|Woman with a Mission
...an interview with Beth Polson...
Q. The first thing I found out about you is that you and I are both from North Carolina. Are you a basketball fan?
A. Oh yeah -- they'd run you out of the state if you weren't. You have to like basketball if you're from North Carolina.
Q. Go Tar Heels.
A. That's exactly right.
Q. Where did you work in North Carolina?
A. I actually never worked in NC. I shot one movie there, but I never worked there. I lived up in the northeast corner near Nag's Head, the Edenton area.
Q. So where did you work when you first started as a newspaper reporter?
A. At the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia.
Q. A lot of newsrooms are divided up into categories:
news, sports, community affairs. Where did you
A. Obits. That was my first job when I was in college. My job was to go in every morning and find out who didn't make it through the night. And that was at the time there weren't paid obits like there are now. You actually called the funeral homes. What a weird job that was. I always joke with everybody and tell them don't worry about me. I can always find a job. They always need obit writers. That was my very first job.
Q. Is that where you stayed the whole time?
A. I wrote for the Washington Post and then I went to NBC News.
Q. What kind was of transition was it from Norfolk to Washington?
A. That one wasn't very hard. I felt like you could put one foot in Virginia and you hadn't gone too far. The first big transition was moving to LA. That felt like I had left for the moon.
Q. What took you to NBC?
A. By the time I went to NBC I had won a lot of awards for feature writing and news writing and investigative reporting and column writing. I had done one each of everything at a newspaper by the time I got to NBC and NBC had come to me and offered me a job.
Q. That's quite a jump from newspaper to television.
A. It's a huge jump. I think it was an easier jump for
me because I've always been visually guided. When I was at the newspaper
I spent all of my time in the photo lab. I've always been kind of visual
adjusting to news for me was easier than for other people coming from print. I remember I had this kind of Lou Grant boss when I first arrived at NBC and he came over the first day and said hello and I was like this little dimpled Southern girl and I was kind of smiling and being nice and he said, "you know, newspaper people make terrible television people," and he walked off. And it was the best thing anybody ever did for me because I was like, "Oh yeah? Watch this!"
I became this frantic person - I stayed late every night. I went through every tape. I sat in editing sessions. I did everything I could. I went through that newsroom like a dose of salts because I was so determined I was going to do well.
Q. What did you do when you went straight to NBC? Were you a news writer there?
A. I did a little bit of everything. My friends used to joke that I had done everything but fly the helicopter. I was a reporter, I was a field producer, I was a show producer -- I did everything. I went into television not having really known anything about TV. I was a newsperson and so I did a little bit of everything. And I decided I wanted to produce.
Q. So you started winning Emmys there...you left in 1981 to go on to producing individual films and documentaries, and you ended up doing the Barbara Walters specials. What kinds of things did you do there?
A. I produced the whole show. We did everything from interviewing presidents to the first family of Monaco...celebrities...everything.
Q. What's your best memory from working there?
A. Wow. I think my main memories are times that Barbara
and I laughed so hard we were out of control. If you look at the TV Barbara
you think of her as so serious and in control and she and I used to get
these laughing marathons that made it look like we were at a slumber party because we would be working on something where we would get so amused that we couldn't control ourselves. I just had a lot of fun with her.
She is as driven at her job as I am at my job in perfection so it was a really good pairing. We did very well together.
Q. Do you have any contact with her now?
A. Yeah, usually I talk to her and send her a birthday card and things like that. She's busy and I'm busy so we don't see each other much.
Q. Here we saw a real dramatic turn in your career because you did the Getting Straight documentary about youth and drugs and you turned Not My Kid into a screenplay and the book by the same name (which is available in my library so it's probably available in a lot of libraries), and then in 1988 you did Go Toward the Light about children with AIDS.
A. Probably my favorite movie.
Q. From that point you started making the gut-wrenching emotional chick flick films.
Q. What turned you?
A. Well, a couple of things. I made a rule when I turned 40 that I wouldnít work for anyone dumber than I was. So that meant I had to be an independent producer because I wasn't going to end up working for some clown who told me what good television was. Once you've gone independent -- my definition of that was to do what I believed was good television, not what the network thought was good, not what everybody else told me was good, not what were necessarily the bestsellers, but what I believed was good television and something that really made a contribution.
When I first got into television there was that realization that you couldn't even wrap fish in it. It's gone -- it's through the air and it's gone. After I did a couple of films I really caught the concept that people could have their hearts touched and their spirits lifted and maybe even their lives changed somewhat by film. Then I was determined that's what I wanted to do and that's where I've really directed my energy. It all came at a time in my personal life where my father was very ill. Go Towards the Light came to me truly as a gift from God and it really made me realize that I had things that I was supposed to do with my life -- and it wasn't just get a paycheck from the network. I had things that were expected from me in my lifetime. So I try very hard to listen to the spirit now with what I think my films ought to be.
Q. It's a far cry from doing field reporting to doing an emotional sentimental film.
A. Totally. If you look at my bio it looks like I can't
keep a job because I keep changing. It's all been a progressive line. One
has taught me one thing that led to another thing that led to another thing.
of my reporting experience has gone into a lot of my projects.
Go Toward the Light was like doing an archeological dig with this family that this was based on. It was a real reporting job first before I did the book and the movie.
Those skills have always been critical to what I do today. I think if you're Southern, you're a born storyteller anyway. It's a family trait. Ruben Frank, who invented television news, was one of my first bosses at NBC. He used to tell me you don't aim to the masses. You do things that are what you know is right and you will hit the target you want to hit. You're not going to find me doing Survivor, not ever. You know it's not going to happen.
I know what my target audience is. I know there are people like me who are baby boomers who are ready for things in their lives that are of significance and that's what my movies are about. These are things that are not temporary experiences.
Q. Tell me about Polson Productions.
A. I'm doing things I believe in. Doing movies is really a hard job. You're on the set from 5am to midnight. And for me it had to be something relevant or I couldn't do it.
Q. How directly are you involved in your productions?
A. I do everything but sweep the floor and sometimes I sweep the floor. I come up with the ideas - whether they are things I write or things that I find - short stories or whatever. I usually do at least the adaptation for the network. I supervise the script if I don't write it. I am on the set every minute. I'm in the casting sessions every day I'm in the editing room every day. I will be promoting this picture right up until the moment it's on the air. We are really a boutique production in that my hand is on everything we do.
Q. That's the only way to get it done the way you want it.
A. Exactly. That's the joy of having my own company and putting my efforts in where it matters to me. I always joke that I still drive an 87 Volvo. I'm not Hollywood - that's not me. But I'm doing something that I'm passionate about and I know I'm doing the best job I can with the material.
Q. What's the biggest obstacle?
A. I think it's always the networks thinking they know
what the audience wants. They run in this direction and that and the current
direction is the Survivor reality show and I just stay the course.
I keep doing
quality films about significant subjects that try to lift the human experience.
Q. Would you say it's been more difficult more because you're a female producer or because of the genre you're selling? gender or genre?
A. The fact that I'm female has never hurt me one iota.
I feel very lucky to say that. That has never hurt me. I'm always willing
to work harder and stay later. I'm the Avis of production. It has never
suffer one bit. It's hard to say I am going to do this level of quality all the time whether it's selling well or not selling well -- thatís the course I'm staying on
Q. That's admirable.
A. It's more admirable than it is financially rewarding, but I'm doing this for what makes my soul rest. You know?
Q. I do. What we're talking about is the The Last Dance, but what is the most current thing you're working on? Obviously The Last Dance was done in June. I'm sure you've got something else going now.
A. We have three pictures. One is an Amish picture that will be for next year -- that's a love story.
Q. Who's in it?
A. Not sure yet. We'll be shooting it in the spring so it all depends if there's a strike or not.
Q. That's my next question. How is the strike affecting you?
A. I think everyone is trying to ward off getting things done ahead of the strike. I personally don't think there will be one but I'm probably the only one in Los Angeles. We have that film and another really, really sweet film that's kind of a Driving Miss Daisy meets...you know that character that Tatum O'Neal played in Paper Moon.
Q. I know the character but not the name.
A. Maybe more like To Kill a Mockingbird meets Driving Miss Daisy. There's a sort of Scout-like character.
Q. Does it have a name?
A. We have a working title but it will not be the title of the movie. But it will be for next year as well.
Q. What advice can you give for people coming up in the business, male or female, who want to be a television screenwriter?
A. I think any time you're in a creative endeavor - listen
to your heart. I think most people get off track by letting their wallets
lead them in areas that maybe... Creative people are built like different
I think as long as you're doing something thatís important to you and that you can be passionate about you'll do a good job.
I think to do something just because it's the flavor of the week or because it pays well is just not the answer for a creative person -- not long term.
Q. I really enjoyed the film with Sherry Stringfield that addressed that.
A. Going Home. I love that film so much. Because you're asking -- that was very much based on my dad. It's one of my favorites and I was prejudiced because it was so much about my dad and I think it's really a baby boomer issue. We are all at the point in life where we are responsible for other people.
Q. It was nice to see Jason Robards working again after he'd been ill. I could watch him do anything.
A. Me too. Well, you know he started working for us and got ill and we shut down the film and the network was going to recast and start the movie over and I could only see Jason in the part because the first day he walked on the set I started to cry. He was so much the character for me.
Q. It was very lovingly done. I adored that film. I thought it was very relevant to families today.
A. Thanks. That means a lot to me.
Q. Your list of filmography is really impressive - you've worked with people like Richard Thomas, and James Earl Jones and John Lithgow, who's great. And you've worked with Maureen O'Hara a couple of times especially on The Christmas Box.
Like I said, though, from our corner of the world we're really eager for The Last Dance news. Where did the idea for the film come from?
A. We get things submitted to us all the time -- books and things of that nature. And a book came to us that was called The Shift and it was a little self-published book from a writer in Utah. And what happens when things come in is that somebody else will read it and then recommend it to me and I'll read it. So they read it and said "not really a movie here."
It came across my desk and I thought you know there's something that is a nugget that's appealing here. While I departed from everything else in the book, the concept of a male nurse who ends up with a former teacher as a patient intrigued me...mainly because every one of us has had some teacher in life who intimidated the pants off us, or that made a big impression on us for a lot of positive reasons. I decided to take that concept and run with it -- what happens if these two people come together at a different time in their lives with different needs.
It was a story that wrote itself. I started typing, because I still type. Unlike other people I still have a typewriter.
Q. Shame on you.
A. I know, isn't it embarrassing? So anyway I sat here
and started typing it just kept coming really fast and I got to the end
of the story and I was crying and I thought I really love this, I really
story. I sent the outline to the network the next day and they said "this is extraordinary, we love this." And I thought wow. It was just one of those things that had its own mission and I just got to be the
Q. Sounds like a gift for sure.
A. Oh it's definitely a gift.
Q. How much difference is there between the screenplay and the original story The Shift?
A. The only thing that remains from the book is the two characters. I actually have very different characters than in the book but there is a teacher and a male nurse. That's the only thing that really remains. Now, the spirit of the project, which is about family and affirming life is still there but the story has nothing to do with the book other than that original relationship.
Q. And in this corner of the world we also have a specific interest in Captain Charlie Parker. What made you want Paul Johansson for this role?
A. When he walked in...
Q. That'll do it.
A. ...even to me...I could see him in that period. I could see him in the uniform. He had that strong jaw. I just knew that he was the guy that if he entered the room it would be making a statement.
Q. He does.
A. He was just as lovely as the character. One of the reasons I named this character Charlie is that Maureen's ex-husband was a famous, famous aviator named Charlie Blair. And while he's been gone several years, he is still the love of her life. And so I named the character Charlie because of her husband Charlie Blair.
And when Paul came in, I really truthfully had read another actor that I was pretty sure had the part. But we still had actors coming in, so I kept seeing them. And when Paul came in I went, "that's it!" I could see him in the period and the costume. It was easy casting.
Q. Did you know him from any of his other work?
A. I knew him on film but I had never met him and had never worked with him.
Q. That's what I meant. Any of it stick out in your mind?
A. Well not that made me choose him as this character. I knew that he was a good actor from his other work. But it was mainly a presence that I was looking for in this character and he had that.
Q. You said that you were on the set every day, then you were there when they were shooting the beach scene.
Q. Tell me about Paul on the job. Does he boss you around a lot?
A. No. You know what - he's the sweetest guy. We really enjoyed it. That was a funny day because we had all these period bathing suits. And there was this shirt. I don't know if you remember these shirts but I clearly remember these shirts. They were like see-through nylon shirts that men wore. The costumer had picked this shirt for him and it really did look great. And I went in to see him and he looked at me like, "Please don't make me wear this." And I said, "You really hate that shirt don't you?" And he said, "yeah." I said, "Well, you don't have to wear it." He was my biggest fan after that because I didn't make him wear the shirt. Although it really was authentic to the period he really didn't like the way he appeared in it and to me, an actor's comfort is very important for them to become that character.
Q. So what kind of shirt did he get?
A. He actually got to pick the shirt he liked. He showed me the one he liked and I said I'm fine with that. See I really love that scene -- that scene on that beach is really lovely
Q. He said he loved it too.
A. "It's the glass ball and I see these children..." I thought it was an absolutely charming scene. And the two of them together...
Q. How did you pick Deirdre Quinn?
A. Let me tell you. Probably the hardest casting in the
world is to find an actress who looks like a young Maureen O'Hara. Forget
that. We read everyone with red hair in four states. She's actually from
and was out here to audition for "Miss Congeniality," a Sandra Bullock film and she just happened to come in for us, and that week she got both parts. She came in to me and she had the eyes and the sparkle. Nobody's ever going to look like a young Maureen O'Hara except Maureen O'Hara, but she had the hair and the spark that I thought made it work and I thought she and Paul together were absolutely gorgeous.
Q. He's told me that his part is in flashbacks.
Q. Is this at the beginning or throughout?
A. No, throughout.
Q. How much screen time would you say are the flashbacks?
A. He has quite a bit of screen time.
Q. Because you're apparently running two stories here...
A. Yeah. This is the B story. But there are quite a few scenes and they are the most mesmerizing scenes. It's funny. When we were cutting the film I kept craving going to those 40's scenes because they pulled me into the film. He has a lot of screen time. He didn't have one thing that ended up on the cutting room floor - I'll tell you that.
Q. I'm sure he'll be glad to hear that. I'd also like to know are you married?
Q. Have you ever been?
Q. So you've been married to your job.
A. It's hard to make my time schedule work with relationships I have to say. And it's been my choice. I think that's been a good decision for me. I could not have done everything I've done. I lost my dad a couple of years ago but I still have a 92-year old mother in North Carolina and I go home every third week and that's a very loving responsibility for me. And it's a real privilege. You can't be everything.
Q. I have a few questions directly from members of the Paul Johansson Fan Club.
Q. Does this movie come with a hanky rating, and what is it?
A. Oh it definitely has a hanky rating. All Beth Polson movies have a hanky rating.
Q. On a scale of 1 to 10?
A. I'd say you definitely need at least 6.
Q. Being Paul aficionados, what is the best thing Paul brought to the production?
A. The best thing Paul brought is a real presence of character. I really believed from the very moment...he never was an actor to me. He really was this character.
Q. Can you give examples of Paul's sense of humor or personality in general?
A. I have several so I'm trying to remember...we had to cut his hair really short. And he has what we kindly would call stubborn hair. It has a mind of its own. So every day he would say to me "how's my hair?" because he knew I was going to come up to the hairdresser and say "do this or do that" every day...and he was like "she's gonna drive me crazy about my hair," but he never lost his sense of humor about it. Every day he was like "okay look at my hair...can't I just wear the hat?" We had a lot of fun dealing with his hair.
Q. I think we've already touched on this -- Did he offer creative ideas to the director/production staff, or did he just play the role as directed?
A. Not at all. He brought a lot to the film...what he felt this character would be and how he would deal with this relationship. He offered a lot to both the director and to Deirdre, who played the young Maureen O'Hara character. They worked together really well and they spent time together when they weren't shooting talking about how they wanted to play a scene. He definitely brought his own thinking to the role.
Q. What can you tell us about him that we might not already know, an interesting factoid or bit of trivia?
A. Let's see...trivia. He's a good dancer. For those people who are Paul fans, and I know there are many, this is a film where they'll get to fall in love with Paul.
Q. We already are.
A. Yeah. Well in this you'll get to fall in love all over again. He's one handsome guy in this movie.
Q. We're very much looking forward to it. Do you suppose you might be casting him again sometime?
A. I'd love to use him again. Every man is handsome in a uniform but he made the uniform handsome.
Q. Amen to that. We've got the picture to prove it.
The Last Dance airs as the CBS Movie of the Week on October 29.
Paul Johansson Online©2000
special thanks to H. McLatchie for transcription