The Lure & Logistics of Producing Documentaries

WHAT DOES A CHINESE HISTORY class at Taft in the 1980s have to do with an unsung World War II cryptologist? Both triggered the imagination of Hilary Klotz Steinman ’86, who produces documentary films about historical social issues that continue to affect us today.

Steinman studied modern Chinese history with Headmaster Emeritus Lance Odden and continued those studies after Taft, majoring in Asian studies at Williams College. Steinman had a teaching fellowship in China, and while there, she lived across the street from the Pearl River Film Company. Intrigued, she became a “fixer” (someone who helps local film and TV crews with scouting, booking, and interpreting for foreign talent), eventually leaving teaching to work on a PBS series about modern Chinese history, China: A Century of Revolution, and to work for Bill Moyers developing Become American: The Chinese Experience, a PBS series about Chinese American history.

Steinman has been producing documentary films for more than 20 years, with subjects as varied as contraception (The Pill, for which she won an Emmy) and the environmental toll of the digital revolution (Death by Design).

Her most recent release is The Codebreaker, the story of the untold hero of cryptology, Elizebeth Smith Friedman. The documentary explores the life of Friedman, the groundbreaking cryptanalyst whose painstaking work to decode thousands of messages for the U.S. government helped send gangsters to prison in the 1930s and brought down a massive, nearly invisible Nazi spy ring in World War II. Friedman, whose husband, William Friedman, was also a cryptanalyst, was bound by secrecy agreements, meaning she could never reveal her role in taking down Nazi spies during her lifetime. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director, claimed credit for Friedman’s work, claiming that the FBI had brought down the spy ring.

Hilary Klotz Steinman ’86 producing an interview remotely during the pandemic in June 2020 for her documentary film The Codebreaker for American Experience on PBS.

Hilary Klotz Steinman ’86 producing an interview remotely during the pandemic in June 2020 for her documentary film "The Codebreaker" for American Experience on PBS.

“In this film, like many others, yet again J. Edgar is the No. 1 villain,” Steinman says. “The FBI is getting all their messages encrypted by Elizebeth’s...unit. What J. Edgar does is write Elizebeth’s unit out of history so it looks like the work of the FBI. After the war, Elizebeth is bound by a code of silence. She could never talk about it—it was a deep tomb of silence she could never get out of. To add insult to injury, Elizebeth is a civilian hire, and at the end of the war, she’s told, ‘Your services are no longer needed,’ and she was let go just shy of being able to receive her full pension.

“Elizebeth’s story is one of sexism and secrecy,” Steinman adds. “She could have leaked it, but she didn’t because she was a patriot. She could have worked in com- mercial industry making cipher devices, but Elizebeth and her husband chose to work in government because they were patriots. She could have quit, but there were Nazis to fight, there was a war to win, so she stayed and was the unofficial leader of her code-breaking unit.

Documentary filmmaking has been Steinman’s passion, particularly those films showcasing social justice issues, including her work as a co-producer on the first episode of the PBS series Slavery and the Making of America, a four-part documentary reexamining the lives of enslaved people through their own stories.

“I love working on social justice documentaries because it is great to be able to look at an issue from the point of view of personal stories that shine a light on problems in the world, help inform and educate people, and hopefully add to the conversation about how to do better in the future,” Steinman says.

In May, Steinman began working with Engel Entertainment, which creates everything from unscripted reality to history programming feature-length documentaries to digital content, and more.

She is the senior vice president and executive producer of the documentary division, and will be developing and overseeing documentary projects for the new small start-up division.

Steinman also has her own production company, Napatree Films, and has been working on a documentary about the hunger-fighting “community fridges” that have sprung up in communities hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Putting a documentary together is a logistical puzzle according to Steinman. “You’re getting deep into the story and the issues—who are the storytellers, why tell this story now, why is it meaningful, and why would people watch it. Every new film is a new topic, a new group of people.

“In documentaries, you are not even as good as your last film. You still have to fight to get that next film. It doesn’t matter how great the idea is, it’s still hard to get funding.”

To get funding, you have to spend money to make a trailer or a sizzle reel to show “proof of concept” and demonstrate it is a compelling story. Developing a documentary involves many moving pieces, such as historical research, then finding source materials, documents, photos, letters, and more. The really fun thing is to find a gem no one has seen before, she says.

“As a director, you have an artistic vision,” she says. “You have to invest so much to get each film rolling and to attract funding. Once you get funding, that’s the fun part.”

—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84