Documentary producer Jenna Millman ’97 provides an inside look at global sports icon Tiger Woods
It was nearing the end of the project, and Emmy award-winning producer Jenna Millman ’97 still didn’t have quite the right opening for her HBO feature documentary Tiger. It was her first foray into independent documentary film production, and the footage that promised to ground the entire film remained elusive. But she had an idea.
At the 1996 Haskins Award dinner honoring the top-ranked collegiate golfer of the year, Earl Woods had delivered a speech to his son, the future golf legend Tiger Woods. The speech had only been written about once, soon after its delivery, but from reading that 1997 Sports Illustrated article, Millman knew the footage of the speech was the key to her film. When she finally tracked it down, the content was even better than she’d hoped.
“The speech showed the expectations of a father for his son, not just as an athlete, but as somebody who was going to change the world,” says Millman. “Earl thought Tiger would unite all races and create a better humanity … and Tiger was 18 years old.”
Inspired by the 2018 book Tiger Woods, Millman’s two-part documentary debuted on HBO in January. It offers a unique look at one of the most recognized people on the planet, blending rarely seen, and even never-before-seen, archival footage with intimate interviews.
Millman, a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline with 15 Emmy Award nominations and two wins to her credit, knew nothing about golf or its biggest star when HBO contacted her about the project. “I got a call out of the blue that this incredible team was putting together a documentary on a topic I didn’t think I was interested in,” she says.
The team consisted of renowned director Matt Heineman and Oscar-winning executive producer Alex Gibney, a combination that convinced her to leave her network job. Millman was brought on board because of her remarkable ability to make subjects feel comfortable on camera and explain the scope of the film.
Since many of the film’s subjects had been interviewed for the tell-all book, Millman and the team figured it would be simple enough to secure on-camera interviews with them, but that turned out to be one of the tougher parts of the project.
“Getting people to talk, somewhat anonymously, for a book is much different than getting them to talk on camera,” says Millman. “Even golf writers were hard to get as they feared losing access to Tiger ... based on their involvement with this piece.”
Persistence paid off, though, and Millman secured a bevy of key interviews, including with Woods’s childhood friends, his high-school girlfriend, and the ghostwriter of his father’s book. Woods declined to participate, citing contractual reasons, but this gave Millman and the production team more freedom to tell their story.
“All of the facts had already been exposed,” says Millman. “This wasn’t about muckraking, this was about understanding the ‘why’ as opposed to the ‘what.’”
Lauded by many outside the golfing world, the film largely accomplished what Millman and her team set out to do: To create an analysis of gender, sex, race, and fame that asks, ‘As part of the creation, and destruction, of the icon that is Tiger Woods, what does that say about us?’
Future projects for Millman include a work about the first wave of COVID-19 in New York City and a piece about the return of reggaeton music star J Balvin to his native Colombia. And while she won’t rule out a return to the news media side of things, she is happy, and busy, creating in what she considers to be a golden era of documentary filmmaking.