Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Beautiful Thing

Yesterday I got to watch a rough cut of the film.

I'm not even sure what to say about it.  First, it was brilliant.  I LOVED it.  It tells the story of Booker Wright, my journey to find him, Frank's desire to help Mississippians and wondering if he did more harm than good, Ray's relationship with his father and his father's work, and through all of these different lenses, you also get a glimpse of the story of Greenwood and it's conflicted role in the civil rights movement.

Watching it was surreal and bittersweet.  I'm still processing which moments made it in and which ones didn't.  I'm amazed at how Raymond was able to distill so many hours of footage down into one neat little package.  I'm sad about some of the story lines that didn't make the cut and elated that others were left on the cutting room floor.

There is one thing I know for sure.  The film is simply beautiful. Our director of photography is a guy named Joe Victorine.  I knew from working with him that he was thoughtful and deliberate about his craft.  What I mean is that, filmmaking is really hard work and it can often be quite physical.  Joe never cut corners. Regardless of how hot or exhausted he was, it was clear that he always wanted to get each shot and each moment just right.

In spite of heat, mosquitoes, and how much odd equipment needed to be manipulated or carted from one distant place to another - Joe always wanted to get it right.  He was meticulous and thoughtful about every single moment of film that he shot.  Now I see why.  This film is beautiful to look at.  So often the camera is moving in a way that is almost imperceptible, but it captures the subtle pain or irony in a moment without ever intruding on it.

When I was in Greenwood on the first trip I got to go into Booker's Place which is now a rundown and dilapidated building.  I tried to take in as much as I could while I searched for the spirit of my grandfather.  What Joe captured of Booker's Place on film is an accurate representation of what it was like to be in the space.  It's as if the camera was searching for the same thing that I was - a glimpse of Booker Wright.  It was searching for an indication of his spirit in each piece of furniture, in the dust, and even in the air.

How to do this, how to use a camera - a simple machine - to communicate a heartbreaking truth is something that is beyond my ability to grasp.  Joe simply has a gift and I am monumentally grateful that he shared it with us in the making of this film.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Voicing the End

One of the slightly comical things about this whole experience is that while, yes I got to make a movie (a real movie, folks!); it's been anything but glamorous.

Our budget was tight to say the least.  The first time I walked into my house at the Flats the production manager asked me if I'd brought my own towels.

For the record my travel, hotel, and food were all paid for - and I was provided with bathroom towels as well.  I have to say, however, that before I went to Greenwood I was promised that there would be someone to powder me in between scenes.  In the end this amounted to David tossing something akin to tack cloth on a table and instructing Raymond to tell me, my mom, and Vera to blot ourselves if we got too shiny.

Last week David called to tell me that I would need to do a voice over for the film. Saturday morning I got an email from Raymond with a list of three questions and two topics that I would need to respond to in the recording.  I needed to write the content and then send it to Raymond for editing.  Then he'd send it back to me so that I could practice.  This sounds very simple and would've been if both my husband and son didn't just have birthdays.  So, between the circus, birthday parties, birthday luncheons, a sleepover, a soccer game, and volunteering to help with extra stuff at church - I also needed to create some magnificent copy for the film.

Does it sound like I'm complaining?  I'm not.  To be clear, I feel incredibly lucky to have something so fun, meaningful, and exciting dropped into my life. Every now and then I just wish I had a little more control over where and when it landed.  But I've loved every bit of this experience and I'd take it any way it comes.  I would do it over again in a heartbeat - even the painful stuff.

I'm going on a tangent now, bear with me.  That "painful stuff" entry was an intense post and a very painful couple of weeks - lots of crying and lots of calls to my best friends.  Thank you for ladies for helping me through it.  As hurtful as it all was, I have to say I learned a valuable lesson from it all.  Razor-wielding tornadoes cannot be contained in a box.  They need to be avoided at all costs.  Luckily, the only people that got hurt this time around were adults.  It could have been my children who got tangled up in the fray.  So, as painful as all of that was, it served as a much needed wake up call.

Back to my voice over copy:  Despite a few challenges and missed deadlines, the content was written, and the voice over experience was fabulous.  It was one of the few times in this process when I've actually felt a little glam.

The studio was gorgeous.  Everything about it said high end.  The furniture, the snacks, the flooring, all of it was top of the line.  When I went into the recording booth the technician and his assistant set me up with everything I could possibly need.

They gave me a headset and then got Raymond and George on the line.  In the voice over session I had three different scripts, all of which were written in my own words (mostly).  I needed to "read" them in a way that would sound like I was just having a conversation with Raymond.

This was harder than it sounds.

I was trying to sound natural, but I was trying too hard, so I sounded like I was presenting an Oscar to someone or announcing a war or something.  It's times like these that I really, truly love working with Raymond De Felitta.

At one point during the voice over he gave me some direction in an effort to get me to read a section a little differently.  After rereading it I heard silence.  I asked if I'd completely messed it up.  He quickly said, "No, no I think I may have given you the wrong direction."  Raymond is truly kind.  He's always helping me without ever alluding to my lack of experience in the industry.

In the booth that I was in I sat on a stool and faced a window that had a rolled up shade at the top of it.  Beyond that window was a room with tons of devices and machines and a technician who was moving buttons around while I talked.  In my headset I could hear Raymond's voice.  He kept telling me to pretend like he was right there with me.  I felt self-conscious because I knew the technician could see me.  To properly pretend that Raymond was there I would need to "look" at him and gesture with my hands.

So, in true Hollywood fashion, I stopped the recording and asked the technician if he would come in and pull the shade down so that he wouldn't see me.  I know, I was being a baby and maybe even a little prima donna-ish, but it worked.  Instead of redoing everything five times I was able to do some sections only once.

Alas, my "Hollywood" moment didn't last long.  When the recording session was over I turned into a true fan and asked the technician's assistant to take a photo of me with my iPhone - hence, the blur.  Then when I went to the parking lot - which is completely visible from the studio lobby, I was met by my husband who was there to give my truck a jump.  Back to reality.

I keep writing about how the making of the film is over for me.  In Oxford, the last day of the final trip, I sat down with my laptop and wrote several hundred words about what I thought had been my last on-camera moment. I was trying to capture the feeling of my movie-making experience coming to an end.

While I was writing it, the production manager came in to tell me that I was needed on-camera for Margurite's interview.  It wasn't over after all.  That was a fantastic way to end the trip, by the way.  She and I are deeply connected by a love for a man she knew only as a girl and who I never knew at all.

Unfortunately, the interview almost didn't happen.  One week before the last trip my Razor-wielding Tornado gave my relationship with Margurite a serious blow. As a result, Margurite wasn't sure if she could trust me. She'd been made to believe that it was my goal to destroy Booker Wright's legacy, so she almost didn't come to Oxford at all.

Thankfully, she did come.  After what she was told about me, it was clear that our relationship was still a little tenuous.  I could tell that she wasn't quite sure about me.  It hurt that she so easily believed what she'd heard from my Tornado, but I know that she was just caught in the middle.

When she got to Oxford Raymond spent some time with her and made her feel more comfortable - he is so good at disarming people. In the end, Margurite was able to trust us enough to go on camera and share her memories of Booker Wright.

What's so amazing about her is that she, just like Vera, talks about my grandfather as if he were dipped in magic.  It dripped from him and anyone he loved got drenched in it.  When Margurite and Vera talk about Booker, they bring the magic.

I hope that one day when she finally sees this film, she'll know without a doubt that my intentions were always true.

I thought my Margurite interview marked the end.  Then yesterday I recorded the voice over.  Maybe that was the last recorded thing I'll do for this film, but maybe not.  Either way, it's been an amazing ride.

It doesn't really matter which event marks the end of my movie-making experience - what matters is that I was brave enough to get on the ride at all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Update on Cork

Every couple of days I stop by the Post Office, search through my purse for a tiny, golden key, unlatch my kids from their car seats, and head into the building with a hope that I'll find a letter from Lloyd Louis Cork waiting for me in this little box.

This image is what I see on most of those visits.  Sometimes I find junk mail or random bills in there. But, the odd excitement I felt when I received his first letter has yet to be duplicated.

I keep thinking about the first letter I sent to him this past June.  I was nervous about reaching out to the man who murdered my grandfather.  I tried as hard as I could to remove emotion or the possibility of blame from my initial letter.  I tried to give the impression that my interest in Cork and his relationship to my grandfather was just pure curiosity or maybe even mildly academic.  I didn't give the impression that I desperately wanted to have him answer some vital questions about what happened the night that Booker Wright was shot in cold blood in his own restaurant.

Cork seemed to buy it.  In late July I received a somewhat lengthy letter from him that was thoughtful and detailed.  In the letter he seemed, for lack of a better word, nice.  I got the impression that he wanted  me to like him.  He spoke highly of my grandfather and of Booker's Place.  He also explained his version of how the events unfolded that led up to my grandfather's shooting.  He asked me how old I was and said that he needed my phone number so that he could add me to his call list - this would allow the two of us to connect over the phone.

I wrote back about a week later.  In my letter I asked him to begin the procedure that would allow me to meet him in person - an idea that he was open to according to what was written in his first letter.  I didn't tell him how old I was or offer him my phone number.  It's been well over a month and I haven't heard back from him.

Last week I wrote to him again.  Usually, I take a piece of computer paper and write to him in longhand.  This time I used a blank card with flowers on it and asked if he received my previous letter.

I am waiting on pins and needles for correspondence from a murderer.  I am anxiously anticipating word from the man who shattered my family.

I simply need to know whether or not I'm ever going to see him.  If he writes back, then I know that eventually I'll be sitting across from him.  The question that keeps coming to me is how long do I hold out hope that he'll write me back.  I could get a letter from him in two months or in two decades.  I've opened a door that may remain open for as long as I have that PO Box.

Without intending to, I've given Lloyd Cork a bit of power in my life.

The other day I found a letter leaning on the sidewall of that PO Box.  I was more than a little excited when I thrust my hand into the box and pulled the letter out.  It wasn't from Cork.  Why hasn't he written back?  Is he toying with me?  Is he taking the opportunity to hurt Booker Wright one more time by leaving his granddaughter in limbo?  Or maybe he's just working to pull together the paperwork that would allow us to meet.  Does it even matter?  Whether he knows it or not, he's in the driver's seat in this situation.

I am at his mercy.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Steak and A Song

One of the first things Vera ever told me about Booker was how he felt when he opened Booker’s Place in Greenwood, MS in the early 1950’s after working for well over ten years at Lusco’s Restaurant.  She said he felt like he was “his own man.”  It wasn’t until I saw the 1966 film and watched my grandfather play the role that he played at Lusco’s, where he clearly was not his own man, that I was finally able to grasp just how important it must’ve been to him to be his own boss.  At Booker’s Place he could drop the act. 

After appearing in Frank’s film in 1966, Booker’s employment at Lusco’s ended because some of their regular customers no longer wanted him to wait on them. 

I keep going back to the “relationship” Booker had with his white customers at Lusco’s.  At one of my first meetings with them, Raymond and David told me that many of the customers at Lusco’s had “hurt feelings” when Booker spoke out on the news program and that they felt like his statement was a betrayal.  I can remember wanting to throw my hands in the air and laugh, scream, and pull my hair out all at the same time.  It struck me as so idiotic that the oppressors had really come to believe that the one oppressed was happy.

But I can kind of get it now.  Booker was so good at giving them what they most certainly would've been looking for.  A relationship that would save them from being called into account for the sins of their fathers.  They never wanted to truly explain how their grandfathers were able to build their beautiful homes with such cheap labor or explain why they felt disgusted at the thought of sharing a drinking fountain with someone whose skin was a few shades darker than theirs. 

Booker kept them from ever having to explain.  He was their evidence that they were evolved.  They let themselves believe that Booker’s dance was 100% sincere and that he was nothing but delighted to deliver a steak and a song to them every night of the week. 

As painful as it is and as much as I hate to do it, I have to ask myself if they can really be held responsible for not taking the time to consider my grandfather’s happiness or to consider his place in their locked down socioeconomic system.  He seemed so happy being a waiter that it may have never occurred to them that he would ever want to be anything else – he was just a poor black man, after all. 

Did it ever occur to them that maybe he became a waiter because he didn’t want to work those fields and that, when he was originally hired at Lusco’s, those were his only two career options?  It seems to me that they chose to believe that he had happily selected his place in society just like they had chosen to be dentists, car salesmen, politicians, and the like. 

Well, they were wrong. 

In making this film, I’ve had the awkwardly heartwarming experience of meeting many of the men and women Booker waited on during his 25 year stint at Lusco’s.  Their faces light up and glow with the memory of my grandfather singing the menu to them, delighting their children with funny stories, and his ability to remember the orders of five full tables at once. 

Today, when I look into the eyes of some of these people I can see that they truly loved him.  It was a complicated kind of love.  One that I’m sure must’ve included some level of shame and regret.  I think many of them felt helpless about their place in the structure of Southern society in the 1960’s.  They didn’t build it, but they certainly reaped its benefits.  Were they all supposed to become activists?

Some of these very customers embrace me when they meet me.  Their eyes fill with tears.  I embrace them back and listen intently to their memories of my grandfather.  Sometimes these encounters go on and on.  At times, I feel like a priest.  My nodding head and inviting eyes allow them to bask in the good thing they had with my grandfather and to finally bury any guilt that might still be lingering. 

The simple truth is that I can’t help but to love anyone who loved Booker Wright. Their affection for him - their sweet, unchanging, delightful affection for him - has won me over, in spite of myself. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sweet as Honey

I'm back home.  I'm sitting in a Paradise Bakery scratching mosquito bites on my forearm, the true souvenir from my trip.  I couldn't post the dates of when I was going back to Greenwood because there were a couple of people who we didn't want to know that we were coming.  One of them was M.W.

This trip was a lot shorter, just five days.  It was probably my last trip to Greenwood, at least the last one I'll take with a film crew.  I still can't believe that I got to make a real movie.  I also can't believe the amazing people that I got to work with.  From the sound guy, the cinematographer, the editor, and the production assistants - the team of people that made the shoot happen were always kind, fun, and hardworking.  I know that some of them I will never see again, except of course on Facebook.

As I sit here, the thing that sticks out to me about this last trip is M.W.  I think I can write her name now, Honey Wright.  Honey and my grandfather were together for over 20 years.  When I look at her I always feel amazed because I'm looking at someone who stood next to him, fed him, kissed him, and was loved by him for many, many years.

In the summer of 2010, she sat down with me for about three hours and told me stories about Booker Wright, Booker's Place, his family, and their life together.  She was warm, confident and funny.  She repeatedly hopped up to make me drinks, get me crackers, and so on.  She was funny and full of life.  Her memory was like a moving picture in her mind and she took me for a ride.

When I first started compiling a list of possible interviewees for Raymond and David, Honey Wright's name was at the top of my list.  I called her several months ago to ask her to help with this film.  Initially she said yes, then I heard through her daughter that Honey would not be involved.  I had trouble getting her on the phone, when I finally did she sounded confused.  I thought that maybe I'd woken her from a nap.  I heard through the grapevine that one of her sisters, the one she traveled with and spent the most time with, had died.  I felt badly for her, but I didn't think too much about it because I really needed her to agree to get on camera with us and also to provide photos of Booker.

Over the last several months the filmmakers and I have had countless strategic conversations about how to get what we need from Honey Wright.

I saw her briefly on the June trip.  I hardly recognized her.  She'd gained weight and she seemed hunched over even when standing straight up.  I was warm towards her.  I always feel warm towards her.  But I needed the photos so I didn't really take her in.  In July I found out that she lost another sister not long after I left Greenwood.  I wrote her a card and called to give my condolences.  This time I sincerely felt for her, but part of me was also trying to cultivate trust so that I could get what I needed from her.

I know how this sounds.  Yes, I feel ashamed.

I saw her on this latest trip.  I learned that she's actually lost three sisters in less than 13 months.  Raymond and I sat down with her, showed her a few scenes from the movie he's making, and chatted a bit.  She was so frail.  She was reflective, talking about her life as if she believes she's at the end of it.  She was tired, her thoughts would trail off.  She often looked into space and just stared.

Finally, I was able to see her.  Her hair fell in soft, intentional curls.  Her skin, which is so light brown that you can hardly tell her race, was clear and delicately decorated with dark freckles.  Her long, thin fingers traced the table as we spoke. Her eyes were large and brown.  They reminded me of the way a young child will often look off when you answer a question for them.  Their expression fades to nothing and their lips may slightly part as they use all their mental energy to conceptualize what you've just explained to them.  Honey has those eyes.

I finally get it.  She's not avoiding us.  She's not trying to make our work difficult. She's not afraid of anything.  She's tired.  She sent her warmth, her memories, and her joy to me a year ago and she simply has very little of it left.  Three sisters have died since her screen door shut on our visit in June of 2010.  She's holding on to today as tightly as she can.  She's no longer concerned with events that took place almost 40 years ago.

I love looking at her.  I want to watch her when she sees the movie we make.  I want her to swell with warmth about the man who moved through her life all those years ago.  I want to send her home with joy.