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Q&A: McDaniel College professor Jonathan Slade celebrates seventh Emmy win

Jonathan Slade, professor of Communication & Cinema at McDaniel College, received his seventh Emmy award for his two-hour 2019 documentary, “Made Possible By Viewers Like You: 50 years of Maryland Public Television” at the 62nd National Capital Chesapeake Bay ceremony on Aug. 8.

The program debuted on Maryland Public Television in August 2018 and won for outstanding arts/entertainment special during the virtual event in Washington D.C.

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Slade, a Carroll County native, graduated from McDaniel with a degree in Communications in 1988. He earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern California and spent three years working in Hollywood before returning to his alma mater to teach full time.

He was an integral part of creating McDaniel’s Cinema program in 2010 and has continued to produce documentaries for MPT, including “Electric Road Trip,” which earned him and his wife, Novia Campbell, an Emmy in 2015.

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The Times caught up with Slade to discuss his seventh Emmy win, how the documentary came together, and what he learned when working in Hollywood.

Q: What is “Made Possible By Viewers Like You: 50 Years of Maryland Public Television” about and where did you find the inspiration for it?

A: There are really two ways a documentary goes into production. Either you pitch an idea you are interested in exploring and somehow, miraculously you convince someone to back you. Or, more often, a broadcast or cable entity has a project on their slate that needs a producer, and if you are a good fit for that project, they bring you onboard as a hired gun. Maryland Public TV was looking for a way to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and I had a few folks down there who trusted me to tell this story. Not everyone, mind you, but the ones who mattered. So I spent nine months working with my team to research, write, shoot, edit, and mix this two-hour celebration of MPT’s five decades of service to the state of Maryland. It really is a great story full of colorful personalities, one that deserved a glossy, almost American Experience-like treatment.

Q: What was the production process like for this documentary?

A: When I joined the project in August 2018, there were already a couple of producers who had started work on it, and then left for one reason or another. So, the production window had grown extremely tight. Originally, I was tasked with interviewing just 12 people on camera — MPT luminaries anyone who’s watched the station for years would immediately recognize. But, the project kept expanding. By the time we were done, we’d interviewed almost three times as many people. Everybody suddenly wanted to get in on it. So, it grew from a one-hour doc to a two-hour doc with lots of bonus footage. Ultimately, I think it’s a better documentary because of it, though. I mean, one of my first reactions when I came onboard was, “Whose idea was it to tell 50 years of history in 60 minutes? How can you do it justice? That’s like one minute per year!”

Q: What do you find most interesting about teaching Communication & Cinema?

A: Not many colleges offer majors in Communication and Cinema in the same department, because Communication is a social science, and Cinema is a Humanities, but I love the way these two fields interconnect and cross-pollinate each other. In Communication we talk about media messages, how they are created, sent, and received, and their cultural impact — lots of good foundational theory. In Cinema, we spend a lot of time on creative storytelling. Both disciplines reinforce and build on each other in that wonderful way only liberal arts programs can.

Q: When did you find out you won your seventh Emmy and how did you celebrate?

A: Because the ceremony was virtual this year, I honestly lost track of when it was. I knew it was in early August, and I kept meaning to double-check the date, but, you know, these crazy pandemic times keep distracting all of us from stuff we probably should be thinking about. My wife Novia and I were actually at a drive-in movie theater near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, watching that new Johnny Depp film “Waiting for the Barbarians” when a friend of mine from MPT texted me about the win. Frankly, I haven’t really had time to celebrate because the fall college semester came up on us really quickly. But maybe we’ll roll it in with our 20th wedding anniversary which is coming up in about a week. You know, a drink for my wife, a drink for me, a drink for the Emmy.

Q: Did any of your current or past students work with you on the documentary at all?

A: One of the great advantages of teaching Cinema is that when you have a project like this come around you get to cherry pick the best film students and alumni to work on it with you. You already know their strengths from having them in the classroom, so you automatically know how to fit them into the production puzzle. This time around I was very fortunate to have three recent McDaniel Cinema alums — already interesting filmmakers in their own right — join us on location and in the edit suite.

Q: What did you learn the most about working in Hollywood before returning to Maryland?

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A: My three years in Los Angeles really taught me how I didn’t want to make movies. The factory model just felt a bit too soulless for me. I like when a film feels a little organic and handmade, whatever that means. That the authenticity of the characters shines through and the sincerity of the story slightly upstages the craft. I’m so tired of watching perfectly cast, beautifully lit, masterfully scored, rat-a-tat montage sequences that end up meaning absolutely nothing. Let’s slow it down a little, have some time to reflect, meet some three-dimensional human beings, and think about the big things. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved the institution of public television so much, why I think it’s so necessary, and why I was driven, really, to making this documentary about MPT.

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