Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: November 2017

Susan Kouguell Speaks with the ‘MARSHALL’ Screenwriters and Executive Producer

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!
Susan Kouguell speaks with Marshall Executive Producer Chris Bongirne and screenwriters Michael and Jake Koskoff.

“Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.”

                                                                    -Thurgood Marshall

About Marshall

In 1940, long before he sat on the US Supreme Court or claimed victory in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) is a young rabble-rousing attorney for the NAACP. Marshall explores one his greatest challenges in those early days: the case of black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), accused by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of sexual assault and attempted murder.  While most of Marshall’s work is in the south, the Spell case lands him in the wealthy white enclaves of Connecticut, where racism is never far from the surface. Angry picketers and tabloid headlines scream for Spell’s conviction as black servants are fired by their fearful white employers. Marshall’s attempt to fight for his client is stymied by Judge Colin Foster (James Cromwell), who allows him to attend the trial, but not speak. This leaves the defense in the shaky hands of Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), who has no interest in trying this case. Local prosecutor Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens) senses an easy victory. Marshall and Friedman struggle against fear and prejudice — and each other — as they unravel the twisted tale to its shocking conclusion, with their client’s life hanging in the balance. Largely forgotten by history, The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement to come, and informed the legal doctrine of one of America’s greatest jurists.

Executive Producer Chris Bongirne

My interview began with speaking to my longtime filmmaking colleague, Chris Bongirne, who served as executive producer of director Reginald Hudlin‘s very timely and important film.

Chris Bongirne began his filmmaking career as a story editor with New Line Cinema (Nightmare on Elm Street).  He produced Multiple Sarcasms,with Mira Sorvino and Timothy Hutton; Blackout with Michael B. Jordan and Zoe Saldana; The Tenants, based on the Bernard Malamud novel with Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg, and Ordinary Sinner, starring Elizabeth Banks. Major studio work includes Madonna’s directing debut, W.E., and I Am Legend (Warner Brothers) as production supervisor and also co-produced the ultimate big wave surfing flick, In God’s Hands (Sony Pictures). His documentary work includes the PBS film The Central Park Five directed by Ken Burns and with Ric Burns directing on The Pilgrims, The History Of The American Ballet Theater, Death And The Civil War and Into The Deep.

Kouguell: An executive producer credit can have different meanings depending on the project. How do you define your role on Marshall?

Bongirne: One role was to bring in the money, the equity folks. I had people who were looking for a project that already had a director and talent attached so I spoke to my friend Jonathan Sanger  who then spoke to Paula Wagner who had this project. I thought the script was fantastic, but I also thought, ‘How do I convince my investors that this historical piece was going to make money?’ I pulled up the numbers for films like Brooklyn that made money. The investors came in with 9.6 million, and we made the movie for 12 million. (The film looks like it was made for at least triple that money.)

One of the reasons it looks this good is that I scouted everything myself. I got the script in July of 2015, and I was scouting in October. I brought Reggie up in November and then he had to go to produce the Oscars, so I could only speak to him by phone.  When he got off the Oscars in April, we started preproduction and shot the film in May 2016. The shoot was 32 days.

I was also able to assemble an amazing A-list group of award-winning department heads: Costume designer Ruth Carterwho came on board after reading the script. Richard Hoover  who had done 42 with Chadwick. Cinematographer Thomas Sigel  (Usual Suspects, all the X-Men movies) and editor Tom McArdle (Spotlight). We all felt it was a unique experience to be able to make this movie in this time and in this place.

SK: The journey of how the screenplay ended up on the screen is filled with some surprising connections to the real-life characters.

CB:  Paula Wagner (producer) got a call from her college roommate at Carnegie Mellon, Lauren Freidman (an actress), who said, ‘You probably get this all the time, but somebody wrote a script about my dad, would you read it?’ Her father was Sam Friedman. She read the script and said, ‘I can’t make a movie about Sam Friedman, but I can make a movie about Thurgood Marshall and Sam Friedman’.

SK: What was it about the script that drew you in?

CB: I thought it was a fantastic take on a way to do a biopic by taking one case that epitomizes a titan of the legal profession and of the Civil rights movement, and it was all based on a true story. The Steuben case is real and it happened in Greenwich Connecticut. 

Reggie Hudlin, who is big on comic books said: “Thurgood Marshall is about a superhero. I get to tell an origin story. I get to tell a story about a superhero.”

Susan Kouguell speaks with Marshall Executive Producer Chris Bongirne and screenwriters Michael and Jake Koskoff.

(L-R) Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K Brown

On a three-way conference call I spoke with Michael Koskoff (who is based in Connecticut) and his son, Jake (who is based in Los Angeles). Theirs is a unique father-and-son writing partnership whose collaboration benefited not only from their mutual respect and senses of humor, but by incorporating their respective areas of expertise to create the screenplay for Marshall. Michael Koskoff has been a trial lawyer since 1966 with a background in criminal and civil jury trials and major civil rights cases, and his son Jake is a screenwriter in Hollywood whose credits include co-writing the screenplay for Macbeth which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

SUSAN KOUGUELL: Tell me about the evolution of the project.

MICHAEL KOSKOFF: Somebody gave me the story, which was a story I embarrassingly never heard before; it was a footnote to history. A friend suggested we do the screenplay and so after a period of time I got Jake to work with me on it. It was a collaboration.

JAKE KOSKOFF: My dad had been writing screenplays for a couple of years. I think because I didn’t become a lawyer, he decided to become a screenwriter. (They both laugh). I helped him with his two screenplays prior to this, and by the time he got to this one, I was kind of done with it, so I didn’t read it for a while. I was interested in the story, and when I finally got around to reading it, I thought this was interesting because my father’s expertise is on the page. When you get access to that kind of insight it’s hard as a screenwriter not to pounce. It had less to do with him being my father and more to do with his being an expert trial lawyer.

Screenwriter Michael Koskoff

SK: How did your collaboration work? Did you write together or send each other scenes?

MK: If I wrote a scene, Jake would rewrite it, and we would go over it together; we went over everything word by word together. And then he’d do a scene and I would look at it, make my comments, and we would go through it again word by word.

JK: It didn’t start off that way because he wrote the first draft on his own and then I took it and did a rewrite of it on my own and then from that point on, we went through it scene by scene and checked each other’s work.

Honestly, I thought at first going into it was a huge mistake — you just don’t get involved with family writing a screenplay together. Especially father and son. It ended up being as smooth as we possibly could have imagined and wanted it to be.

MK: If any of us felt particularly strongly about a point, the other one would yield.

JK: If any of us had an objection, we found a solution. We didn’t just go with one or the other’s idea we came up with a new idea, which was almost always a better one. Sometimes what can happen when you’re writing with someone you can yield to the other to avoid conflict, but we certainly didn’t have that problem.

SK: Tell me about the adaptation process.

MK: We did not have transcripts of the trial, but we had news articles about the trial because it was covered every day in the press. We had some information from Sam Friedman, and we had some court documents but not all that much from the court. We had notes from Thurgood Marshall that he made during the trial and notes from Sam Friedman. The dialogue we wrote.

JK: All the testimony we wrote.

MK: There were things that were added for dramatic purposes; it’s not a documentary but there were many things that were from the actual accounts that one would suspect were fictional.

JK: Sometimes the truth of the story was almost too much and we had to decide if it was too over the top. For example, in the prosecutor’s final argument, he refers to the defendant as a ‘potential panther wandering the streets ready to attack’ and that was taken from a news article that summarized his final argument. We had to decide if it was too much of a cardboard cut-out type character thing to say. Ultimately we kept that one in, but there were others that we did not.

MK: The facts of the screenplay are true — the defense, the charges, based on all the accounts — all of that is absolutely true. But there were things that occurred in other trials, such as the statement from Walter White where he said, ‘A black man can’t get a fair trial in the United States’ — that did not happen in this case, but it did happen in 1970 when Kingman Brewster (President of Yale University) made that comment, and it was definitely one of the concerns of the NAACP at that time.

JK: It was also a concern of the Koskoffs who were trying cases in the 70s about what happened to the Black Panthers.

Mike and Jake then referred to the case that Mike’s father/Jake’s grandfather tried in 1970 when Kingman Brewster said: “A black man can’t get a fair trial in the United States.”

MK: In my experience defending the Black Panthers, there was the conflict between defending an individual defendant and making a political point. In our film, Marshall says, “I’m concerned with 13 million negroes nationally” and Sam Friedman says, “He’ll get a lot of pleasure out of that when he’s sitting in jail for the rest of his life. That will be very satisfying for the defendant.” That conflict occurs in every political trial and in this film, the guilt or innocence had ramifications beyond the individual.

I was amazed going through the actual records and saw that Marshall wrote down: “I was not actually concerned with Spell as I was with the effect an outcome would have on all of the Negroes who were losing their jobs nationally.”

SK: When screenwriters are adapting material based on a true story, they must get approval to avoid slander and other legal issues. How did this work in your situation?

MK: We tried to get the representatives of the families to get on board and they did. There was never a question with John Marshall (Thurgood Marshall’s son) and Lauren Friedman (Sam Friedman’s daughter). We got to know a lot of family of the principals.

Screenwriter Jake Koskoff

JK: They were entirely supportive of the project throughout. We ended up getting contacted by others too who were tangentially related to the events. We had written a family in the script that Marshall stays with and then we were contacted by the Lancasters; they were the actual family, and as it turned out what we originally wrote was close to the actual family.

MK: They gave us lot of biographical details. Tad Lancaster graduated from Fordham Law School but was never able to practice law in Connecticut.

JK: We were contacted by Eleanor’s stepdaughter who was surprisingly supportive of the film.

SK: The major themes of the film center on race and civil rights. Let’s talk about that in terms of the Marshall and Friedman characters and their black – Jewish alliance.

MF: The work relationship between Marshall and Friedman was fictionalized except we do know that Marshall was not allowed to talk in court; he was not allowed to come in as a full attorney and had to rely on Sam. Most of the interplay was not based on solid information, however that relationship proved to be a significant one in the NAACP defense fund because that was the way they developed. As Marshall says in the screenplay: “I need an army of lawyers like you who are going to be able to fight these battles.” That’s what Marshall went on to do; he created an army of lawyers nationally.

JK: In terms of the broader relevance, we were making it during the Black Lives Matter movement; it was heating up, so at the time it was suddenly very culturally relevant and it feels obviously even more relevant after the election.

MK: We felt it was relevant when we were writing it. But it has proven itself to be more relevant because of what’s going on now in the country.

JK: There was a risk of it being an archaic courtroom drama but especially with what Reggie did with it, and what he did in the last scene with the impactful presence of Trayvon Martin’s parents. (The couple who greet Marshall at a train station at the end of the film are played by the parents of Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager shot to death in 2012 in Florida.)

MK: This was not in the script.

SK: One of the biggest challenges of writing a biopic is capturing a person’s life in a feature film. The film centers on the court case, but we do learn a lot about Marshall through his relationship with his wife; there were a number of subplot points that gave a clear indication of who he was and what was going on his life.

MK: Characters reveal themselves in very meaningful ways and we see this in how Marshall handled this case.

JK: We didn’t sit down to write a script about Thurgood Marshall; it was the case that interested us. It was Marshall who we found so wonderfully compelling. He was so charismatic, obnoxious, courageous. When you are gifted that as traits for a character, you pounce on it.

Marshall is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Highlights from the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By Conference NY by Susan Kouguell (for SCRIPT Magazine)

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

The Produced By Conference was held October 28, 2017 at the Time Warner Center in New York City. Here are a few of the highlights from the day’s events.

The Power to Shake it Up

Script shares the highlights from some of the top panels at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By Conference in New York City.

In this panel moderated by moderated by Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the media, diversity & social change initiative at USC Annenberg, the discussion focused on ways to increase the representation of women both behind and in front of the camera. Panel participants included PGA president Lori McCreary (who discussed her behind the scenes work through Revelations Entertainment, her production company she co-founded with actor Morgan Freeman) and actors Jessica Chastain and Sarah Jessica Parker along with the presidents of their production companies Kelly Carmichael and Alison Benson.

Jessica Chastain stated that she started her company, Freckle Films because she felt like she was part of a problematic industry. “Sometimes I think with anything that’s happening, we don’t acknowledge the fact that we’re complicit in our inaction, that goes across many areas.” Expressing the need to move beyond the status quo for hiring women, she explained: “If we’re asking for a list of directors and a list of writers from an agency, in most cases you get a list and it’s all men and you have to kind of go beyond that. Men traditionally are paid more than women, and agents make more money when someone that has a higher quote gets a job. So we need to go beyond what the agents submit and find the artists because they are out there.”

Freckle Films’ President of Production and Development Kelly Carmichael stated: “It’s all about the research and the outreach and opening ourselves up to say, ‘This is our mandate.’ And, ‘Who are the writers in New York? Who are the directors in New York?’ Bring them in, let me sit down with them and having that openness is really important. It’s up to us to say we’re going to put our power behind this person because we believe in them. You have to lock arms because otherwise that same cycle will just continue.”

Chastain offered the example of finding Laura Terruso, who is directing a movie for Freckle Films, from seeing her name in the credits as the co-screenwriter for Hello, My Name Is Doris and then researching her work.

President of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Pretty Matches Productions, Alison Benson, said they rely on word of mouth from other women in the industry, including fellow female producers, as well as authors and comedians in New York, and she shares those names with others.

Benson (who along with Parker is an Executive Producer for HBO’s Divorce) talked about exceeding their mandates for women on set. “This year on Divorce, we had more female than male directors. It was incredibly female behind the scenes in terms of the writers room and department heads. It’s not just about filling the minimum of those mandates. It’s about exceeding that expectation.”

Chastain and Parker’s companies are working to increase the diversity in their projects to include underrepresented women, and specifically in Chastain’s case, indigenous women. Carmichael added that their company isn’t necessarily only seeking material for Chastain but they are acquiring books and looking to produce other stories for an underserved audience, including minorities and women of a certain age.

Chastain commented about the characters she portrays, stating she always wants “to move away from a stereotype, an old-fashioned idea of what a woman is.” She added: “I’m really interested in finding well-written female characters that I see in my everyday life. I’m very interested in women in history. I want young girls to know that there were many before them and it’s our destiny to widen the paths for those in the future.”


Regarding screenplay descriptions of female characters Chastain said “I want to get rid of superficial qualifiers such as ‘beautiful, 5’2’, 110 pounds’. These are things that are normal in scripts when they describe a woman in terms of something that’s not important at all. If you read the script, you have an idea of who the woman is. So we’re removing all of that stuff.”

Sarah Jessica Parker talked about the challenge she had pitching the character of the wife she plays on Divorce. Many of the male executives needed to be convinced that this woman could be multi-dimensional, and “they were very concerned that she was not likeable.”

Creating a Safe Space in Film, Pre-production and Production

Script shares the highlights from some of the top panels at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By Conference in New York City.

Christine Vachon

In the Producers’ Masterclass: The Power of Creative Collaboration Part I moderated by Bruce Cohen, the discussion centered around ways to move forward in a safe space in film, pre-production and production.

Producer Peter Spears  (Call Me By Your Namestated: “There are a lot of intimate moments in this movie.  When we were shooting that, there was always a consciousness of how to do it in a way that was respectful of their creativity but also their privacy. We wanted the film to have a sensuality about it, to be sexual, but also how to do that in a way that was respectful of the artists.”

Killer Films producer Christine Vachon, who has worked with director Todd Haynes  for 30 years, and most recently on Wonderstruck stated:  “It’s a big question. We make sure that the actors know that I’m there. Sometimes they’d rather talk to me than the director, because I’m female or maybe they’re a little nervous about the director, so I try to establish those lines of communication early and often. We’re not just talking about the actors; we’ve also examined our practices in the past few weeks. We’re a very female-run company (Killer Films) and it doesn’t happen very often, but it has happened where people come up and make complaints, and we’ve dealt with them as quickly and effectively as possible. I think producers keep their eye on the ground to be sure there’s no real toxicity happening. Even though we’ve made progress having more women department heads and more women DPs on our films, most film sets are mostly male. It’s just still the way it is.”

Graham Broadbent, producer of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Mississippi (the film stars Frances McDormand in a story about racism and violence towards women) responded to how he approaches these issues both on and off camera. “These weeks made it very contemporary. I produce films because I like stories and I want the stories to be made. You want to make sure everyone feels included, happy and embraced. But there’s a tone you set that comes from the senior people on the film about what’s alright and what’s not alright. And I wouldn’t sit around a place that isn’t alright.”

Producers’ Masterclass: The Power of Creative Collaboration, Part 2

Script shares the highlights from some of the top panels at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By Conference in New York City.

Charles D. King

Script shares the highlights from some of the top panels at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By Conference in New York City.

Griffin Dunne

Moderated by Bruce Cohen, the panel included Mudbound (which I recently wrote about for this publication) director Dee Rees  and her producer Charles D. King who talked about their collaboration, which began years earlier when King represented Rees, and the trust they formed in each other’s vision and work ethics.

Director and Producer Griffin Dunne and his editor Ann Collins (co-producer and editor of director Lara Stolman’s documentary Swim Team (see my interview for this publication) discussed their documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which currently is on Netflix and the importance of collaboration and sharing ideas.

Dunne, who is Joan Didion’s nephew, explained that his inspiration for his documentary came when he realized that there has never been a documentary about the author made with her consent. “I pushed my luck and I asked and she said, she’s a woman of few words, and she said, ‘Uhh, okay.’” What I wanted to do was make a documentary that traced her life as a wife and a mother and what she was writing about and what was going on in the country and extend that all the way through.”

Susan Kouguell Speaks to Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger About ‘Intent to Destroy’ (for SCRIPT Magazine)

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Joe Berlinger

From a filmmaking standpoint, it was incredibly challenging to tell a complicated, historical story in an interesting manner and to juggle three different threads – the complex history of the Armenian Genocide, the production of a long-suppressed major feature that deploys the Genocide as its backdrop, and finally the aftermath of the genocide and legacy of denial.

– Joe Berlinger

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception. It is powerful and timely, and a must-see.


Academy Award® nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger is a two-time Emmy, and Peabody winner. He has received multiple awards from the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards. Berlinger’s work includes the landmark documentaries BROTHER’S KEEPERPARADISE LOSTMETALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTERCRUDEUNDER AFRICAN SKIESWHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER, HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK, and TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU. He has directed and produced five seasons of the critically acclaimed Sundance Channel series ICONOCLASTS and directed/executive-produced the first two seasons of the Emmy-nominated MASTER CLASS, a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Berlinger’s multiple Emmy-winning PARADISE LOST series for HBO helped spawn a worldwide movement to free “The West Memphis Three” from wrongful murder convictions. The latest film in the trilogy, PARADISE LOST 3:  PURGATORY was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 and two primetime Emmy awards.

ABOUT INTENT TO DESTROY: Death, Denial & Depiction

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.Joe Berlinger embeds with a historic feature film production on the set of Terry George’s The Promise, to take an unwavering look at the Armenian Genocide. Historians, scholars, and high-profile filmmakers come together in Berlinger’s cinematic exploration of the tangled web of responsibility that has driven a century of denial by the Turkish government and its strategic allies. Intent to Destroy is a timely reckoning with the large-scale suppression of a historical tragedy. Berlinger confronts the fraught task of shedding light on the Armenian Genocide — whose witnesses and descendants are still fighting to be officially acknowledged as such by the international community — how it was carried out during World War I as the reign of the Ottoman Empire drew to a close, and how it laid the groundwork for the genocides that followed.

KOUGUELL: How did you get involved with this film?

BERLINGER: I was always fascinated about the subject of the Armenian genocide but never thought I had anything to add because I’m not a historical, talking-head, archival-footage, kind of filmmaker. I follow stories that unfold in the present tense, which by definition means you’re not writing them. But, with director Terry George’s The Promise; it presented an opportunity to drill into the subject matter that I’ve always been fascinated by. I thought here’s a way to still allow me to work in my comfort zone, which is unfolding cinéma vérité by covering the making of the movie, but it wasn’t just gratuitous behind the scenes. The other reason I wanted to cover The Promise was, to me, the making of the film was quite historic because over the years this subject matter has been taboo in Hollywood.

Thematically, I wanted to make a film not just about the Armenian genocide, because that has been done before, but to me what was interesting was the denial and the mechanism of denial and the aftermath of denial, and that is perfectly expressed through the following of the making The Promise; it allowed me to tell the story that over the years Hollywood has always treated the subject as a taboo.

As early as 1935, Irving Thalberg wanted to turn The Forty Days of Musa Dagh into a film and during production, the Turkish government complained to the State Department and the State Department then twisted the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project and that’s been the vibe for eight decades. Nobody has wanted to tackle the subject because every time they do they get a complaint. That kind of censorship in Hollywood encapsulates the century-long campaign to sweep this story under the rug.

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Director Joe Berlinger (right) and Director of Photography Bob Richman (left) with Director Terry George on the set of The Promise. Photo courtesy of Survival Pictures, LLC. Photo credit: Jose Haro.


KOUGUELL: Tell me about your writing process. Did you work from an outline?

BERLINGER: We wrote up the research and the direction we were headed in. You have to understand your subject matter. For me, present tense cinéma vérité is the opposite of writing the film, however this film was rich in history, and a complicated history at that, and the real challenge of this film was to simplify the history but still be accurate.

We didn’t write down the dialogue or what people were going to say, we would never do that, but we certainly wrote much more than I usually do. We wrote the kind of direction the film should take.

The following of The Promise was its own thing that I treated like any cinéma vérité situation where I just follow the story and brought all that footage back. Then we had to consider how to integrate the behind the scenes footage and how to do that with the unfolding history. It became quickly apparent to me that the history was more important than the behind the scenes because I didn’t want this film to be dismissed or thought of as a massive EPK (electronic press kit) behind the scenes gratuitous exercise. It was a vehicle to deliver the history.  That’s when we started writing; what are all the historical beats, how do we structure it, which I had never done before for a documentary because of the style of documentary that I make. That’s when we came up with the idea to divide it into three chapters: Death, Denial, Depiction, and write what we needed to tell the historical beats.

Any film is a process of condensation. This history is so complex and its integration with the cinéma vérité material of the behind the scenes of The Promise, we wrote an outline, got the interview subjects to address the subjects, but clearly in their own words. I would never tell an interview subject what to say. We knew the types of things we wanted from each of the interview subjects because we had a very extensive outline of what we were trying to achieve.

Archaeologists excavate Armenian dead from mass graves. Photo courtesy of Armenian Genocide Museum Institute

KOUGUELL:  You made an interesting choice to include the genocide deniers in your film.  How open were they to talk to you and appear in the film?

BERLINGER: All were very wary about agreeing to participate in the film.  I convinced them that I wanted to cover both sides of the story and be fair to their point of view. I was also very honest about where I stand on the subject; that I shake out on the other side, and to go look at my previous films. I wanted to show both sides and let the audence decide what they think about it. Several people required multiple conversations to convince them to be in the film; I think they felt it was better to participate than not participate. I think their points of view were expressed without me throwing them under the bus, but clearly my point of view rises to the top, which is that I think there was genocide.

I didn’t want to make a movie just about the genocide; I wanted to make a movie about denial. I think you have to hear from others who think it wasn’t genocide because once you understand what their arguments are and the nature of their arguments, and the fact that these arguments exist, it’s easier to understand how denial works.

Some holocaust and genocide scholars pleaded with me not to include the denial arguments in the film, because there’s a certain philosophy among holocaust and genocide scholars that you can’t give a platform to those who deny.  I was asked by a scholar, would you include the denial argument in a film about the holocaust and my answer is, if it is a film about the holocaust — no, but if it was a film about holocaust denial then I would say yes.

The film will be released in NY and LA on November 10th and then will expand.  Learn more here.