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Documentary focuses on DL native

Pioneer Public Television Director/Producer Dana Johnson won an Emmy award for her documentary ‘My Way Back Home: Caroline Smith.’ SUBMITTED PHOTO

A documentary on Detroit Lakes native Caroline Smith has earned producer-director Dana Johnson an Emmy.

Pioneer Public Television actually received four Emmy nominations – another featuring nearby Steam Threshers in Rollag – but “My Way Back Home: Caroline Smith” was the only one to take home the trophy.

“In every category we were nominated in, we were up against pretty stiff competition from the Twin Cities,” Johnson said.

They were stations with millions of dollars to produce shows, whereas Pioneer’s budget was much smaller.

But, that made the win that much more special.

“I think if we were nominated in categories with places you’ve never heard of, it wouldn’t be as much of an accomplishment,” she said with a laugh.

This was a record year for nominations for the station, and the first year Johnson’s gone to the awards ceremony because it was the first year any of her videos had been nominated. This year, she was involved in three of the four nominated videos.

She said a lot of the people knew the competition was fierce and didn’t even expect to win an Emmy.

“People would say, ‘can’t you just be happy that you were nominated.’ I knew that I was going to be bummed out if we got four nominations and no awards. I was like, ‘no, I think I’ll really be sad if we don’t get one,’” she said with a laugh.

The first two categories her projects were up for didn’t win, so by then, she had given up hope on winning any since Arts & Entertainment was the most competitive category. So, she chalked it up to needing to go back to the office and try even harder next year.

And then she heard “My Way Back Home: Caroline Smith” called out.

The story follows singer-songwriter Smith from Detroit Lakes to the Twin Cities, where she now lives. It goes behind the scenes, not just showing her musical performances, but also her family, where she grew up and how she got her start as a musician.

“We knew we wanted to make a documentary that had performance in it, but I didn’t want to make it just a full half hour of concerts,” Johnson said.

She also wanted to feature an artist from the Pioneer Public Television viewing area.

Smith was scheduled to go on tour in Europe, so the crew had to film the documentary in a matter of a few weeks. That was in January and February, the coldest months of the year, which caused some extra problems.

Though it was a tight schedule, Smith was up for the documentary as well.

“When PBS knocks on your door and asks you if they can make a 30 min documentary about you, you say yes,” she said. “But in seriousness, there were a lot of changes happening with me and my music that I found really exciting and I was able to share it in intimate detail with a region of viewers.”

Johnson said that during the week, she was working on a series called Postcards, but on the weekends, she worked long hours on the Smith project.

“We would spend really long days from like 6 in the morning to 1 in the morning just shooting. It was pretty intense,” she said.

Beginning in Detroit Lakes, the documentary shows Smith’s former house where she grew up, the coffee shop her mom used to own (now La Barista) and where she started performing, and dinnertime with her mom and siblings.

“It was totally fun,” Smith said of coming back to Detroit Lakes to film. “I don’t have any family left there, so I don’t return very often. So it was nice driving around town and reminiscing old stories out loud.”

The documentary then talks about how she got started writing music as a teenager and eventually went on to the Twin Cities to produce and record her music.

They recorded a portion of her in the recording studio for the documentary, and they also recorded some of her performance at First Avenue in the Twin Cities from less than a year ago.

Johnson said that she, the cameraman and the editor collaborated on the video, getting it exactly how they had envisioned it.

“At first we weren’t sure how much the family and home life and Detroit Lakes stuff we wanted to include, but as soon as we started shooting that, we realized that it was going to be the most important part of it,” Johnson said.

“I loved the little window it created into my family, because I think we are so unique,” Smith said.

They filmed in the dead of winter, and Johnson said that while it was unique because not many programs are filmed in the winter, it was also problematic because the camera batteries died quicker or they would freeze up all together. She said she had multiple jackets on and three hats and was still cold.

They filmed a segment in the Twin Cities of Smith riding a bike down the street.

“We have this old van. It probably has 300,000 miles on it,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t even steer very well. We had the door open and the camera guy shooting out the door – this was in downtown Minneapolis – she was riding her bike and I was trying to drive the van exactly next to her. He was like ‘slow down, slow down, speed up, speed up.’”

So Johnson had to drive steady, even running a few stop signs, and drive just close enough to Smith, but not too close either, and not hit any other cars so the cameraman could get the perfect shots.

“We did some kind of extreme stuff for our small crew,” she said with a laugh. “It just kind of shows that no matter how much money you have, you don’t need to have that $500,000 budget. You don’t even need $20,000.

You can make something really great with just what you have as long as you feel dedicated to the project and want to make it work.”

As excited as Johnson was to win a career award, Smith was just as excited to have been a part of the award-winning project.

“(It was) so surreal,” Smith said of when the documentary won. “I still can’t believe it. I called everybody I could think of, even though I found out at 11 at night.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to be a part of the film. Dan (Huiting, director of photography) and Dana were awesome to work with and I appreciate so much them giving me the platform to tell my story.”

The “My Way Back Home: Caroline Smith” documentary can be viewed on YouTube at

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.