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The Art of the Documentary: Lauren Lazin on Making Television With a Conscience

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Megan Cunningham, author of The Art of the Documentary: Fifteen Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, and Producers, 2nd Edition, profiles and interviews Lauren Lazin, an MTV executive who has produced, written and directed a wide array of documentaries.
This chapter is from the book

Lauren Lazin is not your typical television executive. She recognizes the value of her show’s strong ratings and the importance of the MTV News and Specials department (which she formed in 1992) to the network’s public image. Her priorities, however, are more closely aligned with an activist’s or an independent filmmaker’s. Lazin remains committed to producing work that addresses social issues affecting contemporary youth, and she’s interested in working with the film world’s leading documentary filmmakers. As an executive who produces dozens of shows a year, she’s focused first on treating her show’s real-life characters with respect, and second with impacting viewers in a meaningful way that touches their lives. “I tell filmmakers who come to us, ‘Take everything you think is MTV and just put that away, because that’s not what we do here.’”

Prior to joining MTV, Lazin graduated from the acclaimed masters program in Documentary Film Production at Stanford University. She came to New York in 1985 when The Flapper Story, her film school project, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/New Films series and won a Student Academy Award. “I had a film that I had written, produced, directed, and edited. So, I could come here as a filmmaker, which was great.”

While the majority of her work over the past 20 years has been at the MTV television network, where she’s held a variety of production executive positions, Lazin continues to direct films. She’s chosen topics that have earned her awards and rave reviews from diverse political organizations. She has made documentaries for the National Organization for Women (NOW), and received honors for her work from the National Association of Minorities in Communications, and the Ryan White Youth Service Award for outstanding contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS among teenagers. In 1996, the Women’s College Coalition featured Lazin in its national ad campaign promoting women’s education.

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Lauren Lazin received the Student Academy Award for her film, The Flapper Story.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Lazin.

In her capacity as an MTV executive, Lazin also works to insure that the network’s programs have an impact on the community through off-air channels of promotion. “A lot of documentary filmmakers are motivated by outreach: They want to get their message out, they want to affect people,” Lazin says. “MTV has been a direct way to do that. We’ve always made sure our pieces include heavy educational outreach. We’ve even given our films to schools and libraries.” Lazin shared with me numerous accounts of MTV programs having a direct impact on the issues they addressed, and on teenagers’s lives. In 1995, for example, she produced a film about child sexual abuse, Fight Back, which was featured in a special screening for Congress.

Lazin is fiercely committed to using the network to launch the type of work she cares about. A recent example is a new project, I’m Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust, which brings to life newly discovered diaries written by teenagers during the Holocaust, many of whom were peers of Anne Frank. For this project, Lazin received network support, but also fund-raised outside the network to complete the financing. “You’ve got to be a force of nature,” she says. “My professor Ron Alexander once told me that, and it sounds so obvious, but it’s true!” After two years of fund-raising, the project was completed and scheduled to screen at documentary film festivals before airing on MTV on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Most recently, Lazin took a leave of absence to direct MTV Film’s first feature-length documentary, Tupac: Resurrection. The film traces the life story of Tupac Shakur, the celebrated rap artist who was gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996 while driving with his record-company owner, Marion “Suge” Knight. In typical MTV form, the film was packaged with a companion book, a DVD full of ancillary footage, a Web site, and a platinum hits album.

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Lauren Lazin on location in Lithuania, shooting I’m Still Here: Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust, a project Lazin is currently directing.

Photo courtesy of Katy Garfield.

But the film is more than a marketer’s dream: It’s the embodiment of Lazin’s belief in trusting her subject’s voice to tell his own story, as reflected in the advertising slogan, In His Own Words. Throughout the film, Shakur, son of a Black Panther, speaks from beyond the grave in insightful interviews. With Tupac: Resurrection, Lazin’s first-person storytelling strategy is reminiscent of the style of programming she produces for the MTV network. In series such as True Life and Diary, the primary commitment is to honor the voices of teenagers when depicting their experiences. “The channel is the voice of young people,” she says. “Our shows are not preachy. They’re often informative and helpful, but they’re from young people, they’re from the perspective of young people. And I think that’s why they work.”

Of course, graphics and music also play a critical role in Lazin’s filmmaking style. For Tupac, Lazin and editor Richard Calderon wove Shakur’s words from “lots and lots of sources” into a tightly knit narrative of street philosophy and political oration. They then incorporated graphic composites of headlines, personal letters, and other found artifacts—many shared with Lazin by Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who served as the film’s executive producer. “His mom had his photos and his poetry and his albums. I got access to the vault, stacks of phone numbers from girls, all kinds of great things.” The film is artfully timed to an impeccable score of Shakur’s own rap music and relevant songs by others. In the tradition of MTV documentaries, many sequences correlated closely to the lyrics of popular songs. (At one point, amidst a creative montage of images of Shakur snuggling up sequentially with dozens of different female fans, the soundtrack turns to Sade’s Smooth Operator.) Lazin’s year-long research effort and diligent use of Shakur’s archives paid off. In November 2003, Tupac: Resurrection opened theatrically on 800 screens through a distribution deal with MTV’s sister company, Paramount Pictures, and was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

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Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters, 1928, from The Flapper Story.

Photo courtesy of MGM.

From Music Videos to Meaty Stories

When you joined the network, it was still early in the evolution of cable television. What was MTV like?

I was part of the second wave of MTV. The first wave was videos and the second wave was actual programming. I was in a department called Special Programming. It included everything that wasn’t a video, a promo, or a news piece; anything longer than three minutes was my area. We were considered “long-form programming.”

Right away I started doing documentaries. Doug Herzog, who is now the president of Comedy Central—he’s the man who hired me—actually told me the story that, the day he hired me, he turned to his assistant and said, “Can you imagine doing documentaries on MTV?”

But it worked out really well. I started off doing artist’s biographies: Robbie Robertson, the B-52’s, and Janet Jackson. And we did a few movie star biographies. Then, in 1990, I moved over to the news area, because I thought, that’s where all the smart people were. I said, “Can we do documentaries that are not about celebrities? Can we do documentaries about something else? How about ideas and issues?”

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The B-52’s, subject of one of the many rockumentaries Lazin produced and directed in her early days at MTV.

Photo by Janette Beckman, courtesy of Direct Management.

What was your first non-celebrity documentary at MTV?

The first one we did was on sex. It became a very long-running series called Sex in the ’90s. It was very light and fun and sexy, but it was also about parental consent for abortion, homophobia in the music industry, and HIV testing. It was real stuff that really mattered. So, the ratings were great! The shows did well. And from there we branched out and did documentaries on drugs, on religious intolerance, and all kinds of interesting topics that affect young people.

Your department was separate from the MTV News group?

Yes.

What was the news group doing at the time?

They were doing their news reporting. They were covering artist stories, celebrity stories, and Artists Against Apartheid. Anything that happened in the news. Our department would expand it, and make longer documentaries about similar topics. But our division wasn’t just celebrity-driven. My programming role models were people like Sheila Nevins at HBO and Pat Mitchell at Turner and people who had these really great documentary areas. I always thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that here at MTV?”

Your goal was to expand the scope of the network’s programming?

I wanted to produce programs that covered thought-provoking, interesting topics, but told in an MTV style.

For an audience unfamiliar with news and specials programming at MTV, can you talk about how MTV evolved from a music video channel to programming?

It evolved because the shows worked. And the more rigorous and thoughtful the pieces were, the higher the ratings were. At its cornerstone, it was because we trusted the audience. We believed our audience wanted to get really meaty, interesting stories. And we always were one of the highest-rated programs on the channel. Back when ratings for Beavis and Butthead were so high, our ratings were as high as Beavis and Butthead, and then they were as high as The Real World. And news and specials programs still do very, very well.

Beyond the ratings success, how does producing documentaries help achieve the goals of the MTV network?

  • “My background was in sociology, and I still feel like a sociologist.”

They’re certainly good for the channel in terms of image. In the beginning, they helped us not get kicked off of cable affiliates who were concerned about MTV’s influence on young people. Because we’d be able to say, “Hey, we’re also looking at guns and schools, and we’re looking at other topics, and kids are watching it.”

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