111: Profiling Toni Morrison
Welcome to pure nonfiction podcast interviewing documentary filmmakers. I'm tom powers the documentary programmer for the toronto international film festival and artistic director of doc n._y._c. and this episode i talked to portrait photographer and filmmaker timothy greenfield sanders his most recent documentary is toni morrison the pieces i am profiling the nobel prize winning author her novels include the bluest eye soula sawn of solomon and beloved in the film. She talks about her motives to right sometimes uh-huh you nudged and sometimes you're just searching to make the writing interesting to me. It's not just writing. It's i. I don't know what this means that i have to find out timothy has a long history with morrison. He photographed her multiple. Times comes over three decades in two thousand six. She inspired him to undertake a film series called. The blacklist. Timothy directed three blacklist films in collaboration with elvis mitchell interviewing distinguish black figures from different fields. We hear the phrase blacklist or is that not you. Blacklists blacklist mean people to list that don't work anymore. Get treated like black people mothers others with his stories his cool. This isn't history to me black culturally. I had to fight. Virtually every single thing writing for me is keith. Who are we and what are we doing. Here just wanted to be somebody. I'm not the ambulance chasing the ambulance and never thought that i was only worth what they said. You get what you're caller event. Somebody else's problem. It's never been on really can be persuaded to think differently often identity human identity gone pimples. They talk about it. There's always going to kind of be an overreaction one way or the other for timothy's tony morrison film he collaborated with interviewer sandra guzman she was previously the editor in chief of latina magazine and conducted interviews for timothy's these films the women's list in the latino list the heart of tony morrison the pieces. I am is a long interview with the author. It's bands her childhood al`thood in lorain ohio her first career as a book editor and her effort to become a writer as a single mother of two sons. The film also includes testimonies from her friends and admirers like oprah winfrey. One of the characters says at the end of song of solomon and she was loved and she was does loved that is the anthem for any life. You can come to the planet and do whatever you do accomplish accomplish. Whatever you accomplish award no awards degrees no degrees successes no successes i think she captured the essence sense of what it means to be human to be alive and to have done well here on earth and we can say the same anything for her and she is my interview with timothy took place in may at the i._f._c. center enter before a live audience that included writer hilton ails who's interviewed in the film less than three months after our conversation. Morrison passed away at age eighty eight to begin. I asked timothy how he first met morrison in the early eighties that was <hes> <hes> when tar baby had just come out so <hes> song of solomon soula and bluest i had been published and tony was doing some press. <hes> i shot it for the cover of soho news which was kind of hipster weekly <hes> back then and you know we. We got along immediately lianne. We we talked a little bit about literature but particularly talked about the neighborhood. I lived in and i remember kind of walking tony to get a cab at the end and and we stayed in touch and then i started to do pictures for her for books <hes> particularly <hes> later on on a lot of the jacket covers and press stuff and <hes> i alluded to the time in two thousand six that was from the opera she in britain libretto for margaret gardner and we were doing pictures then <hes> for that and this beginning of the blacklist and so what were those sessions like come on what was the session with a photography session with her like compared to other authors that you think that it's always about getting the subject to trust you. Oh and that was something that yeah. Tony said to me a couple years ago. She said i. I let i let you see me you know and and the subject allows you to to get in there. It's never the other way around. You can never break down a subject really. I think i think the subject has to kind of let you in and tony trusted me early on i think in the picture show it you know we were a very collaborative portrait work that we did together so she had given you the inspiration to do this series at you embarked on with elvis mitchell the blacklist. Can you talk about how it went from the seed of an idea that she planted to what became attorney wanted to do. Black divas and i'm not an opera lover particularly enough that i would wanna. They do a whole project on opera but it started me thinking about just sort of african american talent in general that there was more than just oprah and barack obama they were all these other people that we could maybe interview and my idea then which now everyone does but was to do this sort of direct to camera <hes> talk where the where the subject is looking right at camera and it's just a very powerful way to do it. In those days earl morris was doing it. A couple of other filmmakers used it but it was rare and it was also my portraiture come to life so if you look at my portraits they're always director cameras single light source and it kinda gray backdrop so i wanted to turn that into film and one of the tricks. It's not a trick. One of the ideas here was that tony talks to camera. Only everyone else hilton ails right here. Second-row talks off camera <hes> they talk about tony and and i thought that could work. I've never seen it in documentary but the the main subject is looking at us and we have a kind of connection that way and then the others are talking thing about her and <hes>. How did you convince johnny morrison if it took convincing to do this film devoted to her you know i think when when the first blacklist film came out we all sat around thinking everyone in this film deserves a feature film this you know there's so much there's so many interesting stories and talents but tony was always the first in my mind tony was the first is set for the blacklist so oh it also a couple of years ago i realized tony was eighty four eighty five eighty eight now that if i'm gonna do it this time and i reached out to her and we talked about it and she you know she didn't say no and that's always a good sign in with tony and that really gave me the courage to cut it fine the funding and go back to her and say i have the money to do it in this was it's gonna be on television or the american masters was the idea back then it became because of sundance film that will now be in theaters. We're very excited with magnolia <hes> but i think tony you trusted me to do it. So what was the the process of interviewing her like. Sandra guzman who is credited in the film did the interviews didn't feel that i i am enough of tony scholar to do the interviews sandra drives a car that says soula on the license plate so at in love's tony deeply and really <hes> <hes> was very very eager to do this film and supportive and <hes> you know you who director you kind of create a space where everyone feels comfortable <hes> we. We did that the interviews the tony at her home so we set up apple studio. They're essentially a backdrop and did them there where she was more comfortable. The others all came to my studio in the east village and again. That's something you you do where you get. The person comes in and you offer some tea or coffee or you make them feel by the time they get to the set that they can trust this atmosphere miss fear now. There must be hundreds of people who are tony morrison. Fans are feel some connections that work that you could have chosen from in your in you very selective and deliberate about the people you did put into the film. Can you talk about curated collection of voices. It's it's very much. Tony's list <hes> there was a longer list <hes> that i had a lot of names on and tony took a nice pencil cross off and i i also you don't like to interview people and not put them in the film. There's one person we interviewed who's not in this film which peter sellars the theater director her and only because it was an easy way to pull seven minutes out of the film it's magnificent piece on shakespeare spirit tony <hes> desdemona that she wrote and othello and it's kind of conversation that happened between them at princeton and it's being the d._v._d. I guess but it's a wonderful wonderful piece but we pulled it and i don't like to do that. I liked if i'm gonna ask you to give me your time and sit for an interview you and be part of this. You should expect to be in the film. I mean there are so many extraordinary interviews on your sanchez. <hes> of course <hes> angela davis this still oprah's stands out as oprah and she brings so much energy to <hes> to her interview. I be remiss if i didn't ask you about filming with oprah we we went to oprah and we were told we have thirty minutes and we had thirty minutes and over gives you gold you gotta. You know she's very good at that. <hes> articulating a perfect kind of statement in a way right and she she actually broke down at one point. We didn't put it in the film but she was very emotional on she said at one point. I didn't expect to cry today. You know talking about tony morrison but oprah's deeply connected to tony you know did a lot with the book club of course but also really loves her and and you know it took me a year to arrange the interview but we got it. I've just heard anecdotally we we showed the film at the the miami film festival why work a couple months ago and <hes> i remember people saying i didn't know that chapter about her publishing career and other other people will say something else that they learned from <hes> from this film and and i wonder when you entered it obviously known her. You've done your research. It's about was their areas of her life or career that you came in extra curious about. I think the publishing career at random house is most people don't know about it and it's very important. <hes> you know there was a lot. This could be ten hours this film the problem ms this is such a gigantic life and we got so much material from the interviewees that it could have been easily three hours. It could have been in a ah. There's so much more there but we had to make decisions about what was important. I think <hes> her family. You understand her family in this you understand her where her grandparents come from her. You know all of the travels of her family. The migration great migration. You know the use of art art in the film is something i'm very proud of as well you see jacob lawrence's paintings in and that scene there when he talks about leaving coming to ohio so we try to incorporate other there's twenty two african american artists who gave us work for the film the the opening is by nicolini thomas who chad is here my producers who's a big fan and i. I didn't know mclean. I i loved her. I've always liked her work very much so i just called her and said you know we're doing this. Film on tony morrison jews consider doing a kind of collage opening waiting for us and she said i'm in you know and and that was the reaction of everyone who we reached out to from kerry james marshall to cara walker to all loran is simpson all of the different artists and and the music about ninety eight percent of the music is one one composer catherine bostick who's a musician from los angeles who we found on the internet and is just a brilliant brilliant composer imposer in the song. The end is hers. She sings it and she composed almost all the music. It doesn't shy on the wall where secrets burn brighter walk to the edge and dance with the duty free here in this conversation you serve of established. You're bona fides with your long history of tony morrison and she felt comfortable to have you do this film <hes> yet. Still people must look at this listened and thank you know. How does he get to be the guy who tells the tony morrison film and i wonder if you can talk about how you've come to answer that question for yourself. You mean the the white band who tells the tony morrison story <hes> you know i think it really comes back to trust that tony was very <hes> <hes> familiar with what i had done in film the blacklist series of course the latino list the outlets the translates the women's list all of those films about identity and she for the women's tony wrote the introduction and read it for us so she's she's very aware of these films and i think she knew what kind of filmmaker i am. I am and i also made it very tony had kind of been with me and other film home in the film. She saw what my crew was. How diverse was how much that meant to all of us to do that. <hes> tony makes decisions. It's kind of that kind of comes down to that and i think she i hope she saw the film and she's her comment. Was i like her <music>. I want to thank timothy greenfield sanders for speaking with me his film tony morrison the pieces. I am now playing in theaters released by magnolia pictures eventually come to p._b._s.'s american master series <music>. Thanks to our team series producer and northern swan and web designer cross ross strategy our theme music is composed by andre williams and our executive producer is rafael and they housing you can follow us on twitter instagram or facebook at pure nonfiction. I'm tom powers. You can follow me on twitter at t. h. O. m. powers you can read our show notes. Learn about live events and sign up for our newsletter at pure nonfiction dot net <music> <music> <music> yeah.