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When Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Phil Day brought his plans for Born to Rage? — a documentary examination about why some people turn violent — to the National Geographic Channel, the executive in charge was less than receptive to the idea.
But Day kept coming back, intrigued by new research that says some people carry a “warrior gene,” which makes them more likely to join gangs and use weapons.
“I said, ‘This is crazy. This could be so successful because it’s about violence but it’s also instructive. You learn something. You take away something big,’ ” Day recalled.
“It’s the attraction of what I call ‘violence porn.’ People fighting the crap out of each other is always magnetic to an audience.”
The NGC executive finally began to warm to the subject. “He kind of looked at it again and said, ‘This is going to rate really well, isn’t it?’ ” Day said. “He said it’s not exactly what I’d like our channel to be, but go ahead, make it. Now the channel absolutely loves it.”
Born to Rage? which premieres Dec. 14, is hosted by singer-actor-activist Henry Rollins, who meets with 14 people, from former motorcycle gang members to Buddhist monks, all of whom agreed to have their DNA tested to see if they have the warrior gene.
“There’s still a lot of controversial science around it,” Day said. “What we’ve managed to do is put all the controversy into the same one-hour show. We don’t have all the answers, but we do have the questions.”
One of Day’s first documentaries, Tango With Ninagawa, done for the BBC, debuted in 1991 and won an award at the Golden Gate Film Festival. His 1997 documentary on Lyndon Johnson, featuring newly discovered recordings made in the Oval Office, went on to win a number of honors, including a Peabody.
In the years since, he has worked on subjects as diverse as the Lost Cities of the Amazon to skyjacker D.B. Cooper.
In 2006, Day launched his own Santa Monica-based production company, where he has produced, directed, written and shot documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS and others. Each project typically sports a budget of about $400,000.
Day is in the final stages on two more docs for National Geographic, one about the Japanese mafia and another about an escape from Alcatraz a year before it closed for good in 1963.
Alcatraz is a factual account of the escape of three men featured in Clint Eastwood’s 1979 movie Escape From Alcatraz, but with a different ending. For years, it was believed that the three convicts drowned, but Day says they actually survived.
“We have documentary evidence that has been hidden all these years,” he said.
The two documentaries will feature re-creations of events, one thing for which Day is known. He recalls doing what looked like 8mm home movies for the Johnson documentary, as well as Oval Office re-creations, for Channel 4 in London.
Day said new broadcast and media platforms have opened paths to a wider audience for documentaries.
“Wherever I go in America, people say, ‘I love documentaries. They’re my favorite,’” Day said. “The reality is the big money is not there and it’s not as trashy or as popular as reality TV. But it is a great way to tell a really good and often really important story.”
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