By Eileen Douglas

A man I know at the gym called to me recently as he was splashing in the pool as I was entering with, “Hey. I have a great idea for a documentary!”

“ Do you remember,” he wanted to know, “this guy a few years back, who was in debt, lost his job, his wife had left him---and then he won the lottery! For 146 million dollars! What do you think about finding him and seeing what his life was like before-- and after!!?

Of course, there probably isn’t a reporter alive who hasn’t thought of that story idea. And now that I’ve had the experience of having to raise money for every idea I think makes a documentary, I had only one thing to say. “I would do it if he would pay for it. Otherwise I have no money for that.” Tough answer, I could see by his deflated face, but true.

To soften the blow I asked him, “What would YOU do if you suddenly found yourself with 146 million dollars?” My gym friend is a former horse trainer, so I wasn’t surprised by his choice. “First thing, I would buy a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky.” Makes sense. His second answer was more unusual. “Then, I would go to the track and find the guys who are poor and give them the money they need to bet.” Noble thought, I guess, and not what I’d pick, but that’s what makes horse races.

When my friend left the pool, I began to ask myself the same question. What would I do if I suddenly found myself with an extra 146 million dollars? Full disclosure. In the past I have done the mental exercise where you imagine what you would do with 10 million dollars-- as a way to discover what you truly want to do in life. Try it and you’ll see how it frees the thought mechanisms. But 146 million greatly expanded my imagination and opened up new realms of fantasy.

Once I had bought the huge New York apartment with all the space I could ever, ever need, and had given all the people I love a million each, I began to dream bigger dreams. I would travel the world.

I would keep a notebook. I would write down all my thoughts as I watched the world and the rich life it holds unfold around me, from one exotic locale on faraway continents to another. Masai villages in Africa. Rice paddies on the Mekong River. Taking my notes, I would add little drawings and photographs. I would, in fact, take my time to take every single photograph that presented itself before my camera’s eye. Whenever and wherever I wanted.
Masai Villagers, Kenya
© Photo by Eileen Douglas

Then I would have conversations, brilliant, eye-opening, stimulating, conversations---with whatever brilliant, eye-opening and stimulating person in the world I wanted to meet. Tony Blair, Steven Spielberg, Mikhail Gorbachev, James Gandolfini, Benazir Bhutto, Bill Clinton. World leaders, writers, artists, creators of music and film. What is Vladimir Putin really like? Or Queen Elizabeth or Hillary? Eyeball to eyeball, person to person. The idea would not only be to see them up close, but to talk deeply with them and hear what these leaders of government powers and of the arts and culture have to say when you find yourself alone in the same room with them.

And then it dawned on me.

Like my horse trainer friend who chose what he already was, only bigger, as a reporter, that’s exactly what I have been doing, all my working life. Traveling, shooting, writing, asking questions. Seeing people in the news up close, as I was, in fact, part of that privileged group that was putting them in the news in the first place. I covered Rudolph Guiliani back even before he was mayor, when he was a federal prosecutor. I sat in news conferences and stood in conversation on street corners as Mario Cuomo dazzled when he was governor. I’ve dropped by Lincoln Center to sit at the feet of Yitzhak Perlman at a news conference, and then followed Zubin Mehta down the hall with my microphone. I stood on Wall Street and watched Mikhail Gorbachev wave through his limo window as he visited New York for the first time at the height of glasnost. And while I kept notes, shooting, writing, traveling and reporting what I was seeing, I was also seeing in the cracks that appear in the moments around the gathering of the story –while you are setting up or breaking down, and in the interview itself--what the people in the news were really like.

Best of all, it didn’t cost me 146 million dollars.
In fact, they paid me. What a great deal.
Now all I need to do is find that guy who won the 146 million and ask him if he'd like to do a documentary about himself.

Eileen Douglas

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist-turned-independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for ABC TV's "Lifetime Magazine," she is the author of "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart," and co-producer of the films "My Grandfather's House" and "Luboml: My Heart Remembers." She can be reached at http://www.douglas-steinman.com/




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