Ahead of the premiere of the the latest installment of the Smithsonian Channel’s ‘The Lost Tapes’ series, realscreen presents an exclusive clip.
On July 29, 1976, David Berkowitz began a murder spree, attacking young couples in different sections of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. The attacks left law enforcement baffled and the public afraid to leave their homes. In response to the difficulty tracking down the murderer, who went by the nickname “Son of Sam”, the NYPD formed a 200-person task force, Operation Omega, to bring him to justice.
The police caught a break when a resident tipped them off about a suspicious man on her street the night of Berkowitz’s latest attack. After checking every parking ticket issued that night in the area, police got a hit on a 1970 yellow Ford Galaxie, which belonged to Berkowitz.
Forty years after his arrest, The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam sets the scene for what would become a national media frenzy.
The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam features no narration or recreations — just the story, as captured by media reports and home videos, including rarely-seen press coverage of the murders and interviews from those who knew Berkowitz.
Previous installments of ‘The Lost Tapes’ have covered Pearl Harbor and the L.A. Riots. The next installment will air November 2017, covering the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the domestic terrorist group the Symbionese Liberation Army, which ended in her arrest in September 1975.
The production team behind the series, 1895 Films, also created the Peabody Award-winning MLK: The Assassination Tapes.
Tom Jennings, founder of 1895 Films and executive producer on ‘The Lost Tapes,’ spoke to realscreen about the upcoming series.
What was the genesis for this series?
When I was a kid there was a show on Saturday mornings produced by the CBS News Division called You are There. It used the resources of the network’s news department and reporters “in the field” to cover major historic events long before television was invented. The premise of the series was asking how would CBS have covered the sinking of the Titanic? Or the collapse of the Roman Empire?
When I started doing documentary television, I discovered that the 6th Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas had acquired just about all the local television and radio reporting from the weekend that President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember saying to the curator, Gary Mack — you could do an entire film without any narration or interviews. It would be like You are There — but with the real material. Thankfully, David Royle, EVP of Smithsonian Channel shares that vision and now we have a series. Yes, it took that long.
Why do you think there is an appetite for a program like ‘The Lost Tapes’?
People are tired of trying to figure out who and what to believe in the media. Before I made documentaries I was a newspaper reporter and I’m still a news junkie — and I’m tired of trying to decipher who really has a story right. ‘The Lost Tapes’ puts viewers in the middle of major, iconic stories where viewers can experience what it was like to witness events unfold. There’s no narrator explaining what they are seeing. There are no interviews with experts telling viewers what it was like to be there. Instead, we let the actual images, sounds and words recorded at the time tell the story.
We edit the films in a way to make them entertaining and keep the story moving, but everything presented in them is as accurate as we can make it. These are stories people think they know everything about, but they don’t. There was always something else recorded that has not been broadcast.
What challenges did you face with production?
Most people think our series is driven footage, what they see on the screen. Actually, audio is king for this series. Because there is no narration and no interviews, the films are actually driven by audio that we can find, whether it be from television broadcasts, radio programs or even police dispatch tapes.
We have to start with the audio because that is the spine of the story. The audio becomes our storyteller. Falling in love with great footage is easy. We’re always having to remind ourselves with this series that it’s not how we are going to show something, it’s what are we going to hear that is going to tell us what we’re seeing.
Can you name two or three elements that you think will make this series a success/appeal to audiences?
Viewers can expect to be transported back in time and get a feeling what it was like to be a part of a major news event as it unfolded. But instead of having experts explaining what’s happening, we feel viewers get to understand what’s happening by being a part of it — as much as we can make them a part of it.
Archival images are no longer “wallpaper” as some producers like to call it. We don’t show short clips and cut away to people talking about what that clip means. In our Pearl Harbor show, for example, everyone knows President Roosevelt’s famous line, “December 7th, 1941, a date that will live in infamy.” Most viewers don’t know that is basically the first 10 seconds of his speech — and that’s all they know. His speech asking for a declaration of war on Japan was less than five minutes long, and explained in succinct terms the U.S. justifications for going to war. Because of the style of our series, we played almost the entire speech. I thought I knew a lot about Pearl Harbor and I had never heard the entire speech before.
What did you learn during the production of this project that you think would be valuable to other professionals in the industry?
Don’t settle for the “greatest hits” reel that archive providers give out when requesting images detailing major events in history. It’s very easy for a junior producer to ask a news station for what they have on Pearl Harbor, and they’ll get pretty much the same images that everyone has seen before — because that’s always been good enough.
What producers need to do is ask for the raw, original tapes from which those greatest hits came. When our researchers talk with news stations we always tell the archivists that we don’t just want what went on the air, we want the original tapes, warts and all. That’s where the life is in these stories.
What’s your favourite moment (or scene or episode) from the series?
Seeing a hero of mine — journalist Jimmy Breslin — in his prime. Breslin was a great reporter and columnist in New York. He covered the Son of Sam murders story from start to finish. In fact, the killer even wrote letters to Breslin, and those letters became part of the investigation. I was lucky enough to interview Breslin a few years ago about his time covering the Mafia in New York, but by the time I interviewed him he had long since retired.
Going through the news footage from 1976 and 1977 we were able to watch Breslin be interviewed and appear on talk shows when he was at the height of his powers. It was amazing to watch him talk — and to see how he did his job back then. Too often when we find terrific archive material we wind up just watching it for a long time before we remind ourselves we have to get back to work. It really is that mesmerizing.
Anything you’d like to add?
A few years ago, I was at a documentary conference where some producers were saying history programming was dead — and if it was history programming with archival images in it, forget about it. I asked the panelists, with millions of hours of footage out there, is it the fault of the archival images that they don’t come across as exciting, or is it the fault of we as producers for not finding imaginative ways to give it urgency. None of the panelists had much of an answer. One said, “That’s a good question.” I’m hoping ‘The Lost Tapes’ series is the answer.
‘The Lost Tapes’ Son of Sam airs July 30th at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Smithsonian Channel.