Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

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Join Susan’s online class ‘Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script Thursday, February 15

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

In this workshop, writers will learn all the key elements to a successful “episodic spec,” and will receive ongoing instructor guidance in building their own—from basic idea through finished outline. It begins with knowing how to choose the right kind of show to spec, then understanding which elements to study, in order to really grasp how a typical episode functions well enough to write one. Students will then learn the elements of great story ideas for a spec, and be given a chance to pitch and re-pitch multiple ideas for their episode, before finally settling on one to write. At that point, they will begin “breaking story” (figuring out the key “beats” of each “act”) over several weeks, getting instructor feedback along the way. Finally, they will be guided in crafting a scene-by-scene outline, from which they could then go on to write the actual script.

Next session:

February 15 – April 5

Susan’s online ‘THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING’ starts February 8


This four-week class is the perfect introduction to the world of writing a script, from the fundamentals of the story down to the revision process. In this course, you will gain the tools to structure your scenes, your acts, and your plots.
At each step, you will receive comprehensive feedback on assignments targeted to develop the skills needs to thrive as a screenwriter.
The lessons in this course include video instruction.



Susan’s Online ‘Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop’ starts February 1

Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop at Screenwriters University

This ten-week workshop is broken up into five sessions that each focus on individual elements of the rewriting process. Each session, you will submit a section of your screenplay for review. Each session will also have focused lectures that help you on each step of your revision process. The lectures are there for support, but the focus of this workshop will be on your screenplay. Each session, you will submit to your instructor for private review, and also you can submit to the other workshop participants for peer review.

February 1 – April 12, 2018


Susan’s Online Class runs 2/1/18 – 3/1/18

Writing the Series Bible: Developing Your TV Series

A strong series bible is a crucial sales tool for your series. This workshop will help you get your TV series ready for an executive by developing your series premise, honing your pilot, and writing your series bible.

What You’ll Learn:

  • The top tools for selling a TV series.

  • What a TV series needs before it can get off the ground.

  • How to write a series bible.

  • The key elements of a pilot that can launch a series.

  • What a first season needs.

Who Should Take This Course:

  • Writers developing a TV show.

  • Writers looking for tools to generate ideas for new episodes.

  • Writers who want to understand how to develop series long story arcs.

  • Writers wanting to put together a sales kit for their TV series.

    Next session:

    February 1 – March 1

Join my ‘Writing the Series Bible: Developing Your TV Series’ Online Class January 4

Writing the Series Bible: Developing Your TV Series

A strong series bible is a crucial sales tool for your series. This workshop will help you get your TV series ready for an executive by developing your series premise, honing your pilot, and writing your series bible.

What You’ll Learn:

  • The top tools for selling a TV series.

  • What a TV series needs before it can get off the ground.

  • How to write a series bible.

  • The key elements of a pilot that can launch a series.

  • What a first season needs.

Who Should Take This Course:

  • Writers developing a TV show.

  • Writers looking for tools to generate ideas for new episodes.

  • Writers who want to understand how to develop series long story arcs.

  • Writers wanting to put together a sales kit for their TV series.

    Next session:

    January 4 – February 1

Susan Kouguell Interviews “I, Tonya” Editor Tatiana S. Riegel

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I, Tonya is a biopic quite like no other.

The film is a portrait of one of the most controversial figures in sports history, and follows Tonya Harding’s story from her abusive childhood to her shocking figure-skating career, all the while maintaining a tone that strikes a careful balance between pitch-black comedy and real-life tragedy.

Tatiana S. Riegel

I had the pleasure to speak with Tatiana S. Riegel, the editor of I, Tonyain a wide-ranging discussion about her long-time collaboration with director Craig Gillespie, balancing the film’s complex moving parts, setting a pace for the ambitious story while giving both the drama and the humor room to shine, and much more.

Riegel previously edited Gillespie’s last four features: Lars and The Real GirlFright Night and The Finest Hour. Tatiana has also worked as editor on some of the most original independent comedies of the past few years, including Bad WordsThe Men Who Stare At Goats and The Way Way Back.

I Tonya has been nominated for many awards, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for the 2018 Golden Globes.


Upon its completion, screenwriter Steven Rogers‘ script began circulating in Hollywood, eventually appearing on the 2016 Black List and placing number one on the Hit List, The Tracking Board’s influential compendium of the year’s most highly regarded spec scripts. After months of industry heat, it caught the attention of actress-producer Margot Robbie‘s company LuckyChap who sought it out as a starring vehicle for the in-demand star, in keeping with the company’s mission to develop and produce projects with a strong female perspective. Robbie, Ackerley and producing partner Bryan Unkeless warmed to Rogers’ script on numerous levels, determined to find the right director who could bring the project to life. Ironically, Robbie was unfamiliar with the Harding/Kerrigan story, initially believing I, Tonya to be a fictional story.


Based on the unbelievable, but true events, I, Tonya is a darkly comedic tale of American figure skater, Tonya Harding, and one of the most sensational scandals in sports history. Though Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, her legacy was forever defined by her association with an infamous, ill-conceived, and even more poorly executed attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan. Featuring an iconic turn by Margot Robbie as the fiery Harding, a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as her impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and a tour-de-force performance from Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, LaVona Golden, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is an absurd, irreverent, and piercing portrayal of Harding’s life and career in all of its unchecked–– and checkered––glory.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

KOUGUELL: You’ve collaborated with director Craig Gillespie on several other films.

RIEGEL: This is the sixth time I’ve worked with Craig. We have a great collaboration. We complement each other in different areas; you need that in the editing room; you need that healthy banter. We have the same aesthetic regarding tone, emotion and comedy, and we both like films that navigate both of those. The first film I worked with him on was Lars and the Real Girl which is nothing like I, Tonya but in some ways very similar in terms of the crazy dance between emotion and comedy with a peculiar yet very emotional subject matter.

SK: How long was the editing process?

TSR: Beginning to end it was nine months. The shoot was 31 days from mid-January to the beginning of March. Craig and I went to New York for six months of post-production.

SK: Were you cutting as they were shooting?

TSR: Yes, I always do. As soon as we get dailies, which is the day after they start shooting, my assistant prepares them and I jump in right away. Then what I try to do is cut scenes and send them back to the director quickly; sometimes every day, sometimes a couple of times a week, sometimes once a week, depending on how much material we’re getting. The director gets a chance to see scene by scene everything and then he can see how scenes are transitioning from one scene to the next; this allows a dialogue between us to make sure we’re on the same page. With Craig, it’s very easy because I’m very familiar with him. Then they can see if they got the coverage and tone they wanted, and adjustments can be made by me or on the set. By the time they come in to see the first assembly they’ve pretty much seen the whole movie, so there’s no great shock.

Margot Robbie and Craig Gillespie on the set

SK: Do you refer directly to the shooting script?

TSR: Absolutely. In the same way I try not to go on the set when they’re shooting, I try not to spend too much time with the script. Obviously, I refer back to it to see where we’re coming from and where we’re going to. If I notice slightly different line readings from the actors I might go back to the script to see what was originally written. I try to stay away from it a bit because I feel the editor is sort of the only person who is the audience member attached to the movie; everybody else has been through various script rewrites, casting, location scouting – all these pre-production steps. I get to look at it and see if I am reacting to this emotionally, story wise, geographically, etc. If I’m looking at it and I’m confused about the geography of a room, a performance, and so on, I try to hold on to my initial thoughts of dailies as long as I possibly can through the process. I try to stay an audience member for as long as possible.

I didn’t watch too much of the documentary footage of the real Tonya Harding that the writer watched, which motivated him to write the script, I intentionally didn’t watch it, sort of for the same reason I didn’t want to go to the set. I need to react to the movie and not to what I want the movie to be.

SK: The film powerfully utilizes several devices, including breaking the fourth wall and voiceovers. Devices like these can often take the viewer out of a film, but in in I Tonya, it further enhanced the drama and comedic moments.

TSR: The film has three different parts: the on-camera interviews, the voiceover and breaking the fourth wall. That dialogue was written into the script as interviews or voiceover. All of that was basically structured as interviews in the script. Craig brought the breaking the fourth wall to the film; it was not written into the script.

One of the things I was worried about from a visual aspect was that there would be a lot of talking heads. What I find so interesting in the editorial process is you can read a beautiful script and you can’t think of one thing you would do to adjust it, but when it goes on film, suddenly certain things can become unclear and other things can become redundant. You then have to go through and rework that script to a new form, which is this new visual and audio form, and then fix those things which are either redundant or not clear.

Craig saw a documentary interview with Tonya when she was actually only 15-years old. She was talking about the abuse in a very detached matter-of-fact way; that was her form of survival I suspect. It really struck him. Craig and I talked about it a lot and this is how he came up with the idea of breaking the fourth wall in those very violent sequences where she turns and talks to the audience. It shows, in this subconscious way, this detachment, and that she survived. In fact, a lot of it is told from the 45-year-old Tonya point of view looking back on it so there is a subconscious survival and detachment and lack of emotion that allows the audience to think she’s not in that much jeopardy right now because we know she survives.

Allison Janey as LaVona Golden

SK: The violence in the film informed Tonya’s character and was not gratuitous.

TSR: We had many discussions about this. Craig shot it both ways. There’s a lot of hard, serious violence in the film, and he didn’t want to sugarcoat any of that. He talked a lot about it with the writer and producers, and with Margot. He felt it was very important not to shy away from that as difficult as it is. It is what informs Tonya’s character and gets her to the place she is with this cycle of abuse from her mother to her husband and why people keep going back to abusive spouses.

SK: I Tonya underscores Mark Twain’s adage: Truth is stranger than fiction. The tone in the film is consistently powerful, as it balances drama and comedy.

TSR: With Lars and the Real Girl, Craig and I would say, we’re walking this fine line and five degrees in either direction will be a disaster. That was also the challenge in I, Tonya. With the comedic moments, it allowed us a dramatic break. Like in real life, you’re laughing and crying at the same time with horrible situations. The comedy allowed a little relief from all the brutality.

SK: The film integrates actual footage of Tonya Harding and other characters so seamlessly.

TSR: Obviously Tonya Harding was a phenomenal skater, and although Margot Robbie is a fantastic skater and trained a lot, she is not a professional skater and she did not do those big jumps, or extreme speed, so Craig had to come up with a way to use a double and use head and face replacements.

There are five big skating sequences, and we really wanted each one to have its own personality. The first one, with the ZZ Top music, she’s younger and much more aggressive, cocky. Someone before her is skating to Four Seasons and then she comes out dancing to ZZ Top. This is exactly the issue she had with the skating federation; she didn’t fit into that mold. And we wanted that sequence to be like her; very aggressive, fast. There are some seamless transitions, slight of eye type things we did to transfer from Tonya to the double and back again.

As the sequences progressed to the one in Lillehammer, it is actually sometimes her and sometimes a double, it is all done in one shot, so again we had these seamless transitions back and forth, which is a much more tense situation with the crowds stomping their feet, the shoelace issue – all of that is told in one shot to build that tension and emotion. The other sequences have their own personality as well. There were under 100 face replacement shots. It’s a small budget movie, so we didn’t have an endless supply of time and money to do this.

At the end of the movie, we have also some real footage, which starts with the real Tonya Harding skating, and that came about in a very interesting way. There was no title sequence written into the film, and in fact, the original film had a slightly different ending. We ended up ending spoiler alert*** (with the boxing sequence). First of all, it was really fun to cut, but to me, metaphorically, she just gets up again, which is the story of Tonya Harding, she just keeps going, she gets knocked down and she gets up. It is such a harsh, brutal scene.

In every screening we had, people were asking if this was real. ‘Is that bodyguard real with what he said,’ and we would say yes, and we got tired of saying, ‘yes, go look it up’. So we thought we would put that in the end. Craig and I had done two biopics prior to this, Final Hours and Million Dollar Arm where we had real footage, and we didn’t want to do it because we had already done it twice. The one thing we didn’t want to do was break the emotion of what was happening right then with the real people so we saved those for the crawl, and put in Tonya skating, which to me, juxtaposed with what we’ve just seen; we’ve seen the real Tonya Harding and how unbelievable fantastic she was as a skater and the pure joy on her face, right after seeing her pummeled in this boxing sequence.

SK: What was striking about the film is that it left open the question of Tonya Harding’s guilt or innocence, and how much she knew about the “incident.”

TSR: I think, honestly, no one really knows. This film is based on their interviews and their stories and they’re sticking to them, and they contradict each other. Tonya, to this day, denies any involvement more than what she admits to, which is knowing after the fact. And Jeff has another point of view, and other people have a different point of view. This was not a film to solve the mystery.

It was a challenge to have most of the people walk into the theatre thinking Tonya Harding is the villain because that was what we were told then and for most of her career. And maybe not the villain but the girl from the wrong side of the tracks; she didn’t fit in with the image that the skating federation wanted, all the way up to her being the villain in that situation, and in the last 25 years that’s where she lived in the minds of most people.

The challenge of the movie, and what I thought was really interesting, is for people to walk out of the theatre and think, maybe I judged her a little too harshly and didn’t know the whole story. Whatever you believe about her participation is up to the individual person but one of our early screenings someone said, ‘I thought she was the bad guy for the last 25 years and now I feel guilty’ and Craig and I looked at each and said, ‘Yes, we got it.’ I think it’s a very interesting place for all of us with everything that happens in the media to not just go with the simple soundbites of what they tell you, you need to do a little more research to understand more. Things are never as simple as they seem.

I, TONYA is now playing in select cities.

Susan Kouguell Speaks with ‘UNREST’ Documentary Director Jennifer Brea and Producer Lindsey Dryden

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The feature documentary Unrest is poignant and personal, and educational without being didactic. It is indeed a personal journey about Jennifer Brea and approaches a medical mystery with an examination of science and medicine that is accessible and gripping. One of the most striking elements of this documentary is that one does not need to be directly affected with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome), to appreciate this film.
When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

I had the opportunity to interview director Jennifer Brea via Skype and meet producer Lindsey Dryden in person. They were so generous with their time; their passion, not only about educating viewers about ME but also how the film evolved, the specifics about the writing process, collaboration, fundraising, and more, underscored their generosity of spirit.

About UNREST and Jennifer Brea

Jennifer Brea is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She has an AB
from Princeton University and was a PhD student at Harvard, until sudden illness left her bedridden. In the aftermath, she rediscovered her first love, film. An activist for invisible disabilities and chronic illness, she co-founded a global advocacy network, #MEAction and is a TED Talker.

Jennifer Brea was 28 and working on her PhD at Harvard and months away from marrying the love of her life when she gets a mysterious fever that leaves her bedridden and looking for answers. Disbelieved by doctors yet determined to live, she turns her camera on herself and discovers a hidden world of millions confined to their homes and bedrooms by ME. At its core, Unrest is a love story. Together, Jen and her new husband, Omar, must find a way to build a life and fight for a cure.

‘What happens when you have a disease doctors can’t diagnose?’

Jennifer gave the highest-rated talk at the 2016 TED Summit in Banff, Canada, the first ever TED Talk about ME. It launched in January 2017 and has been viewed more that 1 million times and translated into more than 25 languages.

Awards for Unrest include a Special Jury Prize for editing (Sundance Film Festival), Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, (River Run) Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature (Nashville Film Festival and Illuminate Award (Sheffield Doc/Fest). Unrest also has a companion VR piece which premiered at Tribeca and won the Jury Award for best VR at Sheffield/DocFest.

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Brea with her husband Omar

Interview via Skype with Jennifer Brea

KOUGUELL:  Tell me about your writing process for this film. How did you determine the structure for the film and did you work from any type of script or outline?

BREA:  There are three layers of writing in this film: there is the actual story structure that is essentially the collaging of found words; the scripting of the dialogue from interviews or the dialogue that’s happening in scenes; and the voiceover that can be written over and over again. We didn’t have a script per se, but it started with a storyboard. I knew the structure of the film even before we started shooting.

Brea went on to discuss seeing Debora Hoffman’s multi-character documentary Long Night’s Journey Into Day and how it influenced the structure of Unrest. (Hoffman is also an executive producer of Unrest.)

BREA: I found it worked so well because rather than spending a lot of time trying to figure out who everyone was and trying to connect with them, you’ve already had the chance to really spend time with them in their specific world, before moving on.

We knew that my story was going to be the through line and glue, and figuring out what that meant took many months and iterations. The way the film works is that the stories are ordered by tragedy in a way, ordered to create a rising action and rising complication. We always asked ourselves: ‘Why is this story in the film?’ ‘Why and where is Jen in this moment in the evolution of her overall arc?’  With the other writing, I would write some very bad temp lines that editor Kim Roberts could cut to and based on what she cut, I rewrote, and once we laid down music then that would change things. As we added different layers, we kept rewriting again and again.

SK:  Unrest opens up the conversation not only about ME but also patients with chronic illnesses and the response by medical practitioners without finger-pointing.

JB: I wanted to create a film that could start a broader conversation and that could reach beyond the patient community; that meant a lot of different things the way we were telling the story.

When I see documentaries that are polemic, they can play a role in mobilizing people who already agree with you and people who are already prone to be mobilized. That can be a fine goal, but for me with ‘Unrest’ and my own sensibilities, I wanted to leave some room for the audience to interpret the film and come to their own conclusions about what certain things mean or what should be done.

It’s a delicate balance. I’ve seen observational films about social issues that dip into a world and don’t give you any context, and it’s frustrating. I want to see what is actually happening; it’s not enough just to know it happens yet at the same time there can be too much taking the viewer’s hand by saying, this is what you need to think about. I didn’t want to do either. I wanted to have a point of view, which the film has, but also leaves some room for interpretation.

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Ruby and Jessica

Brea and I discussed the story that takes place in Denmark and how Brea approached Per Fink, one of the subjects of the film whose vocal oppositional of the ME diagnosis offers another side of the medical debate.

BREA: We asked Per Fink: What did he think was a fair representation of himself?  What is it that he truly thinks? We didn’t need to alter it or distort it; we could just have him speak for himself. That is what we tried to do in every situation to let people speak for themselves and tell what we thought was the truth about whatever everyone’s prospective was on their lives.

SK: You successfully found a balance incorporating several devices (voice-over narration, cinéma vérité, and interviews) which can be over-utilized or distracting in many documentaries. Each device you used had a reason to be there. Let’s talk about this.

JB: The question for me was how do you use it and use it intentionally and for what reason. I knew that things needed to be explained, otherwise people would get lost in a way that would detract from the film. The narration is about bringing you inside this internal space that would have been impossible to access otherwise.

When it comes to the interviews with other subjects, they are not talking head interviews. They are actually very intimate conversations with me, so it is very motivated; that is the way I’m able to connect remotely with people. What I’m asking them is not just to reveal their own lives; I’m asking them to reveal their lives for the purpose to try to understand what is happening to me. So everything is related back to me, the structure to the film.

Each of the stories has its own set tone. It’s very easy to make Ron Davis’s story a kind of science mystery story, it was easy to make Karina Hansen’s story a kind of thriller –each story had its own genre set point and that would never have worked. Trying to find a tone for each of these very different stories in order to have them feel that they were part of the same film was one of the big challenges. What made it work is that every time we were coming back to that well of the personal; the why and the intention, and the why do we need to be here question.

Script EXTRA: Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger and ‘Intent to Destroy’ 

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Jen and Omar

Final Words

JB: I started off very angry before making the film, fueling the investigation. I started over time to eventually forgive and empathize with doctors and ended up on the side of it. Doctors haven’t been given the tools and training to properly handle this illness. What doctors’ practice is from the education they receive. The system is failing fundamentally. Most people do the best they can.

I met with Lindsey Dryden at a café near the Jacob Burns Film Center; the night before she presented a Q & A following the screening of Unrest at the Burns Center.

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Lindsey Dryden


An award-winning Creative Producer and Director, and founder of Little By Little Films, Dryden began her career in British TV documentaries (BBC, Channel 4, History Channel) before moving into independent films for cinema. Her acclaimed work as a Director includes Lost and Sound (SXSW) and Close Your Eyes And Look At Me (True/False), and as a Producer Little Ones (nominated for a producing award at Underwire) and Unrest (Sundance). She makes intimate, warm and surprising films about the body and the arts, most recently for Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. A recent Filmmaker-In-Residence at JBFC, and a Fellow of Guiding Lights, IFP and HotDocs Forum, she is also a Lecturer in Film.

KOUGUELL: How did you come to work with Jen?

DRYDEN: I’ve worked with Jen now for about 3 ½ years. My background is as a director and producer in the UK. I work often on films about the body; I’m interested in the human body, the female body, how they change and the unexpected things that can happen and how one copes with that. Jen was looking for a co-producer to work on the UK story with Jessica, the young woman in the film. She contacted various documentary organizations and festivals, and I think it was the Sheffield Documentary festival, which is our biggest documentary festival, who recommended me to her.

Jen had already done an extraordinary amount of work on her own and with a small team. She did a Kickstarter; she set out to raise $50K to make this film and raised over $200K. She realized there is a huge audience waiting for this story and so she was able to expand her team.

SK: Tell me about the filmmaking process and how the film evolved.

LD: Jen would shoot one day a month and the rest of the month she would be in bed recovering from that one day. She started using this amazing system where she could be in her bed and she could film people using Skype, so we would mount a teleprompter underneath the lens, and it would reflect Jen’s face onto the lens so when people looked at the camera they could see her; she could be anywhere in the world, and in her case, it was in bed. She started interviewing people that way.

Jen had a really strong vision for the film and the story, and the approach from the very beginning. I came on board because I saw a filmmaker who never made a film before, but she absolutely knew what she was doing and had huge skills as a director. I had a lot of faith about where the story was going and a lot of people felt the same way. Sundance came on board early on with development money. The Kickstarter campaign demonstrated to other parties that there was a real story here and that combined with Jen as a presence, she is a force that is undeniable.

Can a person with this type of disability make a film, and the answer is always yes. And it grew; Ruth Ann Harnish was one of the earliest people who gave financial support.

SK: The credit of producer can be defined in different ways. In your case, how would you define your role on this film?

LD: I would define myself as a creative producer. My role is a lot about relationships with contributors, with subjects, identifying an amazing team and crew to work with, and leading that crew when we are filming in the field, as fellow Producer Patricia E. Gillespie did with the film’s North American stories, and as Co-Producer Anne Troldtoft Hjorth did in Denmark. Then it’s leading negotiations when it comes to who we want to work with and how much we can afford, and finding good fits with Jen as a director, like editors and composers. It’s also about making special, impossible things happen, like getting a hospital to allow us to put lights, cameras and cinematographers in their therapy pool!

Also, the part that I love is the editorial shaping of the film that develops over time. There’s a constant rewriting in documentary: This is where we are, this is where we hope to be. Okay, this is where we are now, this is where we’re going to go next, and that process.

My role wasn’t particularly connected to fundraising, which people often assume is a producer’s only job. Jen is the most extraordinary fundraiser and also a producer of the film herself. My role was also about distribution strategy – that’s kind of my baby. Traditionally, you might hand over a film to a distributor when it’s finished, and they hopefully do what they say they’ll do with it, but every strand of distribution is so different and our audience is so specific and important to us, and there are political sensitivities in the countries we are campaigning in. We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to hand over that to one company who may only specialise in one area.

We did a lot of festivals around the world and a theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco in September, and the UK in October, and now it’s on iTunes, Amazon, and it will be broadcast on PBS in January 2018. What’s so great about that is that we’ll be able to do screening parties. We can engage with audiences who are home, and connect them with other audiences in other homes, and for a film like this and a community like this, who are often bed bound or homebound, that’s very exciting.

SK: Tell me about your unique collaboration and writing process.

LD: So much we did was remote and that process is certainly challenging. We started with Emiliano Battistaanan editor in the UK, and they were editing remotely together.

Jen always had a strong vision for the stories. The stories make sense because they were always answering questions that Jen was asking about her own life and her own experience. So you have that narrative spine of Jen’s experience changing over time; her questions, her needs, her relationships shifting, those questions and needs naturally leading to the people she talked to and got close to, who became the main characters. They were in place from very early on.

The writing process happened most intensely between Jen and editor Kim Roberts, and also our amazing creative advisor and executive producer Debbie Hoffmann, who also has ME. What’s incredible about Debbie is the narrative contribution she made and support she gave Jen from the very beginning; she was the first person on board, and you can’t really beat editorial experience like that. That would involve her at home on Skype, us in our various houses, talking through the narrative, talking about cuts, giving notes and giving feedback, which is a traditional way to work but we weren’t necessarily in the same room or the same country.

Jen and Kim went to the Sundance story and edit lab and it was after that the film became something that was good, to something that was bigger than itself.

Jen’s Wall of Science

SK: Many documentaries tend to make issues black and white, which ‘Unrest’ does not do.

LD: The film isn’t about a network of doctors who want to get into people’s way; they don’t have the resources or the time to treat people appropriately. It was extremely important for ME people around the world, some are considered malingerers, and critical of doctors, they are perceived to be a pain because they are asking for help, but they are asking for support. We were extremely mindful of that particularly in the UK where it is a huge political issue; the reputation of people with ME is horrendous. So we were mindful of not making a film that could be accused of that. There are so many good people who want to do good things. It was about pointing out the issues and injustices.

Many people said why the film didn’t end on a more hopeful note. Jen’s response was that if you tidy up the film at the end and it’s optimistic, then everyone has an easy way out when actually people have to do something right now; this isn’t fixed, this isn’t over, this isn’t better. Those ways of shaping the narrative are very important; to offer understanding of why and how things are going on, because that’s how we move forward and address them.

The film and our campaign is not about saying to doctors, ‘you’re really bad.’ It’s about saying, ‘this is what harms patients, this is what help patients, and we would really like to help you get the resources to help the patients more effectively’ and that’s in the campaign.

SK: The last few weeks in particular, a great deal of media attention has been on many women speaking out not only about sexual harassment, but also about women’s voices being heard.

LD:  I said at the film’s premiere and continue to say each time I introduce the film: ‘This is a moment where we need to listen, and listen to women. We need to listen to people who tell us they’re being honest, who are telling us their stories, we need to hear them, we need to take action.

SK: Your advice for documentary filmmakers and any final words of wisdom?

LD: I think it’s really important to consider ‘Unrest’ as a piece of cinema and not just a piece of advocacy. I would love if there is a homebound would-be filmmaker reading this article who feels inspired by what’s possible because it is possible. There are organizations who have been through the process with us, who know how to support and fund and resource incredible storytelling voices who don’t necessarily have a traditional experience of the world. How many people are there in the world like Jen with this tremendous talent that we haven’t seen yet? That’s what I want to spend my time with in cinema on the screen. I hope ‘Unrest’ is part of a movement that supports that.

Learn more about the film and to view Brea’s TED talk here.

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

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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

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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

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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.

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