Four decades ago at, Randall Morgan was finishing up a Master’s degree at Stanford University, when he was approached by Jane Goodall to assist in the production of a documentary film on her work with gorillas. Since then, Randall and his wife, DeAnna have been traveling the world filming documentaries with their company Morganstar Media.
Alan: Can you tell us about your background and how you ended up working with Jane Goodall?
Randall: I was a graduate student at Stanford, and had just finished my masters in documentary film, in walks Jane Goodall one day with her husband, Hugo van Lawick, and said we’re going to make a chimp films. Somehow I talked him into hiring me as the assistant. Two weeks later, Hugo, who is the man, who shot this marvelous footage, nothing like it in the animal film world, says well Randall, I’m off to Hollywood you have to take over the project. He disappears, so for the next four to five years Jane and I worked together and we did, I can’t even remember, 5, 6, 7 films. We edited at Stanford, we would meet at Stanford for 1/4 a year, she’d go back to Tanzania and then we’d meet in Bournemouth England where she lived in this fascinating decaying Victorian Mansion, we spent a lot of time at National Geographic which was sponsoring this whole thing, so we would spend a lot of time on the phone and we put together these films for National Geographic.
Alan: What are some of the notable films that that you’ve shot it in addition to the National Geographic Jane Goodall?
Randall: Our films always have a point and we seek out films that we feel that we uniquely capable of doing. Thinking back on it, it’s the biographies wherein we make the most. We make biographies that kind of reveal the vision of the individual or the family, someone may be passed on or they may be right there on camera with us. I guess that’s probably- really the ones that stick out. We’ve done a couple films in Haiti, Philippines and Ecuador- those are fun because of where they are but also the content is good.
Alan: So are traveling around the world what are some of the adjustments you’ve had to make filming abroad?
Randall: Just difficulties with travel plus personnel, in Haiti for instance you have to work with a bodyguard, so we always have to have a bodyguard with us and we just can’t go out on the street and shoot because kidnapping is kind of an industry in Haiti. The Philippines is totally the opposite. People are so welcoming and nice, sure happy to talk to you, no problems at all other problems, however sometimes there’s problems with customs, but it’s not as difficult as you might think on our scale because we’re small-scale operation. We bring in free lancers when we need them, when we need an extra camera or sound guy, and some of the adventures we’ve been able to take our own children who grew up in this business, none of whom followed it by the way, but you are still skilled at it.
Alan: How many kids do you have?
Randall: Seven and I think we’re up to 20 grandchildren. Its what life is really all about, the children and the grandchildren.
Alan: What’s the process you use when you’re putting together a documentary?
Randall: It usually begins with an idea or an image. Here’s an example, we’re working right now on a documentary about the Nez Perce Indians losing their language and trying to bring it back. It starts with an image of a snowy Battlefield in Northern Montana, Bear Paw Battlefield, 16 miles from a Tiny Town out in the middle of the Montana Bear Paw mountains. For some reason that image sort of stuck in our minds. Just yesterday I’ve been writing the narration for the opening of that film based on that image, the film’s going to begin with that, it’s going to end with that. Sometimes it starts with an abstract idea such as, farmers are using too much water and causing too much erosion on certain soils. You could say, well that’s really boring, it’s not boring it’s critical because the idea is the only the top six a tin of soil is productive, that’s what produces all of our food. You take that soil Away by erosion, you’ve taken away food production. A big universal problem around the world. It starts with that idea and then we’ll try to build an image into that and develop it from there.
Alan: When documentaries are started normally there’s some sponsorship involved. When people contact you with an idea for a documentary how does that usually evolve?
Randall: In our 40 plus your career that’s happened twice. The other ones we’ve gone to them and we said, you’re sitting on an incredible story here that people need to see. Tell us about it, let us do it, give us the money to do it and it’s developed from that.
Alan: What should the expectation be with the process of laying out of film documentary?
Randall: It all depends, it’s just like building a house, how many bathrooms, how big is the garage. It depends on how long it is, how complex it is, who do you have to talk to, when is it going to have to be on, what is the distribution, it’s different for each project.
Alan: If you’re trying to make something to air on PBS, do you need to first start with the need for PBS to show something and work backwards or do you make it and then promote it?
Randall: There’s a saying in the business, never front your own. All films are written first. So before a camera ever is comes out of a case, there’s been a huge paper trail. So it begins with a concept, it begins with a treatment, which is a script for a documentary, but it’s all written and involves complex negotiations with the sponsors to see that the proper budget will be there, timing, scheduling, it’s a rather lengthy process.
Alan: How did you get into making your documentary in Haiti?
Randall: I got into it from a good friend who adopted five children from an orphanage in Haiti. We got interested in that and asked ourselves, how can we help this orphanage? What can we do? Well the only thing we can do is make movies. I just happened to run into someone who owned a cell phone cell phone company in Haiti and called them up and said, this is a great idea for a film, why don’t you give us the money to produce this. He said fine, I’d be happy to do that. And a few weeks later we ended up in Haiti. That was great, the Haitian people are wonderful, the orphanage that takes in abandoned and orphaned children, wonderful people doing a marvelous job. We ended up making two films there, one before the earthquake of 2010 and one after the earthquake of 2010 and it was quite incredible experience for us. The films raised a lot of money for the orphanage, it was very productive project all the way around.
Alan: Moving on from Haiti, can you tell us about the recent mission that you served in the Philippines?
Randall: My wife and I together served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the Philippines in Northern Luzon in a small farming Village, beautiful place, wonderful people. We thought one of the great things about serving this mission is we don’t have to make films, so we got some vacation from our business, we did however take a camera with us because we were planning to shoot a piece in Burma when the mission ended, but we had no intention of making film in the Philippines. Well it just so happened that a couple of situations developed that really needed films to be made. One was trying to bring back to the church members that had been lost to the records. The other was for training new missionaries when they came. It was obvious that they needed a film to introduce new missionaries from all over the world to the to the wonderful Philippine people and what their work would be like. So we did those two films, they were very useful, we’re glad we took the camera. Ironically, our filming in Burma was canceled.
Alan: What was the result of putting together the film for the lost members?
Randall: When the head of the mission project for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines saw that film, he said, this has go to go to all of the 22 missions, each one having over 200 missionaries, in the Philippines and that film was distributed and it was able to instruct the local congregations how to find those members that were lost, it was extremely successful. The other one in training the missionaries is still being used.
Alan: Can you tell us a little about the biography projects that you do?
Randall: The is what we enjoy most and are best at. We do the story of a family, or the story of an individual, or the story of an Enterprise, it’s fascinating. It’s taken us all over the country, we do an in-depth story that in a sense ends up revealing I think to our clients the vision that they may not have actually seen themselves of what they’ve been doing in their lives. Fascinating work, everyone’s got a great story, you’ve got a great story, we could make one about you.
Alan: When those biographies are completed, how are they typically used?
Randall: That’s interesting, it’s a is changed over time. We used to distribute them on DVD’s to the family and we still do. We not only produce the biography itself the video, but several sidebar videos of issues and circumstances in the family that they that they want to highlight specifically, but now people are putting them on their website and we offer to create a website for them and they distribute them around the world, families are often spread around the world, so they’re distributed on DVD and on website.
Alan: How long does it usually take a biography to be completed?
How long does it take to build a house? It all depends on how many people we have to interview. We worked on one project for 10 years. We made 7 hour and 90 minute biographies on one-family for 10 years, others take us three months, so it just depends on how extensive the project is.
Alan: What are some of the messages that you hope she would leave to those people who you’ve interacted with?
Randall: Family that just always is the key, it’s family. People that we’ve interviewed, no matter where, their hearts lie with their family. the other one is, whatever our station in life, are in this interesting life experience together. Whether we are wealthy, as many of our clients are extremely affluent, whether we are filming on the street in West Oakland with the homeless, or whether we’re with the fire victims in Paradise, California
… we’re all in this life facing these challenges together and the heart of that, which gives us the strength is our families.
Edited for Concision and Clarity