When I got back from Vietnam I put aside my cameras and wrote the manuscript over a period of five months. I then started to send it out. Again. And again. And again. Eventually I found an agent a 21-year-old intern who had yet to sell her first book. She started sending it out. Again. And again (between the two of us it was eventually submitted to 72 agents and publishers before it found a home).
One day I looked at my footage and thought, if I can just get ten minutes of my footage on local television, it will help sell the book. So I took a course at a university (to get access to the equipment.)
I went to Vietnam with no videomaking experience, a tiny home-video (hi8) camera, and no expectations of a career in documentaries. Sure, I may have fantasized from time to time about actually seeing a ten-minute cut of my stuff on local T.V. (I also fantasized about winning the lottery and having Robert Redford come knocking on my door) but I never thought anything would actually come of it.
Shortly before I left for Vietnam I called a cameraman friend of mine and said, “how do I turn this thing on and what do with it then?” Bless his heart, he answered me with a straight face. I jotted his dozen “rules” down on the back of an envelope, learned them on the plane and tried never to break them. For the next seven months I shot 52 hours of footage, took 5000 slides, kept detailed notes for a book, learned Vietnamese, and generally figured out how to get around, stay healthy, well-fed, and suitably housed.
When I returned to America I wrote the manuscript, logged the tapes, and sat down at an ancient editing system to make a rough cut. I called the same cameraman friend and said, “okay, I’m back from Vietnam. How do I turn this thing on and then what do I do?”
He suggested I look at a few documentaries I liked and try to figure out what made them compelling. I took my favorite adventure series The Ring of Fire and completely deconstructed one of the episodes. I then did a forty-minute rough cut of my own footage.
Not surprisingly, some of the word choice and a lot of the style of The Ring of Fire wormed its way into my demo tape. By the time I was done editing I had fallen in love with the music from The Ring of Fire and decided to use it steal it for the theme song of my demo. Who was going to know?
I then sent 27 copies of the tape out to PBS stations. Most of them lost it, or sent it back, or wanted to know if I had any money to give them so that they could rent me equipment to keep working on it. A few smaller stations made offers to do a local co-production. One of the stations was kind enough to forward it to a man named David Fanning, the executive producer of Frontline at WGBH in Boston.
By coincidence David Fanning was also the executive producer of The Ring of Fire. When my tape landed on his desk he stuck it in the VCR, watched a bit of it, and called me. I was mortified. I knew he must have recognized the music and the style. I spent ten minutes babbling to him about how plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. He hung up the phone and must have decided that I had a point because a week later he called me back and offered to executive produce a final cut of Hitchhiking Vietnam and ask PBS to fund the post-production which they did.
I spent the next twelve weeks sweating blood in the editing room (with a real editor this time), utterly convinced that I would never be able to produce and write a broadcast-quality documentary, that everyone would realize it sooner or later and I would be revealed for the impostor I was.