In Movies & TV

Chip Duncan with a young girl from Ollantaytambo, Peru

Milwaukee Talks: Filmmaker Chip Duncan

Just like most of us do, Chip Duncan started at the bottom. He went from painting studio floors and sets at the NBC affiliate in Madison to being an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, lecturer and president of The Duncan Group, Inc., based in Milwaukee.

It was his early appeal to politics that led him to undertake topics including the environment, spiritual places of the world, racial issues, religious perspectives on a woman's right to choose contraception and abortion, security versus civil liberties and other crucial worldly controversies.

And his frustration of working with short time spans in the news convinced him that producing documentaries would be the most optimum operative to get the dying word out on these issues.

"Three minutes wasn't enough, one minute wasn't enough, 45 seconds wasn't enough," Duncan says of news formats. "And it kept getting cut back and back and back, and major stories were being handled in such a short form that nobody every really gets substance."

So, in 1984 Duncan moved to Milwaukee and began to focus on long form.

Since then he's a produced/directed all projects through the Duncan-Landaas Limited Partnership including the Emmy award-winning children's series "Astrodudes" as well as 11 travel documentaries broadcast on The Discovery Channel between 1991-1994. "Is Anyone Listening?" is an educational series for teenagers used in classrooms all the time.

"Tatshenshini: A Journey to the Ice Age," "Alaska's Bald Eagle: New Threats To Survival," "Positive Thinking: The Norman Vincent Peale Story," "The Cost of Freedom -- Civil Liberties, Security and the USA Patriot Act," "Beyond the Gridiron - The Life & Times of Woody Hayes," "The Magic Never Ends -- The Life & Work of C.S. Lewis" and "Row Your Boat" are just a handful of the films Duncan's produced.

We sat down with him to talk about where his career is headed, his company and how Milwaukee plays a role in his work.

OMC: Do you think, with your documentaries, you'll start to reflect more of what you believe and less balanced two-sided stories?

Chip Duncan: I know I hit a point when I was doing "Mystic Lands" where I was in Burma and Haiti and Peru, all of these amazing places and at a certain point it felt like I was watching it all on TV because I do my own photography and I'd be filming a Rah-Rah in Haiti -- which is this huge musical parade, kind of like a Mardi Gras event -- and there was a point when I had to say, "I'm documenting this as well as I know how."

Does your participating in it then impact the way you document it? It's interesting because you're making a choice. You're saying, "I want to live in this moment and experience these things," versus just standing on the outside and just filming. And I've got a sense that if there's a transition for me that happens in the next 20-25 years professionally, that it would be to be more personally engaged in the work I'm doing as a participant than just on the outside filming.

OMC: What's the heart, the basis, of the Duncan Group?

CD: I guess, in a sense, we're an unusual company in that we're trying to stay independent of all the major networks. The conglomeration of media, I think, is a threat to democracy. It gets to the point where it almost doesn't matter which channel you're watching. You look around on the local news, in the first seven minutes they're all covering the exact same stories, it's just a question of in what order.

There's a certain kind of integrity to staying independent that's important.

OMC: And why Milwaukee for its home?

CD: I originally moved to Milwaukee for personal reasons, and at the point at which I felt I didn't need to stay for those same reasons, we did expand for a while and had an office in Los Angeles for four years, and because I'm here I have to travel an enormous amount. I'm in New York, L.A. and Washington D.C. all the time ... the Internet has made is so much easier to live where you want to live, but the main reason I've stayed here is because of the people I get to work with every day. It's hard to imagine doing this work and having them not be a part of it.

OMC: Anything about the city itself that keeps you here?

CD: I guess what I would say is that between Madison and Milwaukee I've really lived my whole adult life in Wisconsin with a smattering of time in Los Angeles. So, I've been in Wisconsin such a long time, I absolutely love the state.

I think Milwaukee, as a city, in the past seven or eight years has just grown amazingly and suddenly there are things here that weren't here a decade ago. The nightlife has improved dramatically. I think the art museum is a huge, huge plus for the city. We have a great museum, art museum and natural history museum. The universities add a lot to the culture here that we wouldn't have otherwise. I think the ethnic diversity in Milwaukee is fantastic and one of the greatest assets that we have.

OMC: Do you try to use local artists/musicians to accompany your work?

CD: Well, first of all, to finish that other thought, the culture diversity and the culture of Milwaukee, I think are fantastic. And I can see the difference because I bring a lot of people in from other places for work. One of my colleagues lives in Malibu, he's an L.A. guy who comes and stays at the Metro, goes to The Social; he loves the city, loves it. He'd love to live here.

When Ben (Kingsley) was just here, he loved the city, loved the art museum, just the buzzing nature of walking around and engaging people, it's a very warm city, (laughs) in terms of people's personalities.

In terms of working with people locally, the good news is we work almost entirely locally. I wish we had more work for people locally than we do. If we were doing commercials or feature films more, we'd be able to employ a lot more people. But as a company doing documentaries, it's a pretty small group, so we tend to do most of our post-production here. Almost all of the writing, editing, those things are done in-house.

I've really enjoyed working with some of the actors from The Rep in particular, but also from Theatre X for voiceover. We've tried whenever possible to bring in local people. So, Laura Gordon from The Rep and Lee Ernst have both narrated films for us.

In terms of musicians, I would say the bulk of the work we've done with musical artists has really been Wisconsin. Peter Buffett works with us a lot, Peter Mulvey.

OMC: Could you tell me a little about some of the local films you've done?

CD: In terms of local films we've done on local subjects, we did a film on Wisconsin that aired on Wisconsin and Milwaukee public television in 1998 that was very much of a legacy film for the state. We did a program called "Worth Fighting For" about people protecting the Great Lakes, and that featured really four stories of, I would call them positive stories, grassroots efforts people were making to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. James Taylor narrated that film, and we produced it, well, two of the stories were here in Wisconsin.

The most typically local film we've done, or I've worked on anyways, is "Through One City's Eyes," which really looked at race issues in the city of Milwaukee, more or less comparing 1968 to 1998. So, over a 30-year period, what changed? What was different? Sadly, change had not been dramatic enough. This city has a lot to do on race relations. We tend to live a fairly segregated lifestyle in Milwaukee and I don't think we should. I'd love to see more interaction of all the different ethnic groups. I think it would make us a much more interesting, much more vibrant city.

A lot of major northern industrial cities have the same problem. I don't think Milwaukee's unique. If you look at Detroit, Chicago, Boston or Philly, some of these cities have the same problem. But at a certain point of time, leaders like mayors or the city council, those people have to make concerted efforts to get the city to move beyond those corridors.

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