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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Category: SCRIPT MAGAZINE ARTICLES (page 1 of 7)

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.

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.


Susan Kouguell Interviews Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz for SCRIPT Magazine

Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Susan Kouguell interviews Ramona Diaz, filmmaker of Motherland, a poignant documentary in the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines.

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 Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz (Photo: Justin Tsucalas)

I had the pleasure to speak with Ramona Diaz about her gripping documentary Motherland, now playing in New York City’s Cinema Village, kicking off its theatrical run. Shot in a vérité style, the film foregoes any formal interviews, archival footage, experts’ opinions or narration. The film is intimate and powerful with moments of humor gently underscoring the poignancy of the subject matter.

About Ramona S. Diaz — Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor

Ramona Diaz is an award-winning Asian-American filmmaker. Her films include Spirits RisingImeldaThe Learning, and Don’t Stop Believin’ which have been broadcast on POV and Independent Lens, and have screened and won awards at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, and many other top film festivals. She has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Institute, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Recently she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ramona has been a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. Department of State and USC that brings American films to audiences worldwide.

About Motherland

Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.

KOUGUELL: Initially, you started with one idea for this film but it shifted.

DIAZ: I was in Manila researching a completely different film having to do with reproductive justice, reproductive health, and women’s rights. I was following a legislative bill, the Reproductive Health Bill, and I was interested in the social and political drama around it. When I got to Manilla I realized that the conversation there was very black and white, either for or against the bill, and I couldn’t find the nuance. Someone told me to visit the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for my research. It’s called a baby factory; that’s how they refer to the hospital. In the first half hour I realized this is where my film is.

Walking around the ward, listening to the conversations the women were having, drew me in. The hospital is also so cinematic. I realized too that I could still include the themes I was interested in — reproductive health, etc., — all in one place. It was clear to me that this would make a better film.

KOUGUELL: How were you allowed access in the hospital?

DIAZ: First, there was the bureaucratic access: I had to go to the Secretary of Health to get permission. This hospital has been covered by media in the past, including CNN and the BBC, but only for short pieces and they were only there for a couple of days so they were used to media attention. But what I wanted was to be there every day for six weeks with access to all parts of the hospital. And they did give me access.

The more difficult type of access was making the staff really understand what I wanted, especially the nurses. To them, (the maternity process at the hospital) was so routine they couldn’t understand why it was special. I think people don’t necessarily think of their lives as being interesting. I knew the nurses were key because they know the ins and outs, and how that place works. Their average tenure there is 25 years. They were sort of the tribal elders; I knew if they understood what I was looking for then I’d get what I needed.

Because I chose to feature patients more than the staff, it made my life harder of course, because you can’t prep for that. Getting to know the staff was important, they sort of became my embedded producers because they knew I was looking for a younger mother, a much older mother and someone in the middle. And they would point out patients; they were on my side.

I chose the women who gave birth to preemies so I could follow them over time, a few weeks. Choosing the specific women was pure instinct.

KOUGUELL: Because you were there every day, the mothers felt they could trust you, yet filming them is very intimate. What kind of questions did you ask them to build trust?

DIAZ: I told them I was making a film about their lives in the hospital in however long their stay was, their everyday experiences. I said, we don’t want to get in the way of you resting, caring for your baby, we’ll never ask anything special of you, and we’ll have the camera on you. They wondered if that was interesting. I said it was interesting for me. I said, your stories will come out through the interactions with other people. Like Lea, she didn’t know she was having twins until giving birth.

We wouldn’t shoot the entire time we were with them, we’d put the camera down and we’d talk. That also really helped. They were interested in documentaries and what it is.

KOUGUELL: Talk about your choice to shoot Cinéma vérité and not use voice-over narration or title cards.

DIAZ: I wanted to mimic the experience I had when I first visited the hospital. I wanted to drop the audience into this organized chaos and figure it out because that was my experience with it. I really felt that the narrative would emerge from the scenes that we were filming. It was purposeful. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do that.

I had conversations with my DP Nadia (Hallgren) and I told her this was pure vérité. I remember the first day we were shooting and we walked away from a nurse doing a procedure and she asked, do you want to interview the nurse, and I said no, and she said ‘great’.  Many filmmakers start interviewing people just in case, but the ‘just in case’ becomes a crux, a go-to when you’re editing and I just didn’t want that option when we were editing.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the structure of the film? Was it prior to the shoot, during it, or in post?

DIAZ: We found the structure in editing. We found it quickly. Typically I edit for nine months, we edited for six months.  What took the longest was pulling the scenes and translating them.

KOUGUELL: Once you started filming did you work from any type of outline or did you just let the camera roll?

DIAZ: It wasn’t a strict outline but I kept notes every day about the characters and places so I knew where we had to cover: the labor room, the waiting room, the ward room where most of the action takes place. It was that kind of list making. Once I got into the characters then I started writing short outlines for myself; I imagined what we could capture based on the stories that were emerging. Sometimes they were so off the mark and sometimes they were right. We followed five to six characters fully and I knew I had to follow them throughout the stay until they got discharged.

KOUGUELL: Your advice for documentary filmmakers?

DIAZ: Certainly, persevere and be passionate. Be clear on what you’re trying to say, and I’m not even talking message. Know what it is you’re trying to say with your film and what you are trying to convey. If you know this, then things will fall into place.

Motherland opens in Los Angeles on September 22nd at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica with a national roll out to follow.

Learn more about Motherland.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Susan’s Script Magazine article: Jane Campion Talks Top of the Lake, The Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Jane Campion Talks Top of the LakeThe Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim at the opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories, about Top of the LakeThe Piano, and being a female filmmaker.

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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Photo credit: Sally Bongers

“You can’t have the agenda to make someone feel.  You have the agenda to tell the story with feeling or tenderly, and how anyone receives it, is how it is received.”

– Jane Campion

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories which runs from September 8-17.

Among Campion’s many accolades, she won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her 1993 film The Piano as well as the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, the only female filmmaker to ever receive that honor. Campion is also the second of four women to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.

Jane Campion’s work is often described as visual poetry; her distinct vision challenges the viewer with her thought-provoking and often nonconformist, psychologically complex, emotionally wrought and raw characters and their layered worlds.  A masterful visual storyteller, her work is underscored with nuances of consistent tones and distinct moods in every scene.

Campion challenges the themes of the female gaze – how women are seen and how they see and capture the world around them – as well as women’s voices (both verbal and nonverbal) in her films, such as The Piano’s mute Ada, or Dawn in Sweetie who imitates and barks like a dog when snapping at her family.

Whether in film or in television, Campion’s work continues to revolutionize how stories about women and their relationships are conveyed. She pushes gender boundaries with her psychological examination of relationships and the lives of her characters with a distinct and raw vision.

Top of the Lake

The award-winning television series, Top of The Lake, is Campion’s return to television since her 1990 An Angel at My Table, based on the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, which was first produced as a television mini-series.

When describing the motivation for doing the project, Campion talked about her love for novels and their length and the opportunity to go more in depth with characters and stories.

I was dying to explore more characters. I saw “Deadwood” and rose from my chair. It was so brave, amazing and raw, it touched me and inspired me; I was thinking, this is where the freedom is.  At the time of “In the Cut,” (2003) cinema was in a bit of a crisis. Everyone was always concerned about, ‘Will this character be likeable? Will this storyline be likeable?’ The thought of having to please people was uninspiring.

The Top of the Lake series was co-created with Campion’s film school friend and previous collaborator, Gerard Lee.

That was one of the gorgeous experiences to have a writer with you the whole time.

In thinking about Season 2, I felt we explored the scenes of Paradise and the wilderness, and so I thought about moving the story to Sydney and how Robin would kickstart her life again, and her drive towards finding her daughter.  I was thinking about the idea of her having adopted out a child and carry that thought of the child for the 17 years, and how her daughter, Mary, would have thought about the mythical mother.

Jane Campion wrote the role of Mary, Robin’s daughter, with her own daughter, actress Alice Englert, in mind.

I loved writing the scene (when mother and daughter meet for the first time); it was one of my favorite scenes I ever wrote. It is such a cliché scene and it’s hard to put the air in something like this.

I do like crime stories. It appeals to that part of me that likes to find out the truth.  I get quite obsessive – about it mattering, does the truth matter?  A crime, a vacuous space around it, as much as you imagine it, there’s a reality around it. The mythic theme of the detective who has to go to the place where the criminal committed the act, it challenges you to imagine yourself. Crimes take you to the darkest places; it’s the restitution of society that it represents. We have the Elizabeth Moss character (Robin), particularly as a woman she holds the theme of being overlooked. She is restituting herself as well as Tui.

When you make films, you are telling stories and you try to do things that you personally are trying to discover in the world. When we made “Top of the Lake” and particularly with the women’s camp and the GJ character there is a particular take on life.

The Piano

One of the most commercially successful independent films of all time and one of the top ten grossing films of 1993.

We were actually surprised with its box-office success. We met Harvey Weinstein (Miramax distributor/producer) who was extraordinary in loving up this movie and bringing these types of movies to a wider audience.

The financier was a concrete maker, and decided in his last years of life to fund filmmakers and share the profits with them.  We were allowed to do the film exactly the way we wanted to do it.

Talking to people since then about the film, it’s such a female point of view. The fact that Ada doesn’t speak, her stubbornness, her interiority, her strength, her point of view, and the piano speaking for her, speaks about not giving a voice in the world – that is not to say you don’t have an opinion.

The Tenth Woman to Serve as Cannes Film Festival Jury President Since it Began in 1946

The Cannes Film Festival has been really good to me.  The year I was president, I suggested an all-female jury. I think it would be really great because for the first time, all those men filmmakers would have to think: ‘What are all those women thinking? What are the women going to like about my movie?’ But they wouldn’t do it. I’ve spent my whole life asking, ‘What are the men thinking?’ and I think it’s time for them to ask, ‘What are the women thinking?’ in a different way than they would have done before.

There’s that feeling overall, ‘Oh, the women filmmakers, let them have that moment.’ That’s what’s really irritating.

Preparing for the Shoot

I do a lot of drawing and sketching to work out my shot lists and to imagine the props, how things will look in a scene, the lighting and how that might be, how the camera might move. Then when you come to set, you know that you’ve thought about what you want and what you need.

Inspiration and Making the Film Your Own

I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot of diaries as well. Diaries make everything feel very fresh and very real. I’ve always been nosey – like how people organize their bedrooms, their kitchen. I’d be happy to stare at people all day long. Gerard would say, stop staring, it makes people uncomfortable.

I love poetry. I think I’m very influenced by poetry, that sense of Keats’ poetry, all poets. They make something that is so easeful. There’s that sense of always having been there. They find that beauty, that ease, and that memorable quality to a phrase. That inspires me.

I want things to feel at once like they’re effortless and at the same time that they haunt you. Because I’m working in a visual form, one of the things as a filmmaker is trying to do your own stuff. One of the things that grounds me is that I have a seminal image; something that I might have seen on the street somewhere, something that is actually seen by me.

I remember for “The Piano” I was thinking about Ada and the little girl. I was driving down the street and there was a tall girl and a short girl and they were walking very close together and they had this brown hair that was shining and wavy together and I thought, that’s Ada and Flora. That togetherness, that was the image that made me know what to do with them.

That’s one of the ways you know it’s yours. It becomes embodied in you and therefore you know the truth of it. That’s true meaning.

Get more information about the retrospective.

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Strange Weather’ Writer and Director Katherine Dieckmann for Script Magazine

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Strange Weather’ Writer and Director Katherine Dieckmann

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“For years I had an image in my head of a woman sitting alone at a bar, nursing a drink, wearing a straw Stetson-like hat and jeans. She was middle-aged and still working out the terms of her life. She had lost a son, but I wasn’t sure how. This woman eventually became Darcy Baylor, and her story became Strange Weather.”

–Katherine Dieckmann

Katherine Dieckmann

A July heat wave in New York City served as a fortuitous backdrop for meeting with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann to talk about her latest feature film Strange Weather.

Dieckmann began her career as a journalist, writing for such publications as Rolling StoneThe Village Voice, Film Comment, Vogue and The New York Times Book Review, before going on to direct music videos for bands including R.E.M., Aimee Mann, Wilco, Everything but the Girl and Vic Chesnutt. Dieckmann was the originating director on the groundbreaking live action Nickelodeon serial, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Dieckmann’s films include MotherhoodDiggers and A Good Baby, which was developed at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Directing labs.  Dieckmann is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s graduate School of the Arts Film Program, and a Creative Advisor for the Sundance Institute. 


Strange Weather tracks an uncompromising woman (Holly Hunter) as she embarks on a trip through the south with her best friend (Carrie Coon) to uncover the truth about the one event in her life that she can’t get over. As the two women traverse a part of the country afflicted by drought and flood, a climate every bit as uncertain as Darcy’s emotional one, each stop on the road becomes a key step in Darcy’s process of overcoming, giving her a new way to think about her past, and how to transform it into a different kind of future.

Susan Kouguell speaks with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann about her latest feature film Strange Weather, starring Holly Hunter.

Holly Hunter in Strange Weather

We began our talk discussing her influences for this film.  Citing female-driven regional indies, which included Winter’s Bone directed by Debra Granik and Frozen River directed by Courtney Hunt, to Wim Wenders’ road movies.

DIECKMANN:  Granik and Hunt are women who made singular regional movies with a female character at the center of the film; I loved the tone of the films.  My Digger’s cinematographer shot Debra’s film. I know people who were involved in both films.  As for Wim Wenders, I was a journalist in my early 20s, and I interviewed him about Paris, Texas when I was 23 or so, and those films had a huge effect on me.  I saw Wenders’ films again at a retrospective at MoMA a couple of years back and we had Paris Texas on our minds.

It really was a fusion of my passion for southern literature and southern photography. I was an English major at Vassar, and I received my masters in Literature from NYU.  Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Walker Evans, among others, had an impact on me with this film.

KOUGUELL: You didn’t have a formal education in filmmaking.

DIECKMANN:  I took one 16 mm class at Cornell when I was 16.

I became friends with R.E.M’s Michael Stipe when I interviewed him for an article.  He gave me a music video to direct; that was the nicest gift a friend could give you. It was an incredible way to enter into the world of making images to have that support from somebody. He could tell I was a frustrated journalist. When I started out as a journalist, Elle magazine sent me to Berlin to interview Wim Wenders, but that type of support was ending for glossy magazines and Michael could tell I was frustrated because pieces were shrinking and becoming more celebrity focused. Michael and I had the same type of taste in film.

KOUGUELL:  What was the timeline from writing the script to going into production?

DIECKMANN: I wrote the script about five summers ago. We attached Holly and it took a while to get the money; my producers were tenacious and dedicated. It was probably four years from writing to directing.

KOUGUELL:  This film was largely made by women and you mentioned that your producers Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen supported your vision every step of the way.

DIECKMANN: I didn’t set out to make it so female heavy. I ended up hiring a male DP; David Rush Morrison was sensitive and the eye that I wanted, which was more important than his gender. But yes, I love giving women work.

KOUGUELL:  Strange Weather is a character-driven story. Holly Hunter’s character is very specific, relatable, empathetic, and often surprising. Was there a particular process in writing that you use to find your characters’ voices?

DIECKMANN: I have a lot of close southern girlfriends and actually this connects to my R.E.M. relationship. When I became friends with that band, I started spending a lot of time in Georgia. There is a certain cultural thing that I was interested in; how these women speak to each other and deal with each other was of enormous interest to me, the humor and the slang, and just that way of being with each other.

The characters were super clear to me from the beginning. I know Darcy would say this and Byrd would say that. The character of Mary Lou was bizarre – it was like I was channeling her.

Callie Khouri, one of my advisors at Sundance Lab, was saying how the characters of Thelma and Louise arrived to her in that way. She woke up one morning and she knew exactly what type of toothpaste these two characters would use. When you’re a writer sometimes that happens, and when that happens it’s the luckiest moment in the universe because it makes your job so much easier; you’re just channeling.

KOUGUELL:  What suggestions do you give your Columbia students about writing characters?

DIECKMANN: I give them a 40 character questions worksheet, which stems from Frank Daniel the founder of the Columbia Screenwriting Program, and then different colleagues of mine have modified it over the years. There are also exercises to do to get to know your character inside – the psyche of your character. One thing I often critique in their scripts is ‘You’re not in the scene because that character was last seen standing by the counter and now he’s sitting at a table, so how did they get from A to B.? You’re not with your character’s physical space. So, I say, be an actor in your own scene, and act it. I do that too when I’m writing. I ask: Where am I in this space? Where are the other people in this space? Is it hot in the room? Am I uncomfortable? Am I hungry? Try to be as an actor would be in that situation and I think that really helps to write more authentically in terms of what characters might say or do.

KOUGUELL: What about structure?

DIECKMANN: I’m really into structure because if you really have structure in your bloodstream it’s actually liberating then you don’t have to think about it too much.  When I teach I spend an enormous time on structure.

I teach the film ‘IDA’ for the sequences.  (Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.) It’s hyper composed. If you break down the film, you’ll find eight masterful sequences.

Script EXTRA: Structure – The Spine of the Screenplay

KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the script, was there improvisation?

DIECKMANN: Holly loved the script and had the entire script committed to memory. She had such an intent keen interest in the dialogue.  There wasn’t much improvisation, not because I’m controlling, but because the actors wanted to stick close to it.

KOUGUELL: Sadly, Glenne Headly passed away last month. She gave a tremendous performance.

DIECKMANN:  Glenne was a very deep thinking actor who really wanted to interrogate text on every level. I loved the chemistry between Glenne, Holly and Carrie Coon.

KOUGUELL: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters who are setting out on this journey?

DIECKMANN: Writing about something you’re passionate about even if it does not seem ‘marketable’ is the best thing to do. I think a lot of writers starting out try to calculate to the market, but you can’t control whether the world is going to pay attention to it. Write something that you really believe in, that’s your strength. I always tell my writers to write to their particular and personal strength, and passion. I teach a year-long class and sometimes students come in with two ideas and I say, pitch them both, and it’s completely clear what someone is invested in. Write to your investment and don’t worry if it’s fashionable. Look at Moonlight  – who would have predicted how great that such a singular voice completely uncalculated to the market broke through like that. To me, that’s what every writer should do.

Strange Weather opens in theaters on July 28.


Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman for Script Magazine

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman

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Lara Stolman

The award-winning feature documentary Swim Team is indeed making a huge splash. On July 7th of this year, ABC World News Tonight chose the cast of Swim Team as its “Persons of the Week” and the film continues to garner note-worthy attention.

I recently spoke with director Lara Stolman about making her debut independent documentary, her creative process and how this project came to life.

Lara has produced news and documentaries that have aired on NBC, MSNBC, TLC, AMC, VH-1 and The New York Times‘ website. Her film Portraits of Survival, about coming to terms with the tragedy of 9/11 through art, was selected for the Hamptons International Film Festival, aired on MSNBC and was awarded the Cine Golden Eagle. For Swim Team, her first feature documentary film, she was named an IFP Documentary Lab Fellow, awarded the New York Women in Film and Television Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness grant and was provided with completion funding from the Karma Foundation. Lara has guest lectured on documentary production at NYU, served as a juror for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards and writes for the Huffington Post. She has a BA in Political Science from Columbia College of Columbia University and JD from Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.


About the Film

Swim Team is a feature documentary chronicling the rise of a competitive swim team made up of diverse teens on the autism spectrum. Based in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the cast of Swim Team is largely Latino and Asian, minorities that are underrepresented in competitive swimming and underserved in autism intervention and education. The film follows three of the team’s star athletes, boys on the cusp of adulthood as they face a future of exclusion and dependence. But everything changes when they come together as a team with parent coaches who train them with high expectations and zero pity. As the team vies for state and national Special Olympics championships, Swim Team captures a moving quest for inclusion, independence and a life that feels winning. 

SUSAN KOUGUELL: How did the project come about?

LARA STOLMAN: I was looking for swimming lessons for my son who has autism and I found Coach Mike and Maria. This was in the fall of 2013. They were recruiting children for their new team; the team was just coming together and so it was the perfect time to meet them and start working on the film. We were able to be there on the first day of practice, the first day the kids came together as a team.

They were so inspiring to me as a mom, as a parent, and as a filmmaker. I was very impressed with their high expectations. Coach Mike said, ‘This team is going to dominate the competition.’ No one speaks that way about children with autism. I knew that I had to see how this unfolds.  My son was too young to participate on the team at that time. It was soon after I met them that I knew I had to capture this story.

KOUGUELL: Why did you choose not to include yourself or your son’s story in this film?

STOLMAN:  My background is in film and television, and this is my first independent project. I work for networks and cable channels, and I’ve always done what I’ve been assigned to do story wise.  I never thought of myself as a personal filmmaker; that’s not how I approached my work. When the time came for me to make my film I looked up to the great cinéma vérité filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker and Barbra Kopple.

It’s interesting, I didn’t think it was important to turn the camera on myself and yet you could say this was a very personal film. The film is very much informed by my experience. The intimacy of the scenes with these families is a result of what I had in common with them and we were able to establish a rapport.

Susan Kouguell speaks with director Lara Stolman about the creative process making her debut independent documentary and how this project came to life.KOUGUELL: The parents of the three protagonists are so open and honest about their experiences, their fears for the future for their sons, their pride of their sons’ accomplishments. Describe the process of the boys and families opening up to you. 

STOLMAN: It was a process; it didn’t happen right away. I knew I had to have the whole team involved in order to film. There were 17 kids on the team and 17 families. I needed everyone to sign release forms. I needed to call everyone up and not everyone returned my calls. I showed up at the YMCA, I went to people’s houses, and during this process I was interviewing everyone and trying to figure out who was going to be a featured character, who was going to be a featured family and who would let me, who was going to be part of the process and be a partner with me. That’s what you need with a film like this. Not everyone was interested.  I had families who didn’t return my calls or they said, ‘no we don’t want to do this,’ but everyone signed those release forms. I was able to film the story with the kids and the team and no one had to be blurred out or cut out.  For some families it was personal, there are privacy issues and there are stigma issues too with autism and I understand that.

But even with the families that were interested it was still a process to get to the point where we really had that intimacy that you see in the film. For example, the scene with Rosa where she sits down with her son Robbie to talk to him about autism — that happened later in our filming.  It was something that we worked toward. She told me when I first met her that it was important for her to have this conversation with her son. He was on the team specifically so she could tell him about who he was and his diagnosis. He didn’t need to be on that team.  Most of the kids needed to be on the team because no other team would take them but Robbie was on two other swim teams; he was on his high school team and the elite swimming team. Rosa thought it was important that he learned more about who he is and his community. I asked her if I could film that conversation and she agreed. There wasn’t a lot of direction, so to speak, but we definitely talked ahead of time; when she was thinking of doing it, what she would say. She was very nervous how to talk about it.

My relationship with these parents was more than a filmmaker and their subjects. I became part of the community, part of the team. I wasn’t a team family but I actually became a team parent.

KOUGUELL: I imagine that’s how Mikey, Kelvin, and Robbie, came to trust you and the cameras.

STOLMAN: I didn’t think it was going to pan out with Robbie. I tried to test him with my iPhone when I went to visit him at his home. I wanted to do a camera test to see how he would be on camera and he just wouldn’t talk. I guess he was nervous. I didn’t know him at that point and I thought it wasn’t going to work out because he was shutting down. Lo and behold, he emerges as one of the most charismatic characters.

We got to the point they didn’t think about the cameras.  It was myself, DP, Laela Kilbourn and my sound guy Peter Ginsburg. We are not obtrusive, and we spent a lot of time with them even when we weren’t filming. I went to the practices and participated, I spoke to the parents even when I wasn’t shooting and all of that I think contributed to the kids and parents not noticing the cameras.

KOUGUELL: Did you work from any type of scripted outline?

STOLMAN: Yes. Because I work in television and television news, I write everything in script form before I edit. I go through a process over a few months usually and with a project like this I go through all the footage and I put the whole script on paper and do a paper cut before I start to edit with my editor.  Things change when you get into an edit room.  We had a focus group at one point.

I like to write and I like to approach the story first from the standpoint of putting it on paper.   Even before I wrote a script, I wrote a treatment. Everything is transcribed, and I transcribed this project myself. I like to look at footage multiple times because each time I might be looking at things differently; sometimes you’re looking at the dialogue, sometimes the shot. Then I write a treatment or an outline, and then I write a script.  The script is something that changes when you get into the edit room. I sit there with a laptop and I’m constantly changing as we are editing. I feel most comfortable working that way. It took us only seven months to edit the film and I think that’s in part because of the scripting process and because I’m such a stickler about that.

KOUGUELL: What was the length of the shoot?

STOLMAN: We started filming January 2014 and we did most of our shooting until June 2014, then we did some follow-up the next year with the main characters.  We didn’t know what the ending was going to be.  It could have been that Mikey goes to nationals, but all these other things were happening and I realized that’s not the ending.

KOUGUELL: Did you have any specific intentions going into the project regarding the subject matter you wanted to address and did that change in any way as the filming evolved?

STOLMAN: There were certainly many unexpected twists and turns along the way and I definitely had an open mind, which you have to have in a documentary with real life characters who are living their lives.

We did know that Mikey was going to the nationals before we started shooting and that’s one of the reasons that I thought this was going to be the natural ending of the film. We didn’t know anything else; I didn’t know who the main characters were going to be.  We were following seven of the families pretty closely and it wasn’t until midway through filming that it became clear that it was these three guys on the relay team.

I knew I had a story: a season in the life of this team and the star swimmer was going to nationals. But beyond that everything else was organic, unpredictable and exciting.  For example, people have asked me if I orchestrated the Act 2 crisis point when Robbie is late for practice and I say, of course not, that’s part of the fun and unpredictability of the process.

KOUGUELL: You tackle the challenges the three boys and their parents face directly and unapologetically.  This isn’t a film only about young people who have disabilities and their families, it is also universal, as it examines the failure of the system and how parents try to navigate it as best as possible and how the community works together or doesn’t.

STOLMAN: I was mindful that this film has to transcend an audience of families with kids who are on the spectrum. I wanted it to be universally appealing.   What these families are struggling with is applicable to all parents in general.  Whether their kids have disabilities or not all, parents have to handle unexpected challenges with their children.

My producer and editor said they felt so strongly about being part of the film because they’re mothers — and their boys are typical — but they connected so strongly with the parents’ POV in the film and how much these parents love these kids and how they’re willing to do everything and anything it takes. We would like the film to move beyond a niche audience.

Swim Team is playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan until July 25 and at the Laemmie Monica Film Center in Los Angeles until July 26.  For more information about Swim Team and screenings visit their website.


Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘The Reagan Show’ Filmmaker Pacho Velez for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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President Ronald Reagan signs the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Rancho del Cielo, CA, 1981. Photo credit: Karl Schumacher. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. (Gravitas Ventures & CNN Films)

“Reagan’s embrace of ‘the script; ushered in what Paul Krugman and other commentators have called “post-truth politics,” showing that it is acceptable to replace nuanced descriptions of complicated political realities with folk wisdom and self-effacing jokes.”

–Pacho Velez


Eschewing contemporary interviews or outside commentary, The Reagan Show is composed of network news broadcasts, Hollywood films and, most importantly, the largely unseen raw footage shot by the White House Television Office crew. Through this trove of material—from the bizarre and unscripted to the unflappably professional—the film tracks the public-relations battle behind the Cold War’s tumultuous end, highlighting the key role that Reagan’s use of film and video played in his presidency. Armed with the 20/20 vision that only hindsight can provide, our immersive, self-reflective approach invites viewers to look closely at—and question—the use of narrative in contemporary politics.

—Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez



Pacho Velez (Director, Writer) is an award-winning filmmaker. His last documentary, Manakamana (co-directed with Stephanie Spray), won a Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. It played around the world, including at the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. His earlier work has screened in venues as varied as The Swedish Museum of Ethnography, Occupy Boston, and on Japanese National Television. He is a Princeton Arts Fellow and, beginning in the Fall, a professor at The New School.


Sierra Pettengill (Director, Producer) is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Town Hall, her directorial debut (co-directed with Jamila Wignot), broadcast nationally on PBS in 2014. She produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which also won the directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the 2016 News and Doc Emmy Award for Best Documentary. She was the archivist on Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, and Matt Wolf’s Teenage, amongst many others.

2/4/1983 President Reagan Nancy Reagan and David Gergen at a Press Briefing in the Press Room during a surprise Birthday Party in honor of President Reagan’s 71st birthday

I first met Pacho Velez at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival when I interviewed him and his co-director Stephanie Spray about their award-winning feature documentary Manakamana. It was a pleasure to speak once again with Velez following the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival about his second feature documentary The Reagan Show, which was nominated for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Jury Award, and received the David Carr Award for Truth in Non-Fiction Filmmaking at the Montclair Film Festival, among other awards.

KOUGUELL: What was your intention for the film when you first started out, and did it shift in any way with the research that was done and the archival footage that was discovered?

VELEZ: I was interested in Reagan, and finding a way to watch Reagan age through the archive.  We actually started in the 1930s and made our way through the 1990s through the footage. There is an additional layer to this archive because Reagan kind of commissioned it of himself. It was overseen by a civilian administrator appointed by the Reagan administration. There is a sense that he is both the subject of the archives but also, in part, its author.

KOUGUELL:  Meaning it’s not impartial?

VELEZ: Yes, it totally reflects Reagan’s priorities; it’s another way of knowing him. You see what he was interested in. You see what he thought was important to record for posterity and in that way you get access to his thoughts on what he’s up to — and when I say “he” I also mean the institutional he; what his administration was up to.

KOUGUELL: There were 1,000 hours of archival footage that was sorted through.

VELEZ: Yes, that was really brutal. That was mostly Dan Garber, my former student, who was the researcher who received an editing credit on this film. He spent essentially three years watching footage.

KOUGUELL: As you started to assemble the footage, did your point of view of the material change, were there surprises for you?

George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev all wave to the press corps. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

VELEZ: Oh yes. We had no idea the film was going to be about Gorbachev and the nuclear weapons treaty at all.  We didn’t begin with a narrative in mind. It was this idea of poring through the archives and seeing what story was inside of that.

KOUGUELL: Which material was public domain?

VELEZ: Broadcast news footage is not public domain. All the footage Reagan shot of himself is public domain because the government produced it, and so the American people own it.

There was a lot of broadcast material we were able to use under fair use rights, which means when you’re not reproducing the footage, but you’re commenting on it in an explicit way, and its source is marked.

The beginning clip with David Brinkley interviewing Reagan, that material is fair use: it has the title in the beginning stating David Brinkley interviews Ronald Reagan in his last interview in office with the date of the interview, the network it was for, and that’s all on the screen.

KOUGUELL:  Talk about the writing process. You chose not to use voice-over narration.

VELEZ: Right and we didn’t have a script. The scripting was a discussion about story. For example: Where are we going to introduce the core narrative, and when is the moment that Reagan returned to the public relations question. We had a bit about Nancy Reagan’s relationship, and if that should come early or late in the film. All those types of questions were the purview of the writer.

KOUGUELL: Some documentarians work with an actual outline, with either insertions for voice-overs or printed text intended to be in supers.

VELEZ: We didn’t do that. At times, we wrote transcripts of the film, and thought about what would be great to have, but when you’re working the way we were working, you really couldn’t do that. You had to go out and find it, and figure out how to insert it.

KOUGUELL: The film is especially timely, given our current events.

VELEZ: Yes. Our present political context shifted; the meaning of those images has changed. There’s a way that you see the seeds of Trump in Reagan’s use of media.

Ronald Reagan addresses the 1988 Republican National Convention. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.


VELEZ: Someone was asking us the other day about the film in a way that assumed it was a historical film, and I never thought about it through that lens. Obviously, it’s a film that’s happened in the past. It’s historical, but the film is explicitly doing the work of history, no one is ingesting the footage and saying, ‘Looking back 20 years I see this, that and the other.’ Although it’s a historical story, all the commentators are talking about it in the moment.

Sometimes I think it’s political archeology, media archeology, as much as history. For me, I was thinking about the differences between those ideas; you have the political discourse that is meant to be consumed in the moment and what it means to re-watch that 30 years later versus proper history and having those two speak to each other.

The Reagan Show will open in New York at the Metrograph Theater and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Friday, June 30th, with a national rollout to immediately follow. It will also become available on VOD on July 4th.



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