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A Filmmaker's Mission

Michael Schlossman is reasonably certain that he will never achieve his most cherished goals. At age thirty-eight, his stocky athlete’s build is beginning to turn into a stocky artist’s build, and he has all but given up hope of winning Wimbledon.His dream of quarterbacking a pro football team to a Super Bowl victory is also fading rapidly, though he still imagines a scenario in which he attends a Jets game, all available quarterbacks fall injured, and a grizzled coach’s voice barks out from the sideline: “Where’s that Schlossman kid? Get him down here and tell him to suit up!” Age has not yet foiled his anticipated election to the United States Senate, but then again, he doesn’t plan to run any time soon.

If Schlossman’s goals seem a trifle farfetched, then perhaps it’s a hazard of the storyteller’s trade. Michael Schlossman is a “nonfiction filmmaker.” He and his company, Red Dog Entertainment (named in honor of his golden retrievers, Sam and Tucker), specialize in telling stories about everyday heroes, the sorts of people Schlossman himself admired in youth and for whom he retains an uncomplicated fascination. “My genres tend to be military, law enforcement, cop stuff — real boys’ stuff,” he says sitting at Arcadia Coffee in Old Greenwich, his neighborhood haunt. “My mother wouldn’t let me be a fighter pilot or a cop,” he cheerfully admits, “so I decided to make films about fighter pilots and cops instead.”

Schlossman’s work appears frequently on the Discovery Channel, Court TV, A&E, HBO and other cable outlets. A Discovery show called Armed and Missing, about an Air Force pilot who inexplicably veered off course during a training run above the Arizona desert and crashed into a mountain peak hundreds of miles away, established Schlossman as a triple threat: writer, director and producer. Pentagon officials were so pleased with his sensitive handling of the story (the pilot was ultimately thought to have committed suicide) that they cooperated fully when Schlossman decided to tackle perhaps the most vexing military mystery of recent years — the disappearance of M. Scott Speicher, the first U.S. fighter pilot shot down in the Gulf War of 1991. Speicher was officially pronounced dead, though evidence suggests that he ejected, was captured and had been sighted in Iraq between the wars, says Schlossman. “Speicher was the first person in U.S. military history ever to be taken off the KIA list and put on the MIA list instead.” Schlossman adds that it appears likely the military will soon redesignate him killed in action. Missing: Prisoner of Iraq aired on Discovery in 2003 and has been updated for a future broadcast.

Schlossman’s films often illuminate little-understood facets of the military and law enforcement. Bounty hunters, border patrolmen, Air Force Thunderbird pilots and warriors of the French Foreign Legion have all passed before his lens. Right now he’s at work on a piece about the builders of a state-of-the-art mega aircraft carrier. One popular film showcased the work of the Air Force’s only special operations unit, the Pararescuemen, or PJs. “What I love about the PJs,” Schlossman says, “is that they have training that’s sort of equal to the SEALs or the Green Berets or the Delta Force, but they do it not for the chance to kill people, but for the chance to help people. Did you see The Perfect Storm? Remember the helicopter that went down? Those are Pararescuemen. If you saw Black Hawk Down, when they’re screaming ‘Medic, medic, medic!’ those are PJs. So these guys are running through bullets. They’re just incredible human beings; they make you feel like your life is so small.”

An acclaimed Red Dog series that aired on Discovery last fall, SOS: Coast Guard Rescue, showed the U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers working amid nature’s most harrowing calamities. The series, however well wrought, owed something of its success to fortune. Schlossman spent months solving knotty technical problems — mounting special cameras onto rescue-swimmers’ helmets, waterproofing battery packs — then rigged eight Coast Guard crews with recording gear. If a major hurricane made landfall, Schlossman’s cameramen were pre-approved to deploy with Coast Guard helicopters. Of course, the cameramen had to have particular qualities. As Schlossman told the Daily News, “I’m looking for people who can vomit and keep shooting.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Schlossman’s cameras recorded about three hundred dramatic rooftop rescues. “I, along with the rest of America, was watching the storm, and as it made a right turn and missed New Orleans, we all let out a sigh of relief,” he recalls. “And then all of a sudden the levees broke and the city flooded. So we were in the perfect position at the perfect time. Every news crew down there was trying to get onto the Coast Guard helicopters, but nobody was on them except for us.”

Schlossman’s films do not always side comfortably with the system. Films for Court TV’s Wrong Man? series question whether certain notorious convicted criminals are criminals at all. Marty Tankleff, a Long Island teenager who confessed to murdering his parents in 1988, is one such convict who Schlossman believes to be innocent. His film demonstrates chillingly just how unreliable a confession can be. (A police detective falsely told Marty that his mortally wounded father, Seymour Tankleff, had regained consciousness and accused his son of the crime. The distraught young man quickly accepted this version of events but soon recanted.) Evidence uncovered since Schlossman’s film aired in 2002 has powerfully buttressed Tankleff’s case and may even have pinpointed the real killers — hit men hired by a disgruntled business partner of the elder Tankleff’s.

In the case of Teresa Fargason, convicted by a Georgia jury in 1993 of killing her six-year-old daughter, Schlossman and his two on-camera detectives, Jerry Palace and Reggie Britt, methodically dismantle the prosecution’s case. But then, at least in Schlossman’s telling, there wasn’t much of a case to dismantle; that a jury saw fit to convict based on almost no evidence remains this case’s chief absurdity. Meanwhile, Schlossman and his detectives learned of a disgraced former police officer who seems to have stalked the Fargasons — information not admitted at trial.

Schlossman got wind of the Fargason case through Teresa’s stepmother. “She wrote me this long, babbling, handwritten letter. I was just so confused by the whole thing. But something in there sparked my interest. As events unfolded, I became personally outraged at what had happened to this woman. I think it’s a crime that she’s in prison.”

Schlossman’s involvement with the Fargason case did not cease with his film. He decided to pitch a wrongful conviction center that usually pitches him: “You’re usually calling me for favors; now I’m calling you,” he told them. “I need you to take over this woman’s case.” And so they did. Schlossman believes that Teresa Fargason will eventually be freed, and when that day comes, he hopes to begin work on a feature film about her nightmarish journey through the criminal justice system.

Though Schlossman plans on sticking to his grand themes — military and the law — he has made some surprising detours. One film imagines, with breathtakingly lifelike special effects, what a major earthquake would do to New York City (as the narrator informs us, a major fault line runs down the middle of Manhattan, and someday it’s going to shift). He’s also made a fashion history film, Fashion: Then and Now, cowritten with his wife Dana, whom he describes as “one of the best writers I’ve ever met.” The unlikeliest-sounding Red Dog production is My Fire Island, a reality show about (as the company website describes it) “Two houses — one filled with gay men, one filled with lesbians. Add one very long, hot summer on New York’s famed Fire Island and the result is a recipe for disaster.”

Schlossman may be a born entertainer, but he began his professional life as a lawyer. “I didn’t grow up in a family where we used words like writer, producer, director,” he explains. “I grew up the youngest of three Jewish children on Long Island, and being the youngest of three Jewish children, I was either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. So I went premed.” Fortunately, at least in retrospect, his premed grades were lackluster, and thus the law beckoned. (The family business held utterly no enchantment for him. Michael’s father, Murray, owns an industrial sewing machine supplies company for which Michael’s two older brothers now work.) Though Schlossman had pinned his hopes on entertainment law, he landed a well-paying job with what might be described as France’s central bank. Around the same time, he got “mixed up in politics,” managing congressional campaigns and running, unsuccessfully, for city council as an Upper West Side Republican.

Entertainment law remained about as elusive for Schlossman as a Wimbledon title. The good jobs were mainly in Los Angeles, and Schlossman was intent on staying in New York, not least because he didn’t want to have to pass the bar all over again. The French post, meanwhile, revolved around swap transactions and derivatives, which, however lucrative, held little sex appeal for the entertainment-minded man. “I had a great job and was making a lot of money,” Schlossman says, “but I felt empty.” Through the intercession of a friend, he got a low-paying job with a small company in lower Manhattan, Tapestry International, which distributes documentary films.

Dana Schlossman was blessedly optimistic about her husband’s change in course. “I’ve always trusted that whatever he does will turn out successfully,” she says. “Besides, both of us are all about taking risks. If you don’t take the risk, you don’t get the reward.” (Dana herself is an entrepreneur: She owns a public relations firm specializing in cosmetics and beauty products.) What’s more, she adds, filmmaking allows Michael to express his all-embracing curiosity as nothing else could. “I’m always asking him, ‘How do you know that?’ He’s a real news junkie. He starts every day with information gathering. He just seems to know something about everything.”

Michael quickly justified Dana’s confidence. When his boss, Nancy Walzog, asked if he could think up anything to pitch to Discovery Channel, ideas rolled off the tip of his tongue. (Tapestry was seeking to generate its own material rather than just distribute other peoples’.)

“I happen to be a Discovery freak,” Schlossman remarks. “So I pitched them five ideas and they bought three of them.” This would not surprise anyone who knows Michael Schlossman. “Yes, he is a good salesman,” says Sean Gallager, senior vice president of production at TLC, “but he doesn’t even have to bring me a fully fleshed-out idea because I know he’s serious.”

Schlossman’s creativity has a distinctly practical — one might almost say lawyerly — cast. “I tell people that I have the heart of a producer and the mind of a lawyer,” he says. His confidence can border on cockiness, but he tends to undercut it with a disarming and often funny self-deprecation — which is why it’s so easy to sympathize with his Walter Mitty-ish dream life.

“The idea part of this business has always been the easiest part for me,” he continues.

“If you were head of development at NBC, and you told me your mission statement for the next quarter, I could come back to you in twenty minutes with ideas that would probably be your top-rated shows. There are some things in this business I don’t do well. But the ideas come very easily to me.”

Schlossman founded Red Dog in 2000 as a kind of documentary boutique. Making his earlier films, he was just as likely to have held the camera as to have written the script. He still loves to sink himself into every aspect of a film. But the hands-on approach severely limited the amount of work the New York–based Red Dog could put out, as well as the amount of money it could make. “I struggled for a couple of years as to whether I wanted a big company,” he admits, but finally decided that smallness meant restrictedness.” So in 2004, Schlossman opened a second office, in Los Angeles. “When I opened the L.A. office, business just exploded,” he says. “We went from doing three, four, five single hours a year to doing thirty hours a year, and we went from three people to twenty-five or thirty people.”

These days Schlossman can legitimately indulge his grander dreams — at least those in the realm of documentary filmmaking. One is to reinvent the well-trammeled forensics mystery genre. Schlossman could succeed with Family Anatomy, a forthcoming reality series about a freelance coroner in Los Angeles and his unconventional family — a family Schlossman affectionately describes as “bonkers crazy.” The coroner, Vidal Herrera, who calls his business 1-800-AUTOPSY, is colloquially known as El Muerto, or Mr. Death. Since fewer autopsies are performed now than in the past, people hire Herrera when loved ones have questions about the cause of death and the hospital has declined to perform an autopsy. Others hire Herrera to get a second opinion or to have an autopsy performed discreetly on a celebrity.

Schlossman pitched the show to TLC as part Quincy and part Osbornes — that is, part medical/criminal mystery, and part screwball/family comedy. “They instantly got it,” Schlossman says. Discovery Channel, he thought, might be a bit too lawsuit averse to air a show dealing in corpses. “Take a controversy and put it on Discovery Channel, and take the same controversy and put it on HBO. If the controversy hit the papers, five people at Discovery Channel would be fired before 9 a.m., and five people at HBO would be promoted before 9 a.m. because for them, no press is bad press.”

In truth, Schlossman says, the show does present some sticky legal issues. While the dead have no right to privacy, it’s easy to imagine loved ones claiming distress when they see a dead relative getting autopsied on their TV screens. “So what we did — and this is a perfect example of using my law background to solve a problem — is we came up with a ‘next of kin’ release. We get the release and we pay for the autopsy. By paying for the autopsies, we’re trying to show a judge that we really have the family’s permission to do this. Because face it, there are people out there who see dollar signs.” Of course, Vidal Herrera himself needs no shortcuts to financial security. “This is a recession-proof business,” he has noted.

Less controversial is Schlossman’s revisiting of the Pararescuemen, who struck him as far too intriguing to cover in a single hour. Teamed with Dennis Publishing, publisher of the testosterone-charged Maxim magazine, he has developed a reality series featuring Pararescuemen in the fullness of their daily lives — saving a stranded boater one moment and struggling with family issues the next. “The show is meant to be much more three and four dimensional about these characters,” he says, “so that we as viewers are much more vested in who they are.”

Indeed, Schlossman has grown so interested in fleshing out his characters that the traditional documentary sometimes strikes him as inadequate to the task. What’s an enterprising fellow to do? “One of the things I really want to do in my life, aside from winning Wimbledon and being MVP quarterback in the Super Bowl, is I would like to produce a feature.” This seems the next logical step in the evolution of Michael Schlossman — to shape his stories with all the tools available to a dramatic production.

Teresa Fargason’s story is the sort that may do well as a feature. While it’s hard for viewers to really know her through jailhouse interviews, it’s fairly easy to imagine a Kate Winslet or a Gwyneth Paltrow acting out her desperate story. But as Schlossman waits for his happy ending, he dreams of directing a big- action Hollywood feature — ideally, one embodying a heroic military theme.

With that in mind, he acquired (together with Vin Di Bona, producer of Entertainment Tonight) the rights to a critically acclaimed book called Storm on the Horizon by David Morris. This true story of a little-known battle in the Gulf War — Saddam’s attempt to seize a city in Saudi Arabia — might be the perfect Schlossman creative vehicle but, Schlossman concedes, may prove a lemon of a business vehicle. It’s nobody’s fault. Three Kings and the recent Jarhead may have exhausted the Gulf War as feature film material. Though Schlossman’s goal of directing a big action movie remains firm, he recognizes something of a firewall between documentary and feature filmmaking. “No one’s going to hire me to direct a huge action flick,” he says. “No one’s going to let me direct Armageddon right now.”

Maybe not right now. But his whole career has been gravitating, however circuitously, toward a Cecil B. DeMille moment. Or at least a Tom Cruise one. “Just to give you an example of the kind of product that I like,” Schlossman says, “I did my senior thesis in college on Top Gun. To me, Top Gun is an art film."