Interview with a Producer
Steve Dunsky Interview [read Steinke interview]
April 8, 2004

Jessica Brownell: What was your initial interest in this project?
Steve Dunsky: Three years ago, we saw that the Forest Service was having a centennial in 2005 and realized that, given the other centennial birthday things we had going on, that this was going to be a really big birthday party and that there would be significant needs surrounding that, and that if we didn't start three years in advance, we could never create the product that we thought needed to be done.

JB: This is a film celebrating the centennial of the FS. Aside from that temporal milestone, what significance does this celebration hold?
SD: America is unique in having these public lands that are managed for many uses. Other countries have national parks, other countries have private timberlands, but we really haven't been able to find another country in the world that has national forests that are used quite the way we've used these forests, and we think it's one of the great achievements of American history that this country decided to set aside so much of its public lands as a reserve for these different uses. And certainly there's a place for parks and a place for state parks and a place for private uses, agricultural lands and so on, but it's a huge achievement that we've set aside nearly 10 percent of the land as national forest for the American people and I think it's something worth celebrating. Now, that doesn't mean that this has been one unadorned 100 years of achievement or that everything we've done has been the right way to do it, but the fact that we have these lands and the fact that we still have these lands, I think is a remarkable achievement.

JB: Is the film biased in support of the FS?
SD: One of the things that we knew going into this is that the FS making a film about itself would possibly generate controversy, and that's nothing new for the FS: the FS has always generated controversy. The management of public lands in a democratic society is inherently filled with controversy, and so we decided that first of all we were not going to make a film that was a glorious rendition of a flawless past, that we were going to talk about some of the mistakes that have been made, talk about some of the controversies, and about a lot of the issues. On the other hand, we don't want to judge people in the past on the basis of what we know today. We feel it is very important that we understand the context in which decisions were made. So on the one hand we celebrate this achievement of putting aside public lands. On the other hand, we ask the questions of what mistakes did we make, what could we have done better, what lessons have we learned from 100 years of federal forest management. And there are certainly areas like fire, for example, where we can look back and say maybe some of the choices that were made in the early years were not good decisions, but that's all in retrospect. Those decisions were being made in many cases based on knowledge that people had at the time, scientific knowledge that had been developed. And looking back now, we can say maybe people just didn't understand very well things like fire ecology, and its easy to judge them with knowledge that we have today, but we need to put their decision making into context

JB: This is essentially a film about a sector of the government. With that in mind, what is the human interest in this piece and why should the public pay attention?
SD: One of the great aspects of conservation history is that it is filled with marvelous characters. Many people know about John Muir for example, or they might know about Teddy Roosevelt, who was one of the great conservationists of the progressive era. There are other figures who are less well-know to the general public, but are certainly well-known in conservation history: people like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Arthur Carhart and Gifford Pinchot. All of these people worked at one time for the FS, so the FS produced an astounding number of conservation leaders, people who really changed the face of conservationism in this country. So what we try to do is tell the story through their stories and we feel that people will be interested not only in the events of history but also in some aspects of their personal lives and their personal growth and development.

JB: With the particular angle that you have taken in this project, what is the one thing you hope to communicate to your audience?
SD: I think the one thing that we would like to convey is that public lands in America are something worth having, worth saving, and that the fact that we fight over them, the fact that there's conflict, is not a bad thing, that that's a healthy sign that in a democratic society, where there are incredibly valuable natural public resources, that we should have this contest, we should have this discussion, and sometimes a debate, sometimes a very loud debate, over how those resources should be used or preserved. And ultimately what we do with those resources is a compromise among all those different choices and values, and that we should celebrate the conflict. If you don't have conflict, then you have the King's forest: you have the forest where the monarch decides whose deer they are, the resources belong to one person and he or she decides who gets to use them. In this country those decisions are made on a daily basis at every level of the society.

JB: You mentioned that this project has taken you about three years. Is that an accurate time frame?
SD: This is a three year project. Probably the first year was devoted to the research aspect, and that included reading materials related to the history of the FS and the history of the conservation movement, as well as developing our knowledge of the archival resources. For example, the Fs has hundreds of thousands of old photographs, we have hundreds of old films, the Library of Congress has incredible resources, the Forest History Society. So there are tremendous visual resources, which is one of the things that is very appealing about this subject: it's something that we can literally document throughout our history. So mostly, the first year was taken up with research and writing, and I did most of the writing I would say. The second year, or actually for 18 months and we're still tapering off in that phase, was the interview period, and we've interviewed probably close to 60 people now for this project all over the county: historians, FS employees, FS retirees, all the former chiefs of the Fs, the people in various aspects of the public, for example people from the timber industry, people from the environmental community. We tried to get a broad cross-section of view points about the agency. I don't believe that film can actually be objective, but I do think that you can present multiple perspectives and that's what we tried to do. And now we're in what's called the post-production or editing phase of the project and we have to complete that probably by this September in order to go into the finishing process with the music scoring, and the final editing and graphics creation, etc.

JB: What are your distribution plans?
SD: We have a very extensive distribution plan, which is something we've thought about from the beginning. We though, if we're going to go to this much effort to create a high-quality program, we wanted it to be seen by as many people as possible. And it really has two prongs. One is what we call the theatrical distribution, which is basically showing it to audiences. And I think showing it to audiences is a great way to present the film because it gives an opportunity for people to react to it in one way or the other. They see it with a group of people or they see it altogether in a movie theater and it's a different experience than watching something on television. Also, it gives us the opportunity to have other events in association with the showing: we can have a speaker, we can have somebody from the FS there to answer questions, we have plans for showing it in conjunction with one-man plays and that sort of thing. So that's one aspect and we're planning to show it at film festivals, at museums, at visitor centers, at large national meetings, and it will probably be seen be several hundred thousand people that way. But that having been said, the only way to attract a really large audience is to show it on television, and we've pursued two options there: one is public television, and there's probably a 50 percent likelihood that we'll get it on public television, and then the other option is cable, and we have a probably 95 percent likelihood that we'll have it shown on cable. There's a lot of interest right now, especially in the High Definition programming, and the people we've talked to feel that there's a pretty high likelihood that it would show. Again, it's like anything else: you want to attract the biggest audience that you can. If we can get a primetime showing on PBS, we'll do that; if we can get a primetime showing on the Discovery Channel, that would be great. So that's really what we're pursuing now. I should mention too that we're trying to get a name/celebrity narrator, and we think that will help to attract an audience to the project...possibly Harrison Ford.

JB: Are there certain projects that people might recognize your name from?
SD: Most of the work that we've done has been for the FS, and the things that are seen by the public tend to be visitor center projects, and they sometimes have our name on it and sometimes they don't. But we've done fairly large projects for visitor centers and those are seen be thousands of people every year. A lot of the things that we do are shown to much smaller audiences; they're public information pieces about a particular issue, and some things are only seen by people in the FS. One of the most exciting projects that Ann and I were involved with had to do with an international project where we made a film about the Kimoto Dragons in Indonesia, and that was used for what is essentially the Indonesian FS, as a visitor information piece. We've had several pieces on PBS and that was one that was on PBS. And we've had a few others; we did a program about the excavation of the Donner Party site that was on public television. So those are the ones that tend to be seen be a larger audience outside of the FS.

JB: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
SD: I would just say that there's a tremendous misconception about the FS in the mind of the general public. I think a lot of people don't know the difference between the Park Service and the FS, between a national park and a national forest, and that confusion has created a lot of difficulty for the FS over the years, because the average person, or the average urban dweller, goes to a public lands area and they tend to think that it's just there for recreational purposes. And the national forests were not set up that way: they were originally created with the idea that they would provide these other benefits to the public including timber harvesting, including water resources, including mining. There are many, many uses for the national forest. And Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the FS, identified that, and he said that the question of how they should be used should be decided according to the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run, which is a concept drawn from utilitarian philosophy and British philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It's a very problematic concept, because the question of who decides what the greatest good is is a difficult one. In Pinchot's era, the idea was that if you had the best science, then you got to decide what the greatest good was. And so we title our film "The Greatest Good" because we think that sort of gets to the basic question about how these lands should be used. And over the course of 100 years we've wrestled with that question of what is the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. The good news is that in the long run, we still have those lands and we still have the opportunity to wrestle with those issues.