatre, which was then on Vine Street, and my brother and I both got hired and did a live on air coast to coast scene with Edwin and the commercial. Later I've encountered
Have you found the footage check?
I actually have the footage. And I will give you a clip and you can roll it in. And I actually have it. It's amazing. I want to thank Well, I don't want to say who because it'll expose them for having videos from 10,000 people.
There's a cheater in every crowd. I hope those don't come back. That's all coming back
How do you like that? But in any way. So in junior high school, I became very, very obsessed with photography. And of course, I was the school photographer. And then in high school, I became the school photographer. And on the way home from Thanksgiving. When I was 14, we stopped in front of a fire station. And the doors opened and the red lights came on. And I said to my mother who was tired, let's follow those fires. And she said no, we're not following any fire engines. And of course, they were driving right towards our neighborhood. And this establishment on the corner of our block was fully involved in flames when we followed them. And I had my camera from Thanksgiving. And I took a picture of three firemen crawling out of a burning building. And I said, Okay, let's go downtown to the LA Times so I can sell them the picture. You know, I'm 14, I can't go anywhere. I'm not dry. She said no, you're going to bed. So I said okay, I went to bed. I got up. You know, at five in the morning, I had a dark room in the house. I developed the pictures from my Yoshika see, and there was this great shot of them crawling out of the door and I went I said take me to the Hollywood citizen news for the afternoon paper. And I'm caught on the front page of The Hollywood citizen news with my credit, you know photo by Charles Braverman at 14 and I was paid $10 and I was hooked from being you know, I wanted to be a photojournalist and I did that in in high school and by the time and my best friend's father was a news guy Bill stout at KTLA and CBS and he said what are you shooting stills for and getting $10 or $15 Occasionally, we need video for KTLA and CBS. So I bought a bull x and a bell and Howell and I had a Police and Fire Radio in my car and I was the weird guy with the police and fire radio in his car. I was like a young Weegee, if you know that was back in the 30s and 40s and chasing fire engines and police and I saw everything in the middle of night everybody thought I was nuts. And eventually, you know, that evolved into wanting to be a filmmaker. I went to USC film school. I was there with a class of 67 which was infamous. For the people that was a turnaround class. Most people going to film school up to then, you know, got into the shoe business. We got into show business. You know, George Lucas, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, Caleb Deschanel. You know, there were dozens of really good, terrific, successful filmmakers. And that's, that's a short version of the long version.
And then chuck. That's awesome. So I mean, what's interesting is that you clearly had this incredible interest in creating content and media from a young age and then you went to film school. What was it like? actually breaking into show business for yourself. I mean, was it going into television immediately? Was it a documentary? Like, what was the landscape of Hollywood when you graduated as a filmmaker
when I graduated in 1967 95%? I mean, first of all, there weren't any film schools around except SC UCLA, San Francisco State. And now I'm running out of film schools. Now there's like, 200, you know, around the country, Long Beach, or Spielberg went, there was no easy path. And for me, I thought it was going to be getting in the IA and becoming a cameraman, or getting in the IA was very difficult if you weren't the son of an IA cameraman at the time. And I, you know, and it was almost impossible to get on the roster. And ironically, that's like the month that things really broke for me. I had gotten on the roster, and I was an assistant cameraman on a movie called Bob and Carol and Ted nathless. I met Tommy Smothers, though and they had to because the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the number one show on television. And my mother was an amazing woman. And she had been an actress and a model before that. And she was the kind of person that just was like Forrest Gump in that she knew everybody and had been everywhere. And she met Tommy Smothers, and she came home and she said, I met Tommy, you have to go, you he wants to meet you, my son, the filmmaker, I said, Oh, come on, mother, you know, I she had a tendency to exaggerate. Anyway, I called up and I had an appointment. And I had a meeting with Tommy and we talked about me doing a short film. And it was October 68th. The elections were happening. And I did a film called American time capsule, they had a three minute slot. I was working downstairs at CBS News as a stringer. He was upstairs on the third floor, producing the Smothers Brothers show. And by the time three weeks went by, I made the film with my friend, Ken Rudolph, and another fellow. And by the time I had the film ready, they had forgotten about me and unlocked the show. And I called him and he came down to the basement. He watched the film, and he said, Stay right here, thread the film up again, stay here. And then there were like 10 people from upstairs that came down, including his brother to see the film. They cut out a music act that they had in the film, they put my film in. And it was a huge success. And it was one of those moments where I knew it was going to be a big difference. And they hired me to be the sort of resident filmmaker on the Smothers Brothers show.
No way. How long were you with that show?
I was there for the last year of the show. And if you remember, you don't remember because you're too young. But what happened was the Smothers Brothers were poking the bear, and the bear was CBS News, so to speak. And they were doing all these, you know, kind of war protesting anti Vietnam things on the show, and they got thrown off the air. And I was making, I think I forgot, you know, fortune at the time. I think it was $150 a week. I mean, literally, and I was banking on it because you know, it was like What expenses? I didn't have any expenses. And Tommy, I gotta tell you, Tommy, I mean to him, I can't believe it. I mean, I think there were three or four months left in my year that I had signed a contract. And he paid me even when they weren't on the air. They weren't doing it, I was getting 150 or $200 a week, whatever it was. And then I did another film for Tommy and Deke, the Smothers Brothers racing team special. And it just, you know, I started doing commercials and that fast film, kind of status, fast cut montage thing paid off. And I did many, many commercials for big companies. And I started a production company and that evolved and just grew and, and hired a lot of my former USC classmates, which is one of the benefits of going to film school today. You know, even though you can see and find and learn everything on YouTube, you're not going to meet the next, you know, George Lucas or Caleb Deschanel or whatever.
Chuck, have a question, which is, you know, your journey was really as a hobbyist turned into an amateur turned into a professional. As you start adding sophistication to your productions, you start adding more and more people, more specification, more technology to actually get, you know, a better product. When was it in your career where the film craft really started getting very, very elevated, like with larger crews, and more sophistication in the actual production of the work that you were making?
Well, I mean, I don't think the craft has changed the three most important things that you learn in either fiction or nonfiction. Our story Story, and story. And it doesn't matter whether you're shooting on a red and airy or a Bullock's. You got to have a good story. I mean, when you asked me this question, the thing that came to mind immediately was when I was shooting a series for Showtime called What's Up America, I had a bunch of crews we were doing like, it was our monthly show. And we did four or five episodes all over the country on different stuff. And there was a point in time where we were, we decided to switch from film to video. And we owned a 16 millimeter airy, which was bulletproof, wonderful, 16 camera, but we thought, Gee, why are we buying film processing film making work print, cutting negative and doing all that if we could shoot on these three quarter inch beta cams? And I remember installing a linear editing system in our production company, and switching over to beta towards the end of that series. I don't know if that answers the question. But that was a huge switch for us back in the late 70s, early 80s. You know, going from film to tape. And now of course, it's all digital, which is an even more radical change. And it's sort of Stipe, you and I and I honestly I'm sort of shocked when I see that some filmmakers still want to shoot and 35 millimeter, you know, and use a panel flex, which they think gives them a certain look, but I never heard anybody come out of a theater saying, Wow, did you notice this film grain in that? Film? No, they don't say that. They say that was a great story, or that actor was greater, you know? But hey, oh, who am I to question, you know, Spielberg, or any of these, you know, plus directors that want to shoot on film, let them shoot on film?
totally right. I mean, I think if, if you're a film craft is in service to your story, then you're, then you're winning the game. But if you're just interested in the gear, you're probably over indexing there. And by not I
do think I taught documentary for a long time. I think you have to if you want to be a director or a producer, you have to understand the principles of photography. And I always would emphasize, you have to understand what depth of field is, how do you control that? What is depth of field? How do you control that veil? Why do you care about depth of field? Why do I care that this background is how to focus on purpose fuzzier? You know, I'm using a full frame camera here with a lens, it's wide open at f two, eight, instead of an F, four, F five, six with it, you know, or, you know, because it looks different when you have a shallow depth of field. And, you know, people that go to the movies, they don't understand what that is, but they know something's happening. It's different. If you look at the sideline cameras at the football game, and the PGA Tour and all that they're now using these little full frame DSLRs, mostly Sony's some cannons, that give you a shallow depth of field. So when Tiger Woods is walking down the fairway to the next shot, everything behind him is out of focus on purpose. So you should understand some of the technology you don't have to be a you know, super cameraman, but you have to understand what they're doing.
Although there's no doubt. So in your career, you mentioned briefly that you started this production company. And you know, we're not going to go through your entire IMDb but you have a lot of experience having shot procedural dramas, scripted, all types of shows. I'm curious, how long did that go on for before you kind of started coming back into documentary film
about I don't know, 15 years, but I think doing a lot of commercial and corporate and documentary work. And I decided I was about 40. No, I wasn't 40 yet. Because I remember on the set of my first show St. Elsewhere, Bruce Paltrow, who was the executive producer, celebrated his 40th birthday and I think I was 39 at the time, and I just decided I should be doing dramatic scripted stuff. I had done a little independent movie in New York with no mentor, no producer, telling me what to do or not to do. I did it all on my own. And if I had to do it over again, I would have worked more on the script. And I would have worked harder to not put down the actors that are in the movie hit and run because they're really terrific, but I I think economically. Luckily, it might have made sense to be able to have a start. If I could have, of course I wanted but didn't have the money, you know. So I decided I wanted to do episodic. So I looked around for the first season of St. Elsewhere, which had been my favorite show. I was represented by ICM at the time I called my agent who represented the show or Bruce Boucher, or I had heard Paltrow had an open mind to new directors. And my agent said, Oh, you can, we can't get you an appointment there. You can't get on, forget about it. I picked up the phone. I got the number for this studio where they were shooting which is up at Radford, which is now CBS. And I called the production office. I said, Hi, my name is Chuck Braverman, I'm a filmmaker, can I come by and just observe for a couple days? And she said, What time do you want to come by? This is the truth. I said, I'll be there tomorrow morning. At nine o'clock. She said, Great. We'll have a drive on for you. That was it. I drove on. I didn't leave until I met Bruce Paltrow, who said who are you? What are you doing here? I mean, he didn't even know I was literally it was like the third or fourth day. And I said, I'm a filmmaker. I've made a little feature film like blah, blah, blah. And that's how I got my first episodic show.
And you were 39. You said, Yeah, that's so interesting. So you have this experience as kind of a young man teenager going down the journalistic approach. You start doing news, real newsreel. You get into the Smothers Brothers, you kind of kick off your career, building a production company doing commercials, you wake up one day mad as hell. And you say I'm going to get into drama. I'm going to start getting into directing, you know, narrative, and then you just do a cold call and you end up getting on. That sounds unbelievable when you retell it.
I don't think you could do it today. Because I don't think you could walk on a set like that unless you know, the producer or the director of the star somebody or your eye you know, if you were a friend of a friend of somebody, but I mean, it would literally was like that. I knew nobody at that set. I didn't know Bruce Paltrow, who by the way, was a terrific guy. And I went there and I was there. You know, their call was at seven, I was probably there at 730. You know, by the time they started shooting, I got to know everybody on the set before, like this, this tall guy came up to me, I didn't even know who he was. It was Bruce. I knew who he was, but I didn't know what he looked like. And you know, he literally said, you know, who are you? What are you doing? We became friends and they used to in those days, they would watch the 35 millimeter film in the screening room during lunch, they would grab a sandwich and run to the screening room, and the whole cast and crew was usually there. And that was my most nervous day on the second day. So I shot the first day with Norman Lloyd on location outside in the seventh level with him pretending to be stoned from you know, had chemo he was to have taken chemo on the show. And he smoked a joint for the pain and the most nervous day was in the screening room on day number two, when everybody was there looking at day number one dailies and, you know, I thought I could be fired right here. I could walk out of the screening room unemployed.
Were you a DJ at that point? Or? Or? No?
I actually was. I did. I had directed a show for Dick Clark called David Hartman birth and babies that took a month and a half. And I wasn't in the Directors Guild, I saw I worked like 35 days or something on the show for scale. So they were a DJ company, and they paid me scale for three days or something $300 A day or something like that. And somehow the DGA found out I didn't tell them I didn't know the connection to the DJ. They brought Clark productions up on charges. I had to have muscle. My first experience was going into sort of like a pseudo court and testifying like how many days did you work? I said, you know, 35 days. I was there every day. And part of it was a post you know, I cut this videotape show of this hospital Show with David Hartman on paper. When he shot it on a video. There was no easy editing system then they gave me reel to reel the reel to reel video tape, small video tape half inch or quarter with visible timecode and I cut the show literally on three by five cards on paper to get it to an exact length and then we unlined it at CFR I, which was a lab on Seward consolidated film industry CFI, which was one of the biggest labs in town in their online room. And it had to be cut to the frame, you know, not to the, to the minute or the second, but had to be exactly to the frame.
That's unreal. So for you, that's how you got into the DGA. And then you had this opportunity, you had this just kind of spark of luck and you started actually directing for television. How long was that run? You said, I think 15 years,
something like that, I think off and on. I was you know, at first I was doing a bunch of everything. And you know, it was kind of like, the first show wasn't the most important show. The second show was the most important show. And had usually had to be on the same series, which basically sent a message out that you did okay on the first show. Because anybody could say, yeah, he was fine. But if they don't hire you again, I ended up doing a second show. And then that led nine agents to get me other work on a bunch of other different shows. These shows could be really fun or really difficult, depending on the talent, and the DP. And most of the shows were fine, we're good. There, one or two were very difficult. And one or two were really a really good experience. And in my experience, I was on the first season, the first two seasons of Beverly Hills on Oh, and this was just, you know, the show was on the edge of being canceled after three or four shows because it was kind of dark, nobody was watching. It was this new network called Fox at the time, which was sort of an experimental new thing. And all of a sudden, you know, Luke Perry came on the show, and Shannon, and these kids ended up on the front pages of all the teenybopper magazines, and suddenly it exploded. And it was really interesting to see. And we knew it was gonna be a huge hit by the end of the first season. Darren Star was the creator and a writer. And I remember having a party at Aaron's house with everybody there saying like, who out of this show is gonna end up doing what, you know, oops, who's going to have a career who's not or whatever. And almost all of them had a pretty good career. They had a great run, I think it was nine or 10 years.
That's incredible. What shows did you have an opportunity to direct during that time period? So 90210 What else no
St. Elsewhere? Crazy Like a Fox for skank and cardio who were friends of mine. Cheese. I don't know. I wish I had my own.
Watch in there.
Baywatch. I did Baywatch. That was really fun. Because I was living in Malibu at the time, and I could just drive down. Big Rock writers lived at the top of big rock and would be on the set, you know, in 10 minutes. Actually, I did some episodes on the beach with 90210, which was really great also. So you know, it was like, sometimes you'd be sitting in between scenes thinking, I'm getting paid to be here on the beach and Baywatch or on Nana to know and this is just so wonderful. And so great. I was
gonna ask if if this time period in your life felt like oh man, I really broke out like I've really made it now finally, I mean,
no, I didn't feel that way yet. Because you know, television is still the minor league compared to making a feature. But I made it but it's funny. It's like, I didn't have an enormous hindsight. Now, I didn't graduate from film school, thinking I'm going to make the next Gone With the Wind or something. I loved shooting documentaries. I love shooting short films. I've done a couple of dramatic films and film school. I mean, it was an evolution for me to get to say no, that's why I was 39 years old. At the time I directed episodic shows. I just, I didn't, I didn't feel the urge to, to do that. But then once I started doing it, I really enjoyed it. And there's something really special about making a movie of the week, which is much more creative than doing an episodic show. Because an episodic show, you know, the classic, episodic show, you'd have a meeting with the producer before you start and the producer would say, you know, we're so happy to have you here. You're so creative and talented, and we want you to be really creative and talented and do your thing. But we've built these railroad tracks that this train of a show goes down. And remember, you can't steer too far away from this railroad track and go off the track, which is true, you know, you watch almost any episodic show. They look pretty much like the other shows in that series, even though they have different directors every single week, usually on dramatic shows, scripted shows, and I think the quality of the scripted episodic shows is really elevated and really terrific. Now I can watch some shows and think, wow, some of them are really good. And I don't mean just the writing, I mean, you know, the shooting of the shows and how they're done. I think some of them are great.
That's awesome. Chuck, I want to shift gears a little bit and dig into your production process. And the way that I want to do this is I want to first start by asking, and this is going to be a hard question to answer. But of all of the projects that you have worked on throughout your career. What's one that you made me feel especially proud of? Let's focus on that one. And then I want to ask about the process behind how you went about making it. So I guess, question. Part A is, what's a project that, in hindsight, you just really feel a tremendous amount of pride over?
That's a good question. I guess, in relation to your question, I would have to say, one of the projects will be weed wars, which was a series for Discovery Channel. And the reason that I feel pride in that show was because it came from a phone call that I got from an executive at Discovery Channel. And which hardly ever happened. I had done a bunch of shows for Discovery Channel. Having nothing to do with marijuana. But I got this call from this executive who said, I think we should do a show about marijuana. Are you interested? And I'm, you know, wasn't not a stoner, didn't really have any knowledge, any special knowledge of marijuana, but it was a show and I said, Sure, I'm interested. He said, Okay, go, go out, figure out what the show should be. And come back and tell me and that show actually, this was probably now eight or nine years ago, my son was just starting to direct and produce also. And he has done a bunch of shows as a freelancer for other companies. And I brought Alex Braverman in and said, you know, let's figure it out, let's do a show. And I went up to northern California and started looking around. And I discovered harbor side, which was the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world at the time. And it had the D'Angelo brothers running it. And I thought it was a really interesting place. And that the Angelo's were fascinating characters. And I walked out of the meeting with them and picked up the phone, I remember and called Alex, I said, I have our show. And at that point, then we did a sizzle, which had some other elements from all over, not just harbor side, but two or three other elements. And we submitted the sizzle to, I mean, there wasn't a slam dunk, they didn't just call me up and say, do something about marijuana. Here's a check. You know, I had to go through the process. And, you know, we developed a show, and basically, it came out to be about harbourside. And, and I'm just proud of that show, which was very tough. You know, because, you know, people were still nervous about marijuana. And I think we were way ahead of our time, even the network was extremely nervous about it. They were afraid that sponsors were going to object to being on the show, which we had no problem whatsoever. So you know, it was and it was a difficult process to because that network executive that called me and wanted me to do the show, of course, got fired, you know, a couple of months later, and I ended up working with other executives, and those executives are now working on somebody else's show. So it's twice as hard. Psychologically, you're, they're developing somebody else's show. And the fact that my son, basically, you know, was the director and producer on that show with me, but I was the executive and he was really the boots on the ground for the most part.
Chuck, pivoting a little bit over into your current work now, as really building community in the documentary space. Can you tell us a little bit about what you've been doing with West doc, and kind of describe what has been exciting about, you know, kind of building this community of documentary filmmakers in the last couple of years?
Well, I used to produce a live conference called the West dot conference with Richard proper, who was the former president of the International Documentary Association, and he also had a nonfiction distribution company. And I actually pitched him when he was at the IDA, the idea of doing a live conference, and then after his term expired, he and I got to talking about doing it and we produced a live conference in LA in Santa Monica. And for five years, and it was, we had the opportunity to meet a lot of filmmakers. And we did a pitch fest, and it was really successful on one level. But we realized it was taking us an enormous amount of time, we weren't really making any money. And it wasn't getting easier to produce. And so we stopped doing it. And then after a year or two, after that, I realized, you know, you know, I enjoyed meeting all these people and doing all these things. And when I tried to do something online, I started it on a whim, and I did the first few shows live. And then I thought it would be better if I didn't do it live, so I can, I can edit it and, and just show what I want. And I really enjoyed finding the filmmakers and finding the best films and interviewing all these people. And in the last five years, we've done 120 episodes as of today. I'm just looking at the page right now with what we have, you know, I'm very proud of the series. I've gotten into golf and full swing is done by the guys that did Formula One Drive to survive. And I had Paul Martin, who's one of the producers on one of the doc shorts, that was on the shortlist is 38 at the garden, which is a fabulous film, stranger at the gate you mentioned because I think you interviewed Josh Sif, tell which we had Navalny which the awards are this weekend, I It's one of the five Oscar doc feature nominees. And one of the it'll probably win the other. If it does, if that doesn't win, Laura Poitras has filmed all the beauty and the bloodshed, they win, we have her on the series. Then we have Jesse rudeboy, who did a terrific little film called Dusty and Stones, which nobody has seen. Because I don't know if it has distribution yet. And wild cat which didn't get nominated, which I thought was one of the best films of the year on Amazon Prime, you should watch it. AMAZING film. So it's just been a wonderful experience, you know, talking and meeting with and interviewing all these filmmakers. And I think something has magically happened in the last, especially the last year that we, you know, instead of me having to call up the filmmakers and the publicist. Suddenly I have all the publicists calling me and saying, Can we get our show on on West stock? And so, you know, some things happen when they're when they're calling you.
That's awesome, Chuck. I mean, wrapping up, I want to know, you know, over the course of your career, I feel like we've just touched on the basics of some of the things you've gone through from getting started up in your early career to, you know, really launching in, you know, your, your late 30s and episodic work, and then kind of coming back to your first love and documentary. I'm curious, just wrapping up, you know, what are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned throughout your career in production? And just any advice or words of wisdom to pass on to other production professionals?
Well, I think the most important thing that I've learned, and this couldn't be more true, I think is that story is the most important thing. It doesn't matter whether you're shooting with an airy or Venice or a Blackmagic, or a DSLR. You've got to have a good story. And the same goes for fiction or nonfiction, documentary or scripted, you gotta have a good story or something, you know that that is compelling that people want to see and doesn't hurt to have, you know, a good financial backer that can help you make that's
Amen to that. Well, Chuck Braverman thank you so much for being on On Production with us. Thank you for sharing a bit of your story. For folks that want to follow your work, where can they find you?
Well, I would suggest they go to www.westdoconline.com. That's WESTDOC. Online, no space, no caps West Doc online.com. And that's what I'm doing right now. Although I'm also the executive producer on a feature doc that my son Alex is producing and directing a biography on Andy Kaufman, which hopefully will be out soon.
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much again, Chuck, and thanks for being with us. Thank you
Find out how to build a diverse career in film or television with insights from Chuck Braverman, Oscar-nominated director and CEO of Westdoc Online.