Behind the Scenes: Filming an episode of We’ll Meet Again

Behind the Scenes: Filming an episode of We'll Meet Again
Ann Curry and Zoe Nicholson on We’ll Meet Again

In January 2018, PBS posed a question on its Instagram page: If you could reconnect with anyone, who would it be?

While Long Beach resident Zoe Nicholson wasn’t familiar with the show featured in the post—We’ll Meet Again—she recognized Ann Curry. So she didn’t hesitate to respond. In fact, Nicholson had a long-standing desire to reconnect with some people from her past.

Back in 1982, Nicholson joined six other women on a hunger strike at the Illinois statehouse in the hopes the action would motivate legislators to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Her response to the question posed in the PBS Instagram post was that she’d like to reconnect with some of her fellow fasters.

And, like most of us do when we engage with posts on social media, she thought nothing of it after that.

Until … a month later, when she heard from a production company in London. They wanted to Skype with her about her response to that post. And so for 90 minutes, she shared her story with them. A month later, they followed up with her: she’d been selected for a new season of We’ll Meet Again, but she needed to select just one person for the reunion.

“Obviously I picked the most important one!” she said.

She picked Sonia Johnson, a prominent feminist writer and activist, who had been excommunicated by the Mormon Church for her support of the Equal Rights Amendment. She had inspired Nicholson’s participation in the hunger strike in Illinois.

And so began Nicholson’s nearly year-long adventure with We’ll Meet Again. An adventure that concluded this week, when the episode in which she was featured aired on Tuesday night. Nicholson provided PBS SoCal a behind-the-scenes look at her journey.

In April the production team requested photos, biographies, resumes, and all manner of research on Nicholson. She sent them everything she could. In May, she signed the health agreement and committed to 14 uninterrupted days for production. In July, they requested to start sending equipment and materials to her house.

And on July 31, her filming dates began—all of which were purposefully shrouded in mystery.

The first assignment: meet the crew in Springfield, Illinois.

From the start of filming to the end, the details Nicholson received were sparse. The production company provided a city to be in, and a hotel to stay at. The night before a shoot they’d provide an address and a time to meet for the next day.

She filmed in the Illinois Capitol, at her home in Long Beach, at the site of her former bookstore in Newport Beach (which is now Alta Coffee). Then came the big one. The production company texted Nicholson an address in Hermosa Beach with an instruction: “Wear your best outfit.”

Nicholson bought a new dress for the occasion. When she exited her car at the filming location it was not immediately clear to her where to go next. She texted her contact on the crew, who replied back immediately “Turn Around.”

Erin, Nicholson’s contact, was standing in the street waiting for her. “You didn’t think we were going to give you the right address, did you?” Erin asked.

Nicholson followed Erin to the “actual” filming location, which was packed with a full film crew. And, moments later, Ann Curry joined them. For three hours Curry interviewed Nicholson, and ultimately asked the question that Nicholson anticipated, “Are you prepared for [Sonia] to be dead?”

It was a question Nicholson had considered frequently, and she was ready with her answer.

“I told her she may be the only person who would understand. That, as a Buddhist, of course I am.”

After the interview with Curry, Nicholson’s filming adventure continued. She filmed with a professor in Northridge who gave her a post-it note with an address to visit. The address was in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Nicholson was back on the road again.

She flew out to Tennessee and drove to a women-only community where she expected to learn more about Sonia Johnson. Nicholson learned that Johnson had been living there but left some years ago. At this point, Nicholson said she still wasn’t sure what was going on, until one of the women tipped her off: “You’re going to see [Johnson] at noon tomorrow.”

As it was, the next day was the final day of Nicholson’s filming commitment. That evening at the hotel, she received the text message with a restaurant location for the next day.

She arrived at the restaurant the next day and a member of the production company met her for a quick briefing: Nicholson would have 90 minutes of uninterrupted time for conversation with Johnson. And she needed to say Johnson’s first name loudly when she entered the restaurant because, while Johnson was still doing well physically, her hearing was not great.

Behind the Scenes: Filming an episode of We'll Meet Again
Zoe Nicholson and Sonia Johnson, Courtesy of Zoe Nicholson

When the time finally came for the two to meet, Nicholson followed the directions to a tee. The first thing Johnson said was “Zoe, I have a request, I would like us to tell the most important thing we’ve been saving for 36 years.” And that’s what they did. Nicholson shared that the activism Johnson inspired in her now had a lineage, as Nicholson herself had mentored other activists. And Johnson shared that in all the events and engagements she had spoken at, Nicholson was the only activist who said “yes” to the idea that a fast was the right tactic.

[Editor’s Note: We recognize that it’s unlikely everyone reading this has seen the episode already. We’ll stop describing the reunion here to avoid spoilers. Stream the episode here, or on the PBS app.]

Behind the Scenes: Filming an episode of We'll Meet Again
Zoe Nicholson watching her We’ll Meet Again episode with close friends. Courtesy Zoe Nicholson

After filming was over, Nicholson went back to her hotel room and absorbed it all—a process that was solitary in nature, because she was prohibited from speaking about the production with anyone until after PBS made its own announcements, months later.

“It allowed me to process it slowly, like a garden growing slowly.” Nicholson said. “[The process] gave me, as a human being, the grace of a slow reveal, internally.”

Looking back on it, Nicholson says the entire production process was complete surrender from the script, to the people she met, to what she did.

“I’m a strident, controlling, bossy person and this was a real real challenge, to let this go,” Nicholson said.

As for Nicholson and Johnson, they’ve kept in touch and are now friends, which is tremendously important to Nicholson as she credits Johnson with an important milestone in her life.

“She gave me the ability to say, without shame or guile, ‘Oh, I’d die for that.’”

Stream Zoe’s episode of We’ll Meet Again here, or on the PBS app.