A kidnapping, broadcast live on social media, turns into the trail of a judge who presided over a botched criminal case. This time, however, the audience gets to play judge and jury, deciding if the judge himself gets to love or die.
Directed and written by Mr. Wilson Coneybeare, his latest feature has a unique approach to police drama as well as an intense, worthwhile thriller that shouldn't be miss. Donald Sutherland's performance in this movie is a delight to witness. Moreover, his superb and potent acting as Judge Straight is among his finest work yet. So, go ahead and get to know this great director/screenwriter who made American Hangman, and afterward watch the film.
1. If you had to describe American Hangman using three words, it would be…
That is actually a very tough question. The publicity answer – the thing that describes the movie succinctly and you could put on a poster -- is “social justice thriller”, which is to some degree what the movie is. But the first thing that comes to my mind when you ask the question is “justice gone nuts”, which was certainly the emotional basis of the story and where it came from.
2. What is the genesis of American Hangman?
I started fooling around with the story in 2010. That’s when we were all starting to not just hear but see – on the news --cops killing civilians who posed no serious threat to them, predominately in black communities in the USA, and the rise of what I would call the ‘occupying military force’ look of local police department – cops tricked out in riot gear, and acting like they’re on TV. That’s a theme in the film. I remember being particularly horrified by how the Toronto police department handled itself during the G-20 summit that year. What intrigued me was that we were seeing all this for the first time through the lens of social media. So I began to think about taking it to what I thought was the next level: justice live on social media, administered by the public. So I imagined a story about a judge being kidnapped and put on trial live, with the public able to vote as judge and jury. I wanted to say something about the American justice system, but also how our view of what’s acceptable and what’s not is changing. Outrage is a great place from which to start writing pretty much anything, you know. It usually helps your subconscious dream up what you need.
3. What research did you do when writing American Hangman?
I had to delve into three areas that I didn’t particularly want to research: the nature of the criminal mind, the nature of modern policing, and the nuts and bolts of death penalty cases. None of this is really cozy bedtime reading. I had always admired Stephen Williams’ terrific book about the Paul Bernado case, “Invisible Darkness” (at one point I was hired to do the screenplay), and I found myself drawing a lot from there, especially his psychological insights. I also studied the Paul Morin case in Ontario, which I turned on its ear because Morin turned out to be innocent, which is not the case in my film. These elements were key to me building the story. Then I had to delve into botched death penalty cases – which Morin’s would have been had he faced the absurdity of the death penalty – which are prevalent since the introduction of DNA evidence. That material is all over the net. The most surprising material involved modern policing methods. The numbers quoted in the movie are real: there is a crisis when it comes to modern police work, in the United States in partiuclar. Part of that is because they’re not given the real resources they need, part of it is because of political pressure and expectations, and part of it is just crappy police work.
4. What kind of routines do you tend to have when writing? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
This is why I love what you’re doing: you talk about the mechanics of writing, which is what I was always interested in as a young person trying to become a writer. Inspiration and the muse are lovely ideas, but it’s more interesting to hear the meat and potatoes of the writing life.
Like almost everyone, I believe you do your best work in the morning and you have to work every day. I am a “pages per day” guy, and you simply have to get your pages done per day no matter what or you aren’t allowed to get on with life. In my case, on a screenplay, I do seven pages a day. So I’m up early, coffee, eat breakfast while at the desk, and start work. I usually write in longhand, and I did on “American Hangman.” I don’t review what I did yesterday. I just keep going. If I’m done early, I’m a hero. If I have to slog it out, then slog I must. I write a lot of drafts and do an excessive amount of revision. I see writing as a work-a-day thing, a disciplined profession. I admire people who feel the same way.
5. Could you give any interesting, fun fact about your experience working with Mr. Donald Sutherland and any other actors in American Hangman?
Donald is a very dedicated professional. It’s about craft and art with him, and that is a gift to any writer or director. I didn’t know him when I sent the script to him, and was delighted when he responded so positively to the material and agreed to come aboard… and believe me, he hung in there a long time. We had some setbacks in financing and other areas, but Donald stayed in there for more than a year, with everyone working around complex schedules.
Here’s the thing about working with Donald. The man was in “The Dirty Dozen.” He was in “Mash.” He was in “Kelly’s Heroes”, “Klute”, and “Ordinary People” – which I feel was his best performance ever. Should have got the Oscar. My point is, that’s a lot of history. In comparison, I know nothing. I have zero experience. So all you can do is collaborate with him, let him go where he wants to go, and course correct if something feels off – but that’s seldom going to happen. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
What I didn’t expect from Donald is that the man knows more jokes than any person I’ve ever met. I mean it. And I mean hard-to-remember “two nuns walks into a bar” jokes. An amazing memory, and fortunately many of them are really ribald. It’s this charming side of the man that I didn’t expect, and oftentimes he’d offer one up between takes, perhaps to relieve the tension because much of what we were doing was absolutely depressing and grim and exceedingly dark material.
I love the cast of American Hangman, but certainly the hardest part of the film was what we called “the basement room” section, which is more than half of the story. There are three actors involved who were simply stuck with one another: Vincent Kartheiser, Paul Braunstein, and Donald Sutherland. For that reason, we rehearsed that section as a stage play, but when we got on the set, the thrill for me was to see how respectful the actors were of each other. They came from varied backgrounds, but they handled each other with total professional and regard. They wouldn’t even do coverage without the other actor being present. There is no cheating in the film.
Vincent Kartheiser is a very intense actor who really takes over the part from the writer and the director, which is what a great actor often does. I thought of Montgomery Clift or Brando or someone of that ilk. He was really in that character. But Vinnie is also remarkably technically proficient, so he knows how to get what he needs to get. I have also never seen an actor more ready to go. “Let’s go! Let’s shoot!” That’s Vincent. And he nailed the character.
6. What is your favorite line from American Hangman?
“You get as close as you can.” I can’t explain it, and it’s certainly not the line I thought I would love when we started the movie, but Donald made that moment happen. It’s toward the end of the movie. Amazing performance. And in doing what he did, he summed up the unresolved contradictions within the script -- which were purposeful – simply by the power of performance.
7. What director or screenwriter or film influenced American Hangman?
I failed miserably, but one of my favorite American directors of all-time is Sidney Lumet. Hands down. And I wanted to make a quasi Sidney Lumet movie… alas, at 1/100th of a Sidney Lumet budget! (laughing) My favorite screenwriter is Paddy Chayefsky – they collaborated on “Network”, obviously – but really during “American Hangman” my head was with the 1950’s TV writers I admire: Reginald Rose, Horton Foote, Abby Man, Robert Alan Aurther, Tad Mosel, and others. I wanted the movie to have that feel. The height of that era, other than Chayefesky, woulld be Rose’s “12 Angry Men” (again, Lumet) and “Judgment at Nuremburg” by Abby Mann. They were both plays for live TV. Philco Goodyear, I think, Studio One, or Playhouse 90.
8. What’s your favorite childhood memory about developing your craft?
If we’re talking screenwriting, then it’s reading William Goldman, which led me to a strange activity: I typed one of his screenplays out. On a typewriter. I wanted to physically see what it looked like, to get a sense of where and when things happened on the page. An extremely useful exercise.
If it’s writing in general, the best childhood memory is wasting perfectly beautiful summer days lying around in the basement of our house reading paperback novels one after the other. Best way to learn your craft.
9. If a self-published author is seeking a screenwriter, how would one get you to read his or her story to see if it would make a compelling movie?
I believe the entire future of writing is self-publishing, by the way. And I like the idea of adapting other people’s work. So put the two together. I guess someone could send me a twitter or email me with a one sentence pitch. They can send it to Stirling Bridge Entertainment. If a story can’t go into one sentence, it probably can’t be turned into a movie.
10. What would it take for you personally to be interested in translating a self-published story into a screenplay and perhaps directing it?
11. What was the last great film you saw? What was the last great book you read?
My view is that there are far more good movies out there than people think, but few great ones. Great is a high wall. This probably isn’t right, and I’m sure I’m not being fair to so many good films, but I remember a few years ago simply being slack-jawed when I saw Suzanne Bier’s “In a Better World.” I was knocked out. That’s a great movie. More recently, “Leave No Trace” impressed me. On the good scale, I loved the “Wreck it Ralph” sequel, thought “Vice” terrific and sat like an idiot enjoying every second of “Mary Poppins Returns.” I thought Thomas Vinterberg’s last movie terrific.
As for books, I truly admired “Lincoln in the Bardo”, but also just finished Maya Jasanoff’s book about Joseph Conrad, the new Flavia De Luce novel, loved it as usual, and John Grisham’s new book “The Reckoning” and a great first novel, C.J. Tudor’s “The Chalk Man.” I reread Dickens’ “American Notes” because I’m losing my mind with what’s going on in the country at the moment, and for comfort reread “Anna Karenina.” I think everyone ought to read “The New Deal” by Michael Hiltzik, a terrific achievement. In fiction, I likes story.
12. If you have your own talk show, who would your first three guests be (besides me, of course)?
If I don’t care about ratings? Vladimir Putin, and I promise him we will only talk Russian history. Think about that. “Vlad, what are your thoughts on Ivan the Terrible?” Think what the answer would tell us. My next guest would be Giles Martin, who remixed “The White Album” and listened to all the outtakes. I need to know everything he knows. Then I want to talk to Guillermo Del Torro but only on the subject of Universal monster movies of the 1930’s.
13. What piece of advice do you have for aspiring filmmaker starting out?
Don’t watch other movies. Live life and make movies based on that. We’re done with movies based on other movies.
14. If you had the ability to do two major tasks at the same time, what would they be?
Sing opera and bake pastries like a master French baker.
15. If you were a genie, what wish would you absolutely not grant?
I would grant nothing involving money, would grant everything involving sex.
16. Last question, if you were to create a slogan for your life, what would it be?
“Stop counting things.”
After reading this interview I hope you really go see this movie. I would like to thank Mr. Coneybeare for this excellent interview. You can check American Hangman at Amazon.com, iTunes, and Vudu now! Finally I really want to thank you for vising my blog. As always come again to read more posts and blog interviews. Have a wonderful day and stay blessed.