Amy Stechler, Documentarian Who Helped Define a Style, Dies at 67
Amy Stechler, who was instrumental in the early years of Florentine Films, the company behind the Ken Burns series “The Civil War” and numerous other acclaimed documentaries, and who went on to make an Emmy-nominated documentary of her own on the artist Frida Kahlo, died on Aug. 26 at her home in Walpole, N.H. She was 67.
Her daughters, Sarah and Lilly Burns, said the death was probably related to her declining health from primary progressive multiple sclerosis, which had been diagnosed in 2005.
Ms. Stechler, who was married to Mr. Burns from 1982 to 1993, was credited as the writer and a producer on “Brooklyn Bridge,” the 1981 documentary that was Mr. Burns’s first major directing credit and the first major project of Florentine Films. The company had been formed in 1976 by Mr. Burns and two college friends, Roger Sherman and Buddy Squires, with Ms. Stechler joining soon after.
The four were recent graduates of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where, Mr. Burns said in a phone interview, two professors in particular, Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes, had influenced their thinking about storytelling and the power of still images. They plunged right into the “Brooklyn Bridge” project, learning by doing.
“Everybody told us we couldn’t do it,” Mr. Burns said. “‘Why aren’t you apprenticing?’”
Mr. Squires said that Ms. Stechler was a key part of that learning process.
“It’s really important to understand how instrumental Amy was in developing the signature Florentine style,” he said. “We were all just sort of making it up as we went along.”
Mr. Burns had been inspired to tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge by the 1972 book “The Great Bridge,” by the historian David McCullough, who provided narration for the documentary. Mr. Burns recalled a moment during a recording sessions when Mr. McCullough, who died on Aug. 7, told him and Ms. Stechler that the writing needed work, hauled them aside and gave them an impromptu three-hour tutorial.
“We came back in with a much improved script,” Mr. Burns said. “It was the single greatest three hours of learning we’d ever had in our lives.”
The project took several years. Mr. Burns said that in 1979 he and Ms. Stechler were living together in the Chelsea section of Manhattan when a rent increase — to $325 a month from $275 — drove them out of the city and to Walpole, N.H., and a house where Mr. Burns still lives.
“Forty-three years ago last week,” he said on Wednesday, “we packed up a green van and moved up here.”
They and the rest of the team finished editing the documentary there. The results were a breath of fresh air for the somewhat staid documentary genre. “Brooklyn Bridge,” first shown at film festivals in 1981 and then broadcast on PBS in 1982, was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature.
“‘Brooklyn Bridge’ is more than just a short course in one colorful phase of American history,” Kenneth R. Clark wrote in a review for United Press International in 1982. “It is a thing of grace and beauty — one of television’s few truly golden hours.”
The film put Florentine and especially Mr. Burns on the map. In 1984 he and Ms. Stechler jointly directed “The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God,” another well-received documentary, on which Ms. Stechler was also a writer and producer. She was also one of the writers of “The Statue of Liberty” (1985), directed by Mr. Burns, which was nominated for an Oscar.
She and Mr. Burns had married in 1982 and by 1986 had two daughters. Ms. Stechler stepped away from filmmaking for some two decades and took up painting, although she had consulting credits on “The Civil War,” Mr. Burns’s Emmy Award-winning 1990 mini-series, which transformed the documentary landscape.
Ms. Stechler returned to filmmaking in 2005 long enough to write and direct “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo,” a documentary broadcast on PBS, about the Mexican painter known for her colorful artwork and eventful life. Robert Koehler, reviewing it in Variety, called it “uncommonly smooth, fluid and richly textured.”
Mr. Squires was her cinematographer on that project. He said the choice of subject did not surprise him.
“I really feel that she saw Frida as a kindred spirit,” he said, “an uncompromising woman who was trying to tell her truth as she saw it.”
Amy Georgeanne Stechler was born on June 23, 1955, in New Haven, Conn. Her father, Gerald, was a psychologist, and her mother, Ellen (Bodner) Stechler, was a social worker.
She grew up in Lexington, Mass. Mr. Squires said that as an undergraduate at Hampshire College she was outraged by the white response to efforts to desegregate Boston schools in the mid-1970s and made a student film about it, a project for which he was part of her crew. She was a year or two behind Mr. Burns in school, graduating in 1977, and was part of the crew for his senior film project.
Mr. Squires said that although the young filmmakers’ education at Hampshire had grounded them in ideas and theories, it was not a traditional film curriculum and was short on practical matters. Once the group was in the real world trying to get Florentine going, it was often Ms. Stechler who figured out the nuts and bolts.
“She was always innovating, always saying, ‘OK, we have a problem, how do we fix this?’” he said, adding, “It’s far harder to figure out how to do something than how to make minor improvements along the way.”
He saw a through line connecting the varied subjects of the films she worked on — Kahlo, the Shakers, the visionaries behind the Brooklyn Bridge — and including her as well.
“They were all people who had the courage of their convictions,” Mr. Squires said.
Ms. Stechler’s second marriage, to Rod Thibeault, also ended in divorce. In addition to her daughters, she is survived by her partner, Bill Patterson; a sister, Nancy Stechler Gawle; and five grandchildren.
Ms. Stechler split her time between Brooklyn and Walpole, where she lived not far from Mr. Burns. He said she was “as fiercely her own person as anybody I’ve ever met, but also kind of graceful — there was a kind of grace in who she was.”
He summed up her influence on his career simply.
“I don’t think you’d have ever heard of me had she not been there,” he said.