Sept. 11--Stephen David kept pitching a history show to the History Channel, but the History Channel wasn't having it. David was interested in 19th-century robber barons and inventors, subjects that seemed like a good fit for the network. The concern was "The Men Who Built America" would feature old historians talking about long-dead figures.
David, a veteran producer, had been trying to get the show made for more than 10 years when he decided to frame the idea as a hybrid documentary, combining talking heads with staged scenes featuring actors playing the parts of men including "J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla."
"One of the biggest things was that we tried to come at it through character," David says, "which added a dramatic element to it, so it wasn't just about facts. You were in a drama but you cared more about the facts you were learning."
The addition of some visual effects, David says, "made it feel like this footage existed, and we had found it."
The result was a hit for the History Channel. It also earned four Emmy nominations, including outstanding documentary or nonfiction series. David will learn if the show will be honored this Saturday in Los Angeles, a week before the prime time Emmys or, as David says, "the one with the people that viewers want to see."
Win or lose, it has already proved a success with strong viewership and some unexpected Internet buzz.
"You know what popped for people?" David says, laughing. "Nobody had ever thought about somebody like Carnegie being young. But we knew we were hitting a different audience because we had teenage girls on Twitter talking about how Rockefeller was so good looking. Which is kind of funny because we hired an actor who was better looking than Rockefeller himself."
The show has already won a juried Emmy for costume design. "Somebody sent me an article and asked, 'Did we just win?' Turns out we won."
The series -- which is currently available on DVD -- isn't the only example of David using wily savvy to get something done. The Houston native attended St. John's School and the University of Texas. His plan was to get a master's of business administration, which he decided to put off for a year. Instead, armed with a psychology major, he drove to Los Angeles -- he'd never been there before -- and tried to find a way into film and TV.
"I guess I somewhat enhanced my resume," says David, 43. "It was a little easier back then. You could go into Blockbuster and write down some titles, and there was no IMDb (Internet Movie Database) to check." He got a job as a location manager and worked his way up at a small production company.
David credits growing up in front of the TV in the '80s with his understanding of narrative.
"Basically the movie channels played the same movie over and over again," he says. "So I'd be watching something 1,200 times. And those movies had simple storytelling. It really helps you understand the nature of storytelling."
He tried his hand at writing, selling one film and knocking out 10 scripts in seven years. Eventually David landed a job as screenwriter for the Donald Trump reality show "The Apprentice."
David gradually moved from writing to producing, doing both with "Big Medicine," a series he sold to TLC in 2007 and more recently "Redrum," a show about murder investigations for Investigation Discovery.
Today David runs his Stephen David Entertainment out of New York. He has a show scheduled this year about the California Gold Rush and another forthcoming about World War I and World War II. The biggest project in the queue is "Sons of Liberty," a fully scripted miniseries about the American Revolution for the History Channel that should air next year.
David suggests his work is more than a fascination with history. He's drawn more to character. And like the show "The Men Who Built America" itself, many of those characters failed before they succeeded.
"They were taking massive risks," he says. "And we tried to get into that: the reasons they couldn't stop.
"It's not so much history I'm interested in as much as what people really do and why they did it. To me that's the thing that drives the story. It's always fascinating to look at why somebody did something great."
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