Hangar deck of USS Nimitz in PBS film "Carrier"

Character-driven Carrier to sail in April

Originally published in Current, Dec. 3, 2007
By Jeremy Egner

Top Gun as Frederick Wiseman would have directed it. An Upstairs, Downstairs featuring military brass and below-deck grunts instead of socially stratified Brits. A floating variation on Wiseman’s High School with fighter jets and 2,000-pound bombs.

These are some of the ways producers and pubTV execs describe PBS’s next big documentary splash: Carrier, a 10-hour immersive, high-def look at life on a nuclear-powered warship that will air 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern time, April 27-May 1 [2008].

Producers spent a full six-month deployment on the USS Nimitz, May to November 2005, including three months in the Persian Gulf providing air support to U.S. forces in Iraq. By day, they closely followed a handful of the more than 5,300 sailors and aviators at work on the 1,092-foot warship. By night, the production crew bunked in berths ordinarily occupied by junior officers.

The producers positioned cameras on flight decks and mounted them on jets to put viewers in one of the world’s most dangerous work environments. They interviewed carrier commanders as well as homesick teenagers about their jobs, beliefs and the lives they left behind in the U.S.

The film that emerged pairs high-octane action — Bombs! Fighter jets! Songs by Modest Mouse and the Killers! — with non-narrated, character-driven storytelling delivered in a fly-on-the-bulkhead style reminiscent of cinema verité masters such as Wiseman and Alan and Susan Raymond.

“People know the Top Gun story about the hotshot aviators,” says Maro Chermayeff, e.p. and director. “But there’s a lot of unsung heroes and really, really interesting people that are part of making the machine work.”

“The ship is like a 24-story rabbit warren,” she says.

Mitchell Block, who shares e.p. credit with Chermayeff, dreamt up the Carrier concept but found it was no easy chore to get it started. Capt. David Kennedy, a retired naval aviator and now film-industry military advisor, secured access to the ship, though that was temporarily rescinded before the Nimitz left port.

Once the filmmakers, led by Chermayeff, who previously helmed episodes of Frontier House, and Deborah Dickson, a three-time Oscar-nominated doc director, actually made it on board, they had to contend with searing heat and radar pings strong enough to knock out the electronics in their video cameras. 

Carrier followed a similarly bumpy path to distribution. Though Block and partners initially envisioned public TV as the broadcaster, the project took a winding path to PBS, finding its funding in Hollywood and then returning to pubTV by way of a French documentary festival.

Icon Productions, founded by Mel Gibson and his longtime producer, Bruce Davey, financed the series Carrier and a separate feature film on the deployment, Another Day in Paradise, directed by Dickson, which will be released in theaters sometime after the miniseries airs on public TV (not before, as once planned).

PBS ultimately acquired the film with help from the PBS/CPB Challenge Fund. No one associated with the film would discuss the price.  

The Challenge Fund’s key role, as assigned in the wake of CPB’s primetime audience research, is to help PBS move quickly to produce or acquire high-profile, audience-boosting shows, says John Wilson, PBS programming chief.

“Probably four minutes” into a screening of Carrier, Wilson says, “I was already thinking it had the potential to be one of those big things for us.”

Next spring, as a result, pubTV stations will offer viewers an unprecedented, intimate look at the thrills and sacrifices, the excitement and mundane routines of active duty on the Nimitz, says Dalton Delan, e.p. for Washington’s WETA, the presenting station.

“It took an extraordinary effort just to get the cooperation of the Pentagon to make the film, and then the filmmaking itself was really first rate,” Delan says. “The challenges were great, but it was obvious from the moment everyone saw it that they had transcended them.”

Teddy bears and bombs

One of the biggest early challenges for the production crew was actually making it aboard the ship before it sailed.

At about the time Icon greenlit the doc in February 2005, Rear Admiral Peter Daly assumed command of the Nimitz’s carrier group. When Daly learned about the project, he pulled it, Chermayeff says.

She and Kennedy flew to San Diego to convince the admiral that the filmmakers had no political agenda but instead hoped to capture the experiences of the sailors that man the ship.

“At the end of the day,” Chermayeff says, “he said, ‘See you May 7.’”

Each episode of Carrier follows a leg of the deployment while developing a theme of its own. The installment titled “True Believers,” for example, works through multiple conceptions of faith, including those of the shipmates, of the Americans in their mission abroad and of the Muslim extremists in their view that the United States is a spiritually weak, godless society.

The series ponders America’s assumed role as international policeman, with cameras following Nimitz sailors as they search for terrorist activities aboard oil rigs and ships leaving the gulf.

In personal interviews and scenes of both mind-numbing routines and death-defying flight training, the film explores the personal motivations and extraordinary responsibilities and risks taken on by a crew with an average age of 19.

“For some of these kids, it was their first time away from home — in the first berthing meeting, they were told that they were only allowed to have one stuffed animal on their beds,” Chermayeff says. “So they have the bear on their bed, and then they’re going to go up and launch a jet with a 2,000-pound live bomb that’s going to fly over Baghdad.

“And you’re watching it all and you think, ‘This is a crazy world.’”

At its heart, she says, Carrier is about “the human drama on the ship.”

“It’s very much of a character-driven story,” she says. “It’s about, ‘My girlfriend is pregnant, but I just met her and then I had to leave her for six months. Is she going to be faithful to me?’”

Of the 5,300 aboard the Nimitz, around 20 sailors — enlisted men and women and officers of various ethnic origins — emerged as the project’s primary characters. Adm. Daly, for example, plays a featured role. So does a young sailor from Manassas, Va., who armed and loaded bombs on the jets and celebrated his 21st birthday during the deployment.

Roughly half of the primary characters reappear throughout the series, Chermayeff says.

Once the Navy realized that its sailors were the focus, it didn’t attempt to exert any editorial control or otherwise interfere, Chermayeff says. After Navy brass screened the film, they asked the producers to remove three pieces detailing classified weapons systems but otherwise requested no changes.

“Classified is classified,” she says.

While the military proved to be mostly accommodating to the filmmakers, the bustling 97,000-ton hive was somewhat less so. The 17-member crew and all their equipment lived in cramped junior officer berths.

In the Persian Gulf, flight-deck temperatures reached 120-140 degrees, so hot the producers feared the cameras would sustain damage, and the ship’s powerful radar pulses forced cameras to shut down during a preliminary scouting voyage. For the six-month deployment, the producers had thick radar-proof housings added to their Panasonic HD Varicams.

Whenever the ship neared a port, Chermayeff flew to shore for more equipment and tape stock. The crew also filmed the sailors during shore leaves in Hong Kong and Perth, Australia, among other ports. Otherwise, they remained embedded aboard the Nimitz.

“I can’t really think of an equivalent production,” WETA’s Delan says. “I don’t think I would have done it, would you? It’d be too bloody difficult.”

For both hawks and doves

Block believed the project was for public TV long before PBS did.

“I felt like PBS was the logical place for it,” he says. “I wanted it to reach as much of America as possible, but I didn’t want commercials.”

Block first approached WETA about the series idea in February 2004, according to him and station execs. WETA loved the concept but concluded that the only route to adequate funding from public TV would be CPB’s then-incubating America at a Crossroads project, says David Thompson, e.p. for WETA.

The Carrier team, which also included Chermayeff and Dickson, applied to CPB for a production grant as part of CPB’s big post-9/11 documentary project and received plenty of interest from CPB. But the elaborate, pricey concept didn’t fit into the eventual Crossroads plan for a diverse slate of separate 60-minute docs.

All involved decided Carrier might have a better chance with other funders. “They essentially took the project elsewhere to find a sugar daddy,” Thompson says.

That turned out to be Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon.   

Last summer, Thompson encountered Carrier and Chermayeff at the Sunny Side of the Doc film marketplace in La Rochelle, France.

He and Delan brought the project back to PBS and CPB, which used Challenge Fund cash to secure it for the spring 2008 broadcast. Wilson announced the film at the PBS Showcase conference in May. The network secured “extensive digital rights” as well as home-video rights, according to Wilson. 

The series website will feature, in addition to the usual articles, photos and other supplementary material, an interactive tour of the enormous ship and a where-they-are-now section updating viewers on the lives of sailors featured in the film.

PBS envisions Carrier as one of the network’s high-impact “tent pole” programs designed to attract and charm viewers new to the network, Wilson says.

“Hawks can watch it and see what they want to see. Doves can watch it and see what they want to see,” he says. “It’s just one of those films, and I’m really excited about it.”

The print version of this article contained several items that are corrected for the version above, including slight changes in the account of dealings with WETA toward the end. Also, cameras were mounted on the jets but not on their wings. The producers removed three pieces of footage, not two.

Web page posted Dec. 6, 2007, revised March 12, 2008
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

PBS's next documentary splash finds human drama amid the 2,000-pound bombs of a floating fortress. At left: the hangar deck of the USS Nimitz. Below: Nimitz crew members. (Photos: Carrier Project Inc., by Alejandro de Onis, Jeff Dupre and Axel Baumann.)

Pilot aboard the Nimitz

Crew member, USS Nimitz

Marine aboard the USS Nimitz

EARLIER ARTICLES

By shooting what appears to be an intimate doc about the people of a (floating) institution, the filmmakers invite comparison with Frederick Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall films. Wiseman's latest for PBS looked at the Idaho legislature.

PBS announces Carrier, May 2007.

LINKS

Series website on PBS.org (full site to launch in mid-April).

Mel Gibson's Icon Productions is a funder and production partner in the project.

For more about the USS Nimitz, see the ship's website.

Chermayeff produced and directed three of the six episodes of Frontier House on public TV. Other credits included work for American Masters, Frontline, HBO and A&E.

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