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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

ABOUT LINDSEY DRYDEN, PRODUCER

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.

ABOUT JOE BERLINGER

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.

Writer and Director Dee Rees Discusses “Mudbound” and Talks to Susan about the Adaptation Process

Writer and Director Dee Rees Discusses Mudbound

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviewed Dee Rees and her Mudboundensemble cast.


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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Mudbound Cast

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviewed Dee Rees and her ‘Mudbound ensemble cast Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Jason Clarke in a thought-provoking discussion. Dee Rees previous projects include the critically acclaimed Pariah in 2011 and HBO’s Bessie in 2015.

Mudbound poignantly incorporates poetic voiceovers, shifting between the characters’ internal monologues as the story unfolds. Although set in Mississippi of the 1940s, this is not a typical period drama; the themes of oppression and violence powerfully reflect contemporary issues and a history repeating itself.

About Mudbound

An historical epic drama based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound details the daily hardships and vicissitudes of farm life in Mississippi during the post–World War II era. Two families, one white (the landlords) and one black (the sharecroppers), work the same miserable piece of farmland. Out of need and empathy, the mothers of the two families bond as their younger male relatives go off to war and learn that there is a world beyond racial hatred and fear.

REES:  “I wanted this to be good old-fashioned film. I wanted this to be the kind of film they don’t make anymore. I wanted to break out of the 90-minute artificial construct and just let the voices ring out, let the story live and have the audience become invested in the characters.”

Adaptation

For this publication, I recently wrote about writer and director Lucrecia Martel adapting Zama from a novel to a screenplay as well as other articles about adaptation, including Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories:  What to Keep and What to Cut.

I asked Dee Rees about the process of adapting the book to the screenplay.

REES: “Virgil Williams wrote the first adaptation of the script in 2015. Reading the script prompted me to read the book to see what else was there, and then I rewrote the script before we shot it.”

Rees went on to describe how the acting ensemble found other passages in the book they had questions about, which Rees then included into the script.

REES: “Carey Mulligan asked about a passage how Jamie would see her, and I put that in, then Jason found a passage about Henry on the land, so I put that in there. The whole sequence about Hap breaking his leg; I thought that should be included, and Hap’s occupation as a preacher because I thought it was important to show his faith, and the half-built church – in the book it’s fully built, but I wanted it more incomplete so it’s more symbolic.

I wrote a lot of individual monologues for the characters, like Hap’s monologue. I wrote, what good is a deed, and the play on words “deed” and “deed” and the fact that no matter how much he is invested in this land, he’ll never be vested. And Florence going to care for Lauren’s children, I wrote the meditation because it’s important to hear that chord of dissonance of her doing the very things she said she would never do. Then Ronsel leaving for war, I wrote that scene because it was important to establish Ronsel not just as the son of Hap and Florence, but a son of the community.

There were a lot of details I also included like when Hap and Florence slow dance, to show them as a loving sexual couple who talk about other things not just white people.  I wrote the candy bar scene between Florence and Ronsel to establish their special connection. We see Florence as this self-sacrificing person who will eat only one square, and wants to share.  I wanted to give dimension to the Jackson family, they didn’t just come with the house, it’s not just about the circumstances of their existence, they have agency, they have ideas about who they are.”

Character Parallels

REES: “The fathers. Henry and Hap both have a sense of disinheritance. Hap literally has his blood and sweat in the land; he can never take title to it.

What it means to be a mother. Florence has to come to terms with love and love can be a tool; by loving Laura’s children she can keep her own family intact. Florence and Laura are also linked by economic empowerment; they both have husbands who try to tell them what to do, and they have their small rebellions.

The brothers: Rosel and Jamie are linked by the trauma of war, shell-shock. They’re both not understood. They both are expected to step back into this context in which they no longer fit. In a way, they become more brothers than Henry and Jamie. It was interesting to have those parallels, and to ask: what is brotherhood?”

Final Words

REES: “I hope people take away from this film the fact that we can’t begin to tackle our collective history until we tear down our personal histories. More expansively, I think it’s about inheritance. It’s just not about race. It’s about what ideas we have inherited, what attitudes we have inherited, and what we are unconsciously passing on.”

A Netflix release: November 17, 2017

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

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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

 

Sea Sorrow reframes ideas that refugees are from a far off land.”

— Vanessa Redgrave

 

About Sea Sorrow (From the NYFF)

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport.  Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.

(Still from “Sea Sorrow”)

The Documentary Choices

There are no definitive rules in documentary filmmaking and Sea Sorrow, which examines the historical context for the current migrant crisis, is no exception. A documentary can utilize the traditional three-act structure or nontraditional narrative format. Ideas can be presented objectively or subjectively. Documentaries can include stock film footage, still photographs, use talking heads, include the filmmaker in the story, employ live action, animation, dramatic reenactments, and voiceover narration or just have the subjects and images alone convey the narrative.

(A young Redgrave in WWII)

During the World War II bombing of London, a three-year old Redgrave was sent into the British countryside where she was taken in by the town’s residents. Redgrave, on camera, recounts this experience intercut with still photographs of her during this time, referring to herself as an “internally displaced person.”

Redgrave’s nontraditional narrative also incorporates a combination of archival footage (including Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948), still photographs, talking heads, and live action, as well as a dramatized extract from The Tempest performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan (when Prospero tells Miranda the history of their “sea sorrow” and how they came to be exiles on a remote island, the former seat of his power and prosperity). Actress Emma Thompson also appears in the film, reading from a 1938 edition of the newspaper The Guardian, highlighting rhetoric heard today.

 

(Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

Press screening Q & A with Redgrave and her producer Carlo Nero

Redgrave stated that she treated the film as if it were a poem, and chose film as the medium to deliver her message because: “Film is one of the arts — although treated like a prostitute most of the time, but it is an art — that can help people communicate and get rehumanized.”

Redgrave continued by saying she hopes Sea Sorrow will help audiences have compassion for the displaced people shown in the film:  “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families? That can happen so easily and so quickly.” She continued: “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. … Film, like theater, can. It doesn’t impose, it can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”

Sea Sorrow is indeed thought-provoking in its global glimpse into the refugee crisis, and it is personal.  The film reinforces the major theme that history has repeated itself but it also poses the question to the viewer that perhaps today, given what history has taught  us, that it will not be repeated.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

A Conversation with Lady Bird Writer and Director Greta Gerwig at the New York Film Festival

Greta Gerwig discusses her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.


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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“Someone’s coming of age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming of age.”

– Greta Gerwig

About ‘Lady Bird’

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman (Saoirse Ronan) trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and searching for an escape route from her hometown of Sacramento.

The Script

Gerwig: I had a very long draft of Lady Bird at the end of 2015 – it was 350 pages. Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere, and then I figured out what was essential and the core of the story. I don’t decide on the core of the story before I write, I write to figure out what the story is. I think the characters tell you what they are doing and what is important to them, and in some ways it’s your job to listen to them and not just to write. To listen what they’re telling you.

On Directing

This is Gerwig’s first solo in directing. When Gerwig started production on Lady Bird, she had already been working on films for 10 years.

Gerwig: I apprenticed myself in many areas. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an actress with wonderful directors, but I’ve also co-written and co-directed, and held the boom, and costumed and had done makeup, was a production assistant, basically everything you can do on a film set. Even though it’s my first writing and directing venture, it’s also an accumulation of all I have learned over the last 10 years. I went to a liberal arts college, Barnard, and I learned by doing.

No, This is not an Autobiographical Film

Gerwig: Nothing in my life is in the movie. It has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home, about what home means, and what leaving home means. What it means for someone who wants to get out and then realize they loved it. It was a movie framed around this family and following them, but secretly it’s the mother’s movie as much as it is a film about Lady Bird. I wanted that catch. It’s also the mother’s story; I wanted that reversal to happen. Someone’s coming-of-age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming-of-age.

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.

Saoirse Ronan (L) Laurie Metcalf (R)

Family Relationships

The family dynamics and the conflicts that arise between Lady Bird and her parents, brother and his girlfriend are relatable and avoid cliché sugar-coating. Lady Bird, a name she has chosen for herself (her given name is Christine), is just one of the defiant steps she has taken to show her independence from her family and the strict rules of the Catholic school she attends.

While the story follows Lady Bird’s journey in her senior year as she discovers first love and dealing with social and class conflicts, what distinguishes this high school coming-of-age story is the poignant mother and daughter relationship.

The characters are distinct and who they are and the choices they make are empathetic but not necessarily sympathetic.

(I wrote about family relationships in an earlier article for this publication.)

The center of the story is the mother and daughter relationship; Marion is often demeaning and overly critical to her daughter, Lady Bird, but this behavior is complex as we come to learn more about her own backstory, and see her navigating her current life and work. Her fear of losing her daughter to a college on the east coast pushes her daughter even further away; a realistic and layered character choice.

The Era and Setting

The film opens with a Joan Didion quote about the director’s hometown, where the plot takes place: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Gerwig: I felt the story was a love letter to Sacramento.

The choice of setting in the story in 2002-2003, in a post 9/11 world was deliberate.

Gerwig: We were ushered into a new age of global politics. It was the beginning of not just a geopolitical movement but the Internet, cell phones, and the glib answer – to make a film now, it’s not very cinematic to show teenagers on their cell phones and I thought this was the last generation you could make a film about without doing that.

A Conversation with ‘Faces Places’ Documentary Filmmakers Agnès Varda and JR at the New York Film Festival

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR travel through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places.


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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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES)

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR journey through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places (Visages Villages).  Winner of The Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival and Golden Eye at the Cannes Film Festival Faces Places played at the 2017 New York Film Festival where the filmmakers spoke about their work.

When I interviewed Varda at her installation at the Blum and Poe gallery in New York City in April 2017 for this publication, she talked about the upcoming release of Faces Places at festivals.

Varda: JR and I got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul.  Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years. I like taking the time to listen to people.  The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

We have to share words, share time. If our film reflects that, then it’s a drop of friendship and compassion in the world. That’s what we know how to do and I tried to do it well.

Faces Places can been described as a film memoir. A road trip of two artists. The film is about their journey, not necessarily the destination.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” Varda told me at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival where I asked her about her writing process, describing her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “In The Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

Varda is the sole female director associated with the French New Wave, even labeled the grandmother of the New Wave, a title she disputed for several reasons, one being she was the same age as her male directors of this category.

Consider this label instead: A storyteller not bound by convention.

(L-R) JR, Varda, Taubin

Varda’s visual memory is reflected in this film as it captures her shared artistic sensibilities with JR: two photographers, two artists, two friends, sharing this journey together with the intention to also share it with others. The idea of community is one of the themes that the filmmakers discussed at their talk at the New York Film Festival with film critic Amy Taubin.

Listening to Varda and JR talk on stage, we witness two friends teasing the other and joking, but their respect and love for each other is undeniable.

Taubin asked how they decided to work together.

Varda:  It came in a strange way. We met once because someone said we should meet. And JR came to my place. And then we decided to do something together, we didn’t know that it would be a film.

JR: I didn’t know if Agnès was a nice lady or would beat me with a stick of wood. (They laugh then he looks at Varda): “It was friendship at first sight.

Varda then remarks on JR’s photography murals: “I love that he is making people bigger than life.”

Together Varda and JR embarked on their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale black and white portraits of its subjects), which they then paste onto walls and buildings along with their subjects in their communities.  We watch the before and after process as the filmmakers interview people reacting to their murals, giving the viewer insight into how they see themselves, how they are seen by others and the world in which they live.

Seeing, more specifically whether it’s the eye of the camera lens, JR’s eyes hidden behind his dark glasses or Varda’s failing vision, is a thematic thread that runs throughout the film.

Varda: We see enough for what we wanted to do. You need the mind to look, the heart. Looking at people is not just an eye problem.

JR: The photos are made to be part of the community.  When I take photos anywhere I let the people do their own projects and I send them back their prints. So they really decide if they want to become empowered by the art and the message they have behind it.  That question comes up when you are a filmmaker, creating projects with people in each place.

Walking with Agnès and going into small villages, I wanted to know what she was seeing in her eyes, and she wanted to know what I was seeing behind my glasses so we got to know each other.

(Residents of Pirou in Faces Places. Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Varda: “JR is facing my greatest desire. To meet new faces so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

Varda then discussed that they didn’t want to do just sketches of people, and their intention was not to do a travelogue.  JR added that there was no screenplay and no special effects in the film.

Taubin commented on the working class pride that their subjects demonstrated.

JR: That’s who we met. We didn’t scout for that.  We made sure we didn’t interview the mayor, for example. We interviewed the mailman; this was important because of the relationship he had with everyone in the community. Everyone knew him already. He explains that his work is disappearing. In the past he would go home with fruit from the people, and about the communication he had with the people, and how people are now disconnecting.

Varda: We never asked who they were voting for or their politics. We were interested in person-to-person.

JR talked about how using paste and water the people put up the photographs and how they reconnected this way; they had to speak to their neighbor and reconnect.

JR: The process of people gathering, making the artwork, the community around it and their reactions to it are an important part of the artmaking process to me.

Varda: We met these workers in a chemical factory. It’s a tough life for these workers. We asked, if we can make a collective portrait of them. Link with us. Link with the audience. Can we share their life and we are the go-between so their life comes to you. Can we get something of them that’s unique and important, and JR makes it big with images.  We learned what it means to work at the last day at a factory, we learn about the lady, who is the last one living on the street. After the film she had to leave, she’s gone. We had the feeling it was precious to film that at that moment.

We try to capture time because time is always going away, so is my life.

Agnès Varda (left) and JR (right) in Faces Places directed by Agnès Varda and JR. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Faces Places is now playing in Manhattan and will open in Los Angeles October 13, and more cities to follow.

Learn more about the Faces Places.

A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.


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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At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.

Amy Taubin (L) Lucrecia Martel (R)

“Our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.”

–Lucrecia Martel

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin opened her interview with Lucrecia Martel, with the news that the Argentine Film Academy had just announced that Zama will be the country’s submission to the Oscars’ foreign-language category.

About ZAMA

Lucrecia Martel ventures into the realm of historical fiction and makes the genre entirely her own in this adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 classic of Argentinean literature. In the late 18th century, in a far-flung corner of what seems to be Paraguay, the title character, an officer of the Spanish crown (Daniel Giménez Cacho) born in the Americas, waits in vain for a transfer to a more prestigious location. Martel renders Zama’s world—his daily regimen of small humiliations and petty politicking—as both absurd and mysterious, and as he increasingly succumbs to lust and paranoia, subject to a creeping disorientation.

About Lucrecia Martel

Award-winning director Martel began her career making short films and documentaries for television.  Her three features La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2006) were set in her hometown of Salta in northwest Argentina; an area known as socially and religiously conservative—a subject she addressed in these films that center on the Argentinian self-absorbed bourgeoisie.

ZAMA Literary Adaptation

This film is Martel’s first literary adaptation and her first period film. (Among the other ‘firsts,’ it is also her first film set outside her native Salta, and her first film with a male protagonist.)

Not intending to be historically accurate, the film challenges conventional historical style, and linear time with the use of narrative ellipses.

As seen in Martel’s three previous features, Zama’s themes address class, gender, race, and place.

The Interview

Amy Taubin: You had been developing a science fiction film for a while and that didn’t happen.  (This was an adaptation of El Eternauta a cult comic in Argentina.) “It seems to me that this film is both something very real with its roots in colonialism but it’s also looks like a science fiction.”

Martel: Yes, I had been working on a science fiction film from 2009 and when the film didn’t work out I went away on a trip and brought the book from which Zama was adapted. So, I also escaped on a boat and I read Zama.

I was allowed to think with a lot of liberty in science fiction but in a historical document you’re constrained to thinking about how it was in the past. When I decided to do Zama I went about thinking about it in the same free way that I had planned on working on El Eternauta. For political reasons our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  As you can see I made decisions that contradict history, for example like representing the Catholic Church. (There were no crucifixes or symbols of crosses.)

It is also about existential conflicts too. I don’t think the film is that far off from the intention of the novel, regarding this very Catholic idea of waiting.  This very Catholic idea that the meaning of life comes at the very end and all the suffering that we undergo acquires some kind of reason once it ends. I wouldn’t say that the character of Zama is the anti-Christ but he does push against that.

Taubin: All your films begin and end with the body, the experience of the body. When you read the novel, there’s a lot more about character and thoughts, but this film, out of all your films, is most rooted — in every scene with the experience of the body.

(Taubin then commented on this period of Colonialism and how Martel examines how “the body manifests itself and how the others relate to the body and particularly violence on the body”.)

Martel: I think we are all in our bodies. We are alone in this island of our bodies and we invent ways to get off this island through language, through expression. We do all these things to transcend the existential solitude we feel.  Especially thinking about colonization, which imposes violence and dehumanizes the body as its first step. The first thing to do to destroy another person is not to see them. Negating other people to justify that violence.

(Martel responds to a question about the music used in the film.)

The pretentious element of the music reflects on Argentina in the way that it doesn’t identify itself as Latin American but it identifies itself as situated between Miami and Europe.

The music in the film also makes me reflect on situating the film in the past.

The novel is set in 18th century but it was written in the 1950s, and I’m here producing this film in the 2000s – so what time is it actually set in?  And in that sense, narrative time is also occurring in the present; it has to make sense today.

The 55th New York Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 15.

READ MORE HERE

Join Susan’s ‘Fundamentals of Screenwriting’ 4-week online class starts 10/5/17

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING 

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.

 

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