Exclusive Interview: Writer Darci Picoult on Sundance 2013 Film 'Mother of George'
As writers, some stories grab us and won’t let go. They hit us in the gut, they work their way into our bones, and they won’t release us until we write the story. For films, writing the story is merely the beginning. For many independent films, writing the story launches a journey over many years to see the film finally come to life. For Sundance 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition film Mother of George, the project first traveled to Sundance as part of the Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab back in 2005, and the story’s origin goes back further than that. To share with us the long journey of Mother of George from concept to finished film, we continue our series of interviews with Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition screenwriters with an extensive and generous interview with the film’s screenwriter and a producer of the film, Darci Picoult.
To give us a summary of the film, here’s a video introduction by Mother of George director Andrew Dosunmu from the Sundance Film Festival website:
Darci Picoult is an accomplished and award-winning playwright. Her one-woman show My Virginia was presented in theaters and solo festivals both nationally and internationally, including the New York Theater Workshop, Ensemble Studio Theater, LA Theater Work’s “The Play’s The Thing” series, (broadcast on National Public Radio), “Women Center Stage” in St. Louis, San Francisco’s Solo Mio Festival, Philadelphia’s Women’s Theater Festival, Slovenia’s “City of Women” Theater Festival and in Croatia at the Cultural Center for Women Refugees. My Virginia was also presented at legal and medical conferences across the country in programs co-sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health. Her play Lil’s 90th was developed at the Sundance Theater Lab in 2008. She is the recipient of the 2008 National Theater Conference/Paul Green Award for her theatrical work. She teaches acting at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU. Mother of George is her first screenplay.
This interview was conducted by phone, and has been edited for clarity.
Please give us a summary of the story of Mother of George.
Mother of George is about a woman who is willing to do anything and risk everything for her marriage.
You had a long road to get this film to the screen. Mother of George was part of the 2005 Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab. Can you describe for us the history of this film and how you and the team persevered to see it through?
Many years ago, I was invited to present a one-woman show that I had written called My Virginia at the International Association of Women Justices, an amazing event with many influential women from around the world, including Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor. During the conference, I was also invited to go to lectures and symposiums that they were having, most of which was over my head because it was legalese. But I went to one and it was just an amazing panel of women lawyers and judges talking about different stories involving women. One woman from southern Africa got up and told a story she called Mother of George. I sat there and I thought, that could be my story, and it never left me. A year later, literally, I called her in Zimbabwe, and spoke to her and thus the seed was planted for what I thought could be really interesting script. I just had a deep personal connection to the story, and that to me is always the bond that takes me into any story or any writing.
I spent years researching and meeting women and men from Africa who lived in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, and they became my way into the story. I created a family based on these interviews as well as my imagination. I had written several drafts of it, and then someone who worked with Sundance read it and sent it to Angus Gibson, a very acknowledged, wonderful producer and director in South Africa. Angus responded to it and called me. He said, “I think you need to meet this director who I’m working with whose directing this TV series called Yizo Yizo,” which was a very well-known, very highly respected TV series that was actually one of the only TV series that was invited into the Venice Film Festival. “The name of this director is Andrew Dosunmu.” I said I would be delighted to talk to him.
So Andrew and I began talking through email for several months. It was emails to and from Africa and then London. Then he called me and said that he was in New York and that he wanted to meet me. I said “I would love to, but I have to pick up my child from school.” He said, “Where does she go?” I said, “Well, I live in Brooklyn.” So I tell him where my daughter went to school, and he says, “Oh, my son goes there.” And I said “No, he doesn’t, you don’t live in Brooklyn.” He said, “Oh yes I do.” I said, “Who’s your son?” So he tells me his son’s name, and I said, “Oh my God, I’m [so-and-so's] mother.” We had never known, we had no idea that we were the same persons that we had been emailing, and I thought this is kismet, this is totally meant to be.
Andrew is such a brilliant photographer and filmmaker, and he was really able to help me write with my eyes, not just with my ears, because most of my work has been in the theater, which is so language-driven. And Mother of George was something I knew I wanted to write for film. Andrew really pushed me and gave me such insight that furthered the development of the script. We went to Sundance together in 2005 as you noted. And now, here we are, seven, eight years later.
The honest truth is that this film almost happened several times. It’s the classic story of funding falling through. Also, Andrew was very particular in his vision, which is very much my vision of how we wanted to do this story. So, it just took a while to get the financing to tell it in the way we wanted to. And that was with the actors that are in the film, with the actors that we wanted to have. I am just so thrilled and honored that they’re in the film, and thrilled and honored that together with our great producers, we did this the way we believed was organic to the story.
At any point in time from conceiving the story, working with Andrew, going to the Sundance Labs back in 2005, was there ever a point where the two of you thought, this isn’t meant to be, maybe we should move on. Or were you constantly trying to get this thing done?
Of course, there were moments, back in 2008, where I thought, I cannot believe we’re not doing this movie yet because we got so close and we thought it was going to happen. Oddly enough, in the summer of 2008, I was invited to the Sundance Theater Lab with a script, a totally different script for a play. So I was writing other things, and I thought, okay, you know, I don’t really need to be on the set if I have to go away for a couple of weeks. I so trust and believe in Andrew. If this is going to happen, let it happen, and let’s go with it. And then it didn’t happen. Financing had fallen through. So then, I felt, and I think Andrew felt, okay, let’s take a deep breath. Andrew continued to do his own work. He did a film called Restless City that premiered in the NEXT division of Sundance last year. He made it for a shoestring. He felt that if we couldn’t get funding for Mother of George, he didn’t want to just wait around, he wanted to continue to push and challenge himself because he’s a filmmaker. So he was working on that, and he felt it would also be great because it would be shooting in New York and lay the groundwork for Mother of George even in terms of crew.
So, Andrew shot Restless City and at the same point I was working on another script, but I never, ever gave up on Mother of George because I just knew we had to tell this story. I ended up becoming a producer on the film because of that, because I was just seeking any support anywhere we could go. We had fantastic people come on board. One of the amazing things that happened was the Ford Foundation came on board, and it’s one of the first narrative films they have supported. They looked at Mother of George and supported it as artistic expression. They really helped us and are a big reason why we are here today, along with several other producers and financiers and investors that have really been incredibly important to us.
You mentioned you became a producer on the film because you were reaching out and looking for resources anywhere. When you decided to take on that role, did it influence your role as a screenwriter? Do you feel at any point in time that you had to change the screenplay in order to get this movie made?
No. It wasn’t that I decided to become a producer. I just knew I needed to get this film made. That was really the bottom line. I so believed in Andrew that I thought I will do whatever it takes to get this done. The producers that I worked with, Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen and Carly Hugo and Matt Parker, were instrumental to supporting our vision and not saying no. So it wasn’t a decision as much as an evolution of my own perseverance, supported by and working with them.
The script changes, of course, as you get closer and closer to production because we only shot for 22 days. I was on the set the entire time, and it was great because Andrew and I really work well together. For instance, if we knew we’re not going to be able to get to this particular scene, we just don’t have time for this scene, I would then sit there and think, okay, what is the most important part of that scene? Can I include a line of that scene in another scene or a moment that will articulate that? Or can we let it go and it will all work out because that moment is similar to this moment in this scene? That happened a lot. As I have said, I trusted Andrew so much that I never felt, “This is jeopardizing the story,” or “This is not what I want to say.” If anything, it was the opposite. He’s bringing this to full life.
There were moments, of course, as we continued that I could challenge him and I could say, what about that moment? I’m not sure about that, should we have that there? He was amazingly open, and that continued even through the editing process so that, while I was not in the editing room, I was at every screening that we had and able to really talk to him and exchange thoughts and ideas and notes so that ultimately it was his decision, but I was part that tapestry. That was an amazing experience as a writer because I don’t think that is the norm, and I’m very grateful that I was part of that.
When you have that mutual respect as we have, it makes things fertile. As a matter of fact, we’re working on our next project together, and that was something that you never know when you start working with someone. Sometimes after a collaboration, you think, okay, that was great and good luck. But after this film with Andrew, it was, what are we going to do next? We created that language and ability to talk and challenge and move forward together that enabled us to really look at what we have as a partnership.
How do you decide to write a story as a screenplay as opposed to a play? What steps do you take to get to a draft of a screenplay and how do you go about revising it?
That’s a great question. For instance, I’m working on a new project of my own, and not the one I’m working with Andrew on, and this is a very personal film for me. I’ve never done this before, but I decided to write it as a screenplay and also in a very different way as a theater piece. So I finished the screenplay, but I was also working on it at different moments as the theater script. Now, I am almost finished with the theater script, which I know will influence me when I go back to the screenplay because with certain scenes, I have found moments that maybe I never would have found if I didn’t write it as a theater script, too.
I think a good story being told in either medium is about the complications and the contradictions that any person goes through, be it told theatrically or cinematically. The difference with cinema is seeing it and writing it again with a more visual sense. Also, less is more in terms of the dialogue in cinema because so much will be captured within the actor’s face and how a director decides to shoot a particular scene. Often, I’ll write and then I’ll trim, trim, trim, trim, and say, okay, if this scene was a page long, what would this scene be? What don’t I need, what do I need? To find those moments that maybe theatrically I put into a monologue, or theatrically I would put into language, what can I capture just by something visual? And it could be a moment, it could be a private moment. Because in theater, I don’t write a lot of monologues, but if I do write a monologue, it’s the inner thoughts of someone. In cinema, you can capture the inner thoughts with a close-up.
I think that they are both are after the same thing, which for me is: how we present ourselves publicly and how we interact in the world at large is one thing. Who we are privately sometimes is a different thing. And the rub between the two can be very, very interesting. That’s definitely there in Mother of George. It’s such a deep story about family and secrets and expectations and wants, and when those expectations and wants sometimes rub up against what is possible. I think that any time I’m working, be it for theater or film, it’s to capture that rub.
The original title of your script was Ma’ George…
No, the original title was Mother of George. We almost went with Ma’ George, and then we decided to go back to Mother of George. Part of it is really the way Andrew and our brilliant cinematographer Bradford Young, who is just amazing, decided to shoot the film. It’s interesting because Andrew and Brad together are just an incredible match because Brad used to study Andrew’s photography as an artist. So they spoke a language that was compatible and visionary. Through their collaboration, there’s a classiness and an elegance to the film and the title Mother of George reflects that, I believe, and so did Andrew. There’s a weight to Mother of George that we thought, looking at the film now, let’s go back to the original title. Which I was very happy about because that was the title I began with when I started writing, pre-Andrew, pre-everyone. That was what really stuck in my heart.
So that’s how you’ve always thought of it in your mind.
What was it about this particular story that you saw as a screenplay as opposed to a stage play?
I think that visually I knew that it would have these very intricate layers and that it would be very intimate. I felt so deeply that expressing and exposing that intimacy would be beautiful on film. You know, you can look at any film that’s out there and if you rethink it, anything can be done in either medium, I think. I think a good story is a good story, but some stories speak to you in a particular medium. There was something that I knew given the intimacy of this story and given that it’s a world that I was trying to create in this family, in this home, in this relationship that I just thought from the get-go this story had to be told as a film. It was the first film I ever wrote. It was just wild, this is my impulse, I’m going with it.
What did you find to be the most challenging scene or sequence of this screenplay to write? I’m also curious if that scene actually made it into the final film the way you described the shooting process.
I connected so deeply to the story that once I had spoken to a number of people and once I started to write this, I felt that I understood something in this woman’s heart. The challenging aspect was to really flesh this out with the particular world where the story is set, which is in Brooklyn, but it definitely exposes a Nigerian family. I want to make sure any time I write that it’s authentic. What was amazing with Andrew is that he could say to me at different points, “You know, that wouldn’t be said like that, think about this.” And then I would think about it and come back with something different, and that to me was the collaboration that I love, and we’ve actually spoken to each other about it because he as a director doesn’t write. Many directors write. He is brilliant and gives me feedback, but he really trusts that I will write what needs to be written. I have a good ear, but he really helped tune that ear.
As far as what didn’t end up in the film, there were many moments, snippets of scenes that are not in the film that I love, but what’s there I just feel so happy with because I think that Andrew created this story and brought this story to life in the way that he saw it. I really feel he did an amazing job. Another director perhaps would have taken my script and done something else. Those are the chances you take any time you collaborate, but at this point, I don’t miss anything. There are little moments here and there that, oh yeah, I remember that, of course there’s that moment, but I also know that there are moments that Andrew put together that I’m like, “Wow, that was so smart of him to do!” That’s what gets exciting, to have that collaboration.
That’s what makes it really exciting to work with Andrew on future projects because even a year ago or two years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to talk about it in this specific way but now we can because we’ve gone through the filming of Mother of George, we’ve gone through the editing. We’ve really been in a creative bed together that enables to us to cut to the chase, and I know how he see things in a way that I knew before but I deeply know now. I think he also knows how I work.
Do you feel like it will speed up your creative process?
I think it may, after this happens. The film is getting delivered to Sundance momentarily, as we speak. After Sundance, I think it will. Already the way we’re speaking about it, it creates an ease from which we can then get down and dirty. It’s almost like the more comfortable you get with someone, the more uncomfortable you can get in the writing. There’s a connection there, there’s a way of working so you’re not afraid.
What has been the most unexpected part about getting into Sundance so far?
Getting in! I knew it was a highly competitive year. I had no idea. They had many, many lab projects as well as many, many other films submitted. Literally, I was unsure because we had sent in an early cut of the film. We weren’t even done yet in any way, shape or form. I don’t know what’s going to happen at the festival. I think as a writer, too, that Sundance is so focused on directors, and most directors are their own writers, so I think what’s yet to come is unexpected. I’m definitely there to celebrate the fact that I’m giving birth along with Andrew and everyone else that created Mother of George that I know this is a big moment for us. How the response will be is unexpected. As a writer, I don’t know what that journey will be. I think already for Andrew as a director, there’s already interviews being set up, etc., and I think it’s director-driven, so that’s why it’s fun talking to you! [laughs]
We would like to thank Darci Picoult for her time and generosity. We would also like to thank Katelyn Bogacki of Strategy PR/Consulting for arranging the interview.
What part of Darci Picoult’s journey with Mother of George inspires you with your current and future writing endeavors? Have you had a story that just wouldn’t let go until you saw it made, no matter how long it took? Share with us in the Comments.