Alumni Portrait: Producer Jeffrey Plunkett

Alumni Portrait: Producer Jeffrey Plunkett
Jeffrey Plunkett (second from left) with the creators of The Circus.
Published on May 5, 2017

These days, Jeffrey Plunkett is a sought-after documentary producer-director, but in 2003 when he was getting ready to head to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, he was, in his own words, pretty clueless about what to do with his life. After graduating from Princeton and teaching for a few years, Plunkett had started writing. “I was trying to do the freelance thing, pitching small magazines on the side,” he said. He loved it, “but I was doubting whether I had the contacts and the clips to really make a go at it,” he said. “I felt like J-School was a way to make that transition. And it was.”

Plunkett didn’t come in expecting to love film, but he felt himself pulled toward Jon Else’s documentary program. He found he loved storytelling in a visual medium, and the thesis film Plunkett made with his classmate Jigar Mehta about the convergence of journalism and video games, “Playing the News,” screened at Tribeca and had a good festival run. Its success propelled him into a job with newly launched San Francisco-based Current TV, where he worked for six years before he left to start working as an independent producer.

It was a scary step. As somebody raised by parents who worked the same steady jobs all their adult lives, freelancing “was not a model I had seen up close,” he said. But J-School helped prepare him. “You have this network of folks and once you feel comfortable leaning on that network and start to build a reputation for pulling off those projects, it gets easier,” he said. Still, the first years were a hustle, a time when the pragmatist in him sometimes fought with the dreamer. He worked on plenty of projects he didn’t love.

“Trying to find that balance where you say yes to some things so you can pay the rent, and also allotting time to allow yourself to go chase a story—that’s the thing,” Plunkett said. “There comes a time when you know you can pull things off, and you crave the opportunity to pull off something that’s important and worthwhile.”

One of those opportunities came his way in late November 2015, when he got a call from the showrunner for a Showtime documentary series planned for the coming year. “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth” would chronicle what even then looked like an unprecedented election cycle, and the team wanted him to produce and direct several of the weekly episodes.

They told him they wanted to start filming immediately after New Year’s Day, Plunkett said. He thought they were nuts. “But sure enough, we landed in Des Moines on January 2. The whole year was an absolute blur.”

The series followed Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, veteran political analysts and co-managing editors of Bloomberg Politics, and Mark McKinnon, a longtime political advisor and TV producer, as they hopped from state to state, chasing campaign stories. Plunkett was on one of three production teams that followed the trio, gathering footage for the episode that would run on the coming Sunday. It was like a cross between daily TV news and cinematic narrative documentary, he said, and it was electrifying—and exhausting.

“From a production standpoint, it was insanity,” he said. “We would shoot 16 hours a day, and we had media managers following us around in the field so we could get the footage back to the editors in New York. There were many Sunday mornings where we were shooting the last scene for that night’s episode.”

It also gave him a front-row seat during one of the strangest and most important years in American politics. On March 22, his birthday, he was shooting in Florida at Mar-a-Lago with Donald Trump. It had been a month of wild headlines, even for Trump: A Republican debate in which he had defended the size of his hands, a rally cancelled in Chicago amid protests, a final debate cancelled after the candidate pulled out. Plunkett posed for a photo with Trump after they wrapped an interview. They both wore big grins. Plunkett’s good humor came from a sense that things were looking up. “It felt like it was all going away, like it was a bad dream,” he said.

He was at Clinton’s election night party at the Javits Center in New York City when the results rolled in. The scene he recorded was memorably bleak. “I’ve never seen a room quite like that,” he said.

Today, Plunkett is working with Oscar-winning director Bill Guttentag on an eight-part investigative documentary series set to air on Netflix, the details of which are still under wraps. It’s an exciting time to be in the documentary world, he said. Netflix and others have caught onto the fact that there’s a real appetite for the medium, and a decade of technological advances means it’s possible to make films with high production value even with small budgets.

His advice to young journalists? Take advantage of the moment.

“If I could do it again, I think I would have taken a bigger chance coming out of school,” Plunkett said. He remembers the pressure he felt to find a salaried job, but he also knows now that great independent work can be an important calling card. “Push the anxiety aside and see if you can find a story that takes,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to be part of a project that actually changes something, this is the real dream job.”

By Graelyn Brashear (‘17)

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