Interview with Producer Peter Hankoff

ED- The Eerie Digest is thrilled to introduce Peter Hankoff to our readers. Peter, you offer our readers another venue of screen production as a Documentary Producer. Tell us all about this field.

PH- There are probably about as many types of documentaries as there are TV shows or movies.  I’ve got a strong history bent so a lot of what I make is more fact-driven than the current fare of “non-fiction television” or “reality shows.”

ED- Unlike most film production you deal with true history. What impact does your work have on the world today?

PH- I don’t know the impact as much as I know the intent, which is to try to illuminate something from the past and – hopefully – show how it resonates today.  I do my best to stay true to the facts and if I can get one kid to open a history book or ask “why” then I feel like I’m ahead in the world.  History is made up of two things: troublemakers and real estate.  And that never seems to change.

ED- What led you to the field of documentary films?

PH- I’ve been a screenwriter for many years with a lot of development deals that never reached fruition.  Executives change like poker hands and the odds of them still being on your project by the time it’s even ready for budgeting are slim.  And the new guy always comes in and kills the old guy’s projects.   That dance gets frustrating…and tired.  And let’s face it,  you can only get some many development deals once you’re no longer the young, new guy.  I have a saying:  “In Hollywood, 50 is the new dead.”  So I needed to reinvent myself when my screenwriting career didn’t take me to “that next level.”  A college friend, Erik Nelson, was a very successful producer who owed his own production company, and he needed someone who could write character narration for an upcoming project…and I was the guy.

ED- Like a great detective and true researcher, what goes into the films that you produce?

PH- After the initial panic of  “what the hell is going to keep the viewer watching and waiting for the final reveal?”  I really like to know my material.  I’ve said it before and now is a good time to repeat myself:  doing this kind of work is like writing a term paper every 5 months…and filming it.  I like to see what else is out there on the topic and then try to avoid their mistakes and see what questions weren’t answered.  I mean, how many new things are there to say about Hitler?  or UFOs?  Or….  Google is a great research tool that’s taken me to places well beyond wikipedia (which is also a great resource…especially for getting started.)

ED- Tell us about your first documentary and what was its inspiration?

PH-  Like I mentioned before, I was brought in because I could write character narration and Erik had sold a series to the History Channel called “A Day In The Life” about the ordinary people of history.  I was hired to do an episode on a day in the life of the ironworkers who built the Empire State Building.  I grew up in New York, so it was a kick.  hat was back in 2001…pre 9-11.

It won a Gabriel Award for best documentary that promoted family values, and it was nominated (but didn’t win) a Writer’s Guild Award.   I thought it was an auspicious beginning and I’ve been working ever since.

ED- Do your films offer new insight to events that have already been told?

PH- This is my biggest challenge.  I love interviewing people who stared history in the face…or made it themselves.  I’m pretty comfortable asking questions, especially with older people, and can usually bring out something that they haven’t said before…or at least not on camera.  It’s the little things that add up to a bigger story.  Whenever I can find the human part of the story, something new comes out of it.  Sometimes it’s frustrating because time constraints (around 44 minutes for an hour show) don’t permit some really cool stuff to come out.  For example:  I learned that one reason Hiroshima wasn’t as “hot” with radiation was that there had been a typhoon in September of 1945 that washed a lot of the radioactivity out to sea.  I just couldn’t fit it into the show…but now you know.

ED- What controversies have you dealt with in producing such films?

PH- I’ve done a lot of work about various aspects of the Holocaust and that is fraught with many issues.  There are people who think the Holocaust never happened…even some world leaders.  I suggest they go to Sobibor Poland and explain the human bone fragments that still litter the killing site.

I went to Lithuania a while ago to work on “Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust” (National Geographic Channel) and my crew and I went to a small town where all the Jewish population was wiped out over the course of a couple of days in 1941.  The town council was very eager to meet us before filming…I’m pretty sure they were afraid we were there to knock on doors and ask people if they knew their houses were state-confiscated Jewish property.   After an initially tense meeting with the town leaders, they realized we were there to tell history, not to make it…and we were warmly welcomed into their community and given free reign to shoot whatever we pleased.

ED- What are some of your other projects that you worked with?

PH- Besides WWII, I’ve done work on some of  the hot-button topics: 9/11 conspiracies, UFOs, Nostradamus, Bermuda Triangle.  Some people have claimed I’m a skeptic because I do a lot of questioning and take nothing for granted.  But I assure you I would love to be able to prove a conspiracy or supernatural event to be true — it’s much better television….and it would probably make a little history itself!

ED– What current project are you working on?

PH- I’m working on something with Ric O’Barry from the Oscar winning documentary “The Cove” and his son Lincoln.   I’m not at liberty to go into detail, but it definitely touches on the issue of dolphin endangerment.

ED- Tell us about some of your future projects.

PH- I’m not sure what’s coming in the future.  I’ve got a great idea for a feature documentary …and another idea for a history-oriented TV series.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were another Pearl Harbor special out there somewhere….since the 70th anniversary is next year.

ED-Peter, you are a truly remarkable person and your work is extremely interesting. I know our readers will hang on your every word and that you will surely affect the lives of everyone that comes in contact with you. Your work is important and sheds a new light on history as we know it. Please come back to The Eerie Digest soon, and let us know more about your upcoming projects.

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