View Geoge McQuilkin's The Bike
The following biography was written by Christina Blyde, conducted by email interviews done in February, 2012
George McQuilkin was born in Pensacola, Florida on September 1, 1942. His parents, George and Marguerite, were surprised by his chosen fields of study: philosophy at Yale, and a Masters in Cinema at the University of Southern California.
Fresh out of school, McQuilkin’s first job was working as a “gopher” on the set of a Churchill film, In a Medical Laboratory. It was during that time that he met Robert Churchill and joined Churchill Films in 1965. He went on to spend the majority of his career with Bob “Church” Churchill’s company. McQuilkin took on a variety of positions, and at different periods was credited as Writer, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, President, and Owner. He says that he was a “slow writer” and an “anxious director,” and felt more comfortable in the producer role. In 1976, after over a decade in production, McQuilkin became President of the company and Bob Churchill took on the role of Vice President of Production. Church, the “remarkable and unusual owner,” even gave McQuilkin his larger, nicer office. He was eager to keep his hand in production and created and also served as President for Churchill Entertainment, Inc. The company produced documentaries for local television as well as children’s and young adult productions for the Disney Channel and PBS. ln 1994, McQuilkin and his co-owners (he bought one third of the company in the late 1980s) sold Churchill Films to American Educational Products.
For one of McQuilkin’s first films, The Bike (1968),he served as both the Writer and Director. The budget was somewhere around $7,000, which included the salaries for the production crew and the actors. Churchill had its own equipment and editing facilities and therefore those aspects of the production would not have been included in the official budget. The Bike was one of three films in a values-themed series geared towards primary school children. The other two films were Lost Puppy (1970) and On Herbert Street (1971). McQuilkin describes this series as “An attempt to get away from….that very rehearsed, static, hokey style common to educational films up to that point.” All three of these films end without a tidy conclusion, a strategy meant to provoke discussion about the next step the children should take. The Bike was shot by Caleb Deschanel, a cinematographer who went on to be nominated for 5 Academy Awards. McQuilkin was a great admirer of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and John Cassavetes, and their influence is evident in this film. The Bike was a favorite of Los Angeles city schools, and it was also sold to many other school systems. McQuilkin estimates that over 1,000 prints were sold over a few years, greatly exceeding the “break even” rate of 250-300 prints.
Churchill first delved into “dimensional animation” films with their adaptation of Curious George (1982), for which McQuilkin was the Executive Producer. John Clark Matthews, who would eventually create the puppets for the this film and many other Churchill adaptations, was very eager to work with Churchill films and McQuilkin believed that if he could get the rights to a popular children’s book, the company could profit from Matthews' talents. McQuilkin flew to Boston to speak with Margret Rey, wife of H.A. Rey, the author of the series. With preliminary Curious George puppets in hand, he was able to gain her confidence and the rights to adapt the book series into films, but only after agreeing to give her the final say on the puppets’ designs.
Churchill films also went on to adapt John Matthews' Frog and Toad series, and later in his career McQuilkin received a Carnegie Medal award for his role as Executive Producer on the film, Ralph S. Mouse (1991), co-produced by Matthews and directed by Thomas G. Smith, an ABC Weekend Special which is still available in some libraries and through Weston Woods. This honor is given to the producer of the most outstanding children’s video, and McQuilkin was the award’s first recipient. Ralph S. Mouse was the third film in a series of adaptations based on Beverly Cleary’s well-known children’s books.
McQuilkin admits that he and his colleagues were very casual about budgeting their films. Those involved would sit on a couple of couches and make a list of possible subjects. They’d eventually end up with a list of subjects and a very rough estimate of how much each would cost. Then they would make the film and ignore the budget altogether: “In order to stay on budget, someone has to act as a budget policeman, and in the pursuit of trying to make a good film, none of us were disposed to fulfill that role. If a film sold well, going over budget was justified; if it didn’t sell well, sticking to budget was not sufficient justification.” In fact, the production crew was fond of saying “We don’t make films to make money; we make money so we can make films.” This mindset was perhaps somewhat rare in the educational film realm, but Churchill Films was run by those who produced the actual product. McQuilkin did have incentive to make lucrative films, however, as Bob Churchill generously offered him 5% royalty on profits derived from the films that he made.
McQuilkin was always a socially progressive filmmaker; he and his crew were “products of the ‘60s with strong ideas about social equality.” Other Women, Other Work (1973), a film which encouraged young women to think outside traditional occupations, is a good example of this open mindset. The short film features both white and African-American females succeeding in stereotypically male roles: pilot, roofer, veterinarian, truck driver, reporter, and so on. McQuilkin recalls that the company made a serious effort to include minorities in their films; he is not sure if Churchill Films was leading this change or simply following, but regardless, in their hearts they “knew it was right.”
McQuilkin is still attracted to topics which stimulate debate and social change. In 1976 he produced a series of four films on energy. One of these was titled Energy: The Nuclear Alternative, which “was used by anti-nuclear groups up and down California in support of an initiative halting nuclear power.” When asked which subject he would most like to conquer if he made an educational film today, McQuilkin’s answer is climate change.
McQuilkin estimates that he took part in the production of something near 50 films over the course of his career, an endeavor that he took very seriously. He believes that “A great educational film is the combining of visual revelation with a full understanding and good articulation of subject matter” and recalls the great sense of responsibility he felt as a producer of these products: “We were certain we were doing something worthwhile and important, and spent many afternoons, huddled over a film in editing, debating the most effective way to put material together, and put ideas across.”
Today, McQuilkin and his wife Catherine, who he met in Scotland while directing a children’s book adaptation, Wee Gillis (1986), live in Scotland.
We are working with McQuilkin to complete his filmography. An incomplete list would include:
Bike, The (1968)
Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1968), co-produced with Robert
Churchill, dir. John Clark Matthews