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‘The New Yorker Presents’: How Alex Gibney and Kahane Cooperman Curated the Amazon Series

This series of ten weekly half-hour episodes drawn from the rich content of The New Yorker is both unexpected and hugely entertaining.

The New Yorker Presents

Kahane Cooperman and Stacey Offman of “The New Yorker Presents.”

Anne Thompson

Produced by Condé Nast Entertainment and Jigsaw Productions, “The New Yorker Presents,” which Amazon revealed in weekly installments starting in February, is unlike anything else. Each of the 10 half-hour episodes is a uniquely curated set of documentary and fiction shorts, comedy, poetry, animation, and cartoons drawn from the rich content of The New Yorker. Both unexpected and hugely entertaining, the series is up for Emmy consideration in the informational program category.

Look at the range of the first two shows. They include Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) on bull riding, Edwidge Danticat on the connection between Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” and outbreaks of racist violence in America, Nick Paumgarten on closing the $2.4 billion Revel casino, cartoons by Roz Chast, Benjamin Schwartz, and Liana Finck, a look at The New Yorker’s archive library and fact-checking department, a beekeeper and a man who raises pigeons who work atop tall buildings, and Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”) and Lawrence Wright on how the FBI could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

Then there’s Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”) directing Paul Giamatti as 19th-century French author Honore de Balzac, and how patients with “the Truman Show delusion” believe their lives are being watched on TV. In other episodes, there’s more work from the likes of Roger Ross Williams on a Lucha Libre exotico wrestler, Dawn Porter on a nurse family partnership that does house calls to teen mothers, Lucy Walker with a visually stunning portrait of a Los Angeles chef, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein on a former Evangelical preacher who left the church and is making his own way through the world, The Way brothers, Chapman and Maclain, on a serial cat burglar who steals silver and the detectives who found him, and Jesse Moss on the Albuquerque Police Department and the killing of unarmed civilians.

I sat down with series showrunner Kahane Cooperman (winner of 11 Emmys and 2 Peabodys as executive producer of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”) and Jigsaw Productions’ Stacey Offman to find out how they masterminded this juggernaut. Cooperman also has been traveling the festival circuit with her short doc, “Joe’s Violin.”

Anne Thompson: Kahane, you had to apply for this job. What was it?

Kahane Cooperman: I was a longtime producer at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” I was there the entire time, starting in 1996 — for 12 weeks, never expecting it to become a hit. But my background was documentary film; that’s how I got hired there, and that’s how, later in my “Daily Show” career, I crossed paths a few times with Alex Gibney. When Stewart announced his departure on a Tuesday night, Alex and another Jigsaw Productions producer, Dave Snyder, separately got in touch with me the next day. Gibney said, “I don’t know what Jon’s announcement means for you, but we have a rather extraordinary opportunity here for you.” It was, and so, for the first time in 19 years, I had to go on a layer of interviews that started with Gibney and Snyder, to Amazon and Condé Nast Entertainment, then ending with David Remnick in his office for 90 minutes. And I got the job!

Cafe de Balzac

Paul Giamatti in ‘Cafe de Balzac’

Jigsaw Productions

What is Jigsaw’s relationship to “The New Yorker Presents” and how did Gibney get involved?

Stacey Offman: The New Yorker and the Condé Nast Entertainment division brought the project to Jigsaw and Amazon and said, “We need a production company. We think you’re the right fit. Let’s do this together.” They’d already sold to Amazon, so we came onboard and finished putting the whole deal together, and we were the production company running it day-to-day.

So  you have a budget, x number of episodes. How did you figure out the structure? What was a given, and how did you figure out what it should be?

Offman: The documentaries are like the anchor of the whole series.

Cooperman: Creatively, we have this pilot, and I felt that it was a very good place to start, but that there was a lot more we could do with the series. The biggest challenge was creating 10 episodes all comprised of short films based on both non-fiction and fiction from “The New Yorker.”

Was there a timespan you had to work with?

Cooperman: We can go all the way back to 1925, when the magazine first started. In this first season — and we hope it won’t be the last — we only went back about 15 or 16 years. To get this up and running was such a huge effort, because we had more than 50 films in production at one time, from both in-house teams of filmmakers and outside, acclaimed filmmakers making films for it.

Out of Jigsaw?

Offman: Yeah. This was a big undertaking, even for us, and it was a small army where we had to break down the content and what would fit into 10 episodes. We were talking a much bigger number at one point, which could’ve been quite daunting for a first season, because there’s so much to do just to get the kinks out. For us, the pilot was one thing, and it had this family small team on it. You throw a lot of resources at it, and are ultimately at the mercy of Amazon customers evaluating it. What kind of responses you’re getting.

How do they get that response?

Cooperman: Amazon’s model for programming is creating all these pilots, and then the viewers vote on them.

Offman: Stars and comments. They analyze what kind of feedback they’re getting.

And they’re giving you notes on this?

Offman: No, they don’t share that information. It’s their internal greenlighting process.

Cooperman: That’s their measuring stick, as far as we can tell.

Offman: The genesis, going back to what did everybody — Condé Nast, Amazon, and Jigsaw – want to create here. Part of the reason they came to Jigsaw is that our storytelling in non-fiction has been series, and we wanted to reinvent the magazine with a new creative approach. We were handed IP and told, “Go through everything you have. Don’t fuck it up.” We were really nervous about elevating the brand and iconography of “The New Yorker” and putting a Jigsaw spin on it. The creative genesis didn’t come from the magazine. They simply said, “Come into our archive and go for it.” We’ve been, our own selves, thinking about how to describe it: “A reinvention of a news magazine for a digital format” opens it up to a more mainstream audience, this show.

It looks like you have a good budget.

Offman: It’s a pretty healthy budget for a half-hour. But you had to pore through all this stuff.

Cooperman: When I came into it—because Jigsaw loosely programmed out of nowhere the possibility of 26 episodes—there was already a pile of stories that could maybe work in this format from “The New Yorker.” Not that were greenlit — just possibilities.

So you’re looking for material that’s easy to visualize?

Cooperman: Not every story translates to the visual, so we’re looking for doable stories. We wanted to cover a real breadth of topics, subject matter, and tone. A great thing about the magazine is that any given issue has a million dips into a million different worlds, and I felt like every episode has the potential to tap into that same thing, so we wanted to make sure we had a balance of stories that could give the same variety that the magazine has to offer. It might be really serious or quirky, playful, talk-of-the-town, or a short narrative comedy piece.

What went into the Paul Giamatti as “Balzac” short?

Cooperman: Well, we spent, in addition to staffing up, a lot of time curating all these stories from the magazine to create a menu to present to filmmakers we were going around to. So it was kind of exciting, because here we have all these great things we’d like to do. “What appeals to you? What strikes you? And, if nothing does, tell us and we’ll come back with more. Or, if you’ve read something in the magazine that’s exciting, let us know and we’ll see what we can do.” Because we had to license everything individually. Most “New Yorker” writers retain the rights to their stories.

So when it came to “La Café de Balzac” —the actual story was called, “What I Imagine Honoré de Balzac Thought During His Daily 50 Cups of Coffee”— we reached out to Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini, who I happen to know; we went to Columbia together. Also, our supervising producer, Jack Lechner, also knew them. So we showed them a bunch of stories, and the one they responded to was this one, and they said, “We’d love to have our friend Paul Giamatti do it. We’ll ask him if he’s interested.” They’d worked with him previously on “American Splendor.” And so he was. Their concept was, “We want to do one shot for every cup of coffee.” It’s this really fabulous conceit with Paul Giamatti in black-and-white and prosthetics, as Honoré de Balzac, getting more and more caffeinated as you go along, and part of the wonderful thing about it is that, when you’re at cup 35, you can’t imagine it’s still going to go on, but it does, and you get to cup 50. It’s just delightful.

I felt strongly that we create a series that had all these separate, distinct elements — all these films that were different from each other. There was non-fiction and fiction and different styles and subject matters seen through the eyes of different filmmakers. We also had four wonderful in-house filmmakers creating a lot of the content as well. I needed each episode, though, to feel like it was of the same universe. I asked myself, “What’s that universe?” Then I used “The New Yorker” and the city it represents to define that universe, and so we have very short, very cinematic pieces that take place inside “The New Yorker.” We have the copy-editors, fact-checkers, idea meetings, cartoon-captioning.

Well, on some level, this is a promo thing for “The New Yorker.”

Offman: Well, it’s — more than that.

Cooperman: I actually don’t agree with that. This is about visual storytelling and honoring these filmmakers’, writers’, and editors’ visions. It’s just not about the magazine. But it’s great to dip in to a few moments, but we kept them very short, and you just see a little glimpse of how it works. In addition to that, we have these interstitials of “Around Town,” where I took my favorite idea of, “Behind every window is a story,” and I look and say, “What’s going on behind that window? Who lives in there? What’s their life like?” We chose a bunch of different realities in New York to do 30-to-90-second vignettes where we drop into the world of New York City. It might be a tattoo parlor or a hat shop or taxidermy class or dance rehearsal. All wrap around these moments in “The New Yorker,” which aren’t even in every episode but are in some. I hope to create this universe that all these stories can live in. We don’t want this to be a promo for “The New Yorker.”

Offman: With the example of the interstitials, this is what came from the creators of the show and creates a narrative. It’s our own connective tissue that’s not the magazine. “The New Yorker” gave us insights on talent and writers that were really helpful to steer us in the right direction. It was all coming out of our shop, basically.

How did you match the filmmakers with the documentaries, and why did Alex Gibney do the one he did?

Cooperman: In the same way we presented a bunch of stories to Bob and Shari, we showed Alex a handful of stories and there were some that compelled him more than others. Certain things resonate deeply with him that he wants to communicate. This one story, he has a relationship with the writer, Laurence Wright.

“Going Clear,” right?

Cooperman: This was a topic that he’d been thinking a lot about, so that’s what he wanted to do. He had up to 15 minutes to tell this. So that’s the cap on the doc format—about 13 or 15. Almost everyone asked for more, but when you have a half-hour episode, you have to keep the balance.

Will there be a second season?

Offman: A month or two after they drop it is sort of the standard. We’re already collecting stories and imagining what it will be.

Cooperman: The whole time I was keeping a second-season list. Not just of stories, but artists and filmmakers who weren’t available but expressed deep, great interest.

Offman: It’s an amazing curatorial process, too. I think Alex was always obsessed with the “30 for 30” model. How can we do this series and bring on other directors? “The New Yorker” is a perfect opportunity to give fellow peers an opportunity. There’s a limit and you can collaborate with great people. What they’ve turned around are all so unique.

Cooperman: They either pick something out from an original story or bring it to a new place. One thing: it’s been so collaborative. Early on in the process, whenever possible, we get the filmmaker, writer, and editor on the phone together with myself and a few other of my colleagues, and we have a conversation about how a filmmaker sees this story. They ask questions, the writer gives insights into the story.

And I put a lot of thought into programming each episode. Conceptually, what we did was create the bank of content first. Then I saw what we had, came in, and programmed them like a DJ most — to control the emotion of the room.

You’re introducing everyone with the first one, making them familiar with the environment.

Cooperman: Yeah. Because it’s an unusual environment, and we’re showing things in a new way. I don’t think people are used to receiving content without a host or voice bringing them through it, or introducing them to what they’re about to see. It’s very unusual and new.

Offman: It’s meant to be an experience. You can watch them in a silo, but, as Kahane says, it’s a half-hour piece. It’s very nuanced.

Cooperman: No one piece of episode is alike. They all have different moods and feelings, taking you through this gauntlet of reactions.

Did you ask Jon Stewart to do anything?

Cooperman: I did, and it was right when he was coming up to leaving the show and not knowing what his next thing would be. I said, “I’m divining you’re a second-season guy.” And he said, “Yeah, I’m a second-season guy.” But throughout the series are more than fifty great stories, which can be one minute or fifteen.

You have these amazing stories to start with, but then the filmmaker has to reinterpret them, even if a lot of the work has been done.

Cooperman: Yeah. But the idea of the story is there and they have to take it where they can take it — especially stories written a while ago.

My favorite “New Yorker” stories are by John McPhee, where he describes the layers of rock and how California fires get created. Have you tackled him yet?

Cooperman: We haven’t, although there’s a nice nod to him in one of our short, beautiful interstitials where it goes into the archives and it starts out with the archivist doing a search for something and ends on McPhee’s article, a portfolio of all the work he’s done there, and ends with finding an article she’d been searching for since the beginning. There’s a nod, and, in the middle, you see who else is in the archive: Salinger, Capote.

Will you go into the past and do Lillian Ross, “The Red Badge of Courage”?  There’s a lot of Hollywood content to play with.

Cooperman: We would love to, but we need a season two first. There’s a lot. It’s endless. Like a treasure chest.

Are you thinking of exploring VR aspects?

Cooperman: We have actually talked to VR artists fairly recently, and if we get a Season Two… it would be so cool.

Offman: At Jigsaw we’ll do VR very soon, because how could we not? We have to educate ourselves a little more.

Cooperman: And Amazon’s very excited about that, too, so they put together a phone call with a really great VR artist. We don’t know how we’d do it, and we don’t know if we have a second season yet — but, if we do, I would really want to explore that.

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