Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning was labeled by Roger Ebert as the best American film of 1988. Bear in mind, this was the year the likes of Die Hard and Rain Man came out. Parker’s passionate story portrays the racial tension in the American south at the beginning of the 1960s and the plot of the film is actually based on a true story—the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi. As his central characters, Parker chose two very different FBI agents sent to investigate these disappearances, but what lies in the very heart of this aptly crafted crime thriller, and what serves as the strongest card the film has to play, is the brilliantly conjured atmosphere that brings back to life racial intolerance and injustice which was at its peak two decades before the film was shot. Mississippi Burning functions perfectly as a historical document, in the same manner that Oliver Stone’s JFK does—it has nothing to do with the format or the style in which it was made, but rather with the way it creates a powerful testimony to a very specific and painful time in the history of the American people.
The screenplay was penned by both Parker and Chris Gerolmo, even though the vision is almost completely Parker’s. Gerolmo wrote two drafts of the script, but Parker didn’t find them satisfying. Their collaboration became strenuous, egos were hurt and Parker was ultimately given one month by the Orion Pictures studio to finish the script. If they didn’t like it—he was free to look for another job. If they did like it, however, Chris Gerolmo was bound to receive the writing credit on the picture. Fortunately for us, Parker was given the green light, and he started working on creating the tragic world of Mississippi Burning. The movie was filmed on no less than 62 locations. Its power, we believe, lies not only in Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe’s impressive work as the FBI duo under the spotlight, or Frances McDormand’s subtle supporting role, but mostly in the strength of Parker’s vision and his relentless motivation to make a film firmly within the Hollywood system and still infuse it with very relevant social commentary. Mississippi Burning is a must-see.
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay for Mississippi Burning [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
The following essay was originally published at alanparker.com. All text © Alan Parker. All photos © Orion Pictures, Inc. Stills photography: David Appleby & Merrick Morton. Cinematographer: Peter Biziou.
THE MAKING OF THE FILM BY ALAN PARKER
In the concluding scene of Mississippi Burning, as Lannie McBride and the congregation stand amongst the ashes of Mount Zion Church singing ‘Walk On By Faith,’ the camera pans across a Mississippi cemetery coming to rest at the grave of a young black, civil rights worker murdered in the opening sequence of our film. Our grave is the grave of an anonymous individual, a character in a fiction; a film; a movie. But James Chaney, murdered with Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, is buried in Meridian and his grave has also been desecrated; his headstone, and his memory smashed by ignorance and cowardice: the broken stones dumped in a nearby ditch. His grave is still there in a forgotten corner of a hard to find East Mississippi cemetery and still unmarked. I’d had carved “1964. Not Forgotten” on the film headstone—just a movie prop in a movie fiction. Our film cannot be the definitive film of the black civil rights struggle, our heroes were still white and, in truth, the film would probably have never been made if they weren’t. This is, perhaps, as much a sad reflection on present day society as it is on the film industry. But with all its possible flaws and shortcomings, I hope that our film can provoke thought and kindle the debate allowing other films to be made, because the struggle against racism continues. Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered on a quiet bend in a red dirt back road in Neshoba County, Mississippi on June 21st 1964. Their deaths are the reason for our film. But as we consider how they died we must also ask why they died in order for us to fully understand not just the significance of these three young men’s deaths, but the importance of their lives. I wrote the above in October, 1988 as production notes for the film. Preceding the release of the film, I already appear to be even more apprehensive about the reaction to a new film then is normal. It presaged an avalanche of controversy that swamped the film when it opened, and has surrounded the film until this day. The following notes were also written in October ’81. In the opening paragraph that accompanied them, I echoed the above piece saying that the following notes, written in diary form will no doubt be disappointing to the semioticians, but by endeavouring to describe the ‘nuts and bolt’ of ‘how’ might help a little to elucidate the ‘why.’
Chris Gerolmo’s draft script of ‘Mississippi Burning’ was first sent to me by Mike Medavoy of Orion Pictures in September of ’87. I had spent four months, after finishing Angel Heart, newly settled in Los Angeles, trying to write my own script but mostly distracted by the weekly submissions as they arrived, like clockwork, in their seductive brown envelopes. I had read many dozens of screenplays before being introduced to Mississippi Burning. The power of the opening murder scene and the possibilities that the subsequent story offered drew me to it immediately. It’s rare that projects developed in the Hollywood system have any potential for social or political comment and the dramatic possibilities surrounding the two FBI agents had possibly allowed this one to slip through. Orion arranged for me to meet Fred Zollo the producer who had developed the original draft with the writer, Chris Gerolmo.
With the thought of all the work ahead I went off to Japan as juror at the Tokyo Film Festival. Whilst I was there I got an excited call from my Producer colleague Bob Colesberry who had begun researching the background to our film and was eager to share the mountain of material with me. On returning to the states, I also met with Gene Hackman who, although keen on the subject matter, was not overly impressed with the present script—and so was interested to know where our new script would take us. Martin Luther King holds flyer for Schwerner, Goodman and ChaneyIn New York I began immersing myself in Colesberry’s research materials and news film of the period and events. Seeing the scratchy black and white footage at the CBS archive—much of it unused outtakes—only underlined the responsibility we all had to the film we would eventually make. Also, it was clear that I has much to learn. After all, in 1964 I was in England, a long way from the turmoil of Mississippi and the American Civil Rights Struggle. In the working class area of North London where I was born and grew up (now culturally very diverse) the racial problems of the last twenty years had not yet erupted, although the seeds were being sown. It was class bigotry and economic inequalities which were very much part of my life and it was hard not to be affected by this. Bob Colesberry was keen that we should both visit Mississippi and walk over the ground where many of the actual events, had taken place.
The original draft of the screenplay had already fictionalised some of the events but it was clear that the true story had to be the inspiration and spirit of the eventual film. With the help of an armful of maps and newspaper cuttings we located the dusty back road where Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney has been shot. The two of us stood on the actual murder spot for a few minutes in silence, realizing that true life, and death, are so much more important than the movies. Chris Gerolmo had written two drafts of the script before I became involved and we began working together on a new draft closer to the film I wanted to make. This was a less than fruitful exercise as Chris and I, locked away in an Orion office in Century City, didn’t really gel as a writing team. For a week or so we ploughed through his original script which I was very keen to rework and tear apart, influenced by the actual story, the political milieu and the piles of research we had uncovered. In particular, Chris also didn’t take to my robust criticisms of his dialogue and, indeed, began to write down every rude remark I made on a yellow legal pad—eventually complaining about me to the powers that be. Zollo flew in from New York and when I arrived first thing in the morning for the day’s work, the two of them were already in the offce waiting for me. Zollo said that I had been ‘rather rude’ to Chris, and so maybe it would be better that I should leave the project. Not entirely surprised by their ultimatum, I suggested that maybe the two of them should leave the project instead. They rightly took umbrage at this, as it was their project after all.
An emergency meeting was called and I was summoned to New York where after meeting with the Orion boss, Eric Pleskow, it was decided that I be allowed a month to write my own draft of the script. The agreement was that, however much I rewrote, I would not take Gerolmo’s writing credit and if Orion didn’t like my new script, it would be me who would be looking for another job. By mid December Colesberry and I had managed to criss-cross, in dangerously small planes, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi visiting the many location possibilities offered up by the ever growing location department. By the time we eventually settled on our locations, we would have scouted over 300 small towns in eight states, and although I tried to keep my mind open in order to make a judgement on the best locations, deep down I felt that we has to be in Mississippi. The more time I spent there, looking and talking to the people, it was hard to imagine filming anywhere else. But undaunted, we continued to cast our net as wide as possible in order to exhaust all possibilities. When it comes to film locations, if you don’t look, you don’t find—and sometimes you have to keep looking just to realize that you’ve found it already. The small town we needed to create for the film was more difficult to find than I’d imagined. It had to be cinematically interesting—accurate to the period and place—but also geographically convenient for us to comfortably billet a crew of a hundred.
Back in New York our location offices had been set up and once again I seemed to be unpacking and setting up for the Gypsy life we filmmakers are forced to lead. As always, the production and art department expanded overnight and every day I seemed to be shaking hands with another new person. Juliet Taylor and Howard Feuer were my casting directors and the long process of casting was well under way. Gene Hackman had been set and one meeting with Willem Dafoe in Los Angeles was enough for me to know that he would be an excellent buttoned down ‘Ward’ to Hackman’s renegade ‘Anderson.’ Their chemistry together was all important, and the forward energy of our narrative was firmly placed on their shoulders. Although they are from very different backgrounds, both Gene and Willem had paid their dues as actors and, at the risk of lapsing into turgid hyperbole, working with the two of them proved to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for me as a director. By the end of the year I had been able to incorporate two box folders full of notes into my final shooting script which I delivered to Orion on January 4h. My screenplay was fortunately liked by everyone (if not Gerolmo) and it was agreed by the Orion hierarchy for us to press on. Zollo and Gerolmo graciously stepped aside allowing Colesberry and I to get on with making the movie. By now, it was clear to everyone the film I wanted to make.
JANUARY AND BACK TO THE SOUTH
Finding the small town at the heart of our story, was still proving illusive. In all, the script now called for 62 different locations, many of which I had found close to the city of Jackson, Mississippi. In Canton, Mississippi, whilst suspiciously scouting the back streets, Colesberry and I were followed and stopped by the local Sheriff—an eery reminder of the beginnings of our story. At the side of the road, we pathetically and nervously offered our Directors’ Guild of America cards as proof of identity. Fortunately, the sheriff was a good deal more amenable then his counterparts, of 24 years ago in Neshoba County might have been. He was also black. Apart from casting in New York and Los Angeles, I was also casting in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Orlando, New Orleans, Raleigh and Nashville and gradually the “rogues’ gallery” that covered two walls of my office was beginning to take shape as the faces that looked down at me started to resemble the characters I had in my head and, more importantly, the characters from the 60’s photographs that completely covered the remaining walls. Colesberry had decided that if we couldn’t settle on our small town at this point he should base our operation out of Jackson, as I was determined to be in Mississippi, and he was confident that the major part of our filming could be effectively done from a striking distance from the city. Once more the backroom army moved to new production offices, this time to the Holiday Inn in downtown Jackson. Our location department had now grown so large they could have fielded their own football team, plus a sizeable bench. Our most difficult search was for “disused churches,” or to be more accurate, disused churches that the owners had long abandoned and would be generous enough to let us burn down. Also we still had at least 30 of our 62 locations still to find.
At the Jackson Armoury we had arranged an ‘open call’ advertising on the radio and in local newspapers for anyone, who wanted to be in a movie. Nearly two thousand turned up and were dutifully photographed and ushered through the filtering process allowing me to read with as many people as possible. As always you hope to find someone special for a speaking part, (the “interviewees” in the film were all found this way), but mostly it enables the background extras to be sifted through, so that no-one appears in the film who I haven’t seen or approved—the theory being that there’s no such thing as a ‘crowd’ scene because at the end of a long lens, in close-up, any individual becomes a principal. The ‘open call’ process consequently enabled us to build up the most characterful and believable background for the film. The last month of preparation and the usual frenzy of last minute preparation and the thousand questions a director has to field. Each special effect to go through—from fire to rain—each period car and truck to be chosen; each costume, shirt and pair of boots to be checked; each prop—from a dog house to a broken picture frame to be looked at; each pistol and shot gun to be approved; each wallpaper sample and shop front to be selected; each three legged dog; arthritic cow and fetid pig to be considered; each stunt to be choreographed—and the shooting crew and actors hadn’t even arrived yet. For a director, undoubtedly the more answers you get right at this point the better the film will be. I don’ think there’s a director working who doesn’t realize that it’s a percentage game. Colesberry and I also met with Lanny McBride, a local music teacher, who was advising us on the gospel music used in the film.
We spent many hours at Lanny’s church as her choir ran through many options she had suggested. I had seen many music teachers at work during Fame, and afterwards, but I never saw a better one than Lanny. At the end of one evening we all stood in a circle holding hands as one of the choir members led the group in prayer and prayed for “this director and producer and their film.” Neither Colesberry nor I were overly religious and would have made our goodbyes, but for being wrangled by the choir members—but it was difficult not to be touched by their sincerity (not to mention their optimism). Certainly, it’s the first time any of my films has ever had such an auspicious and reverent beginning. My Assistant Director Aldric ‘La’Auli’ Porter is a Samoan Mormon. ‘La’Auli’, I believe, is Samoan for rock and that’s exactly what he was during those days of preparation and, indeed continued to be so throughout the shoot. Many of my crew would be made up of people I had worked with before. My editor, cinematographer, camera operator and sound recordist had all waded with me through the movie swamp many times before and, as I have often said, the identity of my films is as much theirs as mine. It was a secure feeling to know they’d be with me once more.
I eagerly walked Peter Biziou, my cinematographer, and Mike Roberts, my camera operator around the many locations where we would be filming during our first five weeks—off loading onto them shots and scenes that had cluttered in my head these last few months and now hopefully would be cluttering up theirs. By now, Bob Colesberry and I had decided that we would use Lafayette in Alabama as our small town, but the bulk of our shooting would be in Mississippi. We flew to Alabama to walk the town’s streets and alleys once more for me to lay out the shots we would be needing. The Art Department could start work on putting the town back to how it would have been twenty four years ago. Back in Mississippi, Gene and Willem had arrived and I began rehearsing. This process, for me, is really more to familiarize ourselves with the problems ahead rather than working out the minutiae and nuance of performance and blocking. It’s more a time to read the script aloud and for all of us to ask as many questions of one another as is possible, so that there should no surprises once that movie train pulls out of the station. This was our last week of sanity before the madness of filming begins. There was time even for one last social engagement as the Governor of Mississippi, Ray Mabus, had invited us to lunch. He was extremely gracious and encouraging, his concern being “the new Mississippi”—firm in the belief that if Mississippi had a chance at a future, it had to own up to its past.
First day of Principal Photography. By way of punishing ourselves unnecessarily we had decided to shoot the many night scenes first. Our opening night’s filming was to burn down our first church, not once but twice. There was a flurry of controlled (I think controlled) panic after the first shots (with three cameras rather too close to the flames) as the special effects and art departments directed the puzzled local fireman to the heart of the blaze. After an hour we were ready to go through the process once again. This time shooting until the church had finally burned to the ground and the matt box on front of the camera finally melted. The burnt church at Mount Zion was the beginning of our story and it was fitting that this was our first scene. Everyone stood there silently, mesmerized by the flames as they devoured the little church—strange voyeurs to a movie charade that in reality would have been impossible to watch.
The Motel scene with Gene and Willem. This was tough on Gene as we’d only just begun filming and suddenly he had, perhaps, the most difficult monologue in the film, where he tells the story of his own father’s deep-rooted racist attitudes in answer to Willem’s question “Where does it come from all this hatred?” The speech posits that the black underclass had always been there as a pathetic comforter to poor whites because there was always someone worse off than they were. The threat of black political and economic quality is obviously not the only explanation for the bigotry, but an important one. It also served to explain much of Anderson’s own attitudes. “Where does that leave you?’ says Ward. Anderson answers “With an old man so full of hate, he didn’t know that being poor was what was killing him”.
Another church to be burned. We had built a small cemetery at the front of derelict wooden parish church, once known as St. Paul’s as I wanted to give each church it’s own identity. The church had become derelict many years ago, when the fields had ceased to be worked and the locals had been forced to move away from this remote corner of Mississippi. At the height of the fire the heat began to suck the moisture from the ground, enveloping the old church and cemetery in an eery mist, and it was hard to imagine that ‘prop’ graves weren’t real.
At night in a pig farm for the scene where Hollis, the black boy from the diner, is chased and beaten by three of the conspirators. The animals’ dreadful ramshackle, make-shift pens, nailed together with the flotsam of fifty years of farming on the poverty line, echoed the sadness of the farmer’s own home. I remarked in the early hours, sipping coffee in a pig pen, that filmmaking was rarely glamourous and that being knee deep in pig shit was the reality.
We began shooting the murder scene at the front of the film. In many ways these three, almost anonymous, (in our story) young men are the entire reason why we were all assembled there in the middle of a dark and damp Mississippi swamp. The cowardly murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney was the starting point for our film and so, pertinenly, for a moment, death becomes more relevant than life.
Began a week of night church burnings and also the burning of Vertis Williams’ farm and his subsequent hanging. I think this is one of the more powerful scenes in the film but, as usual, the logistics of the sequence—in this case filming a complicated dramatic scene against a background of a burning building, (that has to burn and re-burn for many takes and shots)—tends to occupy your thoughts rather than the eventual disturbing effectiveness on screen. When filming nights, the British film crew insisted when returning to the hotel, that they have their traditional beer at the end of a day’s work. Except the day’s work was a night and they got back to the hotel at 6 a.m. in the morning. They would collapse in the Jackson hotel lobby and enjoy their beers. One morning an air crew, leaving for the airport, were puzzled by the strange site of this bedraggled, muddied band sipping their beers at such an early hour. One of the air crew said, “What is it you guys do?” Eaomonn O’Keefe, the camera assistant said, “Well tonight we burned a church and shot a guy who was being lynched.” The air crew hurried to their bus.
The Cowens/KKK car chase at the end of the film. Our masochistic schedule of consecutive night-shoots meant that it was more practical to shoot out of sequence from the dramatic chronology of the film. This is something filmmakers should generally try to avoid, but too often isn’t possible. Seeing the end of your movie unfold before you, when you’ve scarcely embarked upon the film itself, can be unnerving and probably the time when you trust most to that video recorder implanted in your brain.
The KKK beating of the congregation at Aaron and Vertis Williams’ church. I tried to soften the brutality of this scene in the final editing—fading out the horror of the victims’ screams, as Aaron might have done, kneeling in prayer. In the final mix of the film Lanny McBride’s solo voice can be heard over the violence, her honest simplicity hopefully contrasting with the distant, soundless images on screen.
The Morgue at the University Medical Centre. This was the actual location where the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were brought after their discovery buried in the earthen dam. Watching the black plastic body bags wheeled down the very same hospital corridor echoed the realities and more importantly, re-iterated our own responsibilities that lay beneath our fictional story. March 23 Slowly moving from day into night shooting as we shot the cotton field with Hollis, encaged in the wire trailer cage. It wasn’t the ideal time of year to show the cotton in full bloom and the cotton was “dressed,” plant by plant, by the entire crew who volunteered to help out the pressed art department to undertake the mammoth task. The ironic reversal of history—seeing so many white guys putting cotton back into a cotton field—was not lost on the crew. As night fell we filmed the Mayor’s (Lee Ermey) abduction, outside his house, by Agent Monk who then recounts the story of Homer Wilkes.
Found us at Raymond Airfield for Agent Monk’s departure. We had choreographed everything so that the whole scene could be shot in one, allowing Gene and Willem to build up a head of steam with their performances (and to get the sequence in the can before both of our actors died of pneumonia). The choreography of one take scenes, in different planes, is always satisfying because it allows the actors to discover and create their own internal combustion on screen—instead of relying on the dexterity of the editing. In truth, this kind of shot can only be attempted with skilful actors, and in this I was fortunate. I wrote the scene because I felt that an important and dangerous shift in morality had taken place in our story which had to be addressed and articulated as Ward abandons his principled approach acquiescing to Anderson’s street pragmatism.
The Mayor has hanged himself. I’d originally written a much longer speech from Willem than appears in the finished film. I wanted to sum up the complicity of all of us in racist attitudes—to try and make the point that racism isn’t unique to a bunch of red-necks in Neshoba County, Mississippi twenty-four years ago.
Back to working in the daylight as we shot the barbershop scenes. The film’s sixty-two locations were spread out all over Mississippi but mostly within a striking distance from Jackson, so we got used to many hours on bumpy roads. In contrast, our barbershop, however, was a two-block walk from our hotel and had changed very little in thirty years, smelling of Pomade, tobacco and sweat. In between takes, we had to gently discourage the owner from attempting to shave his regulars as he had done every Monday for the last thirty years. It’s not good for continuity we told him. Thirty years seemed like pretty good continuity to him.
April Fool’s day found us in the Courthouse in the small town of Vaiden. We had scouted more than two hundred Courthouses and as I stood there, trying to figure out my shots, looking at the shabby buckled benches, faded, peeling paint and the yellow cigarette stained glass in the windows, I wondered why we had looked so hard. But locations have to smell right as well as look right and this mouldy, dilapidated building smelt like it had seen many courtroom scenes similar to the one we were about to shoot. The courtroom, close to complete collapse, was held together by rusty sagging steel rods, and as the hundred and twenty extras, with freshly trimmed and coiffed hair, piled in, we wondered if this might possibly be the last trial the old building would ever see as the walls creaked and trembled from the combined weight of the cast and crew. The scene, in many ways, is a sub-plot to our main narrative but I felt it was necessary, helping to underline the difficulty of securing convictions from the often politically biased judiciary of the time.
The old courthouse also served as the Sheriff’s office of our fictional ‘Jessup County’ for Ward and Anderson’s introduction to Sheriff Stuckey (Gailard Sartain) and Deputy Pell (Brad Dourif).
The aftermath of the burning of Vertis Williams’ farm. Not for the first time, I had to shoot a scene amongst decaying animal carcasses (Birdy). As usual, they were courtesy of the local abattoir and the clouds of flies were courtesy of the Mississippi countryside. The scene emphasized Ward and Anderson’s growing frustration with their lack of progress in the case and their own complicity in the mounting violence.
Our conspirators are set up by the FBI to meet in their local church, “The rattlesnakes are beginning to commit suicide.”
The location for the exterior of Obie Walker’s mother’s house was pretty well as we’d found it. The cluster of pathetic shacks were, for the most part, still lived in and, not for the first time, I felt more than a little guilt in making films where our hamburger munching film crew army invades the real lives of people living in abject poverty and all we see is a “great location.” It’s a continual moral dilemma between illusion and reality, is it more valid on film because it’s real? Or does it really matter to an audience brought up on idealized, sanitized cardboard movie sets and computer generated video games?
At the same location we filmed the interior at the home of an elderly couple, Hattie and Mose, at the beginning of Ward and Anderson’s investigation. Once again in a room which no art director could have created (we’d added only the picture of Christ on the wall) we filmed Hattie, (Gladys Greer) who told me she’d never even been to a movie, let alone act in one.
In Vicksburg for the funeral eulogy and procession. We had scoured Mississippi for the right church and cemetery and had found them both here in the old town of Vicksburg which jealously clung to its past and place in history (a town where more “genuine cannon balls” were on sale than were apparently fired in the entire Civil War). Frankie Faison who delivers the eulogy in the church repeated his angry speech many times to the assembled (black) congregation, who were naturally moved as were we, white faces crouched behind our cameras, once again experiencing more than a little guilt. The funeral procession was shot in the nearby streets as Willem—a lone white face—marched in silence with the black mourners flanked by the apathetic and hostile white police force.
Cedar Hill cemetery, Vicksburg. The funeral procession continues and Ward is introduced to “Anderson’s people.”
Gene walks into the ‘Social Club’ for his confrontation with Frank Bailey and Deputy Pell. Watching Gene at work in this scene made me realize how lucky I was. The aren’t many actors who understand, as he does, how to block, pace and play a scene and his instant dissection of the work at hand, with a minimum of “actory” bullshit, was a great help throughout the film. Having done so many films his technique is impeccable—there’s nothing you can’t ask him to do whilst blocking a scene. He could turn on a dime and deliver half a line and walk a further yard and finish the last two words whilst instinctively feeling for the camera lens so that he would still be in shot. He strips down the character until he knows who he is at any moment in time. He hates extraneous paraphernalia to get in the way of the simplicity of the performance. I once said to him, Gene, as you shout at him could you pick up the newspaper…” He interrupted me and said curtly, “No, I don’t do props.” Gene will perhaps fiddle with his hat during a scene but not much else. I sincerely believe that working with him would be how it might have been working with the greats like Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart. When you’ve done sixty odd films, as Gene has, great films and awful films, good directors and bad directors—and he’s still been good in all of them—you have to have something special. I can’t say I ever became ‘pals’ with him; he retains his privacy and distance from everyone, but I never stopped watching him and marvelling at secrets that so few actors seem to have uncovered. Warren Beatty said to me, before we started, that Gene was the finest American movie actor, and I wouldn’t disagree.
The three bodies are discovered in an earthen dam on the ‘Roberts’ farm. I’d originally planned to shoot this whole sequence at dawn as the bulldozer blade bites into the red dirt. I filmed many shots until sun up but ultimately used one simple wide shot as the FBI agents scrape at the red dirt, discovering the (unseen) corpses. Sometimes it’s better to disregard twenty shots, if just one works.
Once more we were knee deep in the murky Mississippi swamps as the Navy and FBI search for three men, pursued by the hungry media circus. Our two hundred extras had been cast locally and trod a good deal more carefully in the Mississippi mud than the crew—after all, they were more likely to know what might be lurking beneath the surface.
We’d built the Choctaw Indian Village from scratch, using old photographs as reference and it looked like it had been there for as long as the Choctaws. As crew and the FBI agents stepped into the opaque, muddy waters, the looks of disgust and fear were not part of their acting. Or as Gene sarcastically remarked at this directorial abuse, “Do you remember when they used to do these scenes on the back lot at MGM?” He took great delight in pointing out to me a sleeping alligator downstream who, for the time being anyway, had not shown any interest in members of the Screen Actors Guild. April 18. The sad and shabby town of Canton had once been the center of the Voter Registration Drive in ’64 and this was a strong incentive to film here. The “bar” (“This is a dry county, we have alcoholics to prove it”) where Pell picks up the white drunk, we had found in Canton and also the railroad crossroad that feature in Ward and Anderson’s pursuit of Obie Walker’s abductors. We’d deliberately built the train’s log cargo into regular patterns allowing us to see though them glimpsing Gene and Willem’s frustration at losing the conspirators’ pick-up. The resulting image, as the train thunders through the shot, is almost like looking at a silent movie as their fragmented actions are accentuated, distanced by the passing train in foreground, like a giant camera shutter.
We had taken over a disused convent in Vicksburg and dressed it as our hospital set. I had rewritten these scenes to take advantage of the building’s corridor and staircase. It was also Fran’s (McDormand) first work on the film—three hours in the make-up trailer to achieve her beaten up, bruised face and then lying in bed, asleep all night. A nice way to start a movie. The exterior was shot in one long take as Gene and Willem fight on the hood of the car leading to Ward’s change of heart in how to conduct the investigations. We shot this long scene many times as Willem’s face gradually became numb from Gene’s slaps and Gene’s cheek became red from having the barrel of Willem’s gun thrust into it. I printed only one take. The last one.
The Citizens’ Council Rally was the biggest scene in our film from the point of view of logistics. Ironically, for a director, large crowd scenes are often easier to shoot than two people in a room. But for everyone else on the crew it was a nightmare: seven hundred and fifty extras in period costume, two hundred period cars, ten buses, thirty trucks, a hundred crew and police, and, fittingly, three borrowed circus tents in which to feed everyone. As we filmed through the night, the local extras, ankle deep in wet grass, never stopped smiling.
We had built the diner in an empty shell of an existing building in Jackson, closely replicating a diner we had found in Alabama. Filming into the night, we also did the front credits scene in the segregated wash room.
Ward and Anderson travel to Mississippi at the beginning of the film as we set up their relationship—their differing backgrounds and political attitudes—as they cross the Mississippi border from Alabama.
The company moves to Alabama; seventy-five crew; thirty trucks of equipment; a mountain of props and costumes: the entire movie circus.
Our principle reason for moving to Alabama was the town of Lafayette—one of those small towns nudged into nowhere by newly built highways that had passed them by. The irony was not lost on our production people that I had turned down three hundred other towns to find this one, which was perfect. So “perfect” that an army of carpenters and painters now set to work changing it. But although it was, in the main, period correct, it had changed subtly in twenty years and our work was to put it back to exactly as it was in 1964. Even after a month of hard labor it still wasn’t ready so we bought ourselves a little time by shooting Pell’s house where we are also introduced, in the film to Fran McDormand’s character, Mrs. Pell.
We continued our scenes at the Pell home involving just Gene and Fran. Anderson, although genuinely attracted to Mrs. Pell, walks the knife edge between liking and using her.
I had included the scenes of the protest riots to emphasize the growing black frustration at the inability to secure convictions in Mississippi courts. It also serves as an echo of similar incidents of violence that were occurring in other parts of the country and in a way, I felt showed the black minority asserting themselves, not just as passive victims.
Beauty Parlor, Night. What I thought would be one of our most difficult scenes, as Mrs. Pell gives Anderson the vital information of the whereabouts of the bodies, actually went very smoothly. Fran and Gene made it very easy for me. At the end of the day, we also filmed the other half of Gene and Willem watching Pell and Stuckey release the black youth (Obie) from jail. After fourteen hours of filming, we were all tired and Gene exploded after I asked for yet another take. This is the only time Gene and I had cross words in three months of highly emotional pressure filming and so it was soon forgotten, although I have to admit that he scared the hell out of me at the time.
A difficult day as we shot the Mrs Pell’s house trashed after her disclosures and Fran being beaten up by her husband. This was an ugly scene and not pleasurable to shoot. Often filming is playing charades whilst burning dollar bills and at other times, on certain scenes, it’s easy to believe whilst shooting that the illusion is actually real. I remember doing similar violent scenes in Midnight Express where the whole crew was affected by the day’s work and the hotel bar would be fuller than usual in the evening.
Town Square. The KKK arrive in town. We also shot Cowen being picked up at his shoe repair shop. The tiny store had certainly not changed in twenty years, maybe even forty years and it’s one set the art department certainly couldn’t take credit for.
Civil Rights Procession—as we tried to recreate the black and white footage that Colesberry and I had sat through back in November. The scene hopefully shows the irony of Deputy Pell, with his knowledge of the murders, calmly directing traffic and the ugliness of the other deputies hypocritically snatching the tiny American flags form the hands of the young black marchers. Against this backdrop, inside the beauty parlor, Mrs. Pell silently and painfully begins to reveal information to Anderson.
Arrests and Town Square. We filmed Willie with the cardboard box on his head cruising the town in order to identify the fire bomb conspirators. Although fiction, this is an image I had culled from actual events, as the Agents get their information whilst still protecting the young boy’s anonymity. It was a technically difficult shot, particularly for the focus puller, as the camera car weaved in front of the picture car, at varying distances, moving through 360° of changing light.
Movie Theatre. We had put back the old movie theatre to how it was in the early 60’s. When we first found it, the interior had been gutted and was being used as a store for tractor tires—which is sadly what it became again immediately after we’d finished filming and so the good people of Lafayette, who appeared in our film, would have an hours drive if they want to see themselves in Mississippi Burning. The black and white archive footage of the KKK racism speech being watched by the FBI, was a scratchy, flickering reminder of hideous reality that superseded our fiction.
Our final scenes where the cameraman is beaten up by Frank Bailey. This scene I’d also written from viewing black and white CBS News film out-takes—probably un-shown at the time because of the sight of the cameraman with blood streaming from his cut eye was thought unacceptable for television viewers sitting in their living rooms. Bob Colesberry who took off his immaculate Producer’s hat for a moment, had volunteered to play the cameraman. Having the daylights kicked out of you by the actor Michael Rooker, at full throttle, is as great a sacrifice as I could ask of any Producer. The final ‘production reports’ I used as a memory jog for these notes said that we completed principle photography a day and a half ahead of schedule which is testament to a fine crew and actors. The same call sheet also had a note that said: “Set Decorator, Jim Erickson, was attacked by six vicious dogs and bitten by one. The owner was present and dog has had shots.”
Alan Parker, Los Angeles, Oct 1988
I showed the finished film to Orion who were most encouraging, as they had been from the beginning of shooting. Orion was a curious and wonderful studio created by the luminaries of the old United Artists Company. It was run on a shoe string and the good taste of stubborn but benign elder statesmen, who for a couple of decades before the banks caught up with them, defied the system and managed to make some of the best films in Hollywood. The studio had arranged a test screening in Chicago for a carefully balanced, racially mixed audience. I stood at the back of the theater with Colesberry for twenty minutes watching the body language of the audience as they reacted to our work. Every line, joke, or dramatic moment was there on the backs of the necks of these Chicagoans who hadn’t even paid to get in. As usual it was too much for us to bear and so we went off in search of the nearest bar.
In the vocabulary of the somewhat dubious world of ‘pseudo research’ that American movie studios put such faith in, the film received the kind of ‘must see’ points that made the folks in the suits at Orion smile profusely. Willie Brown, arguably, California’s most influential black politician, and then Speaker of the California Assembly (and future Mayor of San Francisco) was shown an early screening of the film and waxed lyrically and vociferously. This turned out to be bad news amongst black American politics. Meanwhile Bob Colesberry and I were on our way to the Berlin Film Festival. On the tarmac at Frankfurt airport the two of us were squashed together on a bus along with the other passengers for the transfer to Berlin. An airline official jumped onto the crowded bus, at the opposite end to us, waving a piece of paper. “Mr. Parker? Mr. Parker?” she shouted across the heads. I gingerly put up my hand and snapped back a shy but strong “Yes,” in the way that the British tend to do when yelled at by Germans. “Seven nominations!” she shouted enthusiastically waving her paper in the air once more. “Mississippi Burning has seven Oscar nominations!” The rest of the passengers on the bus turned to Colesberry and I and applauded. It was a nice moment and, as our hands were pumped by complete strangers, we could have kidded ourselves that we were home and dry, but it was not to be.
In Berlin, Gene won the silver Bear for best actor but the press conference was the worst I’d suffered since Midnight Express at Cannes in 1978. Berlin was still very much the angry “political” festival on the circuit. With the communist wall still dissecting the city’s heart, the younger nouveau liberal West Germans harrangued me. Pale flaxen haired women, in leather jackets and nose rings screamed at me for making “this awful white man’s film.” Back in the states the controversy surrounding the film had gathered apace. Coretta Scott King had announced that the film was so disgraceful that anyone connected with it would soon be at a location where we would be savaged by Hades’ dogs. Or words to that effect. When it was pointed out that she hadn’t actually seen the film she said it wasn’t necessary. I guess she didn’t like that Willie Brown with his fedoras and all that political bling, sucking up to Hollywood.
Political controversy surrounding a film is still rare because, in the main, the output of Hollywood has always been apolitical, striving not to take sides. Not that they don’t harbour political oppinions—they certainly do. It’s’ just that it’s not good for business. Suddenly with Mississippi Burning the controversy got out of hand. It was impossible to turn on TV without someone discussing the movie—or using the movie to trigger the debate. Often it was black politicians and activists attacking my film but mostly one another because there certainly was no consensus in the black community towards the film. For myself I was somewhat bemused by it all—and a little punch-drunk. In the beginning it was rather nice to have your film talked about but suddenly the tide turned and although it did well at the box office, we were dogged by a lot of anger that the film generated. I have no doubt that the controversy that surrounded it took away some of the appreciation of what it was, or what it was trying to say. It certainly wasn’t intended to be the definitive story of the black Civil Rights struggle—nor could one film ever be. But the loudest voice in the film is undoubtedly black. If you can’t hear that, you must be deaf.
Ironically, the original Gerolmo script was a detective story that just happened to be set against the civil rights struggle. I had politicized the film, and in doing so couldn’t politicize it enough for some sectors, but it was after all, a detective story that Orion had originally green lit. At the heart of the criticism was the fact that the black civil rights struggle had somehow been usurped by a bunch of white guys: on and off the screen. The history of that struggle deserved many films and many of them had already been made for cinema and TV and frankly, been ignored. Mississippi Burning happened to be the first one that had made any impact on a global scale with its media visibility, box office and showy Oscar nominations. So suddenly everyone was talking about the odious effects of racism in America and my film was the punch bag for people to get on air and express their views furthering their own agendas. This annoyed me at first, because I’m a film director, not a politician, and I thought that my film had been forgotten and the issues had taken over. But that’s why I’d made the film in the first place, so maybe I should just take the ‘dumping on the movie from hell’ and be pleased that the debate was occurring at all.
As for the patronizing notion that we were white filmmakers making the film on behalf of black people that was abhorrent among black filmmakers. But reverse bigotry is at play when one ethnic group insists that only they have the right to tell a story about that particular group. This kind of “ghetto art” mentality was spawned of racial intolerance and manifests itself in a perverse mirror of that same insidious intolerance. Are these people saying that an Asian American can’t make a film about the Mafia because he or she is not Italian? That David Lean can’t make Dr Zhivago or Richard Attenborough Ghandi, or Shakespeare write the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Othello’? Certainly, the two protagonists of Mississippi Burning are white. At that time the film would never have been made if they weren’t.
As I have said earlier this was as much a reflection of the society we live as it is the agendas of the film companies. For all their many faults, film studios are a pretty free thinking bunch, mostly subjugating any personal views of their own, eager only to court the whims and fancies of the largest audience. I don’t think it ever occurs to them that the medium can be political, in the sense that it can change people’s views about the world they live in. In Los Angeles, film is unashamedly and unpretentiously thought of as a business and never thought of, as in the European sense: that film not only can, but ought to have a point of view. Individuals in Hollywood might have liberal views of their own, mostly in their support of the Democratic Party (Wasserman, Krim, Geffen etc), but in my experience of trying to cajole them into more political work over the last thirty years, their movies are rarely, if ever ideologically motivated. Hollywood, it has to be said, has traditionally been white and Jewish—the founding fathers being the glove salesmen and Nickelodeon operators of a century ago. There are also Christians, Moslems, Hindi, Judaists (and a few freemasons judging by the funny handshakes). But whether Hollywood follows Moses, Mohammed, Kabbalah, Agape, L. Ron Hubbard or the Moons (Sun Myung and Keith), one thing is certain: there are absolutely no atheists, because everyone worships the same greenback God: the dollar.
Also we were attacked by veteran journalists who had actually reported on the Neshoba County murders. The film was made twenty five years after the event and so the venerable journalists that had covered it also had a possessive, proprietorial sense about this moment in history—their moment in history, no less—and hence were glad to be wheeled out to thump this whippersnapper movie. Journalists have always had a problem with this curious bastard child—the union of drama and historical fact—because the sacred rule of good journalism is the preservation of corroborated facts which cannot and should not be messed with.
Cinema and the dramatic arts work in a different way. Movies are an artistic expression which communicates viscerally. Great cinema is as much about ideas and possibilities as it is about facts. The mixing of the objective and subjective can be a lethal cocktail in storytelling—but it’s not always to everyone’s taste. Non escapist cinema is at its most effective when it reflects the world in which we live or, at least, an accurate representation of the world in which our characters live. There is a great difference between information and stimulation. We are open to criticism for tampering with the facts but often the best story telling comes from challenging accepted truths. And anyway, sometimes truth itself is often floating in some pretty murky waters. To recreate a time and place with maximum authenticity and diligence; to recreate dramatic situations which have an air of reality about them; to write in a language that’s not phony and acted in a way that’s naturalistic as opposed to theatrical should be just good film making, because what all good film making tries to do is to conjure up reality. When all these elements come together and combust, then a sensitive nerve is touched in the audience and suddenly a new set of rules comes into play. Somehow the moral high ground becomes more lofty. The rules become tougher. (On this subject: HardTalk).
Mississippi Burning lost out at the Oscars to Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. Gene watched as his old roommate Dustin Hoffman pipped him at the post for best actor. My old friend and colleague, the eccentric Peter Biziou won for Best Cinematography. To assuage people’s curiosity in the statuette, the eccentric Biziou carried it everywhere he went in an old football sock. Soon people lost interest and so he gave it to his local restaurant where it still sits on display. Of Biziou work, the venerable film critic Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “Peter Biziou’s camerawork is so evocative I suspect one could hear dogs barking in the distance, freight trains passing in the night and crickets chirping in the tall grass, even without the sound track.”
Edgar Ray Killen In June, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted on three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Schwerner Goodman, and Chaney. A Conviction in Mississippi.
Dave Dennis (co-ordinator of the ‘Freedom Summer’) told the Village Voice, “We still feel that Killen is part of a wider conspiracy… it’s not closure.” The state attorney general says that the investigation into the Neshoba County murders is still ongoing.
All text © Alan Parker. All photos © Orion Pictures, Inc. Stills photography: David Appleby. Cinematographer: Peter Biziou.
Recommendations for further reading:
Classic Feature: Mississippi Burning. Empire Magazine on location with Parker, Hackman and Dafoe in the swamps of the Deep South.
This is an exceptionally active period for you as an actor, and you have lots of choice. Why Mississippi Burning?
I suppose I see myself as a serious artist, and it felt right to do something of historical import. It was an extremely intense experience, both the content of the film and the making of it in Mississippi. I was dubious about shooting it there, but Alan thought it would be a cop-out not to, and he kept an edge on the project that was very valuable. As it turned out, we didn’t have much trouble, but there is, of course, still sensitivity. —Interview: Gene Hackman
I first saw Frances McDormand in Blood Simple—an eye opening film and a “where did they get that woman” performance. Next I saw her in Raising Arizona (a film I had been eager to see since I had badly wanted the Nicolas Cage role). Finally, I met her on the set of Mississippi Burning, where she played a battered southern housewife, and I played an FBI investigator. For her performance, she was nominated for an Academy Award. In Mississippi, Fran struck me as down to earth, direct, and funny. Very serious and great at what she does, but I swear sometimes when I’d be with her I’d almost forget that we were actors. That’s why it was strange to do this interview because I feel we have talked each other’s ears off many times since we’ve met, yet we never talked about performing. —Frances McDormand by Willem Dafoe
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. Still photographers: David Appleby & Merrick Morton. All photos © Orion Pictures, Inc.
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