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John Whitehead, Producer, Director,
Editor and Writer

Independent television Producer/Director John Whitehead is a six-time Emmy-Award winner (Midwest Region). His work ranges from social issue documentaries to humor and parody, with an emphasis on environmental and historical topics. His recent credits include the national PBS documentaries Make Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers’ Story and Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang. As Senior Producer for Arts and Culture at TPT  (1990-96), he produced the documentaries, Death of the Dream: Farmhouses in the Heartland; Clay, Wood Fire, Spirit: The Pottery of Richard Bresnahan; Not Quite American: Bill Holm of Minneota; A State Fair Scrapbook; and Mississippi, Minnesota, among many other programs. Mr. Whitehead’s work has earned the HBO Films Producer Award, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award, and the Gold Plaque from The Chicago Film Festival. He spent 1993-1994 at The University of Chicago as a William Benton Fellow in broadcast journalism.

What was the biggest challenge for you in your role in producing Minnesota: A History of the Land?
Finding ways to make this a television story. The subject matter had enormous breadth: it included aspects of human history, ecology, geology, forestry, biology, natural history.  The timeline spanned from the last ice age to the growth of the modern suburb. There was no exisiting template or model for this show. In PBS terms it was part "NOVA", part "American Experience", and part "National Geographic Special". The problem I faced as a TV storyteller was how to navigate across time and among these various topics.  What level of detail would make the program challenging but not dry?  How best to blend human story and ecology?

What is a favorite moment/anecdote in the process of producing the series?
Shooting helicopter aerials of the Mississippi Headwaters. Before going up, the pilot warned us that the only potential danger was hitting a power line. After 2-3 hours of smooth flying, we were grabbing the last shots of the day in dusky light. While making a dramatic low pass over the river, I noticed a dam up ahead. Flying at treetop level we were heading right for the dam when the power lines came into focus, about 100 yards away. I screamed POWER LINE!, and the pilot yanked on the joystick. The horizon careened wildly; my stomach dropped through the floor. The pilot righted the chopper and flew on in silence as if nothing had happened. I looked back at the cameraman, Bob Durland, and we exchanged a look. Glancing back at the pilot, I noticed that all the blood had drained from his face. After a long pause he managed to croak out "Thank you. I didn't see them." But the look on his face told us how close we had come. It was a very quiet flight back.

What experiences/training did you bring to the project that were particularly helpful in the creation of Minnesota: A History of the Land?
I brought 20 years of experience producing television, of telling stories with pictures. Having produced programs about a variety of Minnesota topics--the Mississippi River, histories of the farm house and the State Fair-- I was familiar with some of the subject matter. Being a reader, I was conversant with some of the main themes as espoused by writers like William Cronon, Paul Gruchow, Aldo Leopold and others.

Why is the series important?  Why should viewers watch the series? What can viewers expect to learn?
I learned an incredible amount in producing this series, and I hope the viewer will too. The series offers a take on history that enriches our sense of where we live, and where we are heading as state-wide community.  In "unpacking" the Landscapes of MN, both urban and rural, it offers nuggets of information on the history, ecology, geology, forestry, biology, wildlife and natural history of Minnesota. For anyone who cares about the outdoors, wilderness, fishing and hunting, this series has something to offer.

John Whitehead
Producer, Director,
Editor and Writer


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