Interview by John Wisniewski
AMFM MAGAZINE: When did your interest in film begin, Peter?
PETER MILLER As a middle-schooler, I made 8mm horror movies with my friends. Our magnum opus starred a stop-motion, animated plasticine monster hatched from an M & M that created havoc during the Bicentennial. But it was when I reached college in the 1980s that I fell in love with documentaries.
My fellow student activists and I screened films to raise awareness about nuclear weapons, US intervention in Central America, and apartheid in South Africa. We watched historical documentaries that were brought to campus which introduced us to earlier generations of troublemakers — civil rights and anti-war activists, trade unionists, reds — whose commitment came alive in flickering archival images. When I moved to New York City without any training in filmmaking, I somehow landed a job with the legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple on her new labor film AMERICAN DREAM After five years of work, the film won an Oscar — and I had decided to become a documentary maker.
I started to make my own films, beginning with THE INTERNATIONALE a short documentary about a radical song that took me seven years to complete. I’ve since directed ten films, produced many more, and most recently teamed up with my daughter Nora on EGG CREAM a 15-minute short that was one of the happiest creative collaborations imaginable.
AMFM MAGAZINE: What attracts you to documentary films?
PETER MILLER My soul expands with every fascinating, worthy life I witness in a well-told documentary. At a time when cynical leaders seek to divide us, documentaries generate empathy, offer shared experiences, and a foster an appreciation of the lives of others. Documentaries are always subjective, and the ones I love the most usually come from a place of passion, while at the same time aiming to reveal important truths. I believe that by contributing to an honest and truthful understanding of the world, documentaries provide a potent antidote to lies, hatred, and ignorance. Documentary, like all filmmaking, is a deeply collaborative art form. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest filmmakers on the planet, including my long-time editor and producing partner Amy Linton. But the greatest opportunity for collaboration is often with the protagonists of our films, people who generously share their stories and allow us to translate them into cinema. I’m also attracted by the power documentaries can have to help inspire discussion and change. In recent years, documentary makers have turned increasingly to building impact strategies around our films. I’m on the board of a wonderful organization called Working Films that helps connect activists and filmmakers to put documentaries to work as resources for change. I recently produced a film called BEDLAM about the crisis in care of people with severe mental illness, that has screened in hundreds of communities in collaboration with people on the frontlines of fixing a catastrophically broken system. A documentary may not be able to change the world itself, but it can help.
AMFM MAGAZINE: Any favorite documentary filmmakers?
PETER MILLER That’s an impossible question — I have so many favorites! I have a particular weakness for films about American history. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate on a number of PBS documentaries directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who reach mainstream audiences with nuanced, beautifully told historical stories. I love anything made by the incomparable documentarian of African American history, Stanley Nelson. I’ve also recently been watching the exquisite first-person documentaries by the great Agnes Varda. I look forward to every new film by my friend Judith Helfand, who combines humor with political urgency. And I take any opportunity I can to point people to the work of Alan Berliner, whose meticulous, gorgeously crafted films are suffused in universal truths.
I always try to keep watching and learning. As I start MARCELLA, my new documentary about the cookbook writer Marcella Hazan, I’m watching films about Italy, immigration, food, and well-lived lives. In Marcella’s spirit, I’m interested in seeing what I can cook up from excellent ingredients.
AMFM MAGAZINE: Willow Pond’s most recent broadcast was “Bedlam” about the mental health industry. Could you tell us about this? Also, what was the reception like at Sundance for Willow Pond Films?”
PETER MILLER Over the past few years, I had the extraordinary opportunity to collaborate with director Ken Rosenberg on his mental health documentary, BEDLAM Ken is both a documentary maker and a practicing psychiatrist, and the film examines the crisis in care of Americans living with serious mental illness. Our nation’s three biggest psychiatric care facilities are our three biggest jails, and hundreds of thousands of people urgently needing mental health care are languishing on our streets. BEDLAM takes an intimate look at the crisis through the stories of people who are directly impacted, including Ken’s own family. I was proud to join him in producing and writing the film, which has had a powerful impact since it premiered to standing ovations at Sundance. It was broadcast this spring on PBS’s Independent Lens, just won a duPont-Columbia Award, and has been the centerpiece of a multi-year community engagement campaign.
I hadn’t been to Sundance with a film for many years and I was pleased to return with BEDLAM. Sundance is a vibrant place where people come together to celebrate the power of film. Screening there offers a film kind of visibility that independent documentary makers don’t often enjoy, in our case, taking a challenging topic out of the shadows to help it reach a much wider audience. We had six sold-out screening at the festival itself, where fellow filmmakers and industry professionals got to see and respond to the film, but perhaps the most moving event was an hour away in Salt Lake City, where the festival brought diverse members of the community together for a screening followed by an extraordinary conversation.
AMFM MAGAZINE: Could you tell us about making “Jews and Baseball,” Peter?
PETER MILLER JEWS AND BASEBALL is ostensibly about the 170 or so Jews who have made it to the big leagues, but in my mind it’s really a lens through which we can look at what’s best about America. Despite what is sometime said by people wearing red baseball hats, immigration makes America great. For generations, our nation has been elevated and enhanced by people who have come here under desperate circumstances looking for a better life. I was fascinated by how baseball, the most iconic of American institutions, offered an opportunity for Jews — a once-despised immigrant group — to overcome bigotry and bring ourselves into the American mainstream. It’s a story that has been repeated by members of other ethnic groups that have graced our national game. As with all of my films, JEWS AND BASEBALL gave me an opportunity to hear and share the stories of extraordinary Americans, including the incomparable Sandy Koufax, who was gracious enough to provide us a rare interview. But in my mind, the beating heart at the center of our narrative is when the veteran Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg collides (literally) with the African American rookie Jackie Robinson, and the two exchange encouragements. Each baseball season begins with hope and optimism, even this year in the grip of a global pandemic. And as I think about it, it’s that hope in the face of unthinkable odds that may be at the core of all of my films.
AMFM MAGAZINE: Could you tell us about making your film about Robert Shaw, and your short film “Egg Cream “?
PETER MILLER A first-time producer in Atlanta named Kiki Wilson had been working for years on a documentary about the great orchestra conductor, Robert Shaw, in whose chorus she had proudly sung. My frequent filmmaking partner Amy Linton, who is based in Atlanta, was tapped to edit the film and she brought me in as a story consultant. Before long, my role expanded and I ended up joining the team as co-director, writer and producer. Shaw was a heroic figure and a brilliant artist, driven by a passion for music as a force for civil rights and social good. But he was also an imperfect and flawed man and we realized that a film about his life would be more powerful if we presented him in all of his complexity. In the end, what began as an appreciation of a local hero became ROBERT SHAW: MAN OF MANY VOICES the epic story of a cultural giant, which won three regional Emmys and eventually reached national audiences on PBS’s American Masters.
But as labors-of-love go, my short documentary about the chocolate egg cream may take the cake. EGG CREAM began when my daughter Nora was eleven years old and asked if she could make a film with me. I was thrilled with the idea and we chose as our subject a storied chocolate soda drink born on the Jewish Lower East Side of New York. (Spoiler alert: the egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, and as the product of hardship, isn’t universally loved.) Together with her kid sister Anna, Nora and I traveled around New York City filming at places where egg creams were made, gathering stories of the drink’s origins, lore, and meaning. We intended to finish the film just after Nora’s bat mitzvah, where of course we served egg creams. But as a teenager, Nora no longer wanted to collaborate with her dad, and for years our old videotapes gathered dust in a closet. A decade later, in her 20s and now with an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she returned to the project, putting her older, wiser perspective to our old footage, finding deeper truths, and maybe even poetry, in tales of this storied beverage. Our fifteen-minute short was picked up for distribution by Icarus Films and is now streaming on the OVID art-film platform.
AMFM MAGAZINE: Any future plans and projects?
PETER MILLER I’m finishing DO NO HARM a film about palliative care that Peggy Stern, Justin Schein and I have been making for several years — it’s an exploration of visionary doctors trying to reshape American medical care. I’m developing a new film about mental health with Ken Rosenberg, my partner on BEDLAM. And I’m in the early stages of making MARCELLA a portrait of the incomparable food writer Marcella Hazan, who transformed how Americans cook, eat, and understand Italian food. Making documentaries is a lot like cooking, and I believe that the lessons of this extraordinary teacher — who urged us to work with excellent ingredients and listen to generational wisdom — reflects everything I believe in as a documentary maker. More info about MARCELLA (and a chance to donate to the film) is here and anyone with a good Marcella story, please seek me out!
About Peter Miller
About Peter Miller
Peter Miller is an Emmy and Peabody-award winning filmmaker whose documentaries have screened in cinemas and on television throughout the world. His films include A.K.A. DOC POMUS (about the legendary songwriter), JEWS AND BASEBALL: AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY (narrated by Dustin Hoffman), and SACCO AND VANZETTI (winner of the American Historical Association’s best film award). With Carlos Sandoval, he made A CLASS APART for PBS’s American Experience, now being adapted as a feature film executive produced by Eva Longoria. His musical film THE INTERNATIONALE was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination. His documentary PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA, about a WWII propaganda film unit, was shown nationally on PBS stations, as were his two collaborations with filmmaker Renée Silverman, SOSÚA: MAKE A BETTER WORLD and REFUGEE KIDS: ONE SMALL SCHOOL TAKES ON THE WORLD. Peter co-directed ROBERT SHAW: MAN OF MANY VOICES, about the celebrated conductor, winner of three Emmy Awards, for PBS American Masters. He co-wrote and produced Ken Rosenberg’s BEDLAM, about the crisis in care for people with severe mental illness, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, aired on PBS Independent Lens, and is a 2021 duPont-Columbia Award finalist. With his daughter Nora Claire Miller, he recently released EGG CREAM, a short film about the beloved chocolate soda drink.
Peter is currently collaborating with filmmakers Peggy Stern and Justin Schein on DO NO HARM, a documentary series about the Palliative Care movement in medicine, and is directing and producing MARCELLA, a biography of the legendary food writer, Marcella Hazan.
Peter has been a producer on numerous documentaries by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, including the PBS series THE WAR and JAZZ, as well as the Peabody Award-winning FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT. He has served in producing roles on landmark documentaries including THE UPRISING OF ’34, PASSIN’ IT ON, the Academy Award-winning AMERICAN DREAM, and many other celebrated films. He works regularly as a script consultant, writer, and music supervisor.