I met producer/director Leo Eaton at the end of the last millennium, thanks to Michael Pack, with whom I was making my first documentary, Rediscovering George Washington. Michael retained Leo, an old friend, to be co-executive producer, a slot that can mean anything. What it meant in this case was that we drew on his expertise with the style of historical documentary we wanted to make, which Leo called history in the present: not dramatizing it, à la Hollywood, or talking about it, even artfully, à la Ken Burns, but showing both what it was and how it persists today. Leo helped us with that show, and with its successor, Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton.
Leo had a long career with the BBC and PBS, after a long career of adventures, some cinematic, many not, in Mexico, Greece, and Texas. Two of his film students made the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; he once worked, grinding out pornography, alongside Ed Wood, famous as the worst director in the history of movies. A younger colleague he told of these accomplishments remarked, “You’re retro hip!” He was talented, efficient, and charming — traits that do not often hang out together. The last supplied his best anecdotes. When filming The Story of Ireland, Anglo Leo had to deal with an Irish cultural official who was a stern patriot. He crawled into the man’s office on hands and knees. Said the official, “That won’t be necessary; a simple apology will do.” The results of his talent and his efficiency are visible in all his many films.
Leo produced and directed my most recent documentary, John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, and its festival-length cut-down, Courtmaker. We are three-quarters of the way through shooting Free Exercise, a documentary on the history and present prospects of religious liberty in America. Our most recent shoot was on St. Patrick’s Day, kitty-corner from the cathedral on Fifth Avenue, to catch the parade as it went by. This all-American celebration will serve as a contrast to the riotous violence that greeted Catholics here in the 1830s. I stood on the curb, doing a piece to camera; Gary Griffin, our director of photography, shot me and all the action; Lyn Rapaport Reid, our assistant producer, kept the whole thing together (she had staked out the spot at 8 a.m.); and Leo watched it all via a smartphone from his home in Santa Fe. Three days later he was gone.
At the end of every life, as at the end of every show, it’s a wrap. God bless. You did a good job.
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