"Show, don't tell," is a mantra repeated in classrooms from middle school through college as teachers push their students to bring narratives to life. After graduating from Bowdoin in 1984, Kary Antholis has taken this advice to heart and brought it to its full potential.
Since arriving at HBO in 1997, Antholis has worked in many storytelling mediums including documentaries, television series, feature films, and mini-series. Currently the president of HBO Miniseries, Antholis has worked on such celebrated miniseries as "Angels in America," "John Adams," and "Generation Kill."
On the day-to-day basis, Antholis explained his job to be overseeing the production, scheduling and all creative aspects of HBO's miniseries.
"I hear pitches from the producers, talk to writers about concepts, read a lot of non-fiction books, search for writers, directors, film makers and actors, and conceive of marketing and publicity campaigns for whatever miniseries we're working on at the time," Antholis said. "I work as the custodian of the creative vision and reason why the company got involved in a given miniseries."
Much of this role of protecting HBO's creative vision resides in Antholis's skill and attention to preserving and recreating historic detail. This is particularly important for HBO miniseries, as the most of the series are based on non-fiction narratives or historical events.
"We tend to do things that are archetypal in Western civilization and American culture," said Antholis. "Because we're trying to have the maximum impact on culture, this ability for viewers to attach to our narratives allows for word of mouth to build and contribute to branding HBO as a programmer of must-see-television."
Antholis explained this eye-catching quality to be especially important for miniseries, which don't have several seasons to build up viewer anticipation and investment.
"Everything happens within one season," explained Antholis. "We don't have those initial seasons to build an awareness of a background with which the viewer is not necessarily familiar. Instead, we want to capitalize on those conceptions or preconceptions that are already rattling around in your head. Then, we want to crystallize those notions into a specific point of view."
Antholis pointed to "John Adams," a miniseries that captures the life of John Adams and the first 50 years of the United States, a history and a narrative with which audiences are already familiar.
Both "Angels in America" and "Generation Kill" work in a similar vein, Antholis explained: "'Angels' is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus by playwright Tony Kushner; and "Generation Kill" on journalist Evan Wright's book of the same name which focuses on the early days of the Iraq war, a situation about which the public has many preconceptions."
"All of these miniseries focused on situations or ideas that were already rattling around in subscribers' head, and then we take our tools, the genre and the drama, to it. All the while, it's essential to preserve the essence of the historical authenticity, to keep our facts and the sequence of events straight. What makes these miniseries what they are is the fact that they are both entertaining and credible. They are an assessment and an interpretation of histories from the distant to the recent past, and in that they are authentic."
This care to preserve and illuminate history is one that Antholis has garnered from his studies earning a masters degree in history, a law degree, and his early work in the industry with ZM Prodcutions. Yet Antholis also locates the the development of this skill in his days as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College.
"Retrospectively, it was my interest in studying history that is most relevant to my work today," Antholis said of the connection between his work with HBO and his undergraduate experience. My history professors John Karl and Bill Whiteside were spectacular at painting pictures of how historical periods played out.
"My education in history at Bowdoin really helped me understand that there are many levels of historical understanding and reading," said Antholis. "It was at Bowdoin that I first began to gather this sense of historiography and grapple with questions of how you present history fairly and keenly. These approaches have been very useful in tackling how we dramatize things today, how we make something authentic."
Antholis also explained that it was at Bowdoin that his interest in the entertainment industry began as well. "I had a radio show, I directed a one act play, I did a little of acting myself. I also went to see a lot of movies in Brunswick and in Portland," he added.
Antholis reflected that what has resonated most with him educationally from his undergraduate experience was the way Bowdoin emphasized the importance of knowing how to look at historical narratives.
"It was a way of telling stories, historical stories, that began for me at Bowdoin. You know, I remember seven or eight years ago when I came up to Bowdoin one of the folks in the development office arranged a lunch with faculty members who had been teaching when I was at Bowdoin, Whiteside, John Karl, Bill Watterson and others. It was a very moving moment for me because these folks had really contributed in my approach to learning. They had really informed the way I consumed knowledge and expressed that knowledge. They impacted me in a way that has been invaluable to me as I've progressed," he said.
These lessons in historical story telling are especially pertinent to his work with miniseries.
"In their non-fiction roots, the book or the historical events they're based on always has to capture something, a relationship or a camaraderie," Antholis explained. "It has to be a story that really captures the national imagination. An epic or an era that people think they know about. But when someone pulls it all together into a story and recreates it in that way that gives a taste and a sense of how things really existed, they enrich the audience's sense of history."
"That's what will make a successful miniseries, when we take things that are familiar and reintroduce them to the audience into a narrative that is authentic," Antholis added.
Recently, Antholis finished work on HBO's upcoming World War-II miniseries "The Pacific which premieres on HBO March 14.
"Who knows exactly what our next project will be," said Antholis. "Currently, we're preparing for our next big miniseries, but I don't know what the future holds on that front."
Bowdoin will host a premier screening of segments from "The Pacific" with Kary Antholis and Bruce McKenna, coexecutive producer of "The Pacific."
The screening will be at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 4 in Pickard Theatre.