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How To Become a Documentary TV Producer: 'The Sixties' Mark Herzog Leaps From DVD Extras to Working With Tom Hanks

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire July 2, 2014 at 1:24PM

Mark Herzog tells us how he went from making behind-the-scenes extras to working next to Tom Hanks.
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CNN Watching President Kennedy on TV

Mark Herzog has spent a lot of time behind-the-scenes. He still does, as a producer on the docu-series "The Sixties," but before he made it to CNN, he was in charge of those excellent DVD extras you loved to watch after checking out one of your favorite movies at home. He made what was off camera come to life via interviews, clips, narrators, and more handy tricks of the trade. On the eve of CNN's marathon catch-up session of "The Sixties," Herzog shares how he moved up the ranks from film school grad to top tier TV producer, film director, and motion picture marketer. 

So what kind of education did you have that allowed you to get into the producing field?

I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I got two BAs while I was there. One was in communications -- radio, TV, and film -- and the other one was in theater. So I was an actor for a day-and-a-half and did a lot of improv comedy, but realized I liked the idea of production and working on the other side of the camera much better. So very quickly, right after college, I started working in commercials in Chicago on many different productions there as a P.A. (production assistant) and an A.D. (assistant director) and kind of worked my way up. Then I ended up [in Los Angeles] in the late '80s. 

Was there a moment that stood out when you decided to move from acting to producing?

I would say "control" is probably the operative word. When you're an actor, you control your own talent but you're at the mercy of someone else. When you're producing something, you're the one in control, and you're the one making the decisions. As an actor you realize there are only so many things you can do about how tall you are, what you look like, your talent, so at some point you realize this is too hard to do. So I started working on commercials, and I was making money. I was making money and my actor friends were not. There's one thing right there. So you slowly move over to the thing you're making a living at.

How'd you land your first P.A. job?

I met someone. They were looking for someone, and I had some experience -- I worked at a TV station right out of college and as a camera operator. I got my first PA job and realized you had to put everything into it to get my next job. It's all freelance. I worked really hard and got the next job and just worked my way up in a wonderful town. In Chicago, to work in the entertainment field was different. In LA, a giant majority of people work in the entertainment field, but in Chicago it was very special and very fun.

CNN Diane Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Your IMDB page lists a lot of credits for special features commonly found on Blu-rays and DVDs.

I started working for a company that did a lot of behind the scenes documentaries, and then I formed my own company about 20 years ago (Herzog & Company/HCO). Our bread and butter in the beginning was working on making-of documentaries about movies and TV shows. What I came to realize was I was basically learning the art of documentary. As much as that making-of documentary might be a marketing tool for the film itself, it was still shooting hours and hours of behind-the-scenes footage, doing countless interviews, and crafting a story.

So I cut my teeth in a little documentary by doing hours and hours and hours of behind-the-scenes documentaries, and [then] got into the world of legitimate documentaries when we did "We Stand Alone Together," which was the companion documentary to the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers." I was a co-producer on that. It was a feature length film that aired on HBO almost as the eleventh episode of the 10-part miniseries. If you remember watching it, it starts with the veterans talking about a certain subject and then it goes back in time narratively to the war. Those were all interviews we did. That's how we got into real documentaries, and I've been doing that for the last 15 years. 

Was it then that your company decided to push into the feature documentaries like "The Sixties"?

"I think it's never been a better time to work on documentaries because there are so many places that are looking for documentaries."

We still continue to do marketing for feature films and for TV. We still do behind the scenes documentaries. That's still a big part of what we do. Here at Herzog we have a whole other division that works on original programming for television. We have done documentary series. We did a six-part series for HBO on Freddie Roach, a boxing coach with Parkinson's. We made a two-hour television film on "Killing Lincoln," based on Bill O'Reilly's book, for National Geographic Channel. So we go back and forth between scripted and documentary. We love to do both. We have a good relationship with Playtone (founded by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, who also produce "The Sixties"), who we made that "Band of Brothers" movie with, and we've had a wonderful creative partnership with Playtone for 15 years. 

How did this particular project come about at CNN? 

In this particular case, we started talking about the projects we'd done in the past, our relationship with Playtone, and how great it would be to do something together. We started kicking around ideas, and I think the idea for "The Sixties" came from Jeff Zucker, the idea of a miniseries about the '60s. But I think it sparked from an idea we were once talking about which was an expose of the JFK assassination through the Warren Commission, which was an idea Tom Hanks had had a while back. We were thinking about doing it for years, and I'd researched a lot of it. It started a process on doing a series on the '60s in general. 

Have you noticed a demand for more documentaries in the industry of late?

I think that it's never been a better time to do and work on documentaries because there are so many places that are looking for documentaries and documentary series. CNN made this push to do documentary series and other series like it in the last couple years, and it's great. It's great to be a part of their new push into programming that is related to the news that they do, but able to look at things from the past. I've said this before about "The Sixties," but we're creating a series about the '60s as if CNN existed back in the '60s. If they existed in the '60s, they'd be looking at something like this. 

"With 'The Sixties,' we're creating a series about the '60s as if CNN existed back then."

Why do you think it exploded now? Does it coincide with the demand for more original programming from more networks?

I think there are more outlets. For sure. And not only in cable, but in the other outlets like Netflix and other alternatives to TV. I can't tell you exactly why. Maybe the audience just is always hungry for a really good documentary that's well thought of and well made, and because there are more outlets they're seeing more and therefore wanting more. I think that's partly why. Look, I'm just happy more people want to see documentaries. 

You've got an impressive list of guests for "The Sixties," people with clear voices and relevant opinions. How did you go about choosing and acquiring that talent? 

We made a decision early on to not have a narrator in this series. We were going to let the footage from the time and the news anchors from the time carry the story via their news reports and how they reported at the time. That to us made the subject more visceral and felt more like you were watching a news report at the time. Here we have Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, or Harry Reasoner taking us through a certain story point of a particular subject from the '60s. Then from there we wanted to have two types of interviewees: We wanted experts who could look at that subject as a whole, so we began contacting offers who clearly had an overview of the particular subject. We also wanted people who lived through that time and lived through the time we were focusing on. 

What was your day-to-day workload for "The Sixties" like? 

We have many producers working on this project. We have Kirk Saduski, who's our historian in residence and picked a lot of the subjects we would go after. Then we have producers who are working the bay with editors, crafting the particular episodes. In my particular case, I had a penchant for getting the story of the assassination of JFK and the conspiracies that came out of that. I wanted to explore that and why, so that was my particular episode. A lot of the time an executive producer might be the overarching producer seeing the entire series, which I do and [...] Gary Goetzman [does]. But I did go into the bay on two of the episodes. One was the JFK episode and one was "The Long March to Freedom."

So the day-to-day consisted of spending a lot of time in the bay and looking at a lot of footage with our editor, Chris Peterson. And then, at the same time, I also did a large chunk of the interviews. I think we interviewed about 150 people, and I probably did about a third of them. I was very much interested in getting in there and getting my hands dirty. 

"The Sixties" airs a July 4th weekend marathon with special screenings Thursday, July 3rd (starting at 7pm) and Sunday, July 6th (startin at 8pm) on CNN. The next new episode, "The British Invasion," debuts on July 10th.

This article is related to: Mark Herzog, The Sixties, CNN, CNN Films, Filmmaker Toolkit, Interviews, Interviews