Written By Evan Balkan
Just across the Rio Grande in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, filmmaker Leo Eaton rides headlong into a storm on a horse that threatens to buck him off. He grips the reins and utters a prayer. Spooked by booming thunder, the horse pounds on. Leo looks behind: Would getting hit by lightning really be worse than having to suffer this wild horse one more minute?
Fortunately, Leo does not have to make such decisions in the comfort of his home studio, halfway between New Windsor and Westminster. But his job requires lengthy stays in sometimes-inhospitable corners of the world, away from the relatively placid pace of Carroll County. Whether he is towing broken-down Edsels through the potholed roads of Cuba or shooting waterside tango scenes in Buenos Aires in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures, Leo meets temporary setbacks with a shrug of the shoulders. He is a good-natured man.
But this is the life he chooses, after all; a mission statement from the web site of his television production company says it all: “The world is full of great stories. Our passion is to tell them.” He is well acquainted with the world and its stories. Leo’s work has led him to scores of countries on five continents. Born in England, he has lived in Canada, Greece, Mexico, Portugal, and, for the last 19 years, in a house on 65 acres that he and wife Jeri rent from McDaniel College: “This lovely little countryside,” as he calls it.
Leo is not an actor, so you probably would not recognize him. But it is a decent bet that you have seen something of his on television. His films have appeared on PBS, WETA, Discovery Channel, A&E, BBC-TV, the National Geographic Channel, and the Outdoor Life Network, as well as other outlets.
Leo became an American citizen, holding dual English citizenship, in late May 2006. Accurately answering the application questions regarding when and where he left the United States was no easy chore. In the last decade alone, his films have taken him, among other locales, to Argentina (Tango, The Spirit of Argentina), Mexico (Mariachi, the Spirit of Mexico and Conquistadores, where he had his run-in with the wild horse), Cuba (Classic American Cars of Cuba), Russia (Mission Impossible – the Shuttle Astronauts), Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (Dangerous Skies; Inside the US Air Force), England and Ireland (In Search of Shakespeare and In Search of Ancient Ireland, to which Mr. Leo co-wrote the companion book). He recently returned from Brazil, on location for the world music label Putumayo. And as Executive Producer for Story of India, which will air in 2008, he will soon go on location to the subcontinent as well.
British historian Michael Wood, with whom Leo teams frequently, was the host of several of the productions. Their most recent collaboration, “In Search of Myths and Heroes, “four programs investigating some of the western world’s most enduring legends – Jason and the Golden Fleece, Shangri-La, the Queen of Sheba, and the Search for King Arthur – aired on BBC and PBS.
If those titles do not ring any bells, but you have little ones at home, then perhaps you have seen the Emmy award winning Zoboomafoo, hosted by an eponymous lemur and Chris and Matt Kratt, famous also for their series, Be The Creature, which was produced by Leo Leo as well. Leo’s son Alex may be most responsible for giving the Kratts their big break. When the inexperienced brothers came to Leo with a video, he handed it to his then 4-year old son, who promptly wore out the tape from multiple viewings. Leo decided the brothers were onto something.
For his latest work, Leo is the producer for America at a Crossroads, an eight-hour series, scheduled to air in April 2007, that examines the changing international role of the United States five years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
It has been quite a journey for the lad from London. Born there in 1945, Leo attended Marlborough College, a boarding school in the West of England. When Leo was 14, his father gave him a 35mm still camera. He swapped it for a rare 9.5mm camera, which was discontinued in the 1960s.? He eventually sold it and upgraded to a Bolex 8mm camera. Afterward, he did not want to do anything but make films.
As he came of age in swinging late 60’s London, he managed to get work on a few television shows, most notably “The Saint,” starring a young Roger Moore (later James Bond).
After a stint in Mexico, where he met his wife, he went back to the UK with her and began work on “Timeline,” a news series loosely modeled on Walter Cronkite’s “You are There,” which sought to show what history would look like if TV cameras were there to record it. It was during this period that son Alex, now 18, was born. In an auspicious start to life, Alex appeared as the newborn son of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The actor who played King Ferdinand lifted the 12-week old and uttered the enduring line, “With this child is Spain reborn . . ..”?
Trying to secure more funding for the production of “Timeline,” Leo courted major American public broadcasters. Maryland Public Television (MPT) agreed to guarantee Timeline’s budget. Leo signed on, quickly becoming Senior Vice President. By the time Leo left in 1994 to make his own films, MPT was the fourth largest public broadcaster in the nation.
Since leaving MPT, Leo has spent much of his time scouting locations worldwide for his production company, Leo Creative, Inc, for which wife Jeri acts as vice president and treasurer. First incorporated in 1997 under the name Caf, Inc., Leo Creative operates as a “full-service television production company creating documentary programming, [and] factual entertainment and children’s television.”
“TV programs,” Leo believes, “Should entertain, illuminate and inform, helping audiences better understand and celebrate the world in which we live.” Partnerships with broadcasters in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Cuba, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Spain, and the UK help make this mission possible.
But before any of that can take place, an extraordinary amount of time has to be spent on the much more mundane: securing funding. Leo estimates that an hour of broadcast television can run anywhere from $150,000 for lower end productions to upwards of $600,000. As a result, finding financial backing is never easy, and it has become more difficult over the last five or ten years as philanthropy has become much more target specific. As audiences have become more splintered, television channels have developed very particular formulas.
But as a “commercial realist,” Leo has to make a living; he shoots for the common ground between the formula that a particular channel wants and what he thinks the final product should look like.
More often than not, Leo’s customers are thrilled with the liberties he takes. For “In Search of Ancient Ireland,” for example, William Grant, an executive producer at WNET in New York, said, “When Leo told me he wanted to do a history of ancient Ireland, I thought it was a great yarn. Then he told me he planned to make three hours ending before 1200 AD and I thought he’d lost his mind. But Leo pulled it off, making a fabulous series. Leo is the real deal.”
Leo starts with an idea. He estimates that only one in 10 program proposals ever comes to some fruition. “People come up with ideas all the time that, unfortunately, never go anywhere,” he said. “There has to be a spark.”
One such “spark” lit the fire for “Cowboy 101,” a reality series that aired on the Outdoor Life Network. “Cowboy 101” is a standout in a genre inundated with absurdity; it followed the lives of rodeo riders at Sul Ross State University in West Texas.
It was so “real” that Sul Ross’s president later wrote of his discomfort, noting “We are as appalled as anyone at the behavior . . . of a few student participants in our rodeo program when away from campus and out of sight and hearing of university officials.”
Despite the president’s personal misgivings, the series earned high critical praise. Furthermore, this was not a case of some outsider shining an unwanted spotlight; Eaton’s wife was born and raised in West Texas and the couple maintains a home there (as well as a flat in London). “That makes us homeowners, even if we don’t live there,” said Leo.
Meanwhile, he happily returns from his trips around the world – especially those involving ill-mannered horses – to the calm of his rented house here in Carroll County.