Nat Geo explores the rivalry behind the invention

Production and network executives behind the National Geographic Channel miniseries American Genius discuss the relationship between competition and innovation, as portrayed in the program (pictured).
June 1, 2015

America has been home to some of the most imaginative and innovative minds to have shaped the modern world, but behind each visionary stood an equally determined and ambitious rival.

Thomas Edison had Nikola Tesla. J. Robert Oppenheimer competed with Werner Heisenberg. William Randolph Hearst battled Joseph Pulitzer. Without the presence of competition from an adversary threatening to snatch everlasting fame out from under them, would we even recognize the present day?

That’s the premise behind the Stephen David Entertainment (SDE) produced miniseries American Genius – which debuts on National Geographic Channels tonight (June 1) at 9 p.m. EST/PST.

“It was really interesting to see the rivalries behind these inventions and see who actually gets credit for it and if they actually deserve the credit,” said Stephen David, president of SDE and series executive producer.

Scanning his apartment, David came across a number of everyday items most take for granted – his iPhone, a newspaper, the electricity powering his television – and began compiling and researching a list of approximately 35 of the most interesting topics to pitch to the cable net, before whittling that list down to 16 innovators of eight inventions.

By interweaving re-enactments with expert interviews and carefully selected archival footage, the eight-part series aims to shed an alternative and emotional perspective on the backstories of what pushed each innovator to their respective limits.

The retelling of these historical stories through the use of actors provides two valuable benefits, explains David. Acquiring functioning archival footage from nearly 225 years of innovation poses a rather challenging task, and often – when usable – has been filmed from stagnant and distant angles causing a cold disconnect, he says. Secondly, utilizing actors provides the advantages of tunnelling into the core emotional values of who these innovators were.

“We’re very interested in telling important, authentic, accurate stories, but also interested in bringing them to life – getting to the real human blood and guts story behind the history version,” added Michael Kovnat, executive producer for National Geographic Channel. “We were really eager to work with Stephen to do these recreations in a way that really put some meat on the bones of the history.”

“I find in these documentaries, if you care about the character then the information you’re hearing isn’t just information; it adds to the characters’ stakes,” David explained.

Without these detailed re-enactments, David argues, the distinctive personality traits and polarities that differentiated Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in the series opener, for instance, may not shine through.

Though implementing intricate historical recreations made the filming process more comprehensive, the retelling of the modern world’s most definitive moments comes not without its challenges.

While production design crews were tasked with recreating each invention – everything from Oppenheimer’s atom bomb and the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane to U.S. and USSR space capsules – one of the biggest challenges both SDE and Nat Geo faced was how to accurately portray each complicated story in the amount of time offered.

A big part of the process is fact checking. Nat Geo vetted all the research and source material gathered by the prodco’s team a second and a third time both at the script writing stage and finally at the post-production stage, Kovnat explained.

“It’s incredible to be able to unlock those stories and find the human passions and dramas that animate all these inanimate objects in our lives,” he added.

American Genius will premiere with back-to-back episodes throughout the month of June, beginning tonight at 9 p.m. EST/PST with “Jobs vs. Gates.”

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