Balls of Steel: The Road to Sundance

In most cases, the road to the Sundance Film Festival starts with crowdfunding, a group of artists, and a film in the can, screaming with independent-filmmaker pride.

Or you could be a journalist with a dream.

Back in 2001, Douglas A. Blackmon wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal exposing unjust enslavement of African Americans that existed for decades after the Civil War. This article not only launched into a seven-year investigation and the writing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name (SBAN), but it also turned the Atlanta journalist into a filmmaker.

As writers, we should take note – one small piece of writing can become a multitude of storytelling opportunities.

When I first contacted Blackmon in July of 2008 to pursue adapting SBAN as a dramatic narrative, his book was only months old, just making the New York Times Best Sellers List. Around the same time, he was also approached by TPT National Productions to craft a documentary.

For the next two years, Blackmon juggled co-executive producing the documentary with TPT and co-writing the narrative adaptation with me – not to mention his job as senior national correspondent of The Wall Street Journal.

How could one writer juggle so much? By embracing collaboration.

Writers often try to do it all. We write, direct and produce our own short films. We assume no one else can see our vision clearly. We’re control freaks.

I ask, “How’s that working for you?” Most likely, it’s not.

There’s a reason this industry thrives on the benefits of collaboration.

Blackmon knew in order to reach the wider audience that both a documentary and a feature film could, he needed to bring on other writers and a team of talent.

Oscar-nominated director Sam Pollard was attached at the onset, and Emmy-winning writer Sheila Curran Bernard was hired to write the documentary.

Teamed together with Catherine Allen of TPT and Blackmon as executive producers, Blackmon’s vision to life.

Douglas A. Blackmon (left) and Sam Pollard at Sundance

Many people asked me if Blackmon and I experienced any challenges in writing our narrative script knowing a documentary version of the same book was in development.

Yes and no.

There’s no question juggling the two projects pulled Blackmon in different directions, but having him so intimately involved in both was a blessing for me as a writer. He had his finger on the pulse of the two scripts, making certain the documentary and our narrative were consistent with each other yet totally different.

The documentary would cover 80 years of history, while we explored only a few month’s time, dramatizing one black man’s enslavement, leading to the trial of the very first white man accused of holding a slave – 40 years after the Civil War.

Blackmon purposely kept the projects as separate as possible, not sharing either script with his collaborators. His eyes were the only ones to see the big picture.

In my opinion, that decision was brilliant.

Our projects were on parallel paths, always with the goal of our narrative script being completed by the time the documentary was finished.

In December 2011, as I put the finishing touches on our script, Blackmon called – the documentary was chosen to compete at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Blackmon and Jeanne Veillette Bowerman at the Sundance Film Festival

Finally, the recognition we all hoped for.

With most of the crew in Park City for the premiere, Slavery by Another Name, narrated by Laurence Fishburne, was viewed by a packed house glued to the screen. As the credits rolled, they rose to their feet for a two-minute standing ovation.

From Wall Street Journal article, to Pulitzer Prize-winning book, to documentary. A whole new audience was touched by Blackmon’s gripping research. Bound pages, and the true stories of African Americans who could no longer speak for themselves, brought to life by Sam Pollard and his crew.

I arrived at Sundance after the SBAN filmmakers had left, but that didn’t tarnish any of the joy I felt as I sat through four screenings of SBAN.

In the first screening, I was as spellbound as the audience, fascinated to see what Bernard chose to highlight in her writing compared to what we chose to cover in our narrative. As a fellow writer of this world, I can attest to how difficult it was to decide what to use in the 80 years of historical facts Blackmon exposed in his book.

But the most amazing moment of all was at the final screening in Salt Lake City. During the Q& A, an elderly black woman struggled to stand. As she leaned against the seats for balance, she announced that she was the daughter of a sharecropper. Stillness filled the room. We hung on her every word as she praised Blackmon for his research.

She was the face of all the African Americans in that film. She was a living, breathing example of all Blackmon had uncovered.

Blackmon and the sharecropper's daughter

I never did catch her name. But I will never forget the embrace she gave Blackmon. I doubt he will either.

One article in a newspaper. One filmmaker born. Many lives changed forever.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you storytelling or filmmaking is a waste of your time. When done right, and with an amazing group of collaborators who share your passion, it can literally change a nation’s truth.

Now to get our narrative produced … stay tuned.

Slavery by Another Name aired on PBS February 13th. You can watch it online for free or order the DVD. I promise, it will forever change how you view our nation’s racial divide.

8 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: The Road to Sundance

  1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Perry, agreed. Mistakes made on paper are easier (and cheaper) to fix. As crazy as that shoot sounded, my mind was imagining young film students doing what they love… and learning the important lessons of preparation, preparation, preparation. Let’s hope they use this week wisely.

  2. Perry Hall

    Jeanne and Ann,
    Two ladies I pay my respect to. I’ve got to jump in here. This weekend a group of students from a film school in Charleston are filming a short.
    They’ve got a Stage play they’ve written, but they are going to film it and heard that I write sreenplay. By using my Cat structure and Pro Series fundamentals I got them a really good script in two days.
    Their play was all dialog and impossible to fit in another industry.
    It was an expensive set. 35mm film, period correct costumes. 45 participants, and we are burning Joan of Arc at the stake.
    The 19 year old director winged it. Actors didn’t know their lines because they changed. People were tired because we were out there 12 hours starting before sunrise. They got one minute in the can and have to go back next Saturday.
    Now, that director understands why I broke up his talky exposition into camera movement to scenes, gestures, subtext, cats in the windows, and four lines at a time for actors.
    This pertains to your discussion in the fact that you are both right, BUT the director either has to write or understand why the script is written the way it is.
    Because it is so much easier to make your mistakes on paper.

  3. Princess Scribe

    Jeanne, well said. There are many scripts I’d rather turn over to different eyes/hands/hearts/souls.

    And… SBAN is epic. I’m so glad that youve been there to take Douglas’ beautiful work, and give it new life on the screen. You are a wonder!

  4. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Kim, thank you, and I’m certain Doug would want to thank you as well. Yes, I absolutely understand Princess’s point. But even in writing, directing and producing, you still aren’t really alone. After all, there’s and entire crew and actors helping turn a writer’s vision into reality. Bravo to all who dive into this industry, regardless of how we choose to navigate it!

  5. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Princess, it wasn’t my point that one “can’t” write, direct, and produce a project. The point is this to look at each project as an individual entity and make the decision that is best for that singular project. It might not be a decision you apply to all of your projects though. For SBAN, the scope of what had to be done was enormous. There’s no way one person could have done it all. The choice to do so would not have served the project to the degree in which it deserved.

  6. Kim Garland

    Great article, Jeanne, and congrats to ALL of the SBAN collaborators and to Doug in particular – what an extraordinary journey he’s taken so many people on already.

    And I do understand Princess’ point, too. Sometimes you do have to, or really want to, write/direct and produce your own work. There’s a fine line between taking control and being a control freak and cheers to the three of us always finding ourselves on the winning side of that equation!

  7. Princess Scribe

    Great article, as always.

    …although some of us are hybrid by nature. I don’t write/direct/produce TLAU because I am a control freak and believe that nobody else can see my vision. I write/direct/produce because I have two decades of directing for the theatre under my belt, and, last summer, after shadowing a director, was encouraged by this same director to take the plunge, to be the creator of my own body of work. I accepted the challenge, and could not be happier with my decision to do so. TLAU is my balls of steel. Let ’em all clang to their own particular tone! RAWR!