SXSW - Stanley Nelson: History in the Making - March 9, 2008
I took plenty of notes at panels during SXSW over the past few days, so I thought I’d start by posting notes from my very favorite panel there by far, that being the discussion with historical documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. I had been a fan of Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and really wanted to hear him speak about that and other films I have yet to see. Not only did he show clips from a few of his docs, he also showed a sneak peek of his upcoming film Wounded Knee that’s slated to air on PBS sometime next year. It was the first time the public has ever seen it. I often like panels that include film clips because they bring a lot of perspective into the discussion.
SXSW Film Conference & Festival
Stanley Nelson: History in the Making
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Austin Convention Center – Room 15 – 1pm
Paul Stekler - University of Texas
Stanley Nelson - Exec Producer, Firelight Media
Stekler began the discussion by saying he had seen Nelson’s documentary Two Dollars and a Dream years ago and liked it a lot. Since then, Nelson has made multiple films including The Murder of Emmett Till and Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple. Now Nelson is finishing a film about Wounded Knee.
Nelson: Every film has a different challenge. One challenge is that you’re usually limited to the historical context. A lot of my films end up on TV and you have to work within the time slot. I kept Jonestown down to one and a half hours. You have to determine what you will leave in and what you will take out. You’re telling history, but also making entertainment.
[Clip of Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple. Scene of the last day of People’s Temple in Guyana before the massacre in 1978.]
Stekler: What was the challenge of making Jonestown? What was your game plan?
Nelson: Early on in the process, I found members of People’s Temple that were still alive. I wanted the film to be told by the people who were there. I originally thought we were going to do re-creations, but once I found out how much footage there was, I didn’t need to do that. I started collecting the footage there was. Nobody had ever put it all together. There was so much footage that NBC shot. One of the real limitations of the film was trying to do it without narration.
Stekler: Why do filmmakers shy away from narration?
Nelson: I think it’s a kind of style. For example, a lot of documentaries on HBO have no narration. In films that were about such topics as anorexia or rehab, you don’t really learn too much about the topics themselves, but more about the stories of the people dealing with them.
[Clip of The Murder of Emmett Till. The scene is a re-creation of the taking of Emmett Till with narration.]
Stekler: What were some of the challenges and the structure for Emmett Till?
Nelson: In 1955, Emmett Till was a black kid from Chicago who visits his uncle in Mississippi and gets murdered for whistling at a white woman. I found people who were witnesses to the murder who say things they never said before. It wasn’t my original intent. I had been there to get the historical perspective. When I first got the idea for Emmett Till, I wanted to see what also has been done on him before. There was an 11-minute short called Eyes on the Prize.
Stekler: Tell us your funny story about the re-creation of that scene?
Nelson: The last bit of them washing out the truck, that’s me in the overalls. I received a call from the MacArthur Foundation that same day between takes, and I was dancing.
Stekler: Did this film make the news?
Nelson: The last two people interviewed in the film had never talked about it before. I showed the film to an audience at the Schomburg Center in Harlem and a lot of people got mad and wanted to go down to the town where the murder took place. The case had been re-opened and investigated. They turned evidence over to the D.A. and it was decided not to do anything with it. Even though the suspects were put on trial, the case was never really investigated.
[Clip of A Place of Our Own about and African-American community on Martha’s Vinyard. The scene with Isabelle Washington, Adam Clayton Powell’s first wife.]
Stekler: Tell us about A Place of Our Own?
Nelson: I was interested in what African American lives are like. I wanted to do a film about black resorts. When I grew up, it was an unknown place. It had a black population in the summer. I mixed together a personal story of my own family history and this place. It was really strange. I would never do it again. It involved a lot of sharing. My editor and my wife pushed me to do it. It asked about growing up on an audio tape, and the editor listened to it and asked further questions. It was really hard. Why would anyone care? It was such a disaster that I thought no one would ever see it. I got it down to a fine cut and sent it to Sundance, where it got in. What was fascinating was I don’t think I had a clear idea when I was making this. I found home movies. I asked friends and family to get involved. The bad thing was that 95% of the home movies were made on the beach, and not within the homes.
Stekler: How do you see your role as a filmmaker?
Nelson: I’m very interest in the black middle class, because that’s my history and I don’t see them on film and TV. I’m also interested in telling stories of the institutions behind the history.
[Clip of Wounded Knee that will air on PBS’ American Experience sometime next year. Scene is an animated recreation of the children of Wounded Knee being sent to boarding school.]
Stekler: Tell us about Wounded Knee.
Nelson: In 1973, American Indian groups took over the town of Wounded Knee to draw attention to the massacre that happened there in 1890. The difficulty in making films about historical events is, how do you tell the story without a huge amount of back story? The film starts with the siege of the town, and then goes into the back story.
Q: Have you ever been approached to do a social change documentary?
Nelson: I try to do a mix between historical and social change films. Running was about an election for city council in New York City in 2001. I did some10-minute short films on affirmative action. I’m doing one on immigration. Trying to do different things kind of gets old unless you take yourself away from it for a while.
Q: Is it always organic or do you start out knowing what your films will be?
Nelson: I don’t always know what they will be. I put an idea on paper and turn it into a proposal. I don’t do too much research. I don’t usually go into a pitch meeting and get a check right away. For Emmett Till, I got some books and only read the intro, table of contents and index. Then I begin a proposal. You need to know more than the people you’re applying for money from know.
Q: What choices did you make for the animation in Wounded Knee?
Nelson: One of my advisers didn’t like it. I had to try to figure out what there is new to do. A lot of people know something about boarding schools. I found a book of ledger art with drawings from their time at the schools. We thought it would be great to animate it. It’s been kind of controversial with the production team. We asked ourselves, does the animation make light of the actual events? They’re not complicated drawings. We hired an animator for it.