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
“Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.