I was lucky enough to interview Beth Pike, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker who lives in Columbia. She's a freelancer (birds of a feather!), and doesn't really have a "studio," so we met at Kayotea, one of her usual haunts for when she has work to do. Even though she was exhausted after a project that went late from the previous day, she was a fantastic conversationalist, and I really hated to have to leave!
If you have a chance, check out her website for more information on her other documentaries and projects.
Photo by Anastasia Pottinger
Beth Pike has chased down stories for CNN. She traveled to post-war Bosnia to film and help a refugee family retrace its roots. She can take 65 hours of footage and turn it into an Emmy Award-winning documentary. And she still likes making home movies.
“I wish more people would pick up the camera and shoot,” she says as she sips on a coffee and settles into her chair.
The 45-year-old producer, director and writer, who co-owns Look Out Crew, is still reveling in the Emmy she won for Trustees for the Public: 200 Years of Missouri Newspapers, a documentary that explores the impact Missouri journalism has made over the past two centuries.
Initially, Trustees was not supposed to be a documentary. Three years ago, Pike and her colleague Steve Hudnell were hired by the Missouri Press Association to record oral histories of newspaper publishers who have been a part of the rich tradition of family-owned publishing throughout Missouri. Within the footage, Pike, who interviewed most of the subjects, discovered there was an important story to be told. Rather than simply archive the histories, Pike and Hudnell, with the support of the Missouri Press Association, jumped at the chance to turn 65 hours of interviews into a feature-length documentary. During the editing process, Pike and Hudnell collaborated with a composer and graphic designer to turn raw footage into a documentary shown on PBS stations across Missouri and Illinois. Although the film is rooted in journalism, there was an art to putting the elements together.
“There is a balance between craft and art,” Pike says. “With Trustees, the Missouri Press Association looked over the script but gave us a lot of creative freedom when it came to music, editing and visuals.”
Pike, who had never been nominated for an Emmy, learned that the film was up against six other documentaries when nominations were announced this past summer. The win, which was announced in October, came as a complete surprise. With a considerably lower budget than several of the other nominees, the crew had been hopeful but did not expect anything. For Pike, a true journalist, there could be no other explanation for the win: “We just had a really good story,” she says.
Learning the craft
Today, Pike cannot get enough coffee. She was just on a shoot for Entertainment Tonight. It sounds glamorous, but she did not get back to Columbia until 1 a.m., and the married mother of two was assigned to interview a Cosmopolitan magazine cover hunk. She says the situation was a little strange, but she kept her sense of humor.
Pike enjoys the freelance work, and though some news might err on the side of lighter pieces, taking on a variety of projects enables her to pursue meaningful documentary work. She is a storyteller to the core, and a copy of the Journalist’s Creed, by Walter Williams, hangs in her office.
“Maybe it took me time in my own career to realize how important the Walter Williams creed is today,” she says. “But the contribution he made to journalism is enormous.”
Pike has been involved in the news business for most of her life. Her father, Don, worked in newspaper circulation for the Washington Missourian.
“Even as a child, I was interested in the news of the day — not just comics,” she says.
In high school she worked the Sunday morning shift at a local radio station, KLPW, where she announced the weekly obituaries and learned how to correctly pronounce names. She is certain she had two loyal fans: “My mom listened, and so did Mrs. Oltman, from the funeral home,” she says laughing. Working as a newspaper inserter, Pike wrote sports for the Washington Missourian to have the clips that earned her a scholarship to attend the Missouri School of Journalism. When she graduated college, she moved around a bit, including a stint in New York, but she missed Missouri. She thought she would find more opportunities on the coast, but news organizations needed her in the Midwest.
“There is a certain Midwest charm that really works for interviews,” Pike says. “It makes subjects feel less pressured to know that I’m not someone from New York or L.A.”
Pursuing a passion
As a freelance journalist and filmmaker, Pike is used to erratic schedules, deadlines and odd assignments. She jumps easily between directing a scene, editing film and interviewing. But, even for someone who values conciseness, it is difficult to give her profession a label. At a dinner party, she still does not know what to say when she is asked about her profession.
“I give them a different answer each time,” she says. “I tell people I produce stories for television, and there is a certain wow factor that comes with working for Fox and CNN.”
But Pike’s passion is documentary work, and she wants to tell stories that center around Missouri. In addition to Trustees for the Public, Pike was part of a film crew that documented a family of Bosnian refugees in Missouri, which is also the state with the largest population of Bosnian immigrants. Neither Here Nor There, released in 2009, was a full-time, emotional investment for Pike. She and the crew filmed the family in Columbia and also traveled to Bosnia with the subjects. In addition to the feature-length documentary, a short film on the same subject won Pike and the crew the Show-Me Love competition at the 2005 True/False Film Festival.
“The bonds from the film stay,” says Pike. “There is an art to listening and seeing things from their perspective. When you get out in the world, you realize you’re interconnected. It was a labor of love, and I felt proud to tell their story.”
In between her freelance work, Pike is applying for funding for a documentary that explores the decline of rural Missouri. When Pike made a recent trip to a town in Knox County for a family reunion, she saw that nothing remained of the small, sleepy community. Instead, factories are under construction, and family-owned farms are being sold.
“Sometimes when you work in an area long enough, you’re fed into the pulse of the community,” says Pike. “What are the issues? You have a lot more insight and credibility.”
For now, though, Pike looks forward to the rest of her afternoon. With her freelance work finished for the day, she can pick her kids up from school and enjoy the weekend. Although the beauty of freelance is spontaneity, Pike is happy to be home.