I’d say this. At some point, that precious idea you gave birth to grows and starts living a life of its own. Your story and all its constituent parts ultimately belong to the world, and you have to let it go. That’s why you must be true to your story, finding truth in all its components and respecting them. You make all your decisions based on this. Your commitment to the truth has to be 100%, because, as the poet said, there is nothing more permanent, nor beautiful, than truth. That is all ye need to know on Earth.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Hugh Karraker.
Hugh Karraker is Executive Producer of the documentary film, All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic. He is a great grandson of Leo H. Baekeland, the Belgian-born American who invented Velox photographic paper and created the first wholly synthetic plastic, Bakelite. Hugh is co-founder of The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC, which through world-wide exhibitions, presentations, and media, promotes the history, the science and the art of Bakelite, and celebrates the life and achievements of his great grandfather.
For 30 years, Hugh was a successful actor in New York and Los Angeles, working in theater, motion pictures, television and print. He earned a BFA in acting at the University of Connecticut, studied in London at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and later co-founded the Magic Circle Theater in Chicago. Now retired from acting and devoted to his Baekeland Project, Hugh lives in CT with his actress wife, Sherry Arell Karraker, where he finds a creative outlet in building rustic furniture, gates and fences on commission.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that provided me with a lot of opportunities I cherish to this day. My father was a commercial pilot and we traveled quite bit. My two sisters and I got to visit a different country almost every year. That alone was a great education. My mother was a granddaughter of Leo H. Baekeland, who invented Bakelite, the first wholly synthetic plastic. That family history obviously had a major impact on my life and to this day still connects me to my great grandfather who I greatly admire. In fact, we still go up to the Adirondacks to vacation at the family compound that my great grandmother, Céline Baekeland purchased in 1923.
I got the acting bug in high school, studied music and drama in college and in London, and then did all the things aspiring actors do to get work and experience. I lived in Greenwich Village for a time, back-packed around the world, co-founded the Magic Circle Theater in Seattle, did workshops, Off-Broadway, and summer stock — met the love of my life there, actress Sherry Arell, and we got married. Overall, I was fortunate to find some success as a working actor and a print model. I worked with Barbara Eden in the Broadway tour of Woman of the Year and eventually got regular gigs in Soaps and TV commercials until I retired back to my family home in Connecticut.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Don’t all actors want to be producers/directors! If you mean, how did I come to make a documentary about my great grandfather, well, my mother had wanted to write Leo Baekeland’s biography, but never got to it. Before she passed away, she bequeathed her Baekeland family archives to me hoping, I guess, that I would carry the torch. Well, among those materials she gave me are a treasure trove of detailed diaries that LHB kept that really bring to life the creative and scientific process that he dedicated himself to in his life’s work. This includes, not only his important invention of Velox photographic paper, but also the one that changed the world — Bakelite. His diaries, the old photos and family films are fascinating, personal stuff anyone can relate to. They’re glimpses of real history in the making. So, being more of a visual artist than a writer, I decided to make a film about him, his inventions, and the impact plastic has had on the world. I had a few false starts as I tried to play this new role in my life, but fortunately I found a wonderful collaborator in director John Maher at JEM Films, whose previous historic films impressed me. We assembled a small but incredibly talented and experienced team of filmmakers who became like family to me, and really made my dream come true. Especially, Marc Huberman, my media manager, Craig Mikhitarian, film editor and our composer, Marty Fegy. Our film, All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic took several years to make and just finished a national run on public television.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
The actual production of All Things Bakelite was a real joy, and we had many funny moments behind the scenes. In one scene, we were trying to depict a wondrous moment in the childhood of Leo Baekeland when he is watching fireworks in his hometown of Ghent, Belgium. To create the real intense effect of colorful fireworks flashing on his face and in his eyes, we constructed a thick plexiglass box that we hung a few feet above him, which would protect him as we set off sparklers, Roman candles, and the like inside of it. During rehearsal, before we brought the boy in, we got a little ambitious with the explosives and the plexiglass box nearly got away from us, like an unguided missile. It was both scary and funny as we tried to corral that spastic contraption. With a few safety adjustments and less pyrotechnic enthusiasm, we were finally able to get a shot of our young scientist-to-be looking up into the sky, eyes sparkling with colors, and inquiring, “How does that happen?” Which was a fitting punch line to our invention!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I first think of Spaulding Gray, because it was early in my career as an actor. I met him at the Performance Group, that legendary theater of Richard Schechner’s in New York City where artists like Gray, Willem DaFoe, Elizabeth LeCompte and others were stretching boundaries. Gray encouraged me to take risks as an actor, which, I must say, still inspires me to this day.
More recently, I had an experience working on our film that echoes those early interactions with Gray and re-kindled my enthusiasm for risk-taking. Director John Maher and I were in Austin, Texas to interview Jeffrey Meikle for the film — he wrote American Plastic: A Cultural History. While we were there, we hooked up with the extraordinarily inventive comedy troupe Esther’s Follies. They are absurdly funny people and have a well-known vaudeville-style theater in the heart of Austin’s music and comedy scene. Prior to our visit, we had written three songs about the good, the bad and the future of Bakelite and plastic, and we thought Esther’s Follies could bring the unique kind of performance we were looking for, if we could work the songs into the film. A little bit of a risk, but it felt right. What those performers brought to the realization of those songs exceeded our expectations. They just threw themselves and all their theatrical resources into the idea, stretched it, and made it happen. All in one day, we rehearsed and recorded those three satirical songs you see in our film. Then, that evening after the shoot John and I were invited to see a live show at their club on 6th Street. Talk about an explosion of creativity! I was reminded again, and thrilled, to see how rewarding it can be to take creative risks.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
First, I have to credit my mother for giving me support in everything I’ve ever tried to do, and by inspiring me to look more deeply into our family history. And to help me realize my dream of bringing Leo H. Baekeland to life through our film, director John Maher has been more than a collaborator to me; he’s been an inspiration and a true guide, keeping me focused on the right story path. Together, we found innovative and entertaining ways to tell the story of LHB that is so personally meaningful to me. And then, I must say, through all the struggles and uncertainties of my professional and personal life, my North Star has been my loving and lovely wife, the wonderful actress Sherry Arell Karraker. She has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, even as I do hers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the film, Zorba the Greek, Zorba says, “To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.” I love that exuberance. I tend to be a cautious person, but I notice that my best moments of brilliance come when I look for good trouble and take risks.
Leo Baekeland approached life in this way. He wasn’t afraid to take risks and put it all on the line for a vision of the future he believed in. And just as he foresaw that his invention of Bakelite was a “Material of Thousand Uses” and could change the world, I believe in the power of our film to influence people around the world to wake up to the problem of plastic pollution and do something to save our planet. In that, I will take off my belt and look for the kind of trouble that will make change. That makes me feel purposeful — and alive.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Diversity is democracy at its finest. We’ve been struggling to hold onto both recently. If diversity is represented in our films and TV shows as being the norm, then people will be more comfortable accepting it and believing it to be the natural condition of life, which clearly it is. Such a belief rejects prejudice and bigotry, because to allow it diminishes our very being. Depictions of diversity, tolerance and empathy in our pervasive media can change minds. That can change hearts, where empathy and love for everyone brings good across all of society.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Most of what I’m doing currently has to do with getting our film out to global audiences. I’m putting a lot of energy into this because I believe it is a really good film — it’s entertaining and provocative and it can open up important dialogues about making life better on this planet of ours. After its run on public television, we are now releasing it to the world on a variety of on-demand, streaming platforms. And to expand our reach among influencers and educators, we’re distributing it to libraries, schools, museums, chemical and plastics organizations and historical societies throughout the U.S. and other countries.
Just as my great grandfather thought about the impact his invention would have on the world, I’m also trying to look at the larger picture. That’s why we’re developing a series of video podcasts that pick up on one of the important themes addressed in our film: the responsible manufacture and use of plastic. We intend to bring together experts in the plastics industry, scientists, environmentalists, and others to discuss this subject publicly. And we intend to challenge them to speak truth and offer solutions to the plastics pollution problems that are overwhelming Mother Earth. It’s our goal to educate, inspire, and advocate for change.
Personally, I continue to pursue another rewarding vocation that has absolutely nothing to do with plastic. Going back to nature, I build rustic furniture, fences, gates and signs out of bent wood and other found natural materials. I’m the ultimate re-cycler! Currently, I’m working on a commission to create a memorial bench for a prominent local resident who passed away last year.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
I’m most proud when I overcome any fears I may have about taking a risk. I guess this goes back to the Zorba quote. Ultimately, when it’s your call, just undo your belt and look for good trouble, take the responsibility and be alive. But often, you need good people around you to help you assess the risk, point out your faulty thinking, and give you a boost forward. An example: In leading my All Things Bakelite team, I was at first reluctant to move ahead with the global online streaming plans. It wasn’t clear to me whether I feared its potential failure or even its possible success. John, my director, urged me to be mentally tough, because any — or no — decision has consequences. So, it’s not the decision itself to worry about, it’s the reality, good or bad, you just deal with afterward. I was also reminded of an observation my acting teacher made years ago about how fear can be a weight that causes you to be weak and crumble and prevent you from performing. He suggested I read James E. Loehr’s, Mental Toughness Training for Sports. It helped immensely with the idea that you have to be alive in the moment and not think about the outcome. Because if you worry about results before you even take the action to achieve them, you cannot act — or live! — effectively.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
That’s a tough question, because it implies I might not have gone down the path I chose in life if I had known certain things first. There’s not much I regret not knowing beforehand. I like the journey of discovery.
With regards to that switch in my career from actor to producer of All Things Bakelite, I certainly learned a lot in the process, but really there wasn’t anything to know that would have kept me from moving forward. I can give you a couple of examples, and while these may have been new to me at the time, I assume they are widely known in this crazy business.
- First: Orson Welles said 5% is making the film, the other 95% is selling it. How true! The business of the business can be overwhelming sometimes. OK, so maybe an accounting course might have been useful early on! But seriously, that’s why you hire professionals to do this stuff, if you can.
- Speaking of money, I have heard it said, never fund your own film. Well, ideally, I suppose. But, if you really truly believe in something that has potential and you have no other outside resources, why not take the risk? I think that action then inspires others to get on board with you. By the way, it is certainly true that it takes a lot more money to make a film than you think. Even if someone had told me that years ago, it would not have stopped me from having this wonderful experience of making All Things Bakelite.
- Had I known this one before, I might have started earlier: A lot of people will work for you for love as well as the money. One thing that was a joy to discover was how many people in the filmmaking community just love what they do. I certainly have had the privilege and the benefit of working with both professionals and wannabees whose commitment to my project has been as personal and dedicated as my own. They are more than willing to put in time and energy that they are not necessarily compensated for, just because they love the project. I’m really blessed and grateful to work with these people and know them.
- And then something I would tell people starting out is, pick your collaborators wisely. Especially in this business, successful collaboration with many people is essential. There are so many moving parts, you can’t do it all yourself. You have to find people who are not only competent, but also committed to you and your dream. I’ve made a few mistakes in judgement along the way, like mistaking enthusiasm for ability, or charm for real experience, or sincerity for self-interest. But on the whole, where I gave trust, I got it back in return. You just have to put people to the test. Oh, and get references!
- Finally, I’d say this. At some point, that precious idea you gave birth to grows and starts living a life of its own. Your story and all its constituent parts ultimately belong to the world, and you have to let it go. That’s why you must be true to your story, finding truth in all its components and respecting them. You make all your decisions based on this. Your commitment to the truth has to be 100%, because, as the poet said, there is nothing more permanent, nor beautiful, than truth. That is all ye need to know on Earth.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
First of all, I don’t see myself and my project as having stakeholders, not in the business sense of the word, anyway. I have collaborators. I have family. And we are all in this together. Really. And as I said before, you have to be true to your story. You can’t let the viewers, or the financiers, or the critics impact your artistic and cinematic choices. Once born, your idea starts making its own demands, with an arc that bends toward truth. So, you gather around you a harmonious collaboration of creative and generous people, like my ATB team, strive to be honest and make all decisions in service of the story. When it’s finished, you just trust that your child will make its way in the world successfully because you have given it solid values. An example of remaining true to our vision is the element of music in the film. We got some early pushback over the performances of Esther’s Follies that appear at three different times in the film. Some thought they were silly, or irrelevant, or out of style for a documentary of this nature. We believed they added a lot to the impact of some of our messages, providing not only the structural techniques of comic relief and pacing, but also the emotional lift of delivering provocative ideas in a satirically blunt way. I also liked that the whole synthetically artistic make-up of the group felt “of-a-piece” with the sleek, physical characteristics of Bakelite. It turns out, people now regard those songs as some of the most memorable and influential moments of the film.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, of course it would be a movement to raise awareness and inspire action on eliminating all plastic waste in our environment. As the great grandson of the guy who invented the stuff, I not only feel a responsibility to do that, I also believe that Leo Baekeland, if he saw what was happening today, would be on the scientific forefront of inventing harmless plastics. All this inspires me to mount a campaign for the responsible manufacture and use of plastics.
Learning to appreciate our family patriarch’s legacy from my mother and then meeting people in Belgium and Netherlands, who were admirers of his, I founded the L.H. Baekeland Project. After attempting to produce a film about my great grandfather in Belgium, but sponsoring a successful US touring exhibition of Bakelite that got national press, I realized that public interest in this was widespread and that’s what led to making my film closer to home. These experiences including presentations at multiple international plastics industry conferences allowed me to not only further celebrate my great grandfather’s achievement, but also reach many more people with important ideas about plastic use.
So, through the L.H. Baekeland Project LLC, we are working every day on initiatives to move people to action. What I would like to do is bring all sides to the table to hear all points of view, so that we have a broader and deeper understanding of how to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. I envision a proposed video podcast series, for example, as kind of a grass roots enterprise to share constructive ideas on how to change the fossil fuel and plastics industrial complex into a more earth and people friendly system. But consumers, ordinary people like you and me, have to get on board and insist on responsible policy change. Pick up your Bakelite telephone and call your congressperson!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Not that he would even be reading this, but I would like to meet His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. One must have a sound spiritual basis for any pursuit of truth, and he has shown inspiring paths on that journey. I want to learn more. The Reverend Desmond Tutu also comes to mind for similar reasons. I recently learned about Dame Ellen MacArthur’s foundation launching Circular Economy100, an action plan to reduce waste and encourage businesses to adopt Extended Corporate Responsibility. This effort resonates with me and is consistent with the L.H. Baekeland Project’s efforts to educate and inspire change across all systems that manufacture and dispose of plastics. If I don’t have the opportunity to have a sit-down with her personally, I will be contacting her organization to suggest a collaboration in some capacity. Another choice, Greta Thunberg. I admire her commitment and how wise and young she is at the same time. I see in her great hope for the future. And, I’d certainly like to sit down with Arianna Huffington because she’s smart and knows how to communicate. She undoubtedly would have something to share with us about the film and the Project. (This is beginning to sound more like a banquet than a private lunch!) All are concerned with the human condition and that of the planet in different ways, whether it’s spiritual or down and dirty practical. If they can’t make it, Sir David Attenborough would do. Is he reading this…?
How can our readers further follow you online?
Thank you. I would love to invite everyone to visit our website, allthingsbakelite.com where you can learn more about our film and a lot of other information about Bakelite, Leo H. Baekeland, and many of the interesting people who are part of the story. And, of course, we’re on all the social media platforms including LinkedIn, as “The L.H. Baekeland Project, LLC”. I hope people will follow us on LinkedIn, because that’s a good place to network and get things we are all interested in done.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!