This month, AFI spoke with Premiere Circle member and AFI Conservatory alum Jeanne Meyers (Producing, AFI Class of 1983) about her lifelong passion for film and empowering young people to use media to tell their own stories. For the last 25 years, Meyers has directed the development of the MY HERO website, an interactive, online media arts storytelling platform whose mission is to use media, art and technology to celebrate the best of humanity.
With her co-founding partners, Rita Stern (Milch) and Karen Pritzker, MY HERO provides a safe space where young people can discover and share inspiring stories, art, films and music about real life heroes.
Through grants supported by The U.S. Department of Education and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State, MY HERO has conducted Media Arts Education workshops in India, Africa, the Balkans and across the U.S. – and working with the AFI Screen Education Team, they have shared resources from AFI online with teachers from around the world.
In our conversation with Meyers, we discussed the importance of supporting film and arts education, how she became involved in filmmaking and some of her favorite AFI moments.
AFI: Why is it important to have an organization like yours, dedicated to lifting up everyday heroes?
Jeanne: The current crisis our nation is experiencing, with hate crimes on the rise and continued racial injustice and inequity, underscores the pressing need to acknowledge and celebrate diversity and those working for human rights and to champion the values we hold dear. Our media library features the heroic journeys of well-known leaders like Nelson Mandela, Congressman John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Wangari Maathai and others. Their stories serve to educate and inspire youth to understand their own ability to create a more just, equitable and peaceful world.
AFI: Why do you feel it is important to support film/arts education?
Jeanne: We learn by example. Films at their best bring us a shared human experience. They enrich our lives, providing a deeper understanding and connection to the challenges and achievements of heroes from the past and the present and an opportunity to travel to imaginary worlds that we may one day explore.
AFI: What is your first memory of a film or tv program that inspired you, or your most memorable film viewing experience?
Jeanne: I loved films as a child. I remember getting dressed up to go to the Michael Todd Theater in Chicago in 1965 to see the 70mm version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Watching the film again with its director, Robert Wise, at a Master Class has been one of my favorite experiences at the American Film Institute.
AFI: How did you first get involved in filmmaking and what inspired you to attend AFI’s Producing program?
Jeanne: When I was in high school, I made my first film with Rita Stern (Milch) and Cynthia Costas (Cohen). It was an anti-war film shot on Super 8 and edited with the song “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. When we screened the film for the class, the last frame burned in the projector. The film was a hit, and I was hooked.
I went to college with a Sony Port-Pak and worked while a student at Brown University. After I graduated, I convinced the university to invest in media production equipment and was given the opportunity to mentor students and faculty interested in creating videos as the first director of Brown’s Media Services.
Later I traveled around the world producing short videos for NBC News. One segment featured thousands of teens from Tokyo dressed up in ‘50s clothes dancing in the streets; they were inspired by George Lucas’ film AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Another segment I produced was a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Graham and his team putting together the Rolling Stones concert in Slane Castle, Ireland. This was a great opportunity to witness an amazing producer in action.
After the year of travel, I was asked to consider working in Moscow for NBC News. My visa arrived just before Brezhnev’s funeral; off I went to cover that historic event. However, beyond the funeral, there was not much “news” coming from Moscow. The main request from headquarters was to film stories of people waiting in line for food or other items rarely available. So, I passed on that lucrative opportunity.
I wanted to learn more about narrative storytelling. I had heard about AFI and decided to apply. I was thrilled when I was accepted to the Producer’s program.
I learned a lot at AFI and continue to explore narrative storytelling. My company, Big View Pictures, focuses on family entertainment with projects that include THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS, a feature film project based on the Newbery Award-winning children’s book by William Pène du Bois.
AFI: To further AFI’s mission of educating and inspiring audience, the Institute recently expanded its member benefits and added additional online programming. Since joining as a Patron Circle member, what have been some of your favorite virtual events and why?
Jeanne: It has been great to listen in on the master class lecture series. I loved that part of AFI as a student. I was deeply moved hearing Sam Levinson share his journey as a writer/director and to hear from the students how much his work had impacted their lives; his lecture was very inspiring. I loved Chloé Zhao’s talk to the Fellows and her film NOMADLAND.
AFI: The AFI Movie Club recently celebrated the AFI AWARDS honorees. What is your favorite film/TV program from this year’s AFI AWARDS? And why?
Jeanne: For television, THE QUEENS GAMBIT. It was beautifully written, cast and directed.
For film, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. The film did a great job of capturing a very formative moment in my life. I was a teenager going to school in Lincoln Park in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and witnessed the anti-war protests firsthand. The treatment of the Chicago 7 during that trial was an abomination to justice. The filmmaker told the story well, and Sasha Baron Cohen playing Abbie Hoffman was fantastic.
I look forward to seeing JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH. I covered the civil suit of the Black Panthers while in Chicago for the local PBS station in 1976 and heard the testimony of “Judas,” the FBI informant William O’Neal who had drugged Fred Hampton the night he was killed. Later, in 1990 I wrote about the FBI informant for “Capital News,” an ABC TV series produced by David Milch. The segment, called “Confronting Judas,” featured a young Cuba Gooding as the son of Fred Hampton, seeking revenge for his father’s murder. While filming that episode, I learned that O’Neal had committed suicide. The murder of Fred Hampton remains a tragic moment in our nation’s history. Films like JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH help us to never forget.
AFI: In honor of Women’s History month, if you could have lunch with a woman filmmaker or artist alive or dead, who would it be?
Jeanne: Kathleen Kennedy, as a producer and leader in the motion picture industry, her body of work stands the test of time.