When former BBC2 controller and Discovery Networks president, Jane Root (pictured), announced she was launching a new production company toward the end of 2008, some were surprised to see her move back to production. Root spoke with realscreen about her new prodco Nutopia, as well as her first big project for History, America: The Story of US.
America: The Story of US is due to bow on History next year. What makes now a good time for a program such as this?
Partly, something extraordinary that’s going on is the amount of stuff that you see about history in popular newspapers and popular discussion. If you look right now, people are talking about the Depression, they’re talking about the New Deal, they’re talking about how America has transformed itself in the past.
I think history is breaking out of its boundaries and you’re seeing a lot of new things that can be done about history. There’s a real sense of, ‘Where is America going next,’ ‘Where can we draw inspiration from from the past,’ ‘Who are we as a people’ – all of those things.
We were starting to work on this in the six months leading up to Obama’s election, when there was an enormous sense of a lot of people talking about where are we going, and they’re still having that conversation.
What’s the key to drawing a non-typical history viewer into history programs?
To make it kind of about now as much as it is about the past. I think the past is something that we live in. People from the past weren’t different people, they were like us but in different settings and facing different challenges, but a lot of the time the emotions they were feeling – fear, envy, excitement, energy – they’re the same [as ours]. So it’s about not making it feel completely in the past.
How are you doing this with America: The Story of US?
It’s a combination of a lot of different elements. There’s drama, there’s CGI (and lots of it), there are interviews with famous people [Colin Powell, Donald Trump, Meryl Streep, Brian Williams, Michael Douglas]. It really is the story of us; it’s everybody. I think bringing that range of people in has been really important.
Where did the name Nutopia come from?
We were just playing around with single words. But after we’d named the company I discovered it was the country that John Lennon said he was a citizen of when he was applying for his American citizenship. I didn’t know that when we named it, but I was pretty pleased to find that out.
What can we expect from Nutopia in the coming year?
My background – as an independent producer at Wall to Wall and as a broadcaster – is trying to do big, brave, scary things, and be involved in making things that are outside the box. Big, surprising things that will feel very different. America: The Story of US is the biggest project that History has ever done and it’s trying to do something that really feels like it’s going to a new place. I guess that’s the bit of my reputation I always liked the most as a broadcaster, being [considered] an innovator. So I’m keen to do that here.
Was that part of what made you decide to move back into the production world rather than working at a network?
Absolutely. I’d done two big TV networks in my time, one in Britain and one in America, and it’s very exciting to be back in the middle of TV production.
I suppose we’re going to be out there to do lots of different kinds of programming, break a few molds and shake a few things up. Do a few things differently.