The Drews found a friend in public television — Lewis Freedman, head of the program fund of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Freedman was interested in many of the same topics that intrigued the Drews, and he liked candid reporting. Soon, the Drews were busy with several films: Fire Season, a 90-minute drama on a Los Angeles gang member who joins the California Conservation Corps to fight fires in the mountains while his home boys fight each other in the streets back home.
Back at CPB, Ron Hull took over for Freedman. Hull also assigned films to Drew Associates. They cover gang attacks on a grocer in the Watts section of Los Angeles in “Warning from Gangland” and “Shootout on Imperial Highway” and also a high school that is turning itself around in a tough neighborhood in Chicago in “Marshall High Fights Back.” These all air on the public broadcasting series, Frontline.
Next up is a film that wins Drew the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia award for best documentary of the year — “For Auction: an American Hero.” The film is true to Drew’s verite roots. Viewers step into the shoes of the Kolbo family, whose family farm must be auctioned to pay their debts. Leo Wolf, the auctioneer, also becomes more than an executioner, especially as he reflects on how his father had to sell out his farm when Wolf was a boy.
The Drews continued to combine their personal passions with their filmmaking. Later in life, when Drew reflected on his career, he talked about why he then decided to do films on wild birds. “The whole thing — war, flying, story-telling in still pictures, making the pictures move and speak, reaching for more human realities — had been a personal obsession,” he wrote. “But the bird films, “River of Hawks” for National Geographic, and “Messages From The Birds” for Audobon, are personal indulgences. I love birds, particularly hawks that fly formation with me when I glide along Pennsylvania ridges.”
Drew said he was thrilled to fly and photograph hawks and came to realize that nature photography in the wild is candid photography.
One of Anne’s passions was women in power. She had tried for years to sell a film series on powerful women, including India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Drew had produced a film on Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. Twenty years later, he introduced Anne Drew to Nehru’s daughter, Indira. Drew and Gandhi bonded and soon Anne spent time with Gandhi’s family and travelled with the Indian Prime Minister as she campaigned for her son, Rajiv, to win an election to Parliament. Anne Drew’s film, “Herself, Indira Gandhi,” was well-received. When Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, Anne Drew returned to India with Drew Associates’ cinematographer Coulter Watt to cover Rajiv’s election campaign. The resulting film, co-produced with the BBC, “Life and Death of A Dynasty,” aired on PBS on May 21,1991, two days after an assassin’s bomb killed Rajiv.
One of their last films, “L.A. Champions,” about two high school basketball team captains in South Central Los Angeles, had all the features of the candid drama that Drew prized. “This place is a bomb and I want to get out before it goes off,” Maurice Robinson, captain of the Crenshaw team, says in the film. For Rickey Brown, captain of the Fremont team, things look different. “I might he shot,” me says, “but I don’t want to get away. There are things that can be done here. It’s how you look at it, what you see. It’s what you see.”
For Drew, Brown’s last quote summed up a career in filmmaking.
As he got older, Drew kept working toward making an autobiographical film about his experiences in WWII, when he was a 19-year-old fighter-bomber pilot in active combat. On his 31st mission, Drew was shot down by German forces in Italy, and he survived behind enemy lines for three and a half months, eluding capture the entire time before walking through the front lines to return to his unit. Anne Drew finally produced that film in 2004. It was a different, more personal film. It used recreated scenes and lots of narration. It also highlighted a connection Drew made during the war that charted the course of his life: his time with war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
This is what Drew wrote about the film he and Anne made, called “From Two Men and a War”:
“I am 19, flying fighters against German Panzers in Italy, 1943-44. My father ferries bombers. Bunking with me is war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose prose gives readers a unique sense of “what it is like to be there.”
Army photographers document my squadron in combat — moving pictures that, combined with stills and my recollections, compose this film.
I am shot down, then return after evading capture for three months. My father is killed in a crash. Pyle dies from a sniper’s bullet.
Pyle’s “what is is like to be there” stays with me. I develop it in stills at Life Magazine and in film with “Primary,” the first American film in which the camera moves freely with characters through a story. I produce 60 verite documentaries, a number recognized at Venice, Cannes, London and New York.
I like to think that if Ernie Pyle were looking on today, he would recognize in these films a drive to communicate “what it is like to be there.”