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Road to the Oscars: Michael Williams

BU alum: from film scout to best documentary award


Michael Williams (COM’79) backstage after winning the 2004 Academy Award for Best Documentary for The Fog of War.

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 Michael Williams (COM’79), who won an Academy Award for his documentary The Fog of War in 2004.

Michael Williams began his career as a location scout for television series and feature films. In addition to working on the popular Spenser: For Hire, based on the Robert Parker (GRS’57,’71) series, which shot in and around Boston, Williams (COM’79) worked with an impressive array of film directors, including Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate), Danny Devito (Hoffa), and Richard Benjamin (Mermaids).

He then founded his own production company, Scout Productions, and began to work with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line; Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). In 2004, what began as an interview with Robert McNamara, the controversial secretary of defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, for Morris’ First Person series on Bravo in 2004, morphed into the feature documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Critically praised for its portrait of the man who presided over—and was later haunted by—the Vietnam War, the film won Morris and Williams the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.

That same year Williams also took home an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program for the groundbreaking television series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. More recent projects include the Emmy-winning Sox Appeal for NESN, the environmental documentary series Big Ideas for a Small Planet, airing on the Sundance Channel, and the feature film thriller Transsiberian, starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley.

BU Today spoke with Williams recently about his Oscar win and its impact on his career.

BU Today: How did you segue from working as a location scout to producing documentaries?
Though I loved being a location scout for movies and television, I wanted to produce my own projects. I formed Scout Productions in Boston with my partners David Collins (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and Dorothy Aufiero (The Fighter). While we toiled to make independent films, we also worked as line producers and production managers on other films. One day, our attorney called us and asked if we would be interested in working with Errol Morris, who was looking for new producers. We jumped at the chance, and our first documentary was Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., about the infamous Holocaust denier and execution device designer. We then produced a TV series with Errol called First Person. Out of First Person came The Fog of War. While my partners moved on to other projects, I continued to work with Errol on the film.

How did the idea for The Fog of War come about?
When we were doing First Person, Errol wanted to do an episode about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was a turning point in the Vietnam War. He wanted to interview Robert McNamara about this. I then spent about a year speaking with Mr. McNamara, trying to convince him to be interviewed by Errol. He finally agreed to come to Boston for a one-hour interview, even though we normally spent three to six hours interviewing people for the show.

Once we got him in the studio, he was entranced by Errol’s unique style and stayed with us for two hours. On the way back to the hotel, he told me that Errol was the best interviewer he had ever met in his many years in public service. I asked him if he would be interested in coming back the next day for another hour or so. He said that he would love to. So I called the crew back at the studio and told them not to wrap the set and asked everyone to come in the next day, which was a Sunday. We did another two-hour interview, which was great.

When we started to look at the footage, we realized that we had lots of great material and that it was too much for a half hour show. Errol immediately thought it could be a great feature film. So we cut together a 45-minute piece and sent it to Sony Classics, who agreed to make the film.

Did you imagine during production that The Fog of War would be nominated for an Academy Award?
Simple answer? No.

What was your reaction when you learned of the nomination?
I was ecstatic.

What were you feeling when you heard your name announced that night?
I know it sounds corny and typical, but it was a surreal moment…I looked down at my lap, as the nominations were being read, and that’s when I go blank. I remember going to the stage and Errol being so excited and flailing his arms. I was proud to be part of the producing team.

Why do you think the film resonated so much with Academy members?
America’s involvement in the Iraq war had just begun.

What impact did winning the Academy Award have on your career?
It made it easy to get meetings set up. Since I had also won an Emmy the same year for Queer Eye, I could describe myself as an Academy Award– and Emmy Award–winning producer. That got me in many doors. Of course, it meant nothing unless I was pitching something really good. LOL.

You’ve worked in both television and film. Do you prefer one over the other?
I like going back and forth between the two.

How are the two different?
Television usually moves much quicker from development to finished show. I am in my fifth year of trying to get my ‘passion project’ movie made!

Next up in our series “Road to the Oscars,” a conversation with Corinne Marrinan (CFA’95), who won the 2006 Academy Award for best documentary, short subjects, for A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin. Read more about Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis.

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

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