Elizabeth Coffman on bringing Flannery O’Connor to a new audience

Elizabeth Coffman has made documentaries about climate change and international politics along with her partner, cinematographer Ted Hardin, and their production company, Long Distance Productions. An academic and archivist herself, Coffman loves centering her stories on writers’ perspectives: One More Mile: A Dialogue on Nation-Building features author Aleksandar Hemon’s perspectives on migration and the Balkan Wars, and Veins of the Gulf is narrated by poet Martha Serpas.

Their newest film, all about fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, has been in the making for almost a decade. The project is rich with archival work, animations, and interviews with writers, scholars, friends, and publishers. Watch Flannery on virtual Film Forum here, and you can read my review of the movie here!

 

I know that you have an academic background, a PhD in English, and I wondered how that influenced your approach to making a movie about a writer?

Well that’s how it all started! I was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, which is basically South Georgia, and, you know, Atlanta was the big city growing up. I’m just starting a new film on Jacksonville too. It’s such a segregated place, and my own experiences as a white privileged person growing up there, but observing the “mysteries and manners” around me.

I couldn’t wait to move to New York City, I couldn’t wait to be a writer. I did move to New York for a little while, but I pretty quickly left the journalism writing scene in New York and went back to get a PhD in English at the University of Florida. I was just in love with literature and storytelling.

I thought I was going to study Faulkner when I started my PhD, and then the program I was at in Gainsville, there were several really strong film studies faculty, and I very quickly fell in love with the experiential nature of storytelling in film, with sound and image.

So I shifted from really American Southern literature to film studies. Then I did the history of film, and the history of women dancing in film. I love archival research. Back when I was in my early twenties, you really had to travel to archives to watch early film history, and what’s wonderful now is so much is accessible online for archival work.

My interest in history, my love of filmmaking and experiential storytelling, really kind of took over for a while. I pretty quickly, about fifteen years ago, started full-on filmmaking again. I still do some scholarship, and I love documentary history and documentary scholarship, but my love of storytelling, my love of writing, is really what won the day.

Flannery was initiated by my co-director, Father Mark Bosco, who is a Flannery O’Connor scholar, and a theology professor. He’d never made a film before, he didn’t know how to do it, so he asked me if I’d like to help him on a film about Flannery O’Connor. At first I was like, “Okay, sure.” But then he showed me these earlier archival films of Sally Fitzgerald, Bob Giroux, interviews that were done in the 90s actually, and once I finally took a look at those films, I knew we had an NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] project on our hands.

So I think my writing background and my understanding of historical storytelling, once I saw these interviews, and for people like yourself, people who love storytelling, Flannery O’Connor, Southern storytelling in particular, I could just tell this was a goldmine for a certain kind of film.

We started there, got an NEH grant. I have a friend, who’s an executive producer, Bob Hercules, who helped us get to American Masters [on PBS]. And ten years later, here we are.

Do you have a favorite O’Connor story?

For right now, in terms of its timeliness, I’d have to say “The Displaced Person,” I really love. As you can tell in the film, I really love “Revelation.” I’m so into her work now, that, as I also tell people, I really love her letters! I mean I’ve been obsessed with telling a literary biography, and it’s part of where I fell in love with O’Connor as a person too, you know, you really get a sense of her sense of humor, her slight arrogance, and her bravery. She was not a sentimentalist, she did not feel sorry for herself because of lupus, so I personally keep going back to her letters and her essays.

The Violent Bear It Away, wow. Her work is, it’s so modernist, and that’s not something she gets a lot of credit for. Faulkner does, I mean Faulkner’s brilliant, but O’Connor, you read The Violent Bear It Away and it just slays me, really it is so dark and harsh, you just wonder where it came from and where she was when she was writing it.

In the documentary, you have some discussion about film adaptations of her work, like with the 1979 Wise Blood. I was curious about how you and Mark approached putting O’Connor’s stories on screen in that context.

I got [O’Connor’s] trust to agree to actors with voice, and to motion graphics. That’s where the animation comes in. For Mark and I both it made a lot of sense, because O’Connor started as a cartoonist, and she was a painter throughout her life, and I think she had this real exaggerated comic sense in her fiction. We had three great female animators who worked on the film, as well as a motion graphics artist who’s a good friend. We had some great artists who completely committed themselves to reading her work, understanding her storytelling, and loved and admired her. What did you think of the animations?

I loved them, the cartoonish thing—her stories are very visual, they have these big weird figures in them, and sometimes there will be an image that’s terrifying, it works well with the animations. I also loved the poster, the silhouette of her with the crutches.

Well that’s the talented Kathleen Judge, who really did the lead amount of story illustration and animation. And Kathleen went to RISD, she is a hugely talented artist who has done great music videos. My other lead editor, Joe Winston, we were brainstorming who we could look for for story animation and illustration. And Mark Bosco found Natalie Barahona just online, and liked her stuff! My editor helped find Kathleen Judge, who lived in Chicago for a long time, and I took one look at this music video she’d done, and I said that’s it, I just loved her work immediately.

I saw Heidi Kumao’s work, she does the opening titles and the closing credits, the great kind of rotoscope white outline of O’Connor. Heidi dressed up as Flannery and video taped herself and she even went to Georgia and got a fellowship and really studied the flora and fauna and read O’Connor’s literature.

I saw [Heidi’s] work at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, a short experimental film she had done. Same thing, I took one look at her film, it was about her having broken her back, and the film was trying to visualize what that was like from her perspective, and I wanted to find someone who could really represent what it’s like for O’Connor walking with crutches and being differently abled most of her adult life. So, I just walked up to her after I saw her film at this film festival and said “Would you be interested?” and she was like “Sure!”

So all three of these women really threw themselves into the project.

How did you approach O’Connor’s racism? Because of course it’s complicated.

It’s impossible for anyone to 100% answer that question, but for me personally, our film encompasses the response the best, which is to look at her stories and her letters, and her understanding really that the situation [of racism in the American South she lived in] was, and this is a word she uses in a letter, was terrible.

Another word she uses a lot and critiques in her letters is “piousness,” so for her, sort of pressure, “pious language” she has a really hard time with, because, this was in a letter to Marriot Lee, because of the realities it hides. She was interested in the realities of how people treat each other, related to their skin color, or their class background, or their geographical background.

I know that you’re working on some new projects now! What is that like, with the challenges the pandemic has posed for filmmaking?

Ted and I have made environmental films, and the one about Louisiana and sea level rise, and that really took us to Venice. So we have a project we’re editing right now that’s in post, about the environmental issues in Venice, Italy, which, we were just there in December, right before everything hit and shut down, so we’re editing on those projects. 

I do have a new project about my hometown, Jacksonville, Florida, and we just returned from doing two interviews. And what it means in COVID is, I mean my co-producer and I were just tested for antibodies, we didn’t have a whole crew, we were doing sound, Ted — camera, lights, my co-producer is a photographer, so it was just the three of us in an interview with one person, in a large place, with masks on. So it’s complicated. We could not have a crew supporting us, we just couldn’t keep it safe. And even then we were still worried. You know, we wore masks, but our interview subjects did not. It’s not going to get any easier for the next year.

Since I teach film too, Ted and I both do, it’s interesting that we did some interviewing to try to figure out what that would be like, and I think we did it as safely as possible. However, the safest thing is to be in post and editing right now. Fortunately we’re doing that on some projects too.

I know it only became widely available to watch a week ago, but how has the reception of Flannery been?

Well, we’ve been, like yourself, people who know O’Connor’s work and just were excited to learn more, we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response. We were very fortunate to win the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for historical documentary. From that point on, back in October when we premiered at film festivals at the Hot Springs Documentary Festival, we won Best Doc at the Austin Festival, at New Orleans we had sold out crowds and lots of fans.

But with the virtual premiere that just started a week ago, I’ve gotten all kinds of emails from folks, you know, the comments I’ve gotten have been overwhelmingly positive, so we are just delighted to see both the breadth, the depth, I mean some of the reviews have just been really marvelous in terms of how they’ve engaged with her work and with how the film has engaged with her work.

I’m on the board of an archive here in Chicago, we had two great archival researchers helping, you know I really worked to find archival work that I thought represented her sense of humor and perspective and darkness. So the fact that O’Connor herself has gotten all this publicity recently, and that we’ve gotten reviews across the country, has been really satisfying. So if anything, we’re having a hard time keeping up with all of the discussion and the interviews that people want to do. 

The number one goal of our film I think has been accomplished, which was to talk about her, and to get people to read her work more, and get her more in the national discussion, just like Faulkner, just like Eudora Welty. So she’s really up there, as she should be, in terms of the pantheon of great American writers. So that’s been deeply satisfying.

Photo Credits: Long Distance Educational Media

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Amelie Lasker
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Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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