Ashton Gleckman had just completed his sophomore year of high school when his parents agreed to yank him out. By that time, their child prodigy was already scoring documentaries and running his own YouTube channel of original compositions from their Indiana home.
As Gleckman tells it, he was given a guitar at age 6, and was writing music within a year. At 8, he started playing open mic nights at local coffee shops with people more than triple his age. By 10, he’d formed a rock band, with whom he’d later write and record an album at Nashville’s Dark Horse Studios. Then, at 14, Gleckman had what he describes as an epiphany watching the 2014 Benedict Cumberbatch film The Imitation Game.
“I was in the theater, crying my eyes out, and it was because of the music,” he says, now 23 and a self-styled movie buff. “In that moment, I realized that writing music for film and TV is what I had to do.” He very quickly became obsessed, ordering textbooks about classical orchestral composition from Amazon and enlisting a professor at nearby Butler University to study under. Before long, his YouTube channel, where Gleckman examines and deconstructs film scores, had gained real traction. An arrangement he did from Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score racked up 8 million views. In fact, even Zimmer discovered the channel, and swiftly hired Gleckman as his intern. So, as other kids his age were taking the SATs and going off to prom, he decamped to L.A. to work with the Oscar-winning composer.
But in time, Gleckman would come to see he didn’t want to be “in a dark room for 18 hours a day writing music,” he says, so he pivoted to a more collaborative medium of documentary filmmaking, taking on such subjects as the Holocaust and small-town life in Appalachia. The idea to do a sweeping, Ken Burns-style doc series about John F. Kennedy came to Gleckman early in the pandemic. “Every time I turned on the news, it was one depressing thing after another, so I was looking for some kind of hope,” he says. “I kept thinking back to grade school and seeing this footage of this charismatic, good-looking, well-spoken president, and I just started reading everything I could about him.”
The JFK Library was closed because of COVID, but he combed through thousands of White House memos, family letters, even Kennedy’s school work in the online archives. Ultimately, Gleckman decided to focus more on Kennedy’s life than his death, which he believed would differentiate his project from the myriad others that came before it. He secured financing from a few local patrons of the arts, and then set out on the road in March 2021, doing 80-plus interviews across 25 states. The lineup includes historians, biographers, family members and TV personalities like Conan O’Brien.
What he rarely mentioned during the extensive booking process was that he was barely of drinking age, though it typically came up once Gleckman arrived for the interview. In fact, his clinical psychologist father tagged along for a leg of the trip, and each time his subjects falsely assumed his dad must be the filmmaker. O’Brien joked it was the first time that he’d needed to card a documentarian.
Back home at his parents’ house in Indiana, where he still lives with Mom, Dad and four cats (his two sisters have since moved out), he edited it down to 14 hours, which he’d later score as well. Then his lawyer introduced him to the execs at Radical Media, who had produced a number of widely viewed presidential docs for the History channel. They were hugely impressed by what Gleckman had made, and tickled by the idea that someone so young was passionate about a subject that predated him by several decades. “Like here’s this young man who wants to tell all kinds of stories, but he’s starting with stories from history,” says Radical’s president of entertainment, Dave Sirulnick, who marvels at his mix of youthful energy, curiosity and maturity, to say nothing of his talent.
As Gleckman sees it, he has a real opportunity to make history more appealing, or at least accessible, to his generation. “That’s my goal, anyway,” he says, having never gotten so much as his GED. “I fully realize and empathize with kids who go to history class in school and say, ‘This is boring,’ because often it’s taught in a boring way. But without history, we’re totally lost.”
Together, Gleckman and the team at Radical shaved off another four hours before shopping the doc around town. By then, Gleckman had convinced Emmy winner Peter Coyote, whom he messaged cold, to narrate. In the end, History “went crazy for it,” says Gleckman. The network will roll out the series, titled simply Kennedy, over three nights beginning Nov. 18. “It’s all pretty surreal,” he says of his TV debut, which he intends to watch live with family and friends back home. “I mean, I’m just a kid from Indiana.”
While he has yet to hire a Hollywood agent and manager, the “kid from Indiana” already has his next doc, Agent Number 9, ready to take out. It centers on retired U.S. Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who served five former presidents, including Kennedy. Gleckman spent 16 hours interviewing the now 91-year-old subject. From there, Gleckman wants to make more docs and try his hand at features, too, though he can also envision taking a year off to score a film. He says he’s in no hurry to move out of his parents’ home, where he has an editing suite upstairs and a music lab in the basement, but he’ll go wherever the work is.
His dream is to one day attend the same cocktail party as his idol Steven Spielberg. That’s when Gleckman will know he’s really made it. As for what he might say? “Probably ‘Thank you for all you’ve done, and I’m glad to be here with you,’ ” offers Gleckman. The very idea has him grinning widely. He adds, sheepishly, “I’ve never been to a party in my life.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.