Jeb Stuart Q & A (Blood Done Sign My Name)
With Jeb Stuart, who has films like Die Hard and The Fugitive under his belt, you do not expect for him to hop on any form of a period piece. That’s what he does as he takes on the role of director, writer and producer in the process of creating the big screen adaptation of Blood Done Sign My Name.
When racial tensions reach an all time high in the small town of Oxford, North Carolina, tragedy strikes as three Caucasian men beat and shoot an African American man to death. What emerges from that is not only a town divided, but the rise for change to bring integration into a town still suffering from the narrow mindset of hate.
I got to sit down with the director and find out more about the creation of the film, from acquiring the rights to the overall message that resonates within the feature based on true events.
Melissa Molina: How did you come across this particular piece? How did this come your way?
Jeb Stuart: A friend of mine who reads an enormous number of books. He even comes up with the reading lists at colleges and universities. He came upon Blood Done Sign My Name, which Random House had published. It was a mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and at Duke University. It was also the same at a bunch of other universities but those were the ones he was looking at.
We were both from North Carolina. He was not in the movie business but I am. He said,” You really will enjoy this just as a book to read.” I did, and the whole theme resonated with me about small heroes that we have not heard about. The story felt like a very important story for me to tell. I went back to him at that particular time and said,” I loved the book.” Then he said,” I really think this is something that we should make as a movie.”
I said to him,” There are a few problems with that; you don’t make movies and they don’t make movies like this, so we’d have to figure this out.” Then it became a process which took three and a half years.
Melissa Molina: Was Timothy Tyson open and willing when you first came up to him and said,” Hey, you want to adapt this?”
Jeb Stuart: You know, every writer likes to hear that someone wants to make their novel into a movie. I met Tim with his agent in New Haven, Connecticut for the very first time. I sat down with him and of course his agent is Charlotte Sheedy, Ally Sheedy’s mom and she’s a phenomenal literary agent in New York City. She did what all good agents should do which is check out the Hollywood types that come sniffing around your client, that sort of thing.
Tim and I connected just simply because of the South and North Carolina. The similarity, the fact that we were both in that period of time when this happened and we were both sons of ministers. It was kind of a trust level that we could start to develop something off of.
Anyway, the bottom line for me was that somebody beat us to the punch. There were two other producers who already came to him. He had optioned the material off to him, so I had about a year to let the material kind of percolate, reading it several times. It’s a very wonderful book but it’s not like a narrative. Your not reading something like a novel by any means. I had a chance to sort of figure out how to take this part. It was like putting together a bunk bed set, like you put this screw here, take it to here and how could I move this so that an audience could approach the book and see it in a movie form.
Melissa Molina: When it came to casting, how did you find particular people like Ricky Schroeder or Nate Parker?
Jeb Stuart: A lot of people came to me. Nate, I went to right off the bat because I’ve seen him in The Great Debaters. It was very important for me to feel that Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who he plays, is acted by someone who’s not only a good actor but had a real moral core as an individual because Dr. Chavis went on to do phenomenal things. I really wanted the actor to have that same sort of moral core and Nate Parker is truly a great guy.
It’s an ensemble movie, so your not building it around one person. In a lot of my movies, they need a big action star like Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis or Sean Connery, somebody like that. With this, the movie doesn’t rise or fall because we don’t have one actor or another. I got a call from Darrin Dewitt Henson, he got finished playing Jim Brown in The Express, and he really wanted to play the role of Eddie McCoy. Omar Miller wanted to play the role of Herman Cozart, the logger who comes in. Fortunately, there were just so many calls like that along the way.
For Vernon Tyson, I ran into a different kind of situation. There were a lot of interest from actors agents, but they wanted the script changed in a way. They wanted the story so that he could become Gregory Peck at the end of the movie and save the day. You know I didn’t want that to happen. Literally a lot of actors did not know that they were considered for Vernon Tyson simply because I didn’t get past their agent. You don’t get past the agent for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that we didn’t have a large budget because I’m not offering somebody millions and millions of dollars to play this particular role. I was offering it because I thought it was a very terrific character and yet at the same time if I can’t give the actor the script, if I can’t get past the agent, then we won’t get to him.
Ricky’s agent had called me from the beginning. He said,” I really wish you would look at Ricky for this particular part.” I was focused on producing the movie, locking locations, getting the crew set, holding the money and casting the hundred and something roles. Ricky came very late to the table because we thought we had someone else lined up for it who ended up backing out, which is a very unpleasant situation.
Rick came to it and he literally had three days to prepare. He was thrown in and we could not change the schedule to give him more time. The first location was probably his toughest day, standing in front of a pull pit in front of 350 extras preaching a sermon. He’s a professional, he can do it, but once you lock that character into the pull pit, your committed to him and your committed for the rest of the movie to do that. So it was very important that he got it right the first time. He had an opportunity meet Vernon Tyson, and fortunately for me they didn’t march off to different corners. They were immediately connected and it was terrific.
Melissa Molina: When it came to the actual story, did you have any sort of problems at first making sure that it stays as truthful as possible? Normally, when it comes to a fair portion of the Civil Rights based movies, it’s like a triumphant and overly happy ending.
Jeb Stuart: The story is almost a segregated story. There’s the white side, there’s a black side, and they meet over this incident, this murder and all the aftermath of it with the trial. It was important to me not to make it feel like some of the ending was not the worst thing that could happen. There were all sorts of other parts, and I feel like it was just one of a series of different events, and what we do with the way life throws us things was something important within the movie. At the end of the movie, when we see our coda cards and we find where each character went, you see that in these incredibly difficult times that people went on to do amazing things with their lives.
Melissa Molina: Yes, definitely. It’s premiering at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival?
Jeb Stuart: Yes.
Melissa Molina: Are you excited?
Jeb Stuart: You know, it’s such a big thing at any time to make a movie. People, especially people in Los Angeles might think that, “Oh a movie is opening this weekend, it’s opening that weekend.” If you stop and think about how many scripts go through this town, how many people want to be a screen writer, a director or want to be in the business. You extrapolate all of that talent and make it into a really great story that can sometimes never get made. Yes, having a movie made, having it premiere at a phenomenal festival like Pan African, it could get anybody excited. I’m very excited.
Melissa Molina: You’ve got a wide list of different films in your resume that you’ve written and directed. You said earlier you’ve never approached anything of this caliber, a period piece, was it difficult for you? I heard about it a little earlier, that you had problems with locations..
Jeb Stuart: It was a departure with me in some ways but I’m used to writing stories with sort of heroic characters. The way that I looked at it, these were all stories that should be told, the characters acted courageously and inspirationally. That’s the sort of thing I do as a writer. I didn’t have any difficulty as far as that’s concerned. I’m always challenged with trying to create a story line that is different and yet familiar. You hear that all the time, you know. In Tim’s book, it gave me an opportunity to tell a different type of story. Not just a different genre story, but the narrative, the application was different. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t answer the question. (Laughs)
Melissa Molina: (Laughs) How was the experience when you actually did shoot? I heard a couple of situations where there was still a bit of racial tension in the town where you were at.
Jeb Stuart: People would love to tell you that there’s no racial tension. I think the very first time that we went to Shelby on a location scout. I’m not going to pick on Shelby, it happened in several different towns cause we looked at different towns in North Carolina. Well I love the court house, the production design looks great. Our locations called for a kind of poor, economic black community to shoot in. Many times, people said,” You don’t want to see that. Why would you want to shoot there?” Of course, we couldn’t tell them truly what we were doing at that point except for when it called for it.
You learn a lot about a community’s pride, a lot about how they work together and how they feel about race and your coming in and doing a movie about it simply just asking benign questions like that. We did have a situation where we did find a great street to shoot on and it was a very poor street. Predominately African Americans lived in the houses. When we got there and we were going to start shooting, we were suddenly loosing all of our locations. We found out that the white landlords were denying us the ability to shoot there, which means that we aren’t going to be able to pay these people. So then we asked why and it was because they didn’t want us to show how poorly they were keeping up with these properties. We made a conscious decision, even though we weren’t going to shoot their house, we still paid them for the house because they were counting on the money coming in.
Melissa Molina: That was really nice of you. Is there anything else on the back burner that your going to start working on now?
Jeb Stuart: You know I’ve always got a lot of things on the back burner. My next movie is definitely not going to be a period historical piece. I’m probably going back to my action roots and doing an action movie next.
Melissa Molina: That’s interesting. Well thank you.
Blood Done Sign My Name is out in limited theaters right now. Check your local movie theater to see if it’s playing in your area.