Archive » October 12, 2006
By Celeste Scheinberg
David McCullough, the famed historian and author, says young Americans are “historically illiterate.” But Craig Haffner disagrees. Haffner, an Emmy Award-winning producer and director of A&E and History Channel films, thinks most Americans – young and old – are historically illiterate. He hopes his work will change that. “My goal is to prove history is not a bad word,” Haffner says. “It can be important since the window of what might be is what once was.”
If anyone is qualified to open that “window,” Haffner has a vast list of credentials. The Internet movie database, www.imdb.com, attributes no less than 42 historical films to Haffner’s name, all as a producer and three as a director. It’s a career that spans the entire globe and annals of human existence – topics as native and recognizable as U.S. presidents and the American Revolution to foreign material dealing with ancient Egypt. It’s a career in film that dates back to 1988 with “Secrets and Mysteries,” a TV series that he co-produced. Haffner’s fascination with history, however, goes decades further into the past, when he was a kid reared in the Midwest.
The Birth of a Historian
Craig Haffner was born in 1952 and grew up in Indiana. His love of history developed through movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “Spartacus,” as well as through his father and uncle, both of whom served in World War II. “My father went in early and did not return until the end of the war,” Haffner recalls. “He was a Midwesterner kid who never went anywhere before the war and then traveled to all of these amazing places. He met up with his brother in France on D-Day. Their stories gave me an interest of combining big exciting events with personal stories, which has greatly influenced my work today.”
Haffner says history is important because “although events may change, our actions are what repeat themselves.” His journey to being a successful director and producer started at Indiana University. “All around me were sports, but I knew that I wanted to be in the entertainment business,” he says. After he graduated with a degree in theater and mass communications, he headed to Los Angeles to begin a career. With no inside contacts or knowledge of the business, he started as a page with CBS. He later began writing and selling some ideas with a writing partner.
After a job in marketing for CBS, Haffner moved to ABC and soon found himself in division programming at station KABC, which had shows such as “Eye on LA.” It was at KABC that he got his first break in doing shows with a historical slant. “Back then, there wasn’t a History or Discovery Channel, so I did program specials on things that were interesting to me, like dinosaurs and World War II,” he says. “They gave me some latitude, but if I failed, I failed on my own.” In 1986, he started Greystone Films and Television with the goal of proving that history is an interesting subject. “Back then, the entertainment industry had their own formulas for drawing an audience,” he remembers. “What we were doing was something new and it was hard convincing people that it would work.”
In 1989, he did a pilot called “Remembering World War II” for MGM. Although the show didn’t last, it won a couple of Emmy awards and won Haffner a new name – “That documentary guy” – a distinction he came to see more as epithet than endearment. “You have to understand, in the early 1990s documentaries were thought of as boring,” he says. “It was my goal to change that, to take material and make it interesting.”
In 1996, A&E Television, then a new network, called Haffner with a challenge. “They said they had some good news and bad news,” he recalls. “The good news was there would be a lot of work for me. The bad news is that I would have extremely small budgets to get my shows accomplished.”
His first show was called “Brute Force.” He raided archives for inexpensive military film material and hired George C. Scott to narrate the show, which became a success. Soon, other shows followed; “American West,” narrated by Kenny Rogers, and “Civil War Journal,” narrated by Danny Glover.
Then & Now
With his firm grasp on history, Haffner has something to say about the events going on today. “People tend to assume our current events like the war in Iraq are unique; it hasn’t happened before and won’t happen again. That is not true,” he explains. “You can flip to any time in history and find divisiveness, mud-slinging and vitriol on issues. People also assume that important things in history happened quickly. They didn’t. Also, it is important to remember that the people we hold in high historical regard were real human beings. For example, George Washington had a terrible temper. He was prone to wild fits of anger towards the small group who knew him well. The Founding Fathers were far from perfect.”
Nine years ago, Haffner married his wife, Carrie. They met at her jewelry store where she worked as a jewelry designer. During a third date at Hearst Castle, they became engaged. They have a 5-year-old daughter, Stella, who attends Montecito Union School. Haffner asserts himself as a family man and says the toughest part of his profession is being away from his family. When he is at home in Montecito, he enjoys hiking in the area around his home and being out in the garden.
Recently, he was appointed by President Bush to the National Endowment for Humanities, an independent grant-making agency that supports research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities. “I am the only one from the entertainment industry and I am surrounded by intellectuals and academics,” he says.
Unfortunately for Haffner, fervid interest in history seems something confined to intellectuals and academics. Gaining a broader audience, he says, requires greater storytelling magic, bringing history to life. “I had a group of students show up for a movie shoot and ask me what battle did I think was the most important. I told them for me, it was the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863,” Haffner explains. “But it is the story behind the battle that is the most interesting. I asked the students to imagine the following: They live in a town of two thousand three hundred people. On one day, one hundred seventy-five thousand men come to fight in their town. When it is over, fifty thousand men are wounded, some mortally, and eleven thousand are already dead. There are five thousand dead horses on the ground. It is eighty-five degrees with ninety-five percent humidity so the town needs to help clean the mess up fast. Imagine many of those fifty thousand wounded soldiers surviving only through amputation. I told those students during this time, there was a fifteen-year-old girl named Tillie Pierce who lived in that town. One day her life is focused on school and boys like any other teenager. The next day she is witnessing amputations on her dining room table. She wrote a diary about her experience during the battle that is an important piece of history. I believe kids can find history interesting; they just need to know the story behind the history.
Amidst his experiences, he’s gained a following of faithful history adherents – both young and old.
“I have had people in their mid-forties come up to me saying how they hated history and geography in school,” Haffner says – ”only now they find themselves watching historical shows on A&E and the History Channel and enjoying it.”
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