Dr. Neal Baer has worn many hats in his long and storied career. The Harvard-trained physician has done star turns as an author, filmmaker, TV writer, and — perhaps most notably — as executive producer of the hit medical drama "ER," as well as "Law & Order: SVU," and the CBS series "Under the Dome."
Now Baer is turning his focus — and camera lens — on a topic close to his heart: The social and economic struggles facing small-town America.
In a new documentary, "If You Build It," he takes a look at an inspiring community development project in rural North Carolina's poorest county that spotlights the difficult socio-economic issues at the center of many American's lives.
He tells Newsmax TV that the film, directed by Patrick Creadon and co-produced by Baer and Christine O’Malley, offers a hopeful vision for a new kind of public education system in which students learn the skills necessary to design their own futures and give back to their own needy communities.
"I think it's a template for what education can become in this country," he says. "We, I think, spend too much time preparing kids for tests so that they can then take more tests and more tests. And the creativity, the problem-solving elements that are so critical and crucial for our society to face the major issues we're facing can often get lost. "
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Baer says the documentary was inspired by San Francisco designer, activist, and Facebook friend Emily Pilloton, who runs a non-profit devoted to helping impoverished communities address their problems. When Pilloton told him she was planning to work with high school students to create a farmer's market in poverty-stricken Bertie County, N.C., he asked to tag along, with a film crew in tow.
Cameras were rolling as the students and a handful of teachers struggled to overcome their own doubts, budgetary problems, and a resistant school board.
"This is something that can really, I think, inspire kids in classrooms across the country and they can design for their own communities," he says of the project. "It's brought the community together. These kids really solved a problem in their community."
For Baer, exploring complex social and economic problems is familiar territory. His work has often explored difficult issues with a gritty authenticity — from the vexing health problems explored on "ER" to the impacts of urban violence on "Law & Order: SVU."
"Television and film are one of the best ways that we can explore really complex problems because we provide a drama, we show people interacting with one another, and all the different complexities, all the different sides to an argument and we can lay them all out," he notes. "We don't have to take a side, we don't have to make an argument one way or the other, we can just show our characters grappling with the issues and coming to some conclusions."
To a large extent, his own work as a practicing pediatrician has informed much of his writing. On "ER," for instance George Clooney's character, Dr. Doug Ross, and Noah Wyle's Dr. John Carter, were both modeled after his own real-world experiences.
"Noah Wyle's character started out as third-year medical student and I was a fourth-year medical student at Harvard Medical School when I started on 'ER,' and so when Noah was peed on, puked on, that had already happened to me," he explains. "I wrote a lot for George Clooney because he played a pediatrician on 'ER' and I became a pediatrician. While I was on ER I did my residency … and so I could draw on really complicated ethical dilemmas."
The year ahead will mark a return to the medical-drama arena, with Baer co-writing a new series called "The Three Behrs" — a project he acknowledges will, like "ER," be semi-autobiographical.
"I have two brothers who are surgeons and my father was a surgeon," he says. "So that inspired me to do a series about three brothers [all doctors] … who have to learn to live with one another in this big modern hospital."
He has also just inked a new two-year deal with CBS to continue producing "Under the Dome," an adaptation of the Stephen King novel. Of the coming season, he will only say: "You're definitely going to see some new characters," adding that viewers should "expect surprises" because "nobody is safe under the dome."
In addition to everything else he does, Baer continues to practice medicine as a pediatrician in the U.S. and other countries. Asked whether his first love is healthcare, writing, or film production, he offers a qualified answer.
"My first love is storytelling and I say that the best doctors are really good storytellers because they have to listen and get the patients' story and then they have to convey that story to other healthcare providers so that they can come up with a diagnosis," he says, but adds:
"I do look for the medical stories that have affected my life. I call it kind of private storytelling. I take what's privately or personally happened to me and then I make it public through the television shows that I do, because I've found that these stories are so compelling to me, [so] I hope they'll be compelling to viewers."
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