Jon is working on a new book for Bloomsbury Press. Screening Reality: How Real World Moviemakers Reimagined America explores the role of nonfiction filmmakers in American history, from the first photographs that moved to today's "Post-Truth" era.
Jon's book: Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles,was published by Bloomsbury Press in January 2016. Based on more than twenty years of research, Floodpath is 2016 Amazon Nonfiction Book of the Year and was optioned for an eight-part television mini-series by Joel Silver Productions. It is also a companion to the Wilkman Productions documentary, "The St. Francis Dam Disaster," now in development. The 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, is considered the deadliest American civil engineering failure of the 20th century. More than 400 people lost their lives. The tragedy brought an end to the legendary career of William Mulholland, the self-taught engineer who built the Owens River Aqueduct that made modern Los Angeles possible. Perhaps best known as part of the backstory of the classic film, Chinatown, the true story of the St. Francis Dam is just as intriguing, and even more important to America today. In the present era of climate change, drought and a failing American infrastructure, the lessons of the St. Francis Dam failure are more relevant than ever. An interview about the disaster with Jon and his late wife Nancy aired on NPR's "All Things Considered."
Wilkman Productions is developing a new documentary, The War Behind the Screen: Hollywood vs. Hitler. This 90 minute film will reveal perhaps the greatest untold Hollywood story of the 1930s. It explores how America and the movie industry responded to the rise of Hitler -- with movies and direct action. At the heart of this little known history is an amazing anti-Nazi spy operation, set up in the very heart of Hollywood, one of the best kept secrets of the pre-World War II era.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels believed movies were weapons. He was convinced that if he could neutralize the power of the American motion picture industry, he could stop or postpone involvement of a deeply anti-war United States in activities against Nazi military actions in Europe. In response, the Hollywood moguls, most of whom were Jewish, were surrounded by challenges on all sides, but found ways to fight back.
As Hitler accelerated his attacks on Jews in Germany, forcing Jewish-owned businesses to close, American overseas profits for the American movie industry, an important source of income, were hit hard. At first, the Hollywood moguls attempted to negotiate deals to keep their films in German-controlled theaters, but were ultimately thwarted. President Roosevelt wanted American films to stay as long as possible, but the studio heads were hesitant to take a more activist stance against the rise of Hitler because of industry sanctions against films that might be perceived as propaganda rather than entertainment during a time when as much as 80 percent of Americans opposed entering the conflict in Europe. Added to this, was the threat of an increase in home-grown anti-Semitism, if it appeared that Jewish moguls were urging the country into war. The very few independently produced anti-Nazi films were suppressed, while only a handful of major studio productions, mostly from Warner Bros., faced the dangers indirectly. However, in the midst of this public timidity, a secret spy network was born, staffed by everyday citizens. These espionage efforts exposed Nazism from within, and alerted Americans before Hollywood faced the threat openly in the landmark 1939 movie, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and the country was thrown into the conflict by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Research and preliminary production continue for a 90 minute documentary entitled Performing the Past: The Ramona Outdoor Play, Historical Pageantry and American Identity. Established in 1923, the Ramona Pageant, performed each spring in Hemet, California, is the oldest and largest outdoor play in the United States, part of a tradition of American community-based dramas that began in the 19th century. Focusing on Ramona, a drama set during the United States conquest of California in 1840s, Performing the Past explores the nature of history itself and how an evolving present can lead to new more inclusive perspectives on the past, especially as it relates to Native American and Latino contributions to the American historical narrative.
Wilkman Productions is developing a documentary series about the history, contents and influence of Liberty Magazine, the lively American periodical that published the work of many of the world's most famous writers and public figures from the 1920s to 1950. Exploring the pages of Liberty offers a rare and entertaining window into three amazing decades of American life and culture.