As an award-winning documentary filmmaker, Jody Gottlieb ’89 has been to the far corners of the earth to tell compelling stories about religion, conservation, exploration, war and politics, and there have been many harrowing – and funny – moments along the way.


By Tom Cunneff
Photography by Daniel Berman

“BE CAREFUL YOU DON’T STEP ON ANY HYPODERMIC NEEDLES,”

Jody Gottlieb ’89 says as she pulls her silver Audi SUV into a gravel parking lot between a methadone clinic and recycling plant in the SoDo (south of downtown) area of Seattle. We stash our cellphones and wallets in the glove compartment and set foot up a small embankment to an area of “the Jungle” known as the Caves, a once-popular homeless encampment under Interstate 5 that’s pretty much deserted now.

“This is where the murders took place,” says Gottlieb, pointing to a litter-strewn patch of dirt in between giant, graffiti-covered support pillars as we hear the ka-dunk, ka-dunk, ka-dunk of cars speeding by overhead.

Gottlieb, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who recently co-founded her own production company, RainStream Media, with her former CNN colleague David Payne, is making a serial podcast about the 2016 shootings of five homeless people, two of whom were killed, for their new series, Somebody Somewhere (free on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play). She’s come back to the area to see if an eyewitness who works at the recycling plant is around. To her surprise, he’s there, dressed in a dark-blue jumpsuit and dirty white hardhat. Gottlieb introduces herself as they move around to the side of the building to talk. “The human can opener,” as Payne calls her, goes to work. She’s trying to coax him into a future interview on tape, but there’s real fear in his eyes of retribution.

“I’m thinking of leaving the state,” he says, as he lights up a cigarette. “I’ve been around this crap for so many years, I’m just done. My nerves are pretty much shot. It’s just something I don’t want to relive.”

Gottlieb gives him an understanding nod.

“I’ve been there, my friend,” she says. “I know about reliving tragedy. How about this? How about I come back next Tuesday just to say ‘what’s up’ and maybe we put a plan in place to meet somewhere? I think talking through some of this stuff might help both of us.”

Cajoling subjects in danger zones is nothing new for Gottlieb. As a producer for Turner Broadcasting and CNN for 18 years, she once had to pay off Syrian police with $4,000 in cash to get camera equipment out of the country, was nursed back to health by Jacques Cousteau and fell face first into a hole full of camel dung. She’s also been pinned down in a church in Palestine under siege by snipers and once narrowly averted a kidnapping at a border crossing in the West Bank. One year she visited Israel 10 times. She’s been nominated for an Academy Award and won just about every award there is (Emmys, Peabodys, duPonts) for covering some of the most newsmaking moments of the last two decades: Princess Diana’s funeral, 9/11, the Thailand tsunami and the Sandy Hook school shooting, to name but a few.

“I’m happiest when I have a lot of balls in the air and even more so when the stakes are high,” she says. “I must confess that I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie and on occasion have been known to touch ‘the third rail’ – a willingness to put myself in dangerous situations. As an independent producer and storyteller, I find that every day is walking low down in the valleys and up on the highest peaks. I love it, and it suits me, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.”

As the executive director of CNN Productions, the long-form division at CNN in Atlanta, she had several groups under her helm, including CNN Presents and Special Investigations Unit. While continuing her executive role, she also directed and produced a few projects a year (often working with chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour), like the six-hour series God’s Warriors and Scream Bloody Murder, about modern-day genocide. After CNN, she went to work for Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions in Seattle, where she made such acclaimed documentaries and series as The Ivory Game (Netflix), Ocean Warriors (Animal Planet) and Midsummer in Newton (Amazon).

“A good bit of my career has been chasing bad actors engaging in bad behavior,” she says. “Much of my portfolio is about creating content that is either changing behavior or changing policy to make effective change. To do so, it’s important to tell entertaining, engaging and informative stories through media. I love the process of rolling up my sleeves and grinding it out – all of it, from the business side through execution of content. I especially love the creative process and investigating in the field. To be successful in this business, you have to hustle and make things happen.”

– LISTEN UP –

Her latest business venture is in the increasingly popular world of podcasts. The first season of Somebody Somewhere examined Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Wales’ unsolved murder, which happened at his Seattle home late one night in 2001. In the 10-episode series, which debuted last January, Payne and Gottlieb attempt to heat up the cold case by re-examining the web of evidence gathered by the FBI and following new leads. The rich entertainment value comes not so much from solving the mystery as it does from Payne and Gottlieb’s tell-as-you-go formula of attempting to solve it. Still, their reporting ruffled enough feathers that the Department of Justice felt it necessary to send out Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hold a press conference in Seattle this year – in the middle of overseeing the Mueller investigation – to defend its investigation of the killing of one of its own.

“I couldn’t have picked a better person to team up with to do the type of reporting we’re doing, because she’ll go anywhere, anytime, climb fences, ask questions without fear,” says Payne, a former assistant U.S. attorney himself who provides the musing narration on the podcast. “It’s been a great collaboration.”

When the pair went looking for the mentor of one of the prime suspects, all they knew was that the small town he lived in was about two hours away, so Gottlieb suggested paying a visit to the post office once they arrived. She was chatting up one of the clerks about their search when another clerk popped his head out from around back and said, “I know where he lives.” They were soon driving down a dirt road to locate a cabin with a locked gate and “No Trespassing” signs in the middle of nowhere.

“There were no barriers to getting to that witness for her,” says Payne with a chuckle of disbelief. “I was a little more cautious, but she just barrels right in. We came to find later that he had two dozen firearms in his 500-foot cabin, so I’m not sure it was the most prudent thing.”

Gottlieb is nothing if not persistent: It took her about six months and a half-dozen visits to gain his trust and get him to agree to an interview.

More recently, for the next season of Somebody Somewhere, they were down in another area of the Jungle trying to talk to some of the homeless people, which is no easy task given how disenfranchised and suspicious of outsiders they are, but Gottlieb and Payne were able to do almost 10 hours of interviews with some of them – a testament to Gottlieb’s ability to connect with people.

“We heard about another suspicious death, so Jody and I took off to find if it was in any way connected to the murders that we’re investigating,” says Payne. “Who else will do that with you but Jody Gottlieb? She never says no to any kind of mystery or to finding somebody. She’s always game for an adventure.”

Their production office is Payne’s contemporary-style home in the tony northwest section of Seattle known as Queen Anne, not far from where Tom Wales, the murdered U.S. attorney, lived. The rooftop patio affords a fantastic view of Mount Rainier in the distance on a beautiful September day and a comfortable place to interview Gottlieb about her career and life, which isn’t necessarily easy for her, given that she’s the one normally doing the interview. The good thing is, she knows what makes a good story and is revealing, funny, passionate and smart. Sporting a black blouse and jeans, Gottlieb, 52, has thick brown hair, olive skin and big, expressive eyes.

“David and I don’t have the protection of a network behind us now, but I love that sort of tightrope walking without a net feeling,” she says. “I don’t want to sound like I’m reckless, but that’s part of the gig. I won’t jump out of an airplane, but I will go into hot zones. I will make my way into a shed powered by golf cart batteries with an arsenal of weapons and ammunition. I listen to my intuition, and I believe in my instincts. They’re pretty honed and aware, especially when I’m in pursuit of the story, but I do know when to back off.”

The homeless murders is the story she’s in pursuit of right now, but it’s really a jumping-off point to discuss the larger socioeconomic issues of homelessness and why Seattle – and the country as a whole – haven’t been able to solve it, which really drives Gottlieb, who gets invested in whatever she does.

“There’s a serious homeless problem here, probably one of the biggest in the country,” she says. “The amount of people living under freeways is mindboggling. It is heartbreaking. It pisses me off. With all the major companies based here, like Costco, Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing, REI and Amazon, I don’t understand why we can’t pool our resources and work with the city to solve this problem.”

– CHARLESTON SHUFFLE –

The freeway underpasses of Seattle are a long way from where Gottlieb, the middle of three children, grew up in Flint, Mich., which was once a flourishing city and automotive powerhouse before financial and other problems beset it in recent years. Her dad, Gilbert, was the president of the Royalite Company, an electrical wholesale distribution business started in 1929 by his father-in-law and his brother. Her mother, Zelma, leads guided tours throughout the world. For 10 straight years, the family spent their summers in a Sullivan’s Island beach rental to visit one of Zelma’s childhood friends, Marlene Alfred ’64, who married a local Charleston man. (She would later go on to marry Nathan Addlestone, become a major donor and play a critical role in the creation of their namesake library on campus in 2005.)

With Zelma leading the charge, the family was always off on some excursion. Spring break was typically skiing in the Rockies, while summer was some adventure, like rafting down the Colorado or sailing around the Caribbean in an 80-foot charter (all three kids attended sailing camp).

Europe was also a popular family destination. In August 1982, the summer before Jody started attending Williston Northampton prep school in western Massachusetts, her parents and one of her two brothers picked her up at a French language school in Switzerland and made their way to Paris. Bomb scares had the city on edge as the family walked around the chic Le Marais district. They decided to grab a bite at Goldenberg’s, a storied Jewish deli on a busy corner. As they were walking down a small flight of steps to the rear dining area, three terrorists tossed a grenade through the door and came in shooting and screaming after the explosion, killing six and wounding 22. The Gottliebs ran to the back and hid behind overturned tables with the other patrons.

“We were lucky; it could have been so much worse,” recalls Jody, who was 15 at the time. “My mother took some shrapnel to the ankle, and I was knocked unconscious. Another patron dragged me under a banquette where we hunkered down until there was an end to the gunfire.”

As the smell of gunpowder hung in the air, Gilbert wrapped Zelma’s ankle in a tablecloth while people on the outside smashed a window so everyone could crawl out. The Gottliebs dashed back to their hotel.

“We were all scared to death to leave the hotel,” recalls Zelma, who finally got in touch with someone at the American Embassy after three or four attempts. “Her only advice was, ‘Don’t go where there are a lot of Americans.’ I was like, ‘It’s summer. Paris is filled with Americans!’ I called the airline, but they wouldn’t let us change our tickets. Jody and Steven ate in the hotel for 21 meals straight.”

It became the first of many conflict zones Gottlieb would encounter in her life.
“People who have traumatic events like that early in their life can go one of two different directions, in my experience,” says Payne. “They can either get hunkered down and sheltered or they can react the opposite way, and I think Jody is somebody where that event triggered a fearlessness in her, which is part of what then has driven her career.”

She is definitely fearless. At 16, on a spur of the moment, she rented a car and drove 10 boarding school classmates in a blinding snowstorm to a concert in Syracuse, N.Y. At 17, she spent six weeks backpacking around Europe by herself. She wanted to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City afterward, but her parents talked her into attending CofC.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study, and at the College I explored things I never in a million years would have done, like astronomy, death and dying, and business law,” says Gottlieb, who was an art major. “There were so many reasons why I chose the College: I love the fact that CofC had the No. 1 sailing team and was close to the ocean. For me, it just felt comfortable, and I knew I could find my way there. I also liked that you didn’t have TAs teaching you. I formed great relationships with my professors, who were very hands-on and pushed me to do better.”

The super-social Gottlieb also formed a lot of lasting friendships. To this day, her best friend is Jim Haynie ’88, who ended up in the same painting class as Gottlieb.

“I always thought I could draw fairly well until I met Jody,” he says. “Whenever she touched any kind of medium, it was always something special and a level above what anyone else was doing.

She could draw, she could paint, she could sculpt. She gave my roommate one of her paintings, and I was so jealous because it was something you’d want to put on your wall. It was just amazing. Obviously, her talent extended to film and producing and all that. You always knew Jody was going to wind up doing something artistic because of her talent.”

After graduation from the College, Gottlieb attended FIT to become a fashion/costume designer, but she discovered her true calling after working on an audio project about the 1970s that a professor raved over.

“You have a real knack for this,” he told her. “You need to work in television and film.”

– ROAD WARRIOR –

After a couple of internships and freelance jobs working on television commercials, Gottlieb visited a friend in Atlanta and decided to move there in 1991. As luck would have it, on a blind double date, she met the president of TNT, who told her Ted Turner was starting a production company to make documentaries and other programming. With her natural moxie and “fake it ’til you make it” attitude, she was soon Turner’s director of production, overseeing daily operations of 100 hours of programming. She also became the liaison with co-production partners like The Cousteau Society, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Fund, developing an affinity for producing conservation and natural history shows that would propel her career.

“It was the greatest entree into television and film,” says Gottlieb. “Ted Turner was an environmentalist and a conservationist who was interested in documentary film. He wanted to tell great stories and was willing to put his money where his mouth was. He was bombastic and over-the-top. I loved his philosophy of pushing the chips all in. He was Captain Outrageous.”

Her late brother, Jonathan, told her she had really made it when, in 1994, she produced an 85th birthday film on Jacques Cousteau, someone they both idolized growing up. But while on set in the Bahamas, Gottlieb fell seriously ill with malaria. Cousteau and his wife (and doctors) nursed her back to health at his home there for the next two weeks.

“I was singing showtunes, and I don’t even know any showtunes,” laughs Gottlieb, who stayed in a guestroom until she was well enough to travel to Miami. “I can remember hallucinating, staring at the ceiling fan and being in and out of it for days. Jacques was just so kind and fascinating, and I developed a real friendship with him that lasted until his death.”

In 1998, she moved over to CNN to start the network’s first-ever documentary unit, but first she had to undergo “war training” – what not to do, how not to get kidnapped, how to recognize gunfire. Gottlieb wound up in a lot of dangerous situations that oftentimes involved firearms, like snipers on rooftops in Palestine.

“I like that pressure of being in harm’s way and thinking on your feet,” she says. “We were smart about what we were doing, but we were doing things that put us in danger. It could get pretty hairy. I purposely wouldn’t tell my parents what I was up to.”

But they had an inkling. Once, when her mom met her in Europe, Jody pulled out a wad of cash she had on her. “Oh, my God, Jody,” said Zelma. “What are you doing carrying that much money?”

To which Jody responded, “Mom, you have to be able to navigate any situation.”

Like the time Syrian airport police tried to shake her down inside a smoke-filled room for $40,000 to get her camera equipment out of the country – $1,000 for each case. “An excess baggage fee,” they called it. Gottlieb says she negotiated them down to $4,000.

“I would be gone months at a time and it’s a cash business, especially when you’re in Africa and the Middle East,” she says. “The most I ever traveled with was 50 grand strapped to me, which I would break up with the others in my crew. It was like Oprah: ‘Here, you get 10 grand, and you get 10 grand.’ It was stressful traveling with that much cash, but we needed it.”

Just like in a movie, she would swap stories with other journalists, along with spooks, ambassadors and missionaries, after hours at the bar at the legendary American Colony Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. One that always drew a good laugh was the time she did a face plant into a giant hole of camel dung. She was directing a series of religious specials in 2005 after the success of The Da Vinci Code, and she and her crew – she was typically the only woman – were filming outside a remote Egyptian village in some cliffside caves. Because of a skirmish between the village and another one, Gottlieb drew the short straw to see if the coast was clear; when she was running back, she tripped and fell in the hole.

“I was literally covered in crap,” she says with a good laugh. “The guys were like, ‘Oh, good Lord.’ There’s always a good story from the road.”

It wasn’t long after her return that Gottlieb had to deal with the most traumatic event of her life, however: the 2005 suicide of her brother Jonathan. When she told the eyewitness to the homeless murders that she knew about reliving tragedy, that’s what she was referring to.

“He died before people really talked about suicide like they do today after Robin Williams’ death,” she says. “It was like a bomb went off in our family.”

Well read, active and engaged, Jonathan was three and a half years older than Jody and someone she really admired. He was the one who got her interested in Cousteau and music and so many other things.

“I worshipped him,” she says. “He had movie star good looks and the most awesome head of hair you’ve ever seen. We were super close.”

Which is why it’s still hard for her almost 14 years later to process it. To her, he was happily married with great kids and had a good job, or he sure seemed like he was happy. He also didn’t leave behind any kind of note or explanation.

“I’ve spent my whole life listening to people in my work,” says Gottlieb, who took a six-week leave from CNN. “I’ve been asking myself ever since, how did I not see this coming? It’s beyond tragic. I do know that people often only show you what they want you to see.”

Jim Haynie spoke to her soon after it happened. “She felt guilty for a long time,” he says. “Still, once a year, on the anniversary, it’s not easy for her. I’ll see something on Facebook. She feels an extreme amount of loss. It still hurts. I just wish I could have done something.”

– SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE –

By the time Gottlieb left CNN in 2009, she had climbed the corporate ladder just about all the way up, to executive director, managing all aspects of international documentary, investigative and long-form production. Like many in traditional media, she was caught up in the internet-led meltdown of the industry, but she managed to land on her feet, first as a media consultant and then as an executive producer at Middle East Broadcasting Networks in Washington, D.C. In 2014, the late Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen lured her to Seattle to head development and production of the media arm of Vulcan, his business and philanthropic company. The two shared a deep love of the oceans and nature, producing such award-winning films as Ocean Warriors and The Ivory Game.

“I believed in the core mission of Vulcan: conservation, science, exploration,” says Gottlieb. “A lot of the work I was doing at Vulcan was about creating social-impact campaigns. We were either trying to change behavior or change policy. I’ve been able to work on passion projects that I’ve made a living at. Whether it’s been working for a company or a philanthropist, I’ve always been able to find my passion and purpose. That’s how I can sleep at night.”

Katie Carpenter has worked with Gottlieb since her days at Turner Broadcasting, when they collaborated on an Audubon documentary called Panama: Paradise Found, about trying to save a rainforest habitat with endangered species on an island in the middle of the Panama Canal. With the production going over budget and experiencing other problems because of the difficult location, “the fixer,” aka Gottlieb, was called in.

“She’s super smart and very charming, but she’s also pretty tough,” says Carpenter, a producer with Brick City TV. “When there are a bunch of people trying to charge you a bunch of money for something you shouldn’t have to pay a ton of money for, she’s the one you want around. She would also urge us on to make the best film we could, but one that would appeal to all kinds of audiences. This was kind of an inside story, and she helped broaden it out and make it more popular. It was super successful, translated and sold all over the world. Jody makes that possible.”

They also worked together on Ocean Warriors, the 2016 Animal Planet series about the global battle of activists to save our seas. Shot all over the world, the production took three years to complete and had a crew of 300.

“If you want to do a six-hour series for $4.5 million, you just know you’re in for a bumpy ride, but Jody helped us survive it and, in fact, thrive,” says Carpenter. “She was all over the project and that was a good thing because she’s got a really light touch. She knows how to make it better for a primetime audience, and she also knows how to make it better when you have a lot of partners working on the production, which included Robert Redford and the Discovery Channel. Everyone here at Brick City TV so wants to work with her again. She’s a gravitational force, and we love running around the universe with her.”

The grind at Vulcan became too much, however. The realization hit her when her nephews, Sam and Ben, Jonathan’s sons, were visiting her in Seattle and they went for a hike. They pleaded with her to stay off her phone and be present, but that quickly ended when her phone started blowing up, greatly disappointing them and herself.

“I had no balance, I had no life,” she says. “That hike with Sam and Ben really woke me up. It was hard because I did so many great projects at Vulcan, but those were ending. I felt like I was talking about producing and not actually producing. I wasn’t going out in the field, like with Ocean Warriors, and I really missed it. When you work for a billionaire, it’s an audience of one, and I’m not a sycophant. You don’t hire Jody Gottlieb to tell you what you want to hear. I am a firm believer in speaking truth to power. I challenge people; I challenge myself. I want to continue to grow. Apathy makes me insane.”

Although she sometimes misses being “in the thick of it all,” creating serial podcasts now is incredibly freeing for her and more creative in many ways. Free from the anchor of a camera and crew, people open up more. In a way, she’s come full circle to her original audio project at FIT that set her on her journey.

“The camera flips people out and they often shut down,” she says. “Put it away, and people share things they wouldn’t normally share. It’s crazy.”

But Gottlieb won’t be able to cut the camera cord entirely. She and Payne are in talks with a Hollywood studio to make a television series out of the Tom Wales case, and she’ll surely make some more documentaries at some point.

“As I like to say, life is for the living,” she observes. “What you put into it is what you get out of it. My attitude and pure grit keep me going, and I’ve got a lot more I want to get done before I leave this earth. After all, I have a few more third rails I want to ride.”