KUED Senior Producer
Ken Verdoia and Associate Producer Nancy
discuss the challenges, rewards and memorable moments of Fire in the Hole.
The Emmy Award-winning duo has teamed to produce six full length documentaries
for public television, examining Utah, the West and the nation in different
eras. Fire in the Hole is Verdoia's twenty-first documentary for public
What is the derivation
of the program's title, Fire in the Hole?
Anyone who has ever served in the military recognizes the call "Fire in the
Hole!" as a warning that an explosive charge has been placed, and is ready
to go off. But the military actually borrowed the use from miners who used
dynamite to loosen ore underground. It was very dangerous business in the
early days, and the "blasters" were well respected – if they were good at
their job! Once the dynamite had been set and the blasting caps and fuses
put in place, the call would shouted out down the mine shaft: "There is fire
in the hole!" Namely, get to safety. . .a blast is coming.
And the title also reflects the emotional intensity captured in the program.
This was a time of great conflict. There really was a sense that a blast was
coming in the form of an industrial showdown. And that the passions and events
playing out between mine owners and miners were set to explode.
How did you get started
on this project? What gave you the first idea to pursue the concept of "mine
wars in the West"?
The deepest roots of the project reach back to when we were completing our
documentary series on Utah gaining admission as a state, Utah:
The Struggle for Statehood, back in 1995. Our research took us up
to the year 1900, and we found ourselves coming across repeated references
to labor conflicts and outright violence that was occurring in the region's
mining centers. At the time we mentally "filed" the information, knowing it
was a subject we would want to return to in detail. When we rejoined the research
in 1998 we were immediately impressed with how dramatic the conflicts were.
. .and how the people of the time were absolutely uncertain on how the conflicts
would turn out.
At first, I wasn't sure if the storyline would be there. The topic was so
broad and it played out in so many locations. But as Ken and I worked on the
story together, the connections became apparent, and we realized we had quite
the story filled with conflict and struggle.
In programs like Utah:
The Struggle for Statehood, Brigham
Young, and Joe Hill, you've
used history as a means of exploring how we have emerged in a more contemporary
setting...as a nation and as a state. Does Fire in the Hole explore
the same connection?
Oh, definitely. It's obvious that we never just arrive in the present, newly
born without any influence from the past. As a country, as a region, as individuals,
we are shaped by the people and events that precede us. Fire in the Hole
explores how the relationship between working men and women and their employers
was forged in this country. It takes place during a time when no one was sure
what that relationship was going to look like. As I sit here today, I am a
direct beneficiary of that struggle. The things we take for granted today--
safety laws, a minimum working wage, the 40 hour work week--all these stem
from earlier labor struggles. And the issues that people grappled with a hundred
years ago are still relevant for us today, as we enter the 21st Century. How
will new technology shape our jobs? How do I secure health benefits? What
responsibilities do workers, owners, and the government have to each other?
These are questions that are timeless.
Absolutely. Too often we treat history like it is some "dead letter". . .that
it is so apart from our contemporary setting that it has no relevance. If
you look at the issues that form the core of the era in Fire in the Hole,
you find issues that are quite familiar to those of us moving into a new century.
How does a producing
partnership like this work?
We've likened the partnership to a marriage. There are times when you are
certain that divorce is the best option!
But, in all honesty,
over the years we have come to understand and appreciate each other's strengths
on a project like this. Nancy has a much stronger visual sense. I am drawn
to the storyline.
Divorce! How about just a trial separation? Actually, the last six years working
with Ken have been great for me. I have learned so much from him about story
telling and project management, and also about having great passion and heart.
Our working relationship has also changed over the years. At first I would
deal with visual and technical issues and Ken would focus on the overall vision
and storyline, but now I think there's more of a blending of our roles. There's
a great sense of collaboration.
But the partnership is not just two people. Fire in the Hole is a rather
extraordinary example of teamwork toward a common goal. From Bill Brussard's
exceptional photography of the region, to the audio work of Kevin Sweet and
Will Montoya, to the support of Elizabeth Southwell and Susan Doi — who literally
guided our efforts through every corner of the region over a year-long production
period. Great funding support from long-time allies of public television like
USWest, the R. Harold Burton Foundation and the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee
Foundation. And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided support as
well. So. . .the partnerships run deep throughout the project.
The program is filled
with near-mythic figures. Which ones made the strongest impressions?
Big Bill Haywood, for one. "Mother" Jones for another.
Definitely Mother Jones. She was an amazing woman, and quite the character.
Here was this woman who looked more like your grandmother than an union organizer,
and she was a hell-raiser. When she came to the Southern
Colorado Coal fields in 1913, she was 83, but she had more fire and spunk
than anyone half her age. She rallied miners to strike, lead protest marches,
and generally tried to be as much of a thorn in the side of the Governor and
the military as she could. And the miners loved her. They adored her. But
I think her greatest contribution was being a role model for women. This was
a time when women didn't even have the vote. And most of the women Mother
Jones spoke to were considered "poor, ignorant foreigners." But Mother Jones
told them they had power, that they could make a difference. And they listened
and they became transformed.
Ken: Haywood is
memorable just for his absolutely blunt, uncompromising view of the world.
A view that was so unpopular at the time that he was reviled from the White
House to the local pulpit. (See our
section on "Big" Bill Haywood).
How long did it take
to produce the program?
Ken: From first
idea? Five years. But midway through the process we decided to break out the
story of Joe Hill for a more detailed, individual program. [That documentary
will air nationally on PBS in the Fall of 2000. See
the accompanying Joe Hill website for additional information.]
But actual pre-production, the fieldwork and research, started nearly two
years ago. It's amazing how many books and archives you need to delve through
to produce a show like this. We spent most of the spring and summer of 1999
on the road with our field crew, Bill Brussard, Kevin Sweet, and Erik Nielsen
shooting in the different mining towns. And then the fun part began. Organizing,
cataloging and logging all of the tape–shot by shot. This task fell in the
capable hands of Elizabeth Southwell. Once the research and shooting are finished,
writing begins. This is where we lock Ken in his office for months and don't
feed him ‘till he has a script. Finally, there's the editing process. We start
out creating a rough cut where we weave all of the elements of story, video,
and audio together. It took about two months to get the rough cut together.
And we spent about another two months polishing and tweaking the video and
A difficult story to write, because of all of the different components to
the story. In effect, you are balancing fifteen different "chapters" of the
story. And, unlike a book, you must be finished to a length that is timed
to one-tenth of a second over two hours. It requires quite a bit of give and
take between the competing story lines.
Any memorable aspects
of the production?
I'll never forget descending into a mine in Cripple Creek and really getting
the sense that this place was deep in the earth. The mine was damp, and water
was running off the rock walls, and I was amazed that hundreds of men once
worked down there..
My favorite part of the process was the opportunity to go to corners of the
Rocky Mountain region that are a decided step off the most familiar paths.
The small towns of the West have a unique and wonderful sense of community
and history. We found so many people who wanted to share their family stories
of coming to the region for mining over one hundred years ago. And it was
very rewarding to sit with people who had newly arrived in these same towns
and did not understand the role of mining or the conflicts that had played
out. We literally traveled from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.
. .from the Rockies to the Sierras. . .and dozens of places in between. An
extended opportunity to travel this region "close to the ground" is a blessing.
It reminds you of the unparalleled beauty of our region. Whether it was a
sunrise over Lake Couer D'Alene in Idaho or a sunset viewed through a saguaro
cactus stand in Arizona. . .the beauty was breathtaking.
Of course, it wasn't
always easy to enjoy the beauty! Like the night Director of Photography Bill
Brussard had to run for his life in Nevada, carrying his video camera and
tripod, as a steam engine locomotive barreled down on him. Bill was trying
to get the "perfect" nighttime shot of a train heading straight down the tracks
toward the camera. To get the shot, he stayed a little too long on the tracks.
. .before finally bailing out with his gear. You'll recognize the shot in
the program. What you won't hear or see is the mad scramble as the train raced
There is quite a variety
of music in this program. . .
To say the least. We worked with a number of different musical contributors,
and kept them stylistically and instrumentally apart from each other. We gave
each of them a realm to work in, and then asked them to capture an emotional
range that would support the storytelling in the documentary. Dan Waldis continues
his long association with public television by composing and performing the
original piano music for the program. Frank Jarvis and Carol Dalrymple, who
made a wonderful contribution to the KUED documentary Glen Canyon: A Dam,
Water, and the West, return with some delicate yet powerful work on guitar
and violin. They were backed by Steve Wesson on bass. And we also benefitted
from a marvelous duet by pianist Susanna Graff Karrington and cellist Steve
Emerson on the moving Gabriel Faure composition, Elegie. Their various interpretations
of this classic work appear throughout the program, reinforcing themes of
conflict and loss. Each section of Fire in the Hole formed a unique
story, so each needed a unique sound. At the same time, the stories needed
to have a linking character. The music from these talented performers helps
achieve that end.
Finally, our location
audio engineer Kevin Sweet discovered some marvelous old "Edison" recordings
while he was doing research in Butte,
Montana. Not only do the recordings have an unmistakable sound from a
bygone era, but the content of the songs contained pointed references to "troublemakers"
who should "go back where you came from." A great find by Kevin, who always
manages to discover unique sounds that make documentaries come alive.
What is next for you
Separate vacations. . .
Perhaps Bermuda. Actually I'm heading out to Wells, Nevada to work with Hal
Cannon and Taki Telenondis of the Western Folk Life Center. We're working
on a short piece exploring why Cowboys are compelled to write poetry. I'm
also developing a project on hospice care in Utah.
I'll be focusing most of my work on our election coverage this year. We've
got some very innovative programs in mind, and an impressive new web site
that will feature one-stop-shopping for voter information. In terms of historical
programming, KUED is currently at work producing two fascinating programs
looking at the Great Homes of Utah. Produced by Elizabeth Searles and Sally
Shaum, the programs will feature the architecture, working life and human
stories of some of the state's most notable homes. The first two are Brigham
Young's Beehive House and the Thomas Kearns mansion. . .now doing service
as the Governor's Executive Residence.