PBS's upcoming documentary film series "My Grandparents War" follows four British actors whose families were involved in World War II in one way or another, a process that required a careful balance of research and discovery, according to executive producer Tom Anstiss.
Producers started with a pool of actors of interest and winnowed it down by doing preliminary research into their family histories, eventually settling on Helena Bonham Carter, Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Carey Mulligan as the final four subjects.
"With some we knew quite a lot [beforehand], but with others we found just a snippet," Anstiss said during a Television Critics Association panel on Thursday.
"Mark was the very first actor we met, and all I knew about Mark's family is that both his grandfathers were prisoners of war," he said. "That was what I felt was a very untold chapter of the war, a very important chapter of the war. So as soon as I met Mark, I felt this story must be told. Frankly, there's a feature film in there, not just a documentary series."
Rylance's episode follows the "Dunkirk" star as he investigates the story of his grandfather, Osmond Skinner, a Japanese prisoner of war for four years. Carter's episode focuses on her grandfather, Eduardo Propper de Callejón, who used his position as a Spanish diplomat to help Jewish people escape the Holocaust.
"Helena, I would say knew a little bit more about [her] grandfather's story," Anstiss said. "But then it was our job to really structure a journey in collaboration with all the actors about the unanswered questions they had about their grandfathers' lives. That was the key thing. So a hybrid of taking them on a journey of discovery, but these were authored journeys. They were discovering questions that they and their families wanted to answer."
"These films are incredibly personal, and the trust that we had in each other was incredibly important," he continued. "The research that all of the families gave to us at the outset gave us the bones on which to them build the film. But we listened very carefully to all the actors about what was emotionally important to them and what was important to find out. Then we plotted a journey based on what we thought they wanted to know."
The four-part series "My Grandparents War" premieres April 4 on PBS.