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Road to the Oscars: Corinne Marinnan

From stage to screen to an Academy Award for BU alum


Producer Corinne Marinnan (CFA’95) and director Eric Simonson backstage at the 2006 Academy Awards after winning best documentary short for A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin. Photo by Jeff Vespa

To mark next Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation, BU Today is featuring interviews each day this week with alumni who have their own Oscar histories. Today we hear from Corinne Marinnan (CFA’95), who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject, for 2004’s A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin.

As an undergraduate in BU’s College of Fine Arts, Corinne Marinnan planned to spend her professional life working in the theater. After graduation, Marrinan (CFA’95) moved to Chicago, where she worked at the Goodman Theatre and met and befriended actor William Petersen. When Petersen moved to Los Angeles to work on a new show called CSI, he invited Marrinan to join the production.

Marrinan spent the next nine years on CSI, where she worked her way up from producing assistant to associate producer to one of 10 staff writers on the show. At the same time, she was producing documentary films, collaborating with another friend she’d met in the theater, director Eric Simonson.

Marrinan and Simonson’s first film, On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, about the all-male South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject, in 2000. The two friends teamed up again five years later to work on a film about legendary writer and radio director Norman Corwin, whose 1945 broadcast on the end of World War II in Europe, “On a Note of Triumph,” was heard by an astonishing 60 million Americans, nearly half the population of the United States. A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject.

Since then, Marrinan, who left CSI last season, has gone on to make more documentaries and continues to write for television.

BU Today asked the filmmaker to reminisce about her career and her moment in the Oscar spotlight.

BU Today: How did the idea for A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin come about?
Director Eric Simonson and I met while working in the Chicago theater. We were both big fans of the writer Studs Terkel, and Eric had approached Studs about us making a documentary about his life. Studs had just turned 92, and his health was failing. He decided he wasn’t up for the project. Instead, he told Eric that we should make a documentary about his friend Norman Corwin. “Corwin is the bard of radio,” Studs told Eric. He urged us to revisit Corwin’s classic radio broadcast “On a Note of Triumph,” which was broadcast on V-E Day. The piece is remarkable on many levels, not only for its poetry, but because it melded both patriotic and pacifistic sentiments. In the broadcast, Corwin speaks about both the worth, and the cost, of war. At the time we started the film, the United States had just invaded Iraq, so it seemed appropriate that the world be reminded of this opus.

We learned that Corwin, at 93, was living in Los Angeles, still writing and teaching at the University of Southern California. Researching his body of work was awe-inspiring. He agreed to meet with us, and we immediately felt this was the right time to tell his story. He is a man who is substance over flash, and who was therefore lost in the shuffle of the midcentury’s transition from radio to TV.

Did you think the film would end up winning an Academy Award?
A Note of Triumph was a challenging film to make, and not just financially. It’s about the power of words and ideas, so we didn’t have a lot of eye candy to throw on the screen. But we had great interviews, a strong thesis, and an uplifting tone. The bigger film festivals didn’t pick us up, and HBO passed on it initially. We actually considered not spending the last $20,000 to make the film prints required to apply for the Oscars. In the end, the film prints went on my credit card, and the submission went to the Academy. It was an expensive leap of faith. After we received the nomination, HBO reconsidered and bought the rights to the film, allowing me to pay that credit card bill.

Filmmakers dream about winning an Oscar. What do you recall about that night?
After they called out our film as the winner, I was on autopilot: don’t trip and fall, don’t fidget, don’t forget to thank so-and-so, talk fast so they don’t cut off your speech in the middle. From the stage, it was literally a blur. I’m nearsighted and I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I think it was easier not to see the huge crowd of people. During the speech, it was my job to take care of the business end by thanking the appropriate people at HBO and our other business partners. I didn’t hear a music cue to get off stage, so I threw in a line about thanking the Academy for seating me next to George Clooney at the nominees’ luncheon. It was a risk to make a joke, so I was relieved when the comment didn’t fall flat. The camera cut to Clooney looking amused and I could see hundreds of people laughing, so I was glad I could say something memorable.

While exiting backstage, Eric stepped on the train of my dress and it ripped up the back. This was right before we went into the backstage pressroom for photos, and my dress is sagging in the front and I’m asking all the stagehands for pins or tape. Eric was so sorry, and I thought it was funny. A minor costume failure couldn’t ruin that moment.

What impact has winning the Oscar had on your career?
I don’t think winning an Oscar for a documentary has had an impact on my career as a television writer, but it did make it easier to get my next documentary made with funding up front. If we were talking about trying to get a feature film made with a major studio, I don’t know if producing a no-budget short documentary would do that much to get a big project off the ground.

It’s a lot easier for people to understand you in Hollywood if you focus on one thing. People want to understand who you are and what you do in 10 words or less. I’ve had an unusual path, crossing over from one medium to another. That’s always been difficult for me. I was a stage manager-turned documentary producer-turned television writer. And now, in addition to working on more docs and TV shows, I’d like to write a play and eventually finish that novel that keeps nagging at me.

What advice would you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
Documentaries are a lot of hard work for (usually) no money. If you break even, that’s wonderful. I don’t think most people go into documentary filmmaking with dreams of getting rich and famous. It would be tough to make a living at this alone.

Don’t go into a project thinking: what does the Academy/the Emmys/Sundance want to see? Ask yourself: what do you want to see? I’ve probably seen all the documentaries over the last decade that have been nominated for Academy Awards, and they run the gamut. There is no formula. Just find a subject that you’re passionate about and do your best to communicate that to as many people as possible.

Stay open-minded during the process, and you may be surprised. During your interviews, make people feel comfortable. As cameras have gotten smaller, subjects have gotten less inhibited, so just let people go and tell you their stories, even if you think they are getting off topic. You may find that your film will find its own voice if you are comfortable enough to give up a little control. And always get your legal release forms signed in advance!

What projects are you currently working on?
HBO just aired my third documentary, Dark Light, directed by Neil Leifer, which explores the work of legally blind photographers.

Since leaving CSI last year, I’ve been focusing more on my writing. I’ve cowritten a pilot based on a ’tween novel, which was a refreshing change after a decade of murder and mayhem. Now, I’m back writing a pilot for a crime drama. I hope that I will very soon be on a new show and back into production. I’d also like to direct my next documentary—subject yet to be determined.

You see, the thing about winning an award like this is that you need to spend the rest of your life trying to earn it.

Our series “Road to the Oscars” concludes tomorrow with an interview with actress Alfre Woodard (CFA’74, Hon.’04), who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 1983’s Cross Creek. Woodard looks back on her Oscar nomination and discusses the state of Hollywood today and the dearth of good film roles for African American actresses. Read more about Oscar winners Olympia Dukakis and Michael Williams.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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