Phillip W. Stewart – Author Interview

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

America’s Film Vault: A Reference Guide to the Motion Pictures Held by the U.S. National Archives was released last year. This title reveals, for the first time in book form, a treasure trove of over 360,000 film reels that documents the 20th Century of American and World history. “America’s Film Vault”” discloses how these vintage films are organized and where to find them, exposes over 330 Government and Donated records that have motion pictures buried within them, uncovers and specifically identifies more than 1,420 film titles and provides topical references to thousands more, and summarizes it all with a comprehensive 2,060-item subject index. “America’s Film Vault” is designed to assist writers, researchers, historians, film and video makers, content producers, genealogists, and others in locating the historically rich, celluloid-based, moving images preserved in the motion picture film holdings of the National Archives.

Tell us something about yourself.

I was born and raised in southern California and graduated from San Diego State University. I joined the Air Force and spent the next 21 years involved in television production and multimedia management. In subsequent years, I opened my own video production company in CA, worked as a video producer-director for a university in AZ, managed a cable channel in MI, and supervised a small media operation in NJ. Today, I manage a multimedia facility in FL. In my spare time, I volunteer as a motion picture film researcher for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and write non-fiction aviation and film history related books and articles. I’m a member of the American Aviation Historical Society, the League of World War I Aviation Historians, and the Military Writers Society of America, among others. Along with my wife and two cats, I live semi-quietly along the Emerald Coast.

What inspired you to write this book?

On the day I discovered the National Archives and Records Service (as it was known back then) in downtown Washington, DC, back in the early 1980s, I found myself being told the “researcher do’s and don’ts” by Charles, one of the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch librarians. Since it was just about closing time, he gave me a quick orientation tour and then passed to me a 32-page booklet and suggested strongly that I read it from cover to cover before I returned. I found the booklet had no real title, but was prepared for the National Archives Conference on the Use of Audiovisual Archives as Original Source Materials and was co-authored by Archives employees Mayfield S. Bray and William T. Murphy in 1972. It proved to be an excellent overview of the motion picture holdings broken down by record groups (RG) and included a short list of featured film subjects and titles for each. The best part was that it was simple and easy to use; if you look inside this RG, you will find films about X, Y, and Z. I used it extensively during my first months of sleuthing around the catalog cards with great success.

Now, fast-forward 25 years. I was packing up the house in preparation for a work-related relocation when I came across the now well-worn copy of the Bray and Murphy booklet. Curious, I contacted the National Archives to see if it had been updated any time since its publication 35 years ago. I was amazed to find out that it had not. “Computerization you know…everything you need to know is on the website,” they said. Over a period of several months, I searched around the site but found nothing that dealt with the general motion picture holdings of the Archives as well as that battered old booklet. I resolved to correct that situation and this book is the result.

How did you publish this book? Why did you decide on that publisher?

Knowing full well that a major publisher wouldn’t take on a manuscript with such a narrow niche, I found a small independent publisher in my town and we made a deal that has benefited both of us.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I decided to become a writer about four years ago when I realized that senior citizenship was fast approaching and I had accumulated a massive amount of knowledge and boxes of research files. I thought about that for a while and figured I had one of two choices to make…take the knowledge to the grave with me or share it all. Obviously, I chose the latter, in book form.

What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?

For me, the hardest part is the lengthy research (years), and making the organization of the book’s layout usable and meaningful for the reader.

How do you do research for your books?

Since my books, so far, center on the motion pictures held in the National Archives located in Washington DC, I do as much on-site research as I can afford. Since I have a full time job traveling to DC becomes somewhat of a challenge. Alternately, I use on-line resources and I also have a film researcher that assists me on occasion.

Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?

I’m reminded every time a book goes to my publisher, that I’m not a good speller (yes, I use spell check) and that I’m not as well organized as I thought.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

I read to relax and escape all the facts cluttering my brain. Books by Clive Cussler or Dale Brown help me do that.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

My next book should be released this summer. It’s titled, “Aerial Aces of the Universal Newsreel, 1929-1931.” The 219 stories featured in this book provide a timeless reference to moving images of the aviation related activities covered during the first three years of the Universal Newspaper Newsreel, as the reel was known back then. All the stories featured in this volume are sorted by year and listed in release order. Below the story title is the notation STORY LINE which provides an overview of the story based on the Universal Newspaper Newsreel Synopsis Sheets.

These single-page flyers were sent to the movie houses of the period to inform theater managers of the action-packed news film coming in the next Universal release. The verbiage is unique and indicative of the dramatic hyperbole of the times. The term ACTION is next and describes, in a summary fashion, the edited film scenes that visually support the story line. A copy of the original narration script is presented in the SCRIPT section, if one survived. Fortunately, most did. Cameraman comments and general historical information is provided in the NOTES area. Lastly, the story’s reel number, length (in seconds), event location, and release date are all logged in the DATA category.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Take the time to learn both. Read! ALOT!!

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

Readers can visit my website at or search for the books at