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5 stay-at-home questions with David Craig, Media Professor at USC Annenberg

David Craig, Media Professor at USC Annenberg
Take a cursory glance through social media and you’ll find myriad filmmakers, educators and enthusiasts doing whatever they can to feed their creative needs during our shared quarantine. Some are working with colleagues remotely (did you catch Saturday Night Live at Home or A Late Show with Stephen Colbert?). 

Others are taking time to learn a new skill, enter a few film festivals or knock out the latest draft of a screenplay, novel or, in the case of today’s interview, the non-fiction tale of the battle to make The Day After - and how that TV movie changed history.

Over the next couple weeks (or longer?), we’re checking in with filmmakers big and small to find out how they’re doing - and what movies are on their stay-at-home must-watch list. Know a filmmaker who we should spotlight? Email us at midwestmovies@gmail.com.

Today we’re talking to David Craig, a Media Professor at USC Annenberg, who writes academic books about social media, influencers, creators, and YouTubers. He spent three decades as a Hollywood producer and TV executive making TV movies. You’ve heard of plenty of them, too: Flight 93, Girl Fight, The Kings of South Beach, Wedding Wars and more.  


5 stay-at-home questions with David Craig

Midwest Movie Maker: How would you describe being a filmmaker stuck at home without a crew? and How are you stretching your filmmaking skills while at home? 

Editor’s note: David mentioned that, since he isn’t an active filmmaker presently, he couldn’t really provide answers for questions No. 1 and No. 2. Instead, let’s grab some of his bona fides from his USC Annenberg bio.

David is a veteran, Emmy-nominated, Hollywood producer and TV programming executive, as well as publishing executive and theatre producer. Over the past three decades, he helped produce over 30 films, television movies and series, web series, documentaries, books, graphic novels, and stage productions. These projects have garnered over 70 Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody and Humanitas prizes and nominations, more often foreground topics around cultural heritage, history, literature or social issues, and were made available commercial-free as pedagogy for schools across the country.  

As an activist, David serves on the Board and Jury of the Social Impact Media Awards. For decades, he has been involved in the LGBTQ social movement. He was an early board member of GLAAD, producer of multiple LGBTQ-themed TV movies and plays, featured in a number of books on LGBTQ marriage equality, and has conducted research and delivered lectures as a queer media scholar and historian. His UCLA dissertation mapped the critical production and cultural pedagogical history of LGBT-themed TV movies over the past half-century from That Certain Summer (1972) to The Normal Heart (2014).


Flight 93, produced by David Craig for A&E
Flight 93, produced by David Craig for A&E
MM: What passion project are you working on now that you’ve got extra time?

DC: I have even less time now, but if I did have time I’d work on my book I'm pitching to publishers in hopes of turning it into a limited TV series. It is about the battle over making the TV movie The Day After.  

This was the most watched TV movie of all time, with 100 million viewers, based on a fictional account of a Soviet nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas, and the aftermath. The film came at the height of the Cold War - and peak broadcast TV. 

Turns out the making of the film was even more dramatic, with battles at the network, with producers, and, most remarkably, Reagan’s White House and right wing and religious conservatives.  

The film was not only highly rated, but the live ABC News debate that aired after was even more incredible. The world's most powerful public intellectuals civilly discussing the end of the world.  

Most remarkably, Reagan watched the film at Camp David and wrote in his notes that he was deeply affected and felt the need to do something to stop nuclear holocaust.  

This period coincides with "Reagan's reversal," when he stopped talking about a winnable nuclear war and building "Star Wars" and secretly started negotiations with the Soviet Union, leading to the end of the Atomic Arms Race.  

Wish me luck!

MM: If you were asked to make a movie about this COVID time, what would it be? Pitch it to us!

DC: I would remake the British Mini-series Traffic, which was later made into the Soderbergh film of the same name. Only instead of following the drug trade, I'd follow the path that the virus has taken. A bit like Soderbergh's Contagion, if also a remake of the French film La Ronde.  

Like Traffic, it would be told through the deeply personal stories of people's lives affected by it.  Starts with a bat and ends with the batshit U.S. president. In between, we discover the real stories of those Chinese victims and heroes who never get mentioned in Western media, then on to cruise ship passengers, Italian villages, first responders, and five years into the future, when the world is recovering - until someone walks into a market with another exotic live animal.  Because the film turns out to be less of the story of COVID, than a critique of capitalism and globalization.


The crew of 'Galaxy Quest'
MM: What five films are a must for everyone stuck at home?

DC: This may be a bit much, but I recommend two AIDS-themed TV movies. 

And the Band Played On was an HBO movie that captured how the politics of the time allowed the AIDS virus to kill a generation of gay men. It's a remarkable example of how history keeps repeating.    

The other one is Angels in America, my favorite text (book, play or film), which is similarly themed but remarkable because, even at the height of that pandemic, it's a great reminder to hope because "The world only spins forward.”  

The third and fourth are also political films. A Face in the Crowd and Network.  I'm always amazed at how brilliantly these films predicted everything we're living through today.  

And finally, and ridiculously, Galaxy Quest. It is one of my guilty pleasures. And also a reminder of how TV, film, narratives have always provided inspiration and hope for a better future..and defeating evil.

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