Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Soup Cans Interview: Will Lyman

The great Will Lyman has narrated "Frontline," the bestest show on PBS, for the last 25 years. Lyman was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Soup Cans about his distinguished career, instantly recognizable voice and about how "Frontline" teaches people that they can learn from their mistakes.

Your voice is so distinct and pretty well-known. Do you ever get recognized over the phone?

I can’t say that I’ve had that experience on the phone. There aren’t really that many people that pay that kind of attention to voices. I’ve been in situations in person, say, dealing with a salesperson, who will say as we’re concluding our business, “I enjoy your work on Frontline,” and it catches me by surprise. One guy said, “I recognized you as soon as you said ‘Hello.’”

How did the job with "Frontline" initially come about?

I had done some work on shows that were being produced by WGBH, a couple of “Nova,” a special on John Updike, narration of Eric Sevareid’s “Enterprise,” but, most noticeably, the narration of “Vietnam: A Television History.” That 13 part series, which won multiple Emmies and the Columbia-DuPont Award, got me noticed. After that aired, “Frontline” was heading into its second season and the Executive Producer, David Fanning, was looking for a narrator to be the “voice of Frontline,” somebody who would be the recognizable voice of the series. They asked me and I said, “Sure, you kidding?”

My first job for WGBH came as a result of playing in a regular Friday night poker game with an editor and a producer who happened to be working together on a program for “Nova.”

How does it feel to be known as "The Voice of Frontline?"

I’m very proud of the program, and believe it is the best long-form news journalism on the air today. I take comfort in the fact that, when I feel like I haven’t done anything else of much importance in the last 12 months, I can always point to “Frontline” as a significant contribution.

After the jump, Lyman talks about what it's like to narrate Hollywood movies as well as how he preserves his valuable voice.

What are the differences between narrating a documentary and a feature film like Little Children? Do you find one to be more challenging than the other?

Mainly, I suppose, in a feature film, you have the leeway to inject a little more personality and personal viewpoint into the storytelling. In a documentary narration, there’s a certain line I try not to cross. It’s hard to define that line, but I think of it as the point at which the viewer is listening to the wash of words and suddenly says, “Hang on a second, who’s talking?” That will happen if the viewer hears what sounds like an opinion or a blatant point of view from someone who hasn’t been properly introduced. If the narrator has also done an on-camera standup at the beginning of the show, or introduces himself personally as the “person who made this film,” he or she can say whatever he likes. But, in the case of “Frontline,” I am not introduced and therefore am not allowed by the viewer to give anything but information: no opinions, personal feelings, questioning of motives etc. The trick, of course, is to come across, at the same time, as an involved and caring human being. After doing "Frontline" for 25 years now, I may have a little longer leash than I used to have and, in a recent program, actually referred to the filmmakers as "we." The producer and I were clearly betting that the audience had grown so accustomed to my voice that the use of the first person would be accepted. But it was a considered decision.

Is one harder than the other? I don’t think so: just different. In a feature film, you have to make sure that this unseen storyteller has a presence in the reality, has a real connection to what is going on onscreen, while at the same time allowing the action to take place in front of you. In most cases, you want to feel that the storyteller is involved in the action, but not manipulating the action.

Have you ever found yourself become emotionally involved with a specific topic in an episode of “Frontline?”

Sometimes the shows make me very sad. When you look back on events, it is easy to see the mistakes we make and the opportunities we let slip away from us. It’s sad to see the consequent suffering related to bad decisions or random choices. But we are reminded of the vigilance and concentration and attention it takes to be a world or community leader in this life. And mostly I would say that is vigilance, not against evil, but against hubris; concentration, not on ourselves, but on the needs of others; and attention, not on what we think we know, but on what is happening right in front of us.

Did you ever think that the job with "Frontline" would the job that you'd be most recognized for?

In 1983? No.

How do you prepare your voice prior to a narration?

Wake up early enough to get my blood moving and my body stretched out. Try to do a mental and maybe a physical check of the three parts of the voice: bellows, reed and resonator/soundbox.

Betty Grable's legs were famously insured by her movie studio for $1,000,000. PBS should insure your voice for at least that much. What do you do to care for your voice?

It’s a part of the body, so it doesn’t need anything more than the regular care you give to anything else: nutrition, exercise and rest. The greatest threat of injury comes from screaming at sporting events, when you can strain it without even being aware. It gets awful loud in the Garden.

Your resume reveals an incredibly busy life. What's next for you?

I have a full season this year, doing Joyce van Dyke’s new play “The Oil Thief” at Boston Playwright’s Theatre in November, Athol Fugard’s “Exits and Entrances” at New Rep Theatre in March and another premiere, “The Wrestling Patient,” a collaboration between BPT and Speakeasy Stage in April.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Soup Cans Interview: David Carr

New York Times columnist David Carr has always been open about his past drug addiction and subsequent recovery. Carr has gone ahead and chronicled the events (and lessons learned) from those dark times in his new fact-checked memoir, The Night of the Gun. Below he talks to Soup Cans about the book, addiction, Bright Eyes and a fear of the title of his own book. Sort of.

What has writing a memoir taught you about memories?

Memories are really stories, stories about stories. when you recall a memory, you are generally recalling the story you told about the event, not the event itself.

We tend to remember things in ways that keeps dissonance at remove and makes us look good and feel good about ourselves in the rear view mirror.

Did you twin daughters know about most of the details recounted in The Night of the Gun. What did they think of the end result?

The girls lived it and knew all of it. They had their own version of events which is now in the narrative, but in general, in the course of raising them, first by myself, and then with my wife Jill, they learned in fits and starts about how they came into the world and how I came to end up being their parent. one of the happier circumstances of the book is that their mom, Anna, had felt that the girls would judge her harshly, but it has had precisely the opposite effect. They now have a context for the bad choices that were made by both their mother and I and have a place to put it.

Both of them like the book and are proud of it, but each felt that the end was far too pat and oversimplified. They are close, careful readers, young women who have lots of opinion, so the fact that they felt the book was a worthy exercise is a huge deal to me.

Erin was mad that I didn't pay for the rights to use a Bright Eyes song near the end of the book and I share her regret. When she and I have her final interview, we are in the Adirondacks and we go for a drive. And she cues up "At the Bottom of Everything," which includes this lyric ...

We must hang up in the belfry where the bats in moonlight laugh
We must stare into a crystal ball and only see the past
And (in)to the caverns of tomorrow with just our flashlights and our love
We must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge.

Love that song, that moment. Wish it was in the book. If there is a paperback, it will be in there.

What similarities do you see between addiction and journalism?

Each is an obsessive act performed daily and each produces a kind of endorphin charge, although for very different reasons. in the main, they are profoundly different activities though. Addiction, because of its chronicity and base nature, is really boring. I find journalism endlessly exciting.

Leon Neyfakh from the The New York Observer says this about The Night of the Gun: "After years of abuse, the memoir has found its white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true." He also calls the book "important." How do you feel about the pressure to redeem the controversial memoir genre?

The memoir is one of the most durable motifs in western literature and it has limped along for a couple of centuries without my assistance. I was beside myself with joy when Mr. Neyfakh wrote that because every hack in the world wants to think what he or she does is important. And to the extent that some people believe the book kicked the can down the road in some small way -- it is certainly not the first one that contains reporting -- I am really gratified. and I felt no pressure beyond trying to tell a true story in a way that would land on others with some literary and cultural impact.

Which actor would you want to see portray you in the inevitable movie adaptation of NOTG?

Don Knotts. Is he still alive?

You wear (understandably so) your prestigious gig at the New York Times, which you refer to as "the job that impresses," as a badge of honor. Has there ever been a time when you haven't been so proud of the "Gray Lady?"

I am not the kind of guy who brandishes his employment or his employer, or at least I would hate to be that guy. I was 45 years old when I got to the Times, so I like to think that I knew who I was and what i could do before I ended up with an NYT on my business card. And anybody who works there can tell you that no one person is necessary for the apparatus to function and function well.

And i have an immigrant's love of the place. It's not like it can do no wrong, but I work at a place where everyone is trying hard to make it better. we might head down a path that is unproductive on occasion, but it is a self-cleaning oven, one that takes it reputation for efficacy and excellence to heart and course corrects every day. it is not a posture, it is a daily task that each person there takes as a kind of covenant. I happen to believe it particularly well led right now -- Bill Keller's casual emails are better crafted than something I could do in a month -- but even when the place had problems, I was always proud to work there. Not in a hey, look at me, I got a good job, but more as part of something that is cultural good. as you can see, I've drank deeply of the Kool-aid, but how can you not argue for well-funded, ferociously prosecuted journalism at a time when reporters are being slid off into the river all over the country?

What do you most look forward to about the Carpetbagger blog once it picks up again at the end of the year?

My betters tell me a version of it may show up at this year's political conventions, so we will see how elastic the franchise is. There is something glorious and horrendous about a blog, at least the way I do it. It is there every minute, wagging its tail and wanting more. I usually say yes. And I love movies. The book has totally messed up my movie schedule but the number of great big franchise movies that turned out well -- Iron Man got it all started this summer -- has really amazed me. And my favorite moment of the summer was watching Dark Knight on the hood of my car with my 11-year-old at the Glen Falls drive-inn. A glorious (k)night with great popcorn to boot. How can you beat that?

After all you've gone through, what are you now most afraid of? Do you have a fear of death?

Even when I was a complete knucklehead, I didn't think about death much and I don't now. I had cancer before and was afraid I would die like anybody else, but it did not preoccupy my thoughts. I am afraid of lots of things. Bats scare the shit out of me. And old fashioned wooden roller coasters. And I am, ironically enough, terrified of guns of all kinds.

When can we expect the follow-up book?

I'd like to write a book again. the activity of it was surprisingly satisfying for someone who has the attention span of a gnat. The next book I write will hopefully have the word "I" in the acknowledgements and nowhere else. I'm pretty tapped out on the subject in the mirror.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Soup Cans Interview: Jackie Johnson

Regular readers of Soup Cans are familiar with one of our most popular features: "Jackie Johnson Fashion Watch." We're absolutely stoked because our fav LA news personality, fashion and weather extraordinaire Jackie Johnson herself, recently took the time to answer some of our questions. The KCAL 9/CBS 2 weathercaster spoke to us about her desire to chase tornadoes, her trendy wardrobe, and (sorry to disappoint all of you single guys out there) her upcoming wedding.

You've said that you're "fascinated by weather." When did this fascination begin? Was it sparked by something specific?

Yes! I have been fascinated by the weather since I was a little girl! Science was always my favorite subject. When I was in Elementary School I did my 5th grade science project on the weather. I used my own weather instruments and logged the weather for an entire month.

I think growing up in Michigan had a lot to do with my interest in the weather...we had severe storms every spring and summer, and extremely harsh winters. I loved the excitement and bit of fear I felt when my parents got us up and took us into the basement in the middle of the night when the tornado alarms went off. And I would have to say, like most kids, I took extreme interest during the school year hoping for just enough snow to warrant a "snow day!"

People complain about the lack of actual weather in Southern California. How do you feel about reporting the weather in Los Angeles?

Although I do miss the intensity of tracking the tropics during hurricane season, Southern California weather actually keeps me quite busy! Here we have so many different microclimates that we actually give forecasts for many different locations. For example, yesterday it was cloudy and in the 60's along the coast, but we were also dealing with record heat in the triple digits and excessive heat warnings in the valleys and thundershowers in our mountains!

We're obsessed with the outfits you wear each night during your broadcasts, mostly your impressive collection of belts. Where do you like to shop in LA?

Thank you very much! I am very flattered! I have seen your "Jackie Johnson Fashion Watch" and have to admit a few times before getting ready for work I thought to myself "What would Soup Cans say?"

The wonderful thing about LA is there are so many places to shop! I wish I had one particular store, that would make it much easier. I enjoy being outdoors so my favorite shopping is walking down Melrose/Robertson and in Santa Monica. Oh, and my friend also sells clothes so I am able to get great deals, thank goodness!

And yes, I do wear a lot of belts...my mom always told me they make the outfit look "finished."

Have you ever experienced any frightening personal moments involving weather?

I would say they have been a little more "exciting" than "frightening." But this is coming from someone who would love to chase tornadoes! One moment that comes to mind is when I worked in Miami, I was driving to work at 3am to cover a tropical storm that was moving in. To get to work I had to drive over the Key Biscayne bridge and the wind was blowing so hard I thought my car was going to blow off the bridge. About an hour later the police wouldn't let anyone drive on the bridge...

Have you ever had someone complain to you about an imprecise weather forecast you had made the day before?

Yes, we do get that every so often. But more often I seem to get "Jackie, can't you do something about this weather we're having?!"

Linus of Hollywood wrote a song about you titled "Jackie Johnson." Did you find that flattering or a bit creepy?

I found it very flattering and I like the song!

You live in tremor-prone LA. Do you buy into the theory of "earthquake weather?"

In my meteorology classes in college, we did not cover that theory. I do find it interesting when Californians tell me about their "earthquake weather" theories and how their personal experiences can attest to the theories.

Finally, we hear that you've recently become engaged. Congratulations! Who's the lucky guy and have you set a date?

Yes, thank you! I am very happy. His name is John Kidd and we will be married sometime next June. He is a former NFL player and now runs his own telecom company.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Soup Cans Interview: Dan Harris

Each Sunday, we make sure to check out the first-rate Dan Harris anchor, in our opinion, one of the only weekend news programs worth watching: ABC's "World News Sunday." Here Harris tells Soup Cans, in an exclusive interview, about his stage fright, how he copes with criticism (constructive or not) and who he has to thank for helping him match his suits and ties.

What have been some of the most rewarding and challenging parts about anchoring "World News Sunday" over the last year and a half?

It's incredibly thrilling -- and also terrifying -- to have my hands on the steering wheel once a week. I still find it very challenging on many Sundays to figure out what the lead story should be. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to cajole the senior producers into stacking the show my way (even though I usually lose).

What did it feel like to return to your Alma mater, Colby College, in 2005 to deliver the Commencement?

It made me incredibly anxious. This may sound counterintuitive for a television reporter, but I have really bad stage fright. So speaking in front of a couple thousand people (some of whom were my former French professors) was daunting.

I was also a little bit sheepish. I mean, I can't imagine those kids wouldn't have rather had a cooler speaker than me.

That said, it was a huge honor. My parents were psyched.

You've done numerous reports on controversial subject matters, such as religion. How do you respond to those who are critical of you and your stories?

To state the obvious, being criticized is never fun. We correspondents have delicate constitutions; we like our inboxes to see a regular flow of "attaboy" notes. So the reverse can smart. However, once the sting subsides, criticism is often pretty useful. A few months back, the father of one of my fellow correspondents (who's a scientist) sent a very thoughtful critique of my coverage of a story on evolution. It changed my way of thinking about science stories.

You've described yourself as "fashion-dyslexic." Has this changed much?

There is no cure for this condition. However, my fiancée, Bianca, is very vigilant. She monitors my tie choices regularly. (This is embarrassing, but I also have some pictures in my closet of which ties go with which shirts.)

You've been to some of the most dangerous places in the world like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, and Iraq. What's been the most worrisome situation you've ever found yourself involved in?

My personal favorite correspondent-in-danger story is from Torah Bora, back in 2002. I was shooting a standup, when some bullets started whistling overhead. Naturally, I got really scared and hit the ground. In the frame behind me, however, you could see that none of the Afghans were ducking. My crew gave me a lot of crap for that.

David Muir has told Soup Cans that he never wears his Red Sox cap in Yankee stadium. As a Boston native, do you?

David's a huge wimp.

Kidding. (The guy's like twice my size; he could kick my butt.)

I've never even actually been to a Yankees game.

Which of your stories are you most proud of?

I've got a story coming up next week (7/8, to be exact) that I think could be strong. "How To Buy A Child In Ten Hours." It's a Nightline investigation. We went to Haiti and negotiated to buy (but did not actually buy, of course) child slaves. Using hidden cameras, we found traffickers who were willing to sell us children -- any age, either sex -- for as little as $150. We also went out and met child slaves and their owners. Haiti has a huge child slavery problem; there are an estimated 300-thousand kids in servitude there. I had no idea about this -- or about the enormous problem of modern day slavery generally -- until I read a new book called "A Crime So Monstrous", by E. Benjamin Skinner. I recommend it.

The story I'd like to start covering more aggressively, however, is global warming. In my opinion, it's the most important problem in the world, and we (the media, the country, etc) are not talking about it enough.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

The Soup Cans Interview: David Muir

ABC “World News Saturday” anchor David Muir took the time out of his busy travel schedule to answer some questions from Soup Cans. Keep reading our very own exclusive to find out what it took for Muir to get where he is today, how the media helped save New Orleans, and what a Boston Red Sox fan should do in order to survive a trip to Yankee stadium.

What has been the most frightening journalistic moment for you?

One of the moments that stands out in my mind is a story we did during the Israeli war with Hezbollah. We were traveling through a northern Israeli town when we spotted a father outside on a patio playing checkers with his children. This wouldn't have been out of the ordinary had there not been katyusha rockets coming over the Lebanon border almost hourly. We stopped to ask why the father would take that chance with his children outside. He explained to us how his children's ears were trained to hear the sound of an incoming rocket before it landed and that they knew what to do. Moments later, we heard that piercing sound. The children raced for their bunker and moments later came the blast. The rocket had landed on a nearby home. It was a revealing picture of what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

After we emerged from the bunker, we visited that nearby home only to find a tearful and frightened elderly couple huddled together in the corner of their bedroom. Their home had been sliced by the rocket. They were terrified and rightly so.

Name a story you've done that you are most proud of and why.

To this day, I am still proud of our reporting in New Orleans. I remember sleeping on the floor of the Superdome as Hurricane Katrina was tearing through the city and ripping the roof off of the building, but we had no idea the real destruction was yet to come. Our visit to the Convention Center after the levees broke was so heartbreaking. I will never forget the woman who collapsed while talking to me. She was suffering from diabetic shock. A woman in the crowd of evacuees who happened to be a nurse came running to her aid. It was devastating to witness hundreds of evacuees with no food, no water and no medicine. I believe had the media not been there to expose such dire need, the help would not have arrived when it did.

What advice do you have for young people looking to follow in your footsteps?

I was the 13 year old carrying the cameraman's tripod, ripping scripts in the newsroom and fetching the anchorman his cokes from the vending machine at the local station in Syracuse New York.

I'm sure it was a ridiculous sight particularly given the growth chart on the newsroom wall where they would measure my height when I would return each summer. A decade later, I was sharing the anchorman's chair at the anchor desk. I don't suggest giving up your summer vacation at 13 years old, but I do encourage all aspiring journalists to intern as much as possible and to leave a mark by offering to do even the most menial of tasks. It will not go unnoticed.

You've now worked in both Boston and New York City. Are you a Yankees or Red Sox fan?

Sox. But I don't wear my cap to Yankee Stadium. Never a good idea.

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