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Neal Baer Keeps Busy in North Carolina with Docu, ‘Under the Dome’

'If You Build It' to premiere April 5 at Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham

For Neal Baer, all roads lead through North Carolina these days.
The multi-hyphenate is busy serving as showrunner on CBS’ ambitious fantasy-thriller drama “Under the Dome,” which is lensing in Wilmington and thereabouts. He’ll take a break April 5 to attend the world preem of “If You Build It” (pictured above), his latest documentary project, at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, which unspools April 4-7 in Durham.
The pic, which Baer produced with Christine O’Malley and helmer Patrick Creadon, tells the story of activists Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller, who mounted a program in rural North Carolina to teach design skills to high school students in a struggling community. The filmmakers spent a year chronicling the innovative program and the impact it had on students who immersed themselves in Pilloton and Miller’s vision of “humanitarian design principals.”
Baer has been working with O’Malley and Creadon, the pair behind the praised 2006 docu “Wordplay,” for several years. He’s struck by the coincidence that his professional life in primetime would also take him to the Tar Heel state.
“The festival is only about an hour away from where we’re shooting the series,” Baer told Variety. “It’s nice for me to be there for both.”
The Full Frame screening is the start of a fest circuit tour for “If You Build It,” which Baer and his collaborators aim to push for awards attention. The preem at Full Frame was a natural fit because so many of the students who are in the film will be there.
Baer became a champion of “If You Build It” after reading an article about Pilloton’s work, which encompassed his interest in design and socially conscious entrepreneurial efforts.
The pic was initially supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Sundance Institute. It also got a boost from Sundance’s Good Pitch program, which helps docu makers hone their pitches and meet with prospective financiers. “It’s a wonderful approach for documentary filmmakers,” Baer said.
“If You Build It” came out of the program with a blueprint for a social networking platform, ActionLab.org, that will encourage people to take action a la Pilloton in their communities. The goal is to have the site serve as a forum for connecting activists with foundations and other orgs that might provide funding for their proposals.
Meanwhile, “Under the Dome” marks another new approach to launching a series for Baer, who ran “Law & Order: SVU” for nearly a decade. The drama based on the Stephen King book of the same name earned a straight-to-series 13 episode order from CBS last November. There’s no sweating out a pilot pickup this time around, Baer said, but there’s also not as much feedback in the process between completing the first episode and diving in to the rest.
“It’s really just like being tossed in to the deep end,” Baer said.
He’s in good company with fellow exec producers and “Lost” alums Brian K. Vaughan, who wrote the pilot adaptation of King’s 1000-plus page book, and Jack Bender, who keeps production on track in the wilds of Wilmington just as he did in Hawaii for six seasons on “Lost.” Niels Arden Opley, helmer of the original Swedish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed the first episode, to bow June 24.
“I’m having fun,” Baer said. “It haven’t done a writer’s room this intensive since ‘ER.’ ”

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