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What is Home?
I know that this past week will be one for the history books. My grandchildren will study the week of January 3, 2020 just as they will study September 11, 2001. Thinking back, 9/11 felt like a fundamental shift. The world changed drastically in the span of a few hours on a clear Tuesday morning.
I don’t feel the same shock, sadness, or fear this time. Instead, the attack on the US Capitol Building felt like an inevitability, something that has been building for more than two decades, with a rapid acceleration over the last four years. We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight to know if the events last week are an anomaly or the start of a new era. Will more violence follow this week or next? Are state capitols next? What will it take to end all of this?
Perhaps like me, you’ve been watching the images on TV and online and thinking “is this really who we are?” There have been times over the last 4+ years where I haven’t quite felt at home here in the US. The country that I live in is not the country I grew up in, and there are times where I’m not sure that calling it home is most apt.
I spent 15 years thinking about the meaning of home when I visited homes across the country working for This Old House. Home and house are not necessarily synonymous. A house is a structure with a roof and some windows, usually made of wood or brick. Home is a feeling, a state of mind. A place where you are accepted and loved. A place where you can be your authentic self.
The concept of home was front and center during this past week’s shows. In the literal sense, I talked with Maureen McCormick about her recent work with HGTV and now Discovery+ in the home improvement genre, although that conversation took some interesting turns as we both discussed our own concepts and feelings of home. She described her experience as an adult visiting the town in Iowa where her mother was born and her parents first married and had a home. She felt home there, even though she had never lived there. Likewise, I told her about revisiting my childhood home and feeling happy that the new owners had done some renovations to make it their own.
I also talked to Craig D’Entrone about the larger definition of home. We discussed what he has learned through his new project about how Americans view themselves in this time and what our definition of our country and our culture looks like. The big question that I have after the events of this past week is who gets to write that definition?
I hope wherever you are right now and whatever you’re feeling, that the journey home is not a long one for you.
On Monday, I had an incredible talk with Maureen McCormick, who is probably best known for playing Marcia Brady on The Brady Bunch and its various spin offs. In the last few years though, she has become a regular fixture on HGTV and even has a new home renovation show on the streaming platform Discovery+ (more on that below).
We started by chatting about her experience during the pandemic, which included an amazing story about bringing her husband to a closed business center parking lot for a safe place to run and exercise away from others after hiking trails were closed in California. We also talked about the division in the country right now and what it might take for us to become more unified:
“I think about that every day. I was brought up by a mom and dad that were always trying to bring everyone together. They taught me that we really need to celebrate each other, and we need to celebrate our differences and accept one another. And sometimes when we try to change people, we’ll only push them further away. So I believe that we really need to learn how to talk in new ways, to hear each other’s hearts. I do believe, deep down, people are good. And we really need to try to find that in each other and go from there. Because when we find that commonality, we let down our barriers, even if we disagree. So I think that can be an opening.”
Last week, the new streaming service Discovery+ launched, which includes content from HGTV, Food Network, Discovery, TLC, and Animal Planet, among others. Maureen has a new series on the platform called Frozen in Time (her tweet embedded above includes a preview of the show). Maureen and her cohost Dan Vickery visit old homes, mostly from the mid-century period, that are still in original condition, which often means very dated. They help renovate the homes, maintaining some of the period charm, while also updating them for modern life. Maureen told me what she likes about working on this series:
“What’s great is walking into these homes, hearing the stories of why these people have these homes, what their needs are, what they want, what they’ve been having problems with. To me, when you go into these old homes, you want to keep the heart of the home, you want to preserve the beautiful things about those periods. It’s always challenging. It’s so wonderful to see the people after the changes have been made and see how they can now live in the homes in a new way, where they can really use them and enjoy them more.”
I’ve always known Maureen as an actor (I mean, The Brady Bunch was in reruns five days a week during my childhood), so it has been interesting to see her get more involved with HGTV, especially given my own history with This Old House. It turns out that her love for old houses goes way back, even predating her Brady years:
“I actually have always loved home improvement. I grew up in a house where home was so important to my mom and dad. They loved everything home. They never had a lot of money, but they always made the best with every penny that they saved, and believe me, my parents saved their pennies. My mother clipped every coupon she could find, there were four kids, my father was a school teacher. And they were so proud when they saved and could buy a house. They loved old, American, classic furniture, and antiques, and vintage pieces. And they gave me that love.”
Maureen’s passion for old houses and vintage furniture have informed how she decorated her own house:
“I’ve always dreamed of having a really beautiful, old, historic home. I don’t live in one, our home is from the 80s. One of the first things I did when we got it was put wainscoting on the walls, and trim here, and try to design old bookshelves and built ins that look like they are old. I just was so passionate when we moved in here to try to make it look like it was older. And that’s still a dream that I have one day, is to live in a beautiful old home with a ton of history. But we’ve made our own history in the home that we have and have so many amazing memories here.”
Of course, the project that started Maureen’s run with HGTV was A Very Brady Renovation, where HGTV bought the original home in Studio City that had served for exterior shots on The Brady Bunch and made it over to match the original interior sets that had been on the Paramount lot.
In her biography published in 2009, Here’s the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice, Maureen recounted her sometimes difficult relationship to the character of Marcia Brady. In watching A Very Brady Renovation, Maureen and all of the other Brady kids seemed to be genuinely enjoying the project. She has since come to accept and enjoy the role of Marcia, but it has not always been an easy journey, as she described to me:
“There was a point where I was like I don’t want to be around The Brady Bunch, because when you’re an actor, you want to play different roles. I love challenges, that’s why I got into the industry, that’s what I love doing. But I learned how great, really, the show was and it does mean so much to me. It’s so wonderful that the show is so loved by so many people and I’ve grown to love it more and more. And I think, you get to a point in your life where hopefully you can really embrace your past and embrace those things that are a special part of your life.”
As an audience member (and a former home improvement show producer), I was truly in awe of every part of A Very Brady Renovation. Every room was lovingly recreated to match what was seen on TV originally, and some major construction challenges came up to accommodate all of the spaces from the set without making any modifications to the front facade that would change the iconic roofline of the show.
I asked Maureen what it was like seeing the final reveal of that project:
“I was blown away and I had this out of body experience. I remember getting goosebumps, like I felt the hair standing up on my arms, and my heart, it was crazy the reaction that I had. I walked in that front door and was standing on the landing, and I visually saw Florence [Henderson] and Bob [Reed] sitting in two chairs, and Annie [B. Davis] coming in from the kitchen in her blue outfit with the white apron with a pot and a wooden spoon. I seriously saw them. And I looked around and I could feel the crew members, I could feel our parents, our families, it was so bizarre. It was so crazy.”
Maureen’s new show Frozen in Time is now available on Discovery+ (if you’re on Verizon Wireless, there’s a free year available for people on certain plans, so check that out).
On Thursday’s episode, I spoke with Craig D’Entrone, who is show running the really ambitious American Portrait project for PBS (though the interview was recorded long before the events in Washington DC had transpired). It seeks to tell the story of America at this moment through user submitted, self-shot videos. The American Portrait website allows you to explore how more than 13,000 stories from people from every state and territory, as well as submit your own answer to various prompts.
American Portrait also includes a four part broadcast series that expands on a handful of individual stories that are representative of specific topics. Because of the self-taped nature of the series, production was able to continue without disruption during the pandemic. However, Craig noted to me that his biggest challenge was keeping his team connected while working remotely, and it turned out that introducing some simple routines helped:
“We’ve had regular massive morning Zoom meetings, almost every day. We were doing them every day, now we’re doing them every other day or so at 10am. Really short, like 10, 15 minutes. Basically just to kind of mark the start of the day. To say ‘okay, we’re at work now.’ People have found that really helpful to have this morning meeting, even if it’s super super short, that just gives them a little structure to your day and marks the start of it.”
Using only self-taped footage is an interesting storytelling device, but I found that the novelty of it disappears very quickly and that I was able to get lost in the stories like in any good documentary. My eye as a director noticed that there was really good coverage for each story and that the style of shots kept me engaged. Craig described how smart phones and social media has empowered everybody to be a video producer:
“We knew going into it was that every person is a storyteller, that’s what makes us human. But the question for us is, well is everyone a filmmaker? Can everyone film themselves in a way where we can, at the very minimum, see and hear them, but also in ways that are interesting and compelling and really capture what they’re doing and the emotions behind them. And the answer, in a lot of ways, was yes. YouTube and Instagram and TikTok, people have created a new visual vocabulary, a shared visual vocabulary, because of this technology. There are a lot of people out there who really know how to use their camera and know how to use it well, and do things that we never would’ve expected.”
Craig has many years of experience in verite style projects, having produced the MTV series TrueLife and other similar reality series. He is used to using a small documentary crew that’s minimally invasive, yet he was surprised how differently the subject reacts when there is no crew present at all:
“The way that people talk when it’s just their phone is kind of like inner monologue. It’s more of a pure access of the way people actually speak and think. You could see that the amount of time it takes people to get comfortable with having a film crew around them, if they ever do get comfortable, it was completely different here. You can see that people are kind of thinking ‘well, I’m just talking to my phone and whatever they use from this they’ll use,’ and in many ways, I think people are less filtered in this dynamic when they can just film themselves.”
The entire goal of the American Portrait project is to answer the complex question of what it means to be an American. I had to ask Craig after working on this project for so long how he would answer that question:
“As corny as it sounds, I think that we are just fundamentally optimistic. We are a people who look forward and seldom look back. Sometimes to our detriment, and sometimes that optimism is foolhardy, but it’s real. Almost to a person you’ll hear stories, sometimes of extreme hardship. Especially during the pandemic and the economic collapse. And of course during the uprising, you know, the frustration and anger at the racism in our country and the systems that perpetuate injustice, and still, most of those stories will end with ‘but I have hope for the future. I believe things will get better. I believe I can make things better.’”
The four part docuseries American Portrait is running now on PBS. Here is the entire first episode, which looks at the question of the American Dream:
On Monday, I have a really great conversation with another documentary filmmaker. Kahane Cooperman produced and directed The Antidote, which is a film that looks at kindness. I was incredibly moved by this film and it gave me a lot of hope for our world. Kahane also was a producer at The Daily Show for nearly two decades, so of course we talked about that a little bit too.
On Thursday, my guest is scheduled to be producer and author Don Hahn. He was an animation producer for many years on films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. He later moved on to documentary producing, on everything from nature films to his latest project Howard. That Disney+ film looks at the life of lyricist Howard Ashman, who worked on classic soundtracks like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin before dying of AIDS in 1991.
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