Making Stuff: The Fourteen Minute Gap
Produced in late 2006-early 2007, The Fourteen Minute Gap is the first short documentary I made. I had previously done short promotional pieces for my employ, the Mary Ferrell Foundation, but this was the first time I took an actual story from the Foundation’s archive (the MFF is a historical research site, specifically centered around the JFK Assassination and other controversial stories in modern American history) and made it into something alive.
In retrospect, what I was doing was my first stab at (very primitive) transmedia. The Fourteen Minute Gap was designed as a gateway into multiple stories in the Foundation’s archive. The story of the Gap, an erased Lyndon Johnson telephone call between the new president and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, on the morning after JFK’s murder in Dallas, opened up other rabbit holes like Lee Harvey Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and Lyndon Johnson’s strong-arming of what would become the Warren Commission (which found that Oswald acted alone – for the record, I don’t believe that for a second). I intended there to be other shorts from this film, but unfortunately, I never had the time or money to make them.
What I set out to do was to avoid the History Channel “survey” course of the Kennedy assassination. Every program centers around the question, “was there a conspiracy to kill Kennedy,” and offers both sides of the story, without really saying anything or going too deep into the political ramifications of the event (more than just bullets and forensics). I operated with the idea that I don’t care who killed Kennedy. I was more interested in the why, the political climate of the time, and telling a story that was a microcosm not of the politics of stage or icons, but of men with power doing stupid things and covering up their screw-ups.
Speaking of screw-ups, whoever erased this call has nothing on Rosemary Woods (of the more famous Nixon 18-minute gap). While they erased the audio of the call, they didn’t destroy the transcript, which provided most of the material and structure of the film itself.
The other important element of The Gap was that my colleague at the Foundation, Rex Bradford, was the one to discover this particular conversation had been erased. For two years, Rex had engaged the LBJ Library back and forth until finally, they admitted that the tape had been purposefully erased. When Rex tried to take this story to the media – with irrefutable evidence and confession – he was told by USA Today, “my editor keeps telling me to write good news, and I don’t think this qualifies.”
With the human element of Rex’s discovery, and the story of Oswald mixing together, I was able to construct the film with two parallel narratives, of Rex’s tale about his discovery of the erasure and the story of Oswald’s trip to Mexico City, ultimately tying both together in the end when I revealed the audio and transcript of the call in a minute-long sequence using image, type, and tape hiss.
My budget for this film was one hundred dollars. I couldn’t afford the rights to any footage of Kennedy, so I had to use entirely public domain footage, stringing it together to make some sort of narrative. My initial plan was to have the entire Oswald story told through phone calls and image without narration, but I was shot down on that – possibly for the better.
This project was a crash course in editing. I had to learn to assemble what was essential a documentary collage, making it emotional, intriguing, and factually accurate, while at the same time making it accessible to anyone with a passing interest in history. It was no easy feat, but in the end, I’m proud of the film. Would I change things now? Oh hell yes. This film is nearly five years old. But, it does tell a good story, premiered in Dallas and Prague in 2007, and still gets comments on YouTube (even though I’ve done nothing to promote it in over three years).
What was the most important thing I learned and hoped to convey with this film? That history is NOT a survey course. It’s living, breathing, and shapes today more than we give it credit for. It may be cliché, but it’s true: those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
This was just my little part of making the past a good yarn.