Filmmaker Pamela Roberts on the Making of Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

March 30th, 2012

Filmmaker Pamela Roberts with Ira Joe Johnson, who, in revealing a historical secret about Margaret Mitchell, sparked her interest in the iconic author. Photo courtesy of Pamela Roberts.

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with filmmaker Pamela Roberts, whose upcoming American Masters film Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel delves into the fascinating life of one of America’s most compelling authors. Roberts shares what first drew her to the literary icon, and the complexities and challenges she faced in making the film.

Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel premieres Monday, April 2 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Enter our giveaway for a chance to win anniversary edition DVDs, books, and more, and visit American Masters on Facebook for polls and discussions relating to the film.

Inside Thirteen: Were you always a fan of Gone With the Wind? What inspired you to make this film?

Pamela Roberts: I liked the movie but had never read the book. I didn’t think a thing about the movie or Gone with the Wind…having seen it as a much younger person, I just left it where it was, and that was that. Then I got a call about four years ago from a man named Ira Joe Johnson, who is featured in the film, asking if I knew of the secret history related to Margaret Mitchell and her connection with funding African American higher education in the South, especially for doctors. Johnson went to Morehouse College, which is a very good college for black men in the South. Dr. Benjamin Mays was the president of the college in the early 1940s, just after Gone with the Wind had come out. It was well known that Margaret Mitchell was rich, so Mays approached her secretly and asked her to help fund African American education, especially for blacks who dreamed of becoming doctors in the South. Mitchell agreed to do it, and did it until she died. Throughout the 1940s, she secretly gave money to educate dozens of African American doctors. She was taking a huge risk because it was a very difficult time racially in the South – if her secret philanthropy had been discovered, she probably would have been killed. So here is a person who wrote a racially controversial book in her mid-twenties and who later risked her life to give to the black community. I wanted to understand Mitchell’s amazing odyssey, the arc of change in her life – that’s what interested me and why we did it.

IT: How do you think Margaret’s tomboyish upbringing shaped her identity as an adult?

PR: Her mother, Maybelle, allowed Mitchell to be herself. Even though they had a difficult relationship in a lot of ways, Maybelle understood that she had a special kid, and Margaret was allowed to be Margaret. She wore pants and was allowed to be one of the boys, which just didn’t happen back then, in the Victorian era.

When Maybelle died, Margaret’s father and her brother frowned upon the way she behaved. Maybelle was an early feminist and had a huge impact on Mitchell’s life. But she did have blinders – in her deathbed letter, she still stressed to Mitchell that she had to be a wife and a mother first, before she could be her own person.

IT: How much of herself did Margaret Mitchell put into her characters? Or those she knew?

PR: I would say Mitchell is a combination of Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes. Scarlett represented the New South, the willingness to adapt to a new and more progressive way of life in order to survive. Melanie, with her genteel manners and kindness, lived in a dream world that no longer existed. Like the Antebellum South, Melanie did not survive. Mitchell and Scarlet were both rebels who fought against restrictions placed on women but Mitchell also appreciated the beauty of the Old South as represented by Melanie. Mitchell’s genius lay in her creation of complex, well-rounded characters who were neither all good or all bad. She understood that it took a ruthless and cunning Scarlett O’Hara to accomplish what she did, and a Rhett Butler who could see the truth of the Southern situation and still be part of it.

I think Mitchell understood humanity. Is she one of these characters? She’s not entirely; she’s a real creator, so she’s not just going to make her life into Scarlett O’Hara. The interesting thing the biographers said is that some of Mitchell’s mother, Maybelle, got translated into Rhett Butler – I was shocked by that at first and then realized it was true. If you look at statements in Gone with the Wind that Rhett Butler makes about how the Southerners had blinders on – they thought they had this great way of being that nobody could undermine, they didn’t see that the only way to survive was to change, to be more like the industrial North, and that the era of cotton and slaves was really over. Mitchell as a child learned a similar lesson from her mother which she later wrote about, and at one point in our film Maybelle tells Mitchell, “You’ve got to understand that this world is not going to last – it’s going to be upended and you’ve got to be ready for it.”

In this reenactment from the film, Margaret Mitchell (played by Atlanta journalist Katie Leslie) begins writing Gone With the Wind at her apartment in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

IT: How did you decide on the format of the film – to feature actors and re-enactments?

PR: We did have a lot of photos and a lot of good archival material on Margaret Mitchell, but photos can’t really reveal the depth and emotional complexity of one’s life. Plus, what was great is that we had her journals and her letters, so we were able to base the reenactments on what she felt about her life, and I think we were able to hit the emotional highlights that way. I felt comfortable that I was not making stuff up out of nowhere – I based it out of her own writings.

The woman who played Margaret Mitchell is an actual reporter for The Atlanta Journal Constitution, just like Margaret Mitchell was! When I met Katie Leslie at a press conference, I thought, “She’s an absolute dead wringer for Margaret Mitchell!” She’s a major reporter here in Atlanta, so it’s interesting that we got a reporter to play a reporter.

IT: Why do you think Mitchell asked her husband to burn the original Gone With the Wind manuscript upon her death?

PR: Honestly, that is still not really understood. There are a lot of things about Margaret Mitchell that we’ll never ultimately know why. There was some controversy because it was such a big book for a first-time novelist. It was a runaway best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. People thought, “This just came out of nowhere, did she really write this? Maybe her husband, John Marsh, wrote the book. Maybe somebody at Macmillan helped her. Or her father, since he founded the Atlanta Historical Society. But surely this little woman couldn’t have done the whole thing!” Her husband John Marsh, who was her editor, wrote a letter to his mother telling her not to believe the rumors that he wrote the book. But people refused to understand. It hurt Mitchell’s feelings terribly. In the margins of the original manuscript were Marsh’s corrections, and at one point two or three pages were exhibited in the Atlanta Public Library. People jumped to the conclusion that her husband must have done more than just edit the book. Mitchell probably didn’t want people taking the manuscript apart, which she knew they would, and just analyzing every aspect of it to try to prove that she didn’t write it.

While the original manuscript was destroyed, the revised manuscript she did for Macmillan that eventually became the novel was not. And John Marsh did save chapters. He knew that people would still be challenging her authorship, and he didn’t want that.

IT: What do you think led Mitchell to change her views on race and segregation?

PR: She might have been slowly evolving, but when Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors couldn’t come to Atlanta for the movie premiere, and when McDaniel couldn’t sit at the same table as the rest of the cast at the Oscars, I think Mitchell felt guilty. She wrote to McDaniel at four in the morning on the day after the premiere. She saw how much McDaniel had accomplished and how she was still being mistreated. There is additional correspondence between the two of them that has only recently been discovered – they stayed in touch for a long time and they really respected each other.

IT: What was the most challenging part of making this film?

PR: The most challenging part is when experts and biographers differ on things. For Public Broadcasting, you want to make sure you’re not misrepresenting anything. Ultimately, you have to make your own decision – you can’t be on the fence about it. I go through that with every project, but this one was bigger.

When I decided to tell the Smith College story in which Mitchell refused to be in class with a black student, I got some criticism, and there were two or three experts who told me not to include it. But that information came from a letter Mitchell wrote to her mother, so we know it happened. So it was also a matter of being willing to shatter some of the precious myths that people hold about Margaret Mitchell. She was not a perfect person and she would be the first to admit it.

The other thing is that the estate of Margaret Mitchell had to approve what I was doing, so I had a nail biting time when I told them what I was working on, including telling some unpleasant truths. You have to have a lot of guts to do a project with controversy in it. I also knew that in a lot of ways, Margaret Mitchell didn’t want all this dug up! She wasn’t comfortable being this huge icon. She didn’t see herself that way, but the South chose to see her that way, and her life was in some ways virtually shattered by Gone with the Wind. She enjoyed being just a member of her community; it was very important to her to be a normal person. She couldn’t be that anymore, and she hated every part of it. She was a true rebel, but not so much in the Southern sense as in the larger sense – hence the title, Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel.

Natural Wonders: Q&A With Nature Series Producer Bill Murphy

March 28th, 2012

Every year on April 22, people across the world celebrate Earth Day. On Nature, the award-winning series produced by THIRTEEN and now in its 30th season, every day is Earth Day.  Each week, the series brings the beauty and endless wonders of our planet to viewers, capturing the world’s ecosystems and their varied inhabitants in intimate detail.

Series Producer Bill Murphy spoke with THIRTEEN about the dedication and detail that go into the creation of television’s premier natural history series.

This interview was originally conducted and condensed for the April 2012 THIRTEEN Program Guide.

Nature is one of the most-watched primetime series on public television. Why does the series continue to attract so many viewers and filmmakers?

Bill Murphy: I think it’s because we’re committed to finding the most interesting stories in our genre, spending the appropriate time researching and developing films before we go into production, and working with the best filmmakers in the natural history business. And, of course, we couldn’t do it without the loyal support of THIRTEEN and its viewers.

Filmmakers are always telling me how much they love working with THIRTEEN and the Nature team because we know what we’re doing and they trust our guidance and support. I like to think that’s true, but I also know the best filmmakers in this business are very attracted to the fact that we can tell out our stories without commercial interruption. That’s a real luxury in today’s media landscape.

How do you find story ideas, and what qualities do you look for when considering submissions?

BM: There are many paths to finding story ideas that work for Nature.  Ideas are pitched to us by both domestic and international independent producers, as well as major broadcast commissioners like the BBC and National Geographic.  Some of the things we think about when evaluating proposals are: Is this story a right fit for Nature?  How strong is the story and will it hold our audience’s attention?  Does the producer have the talent, access, and experience to make the film in question?  Although Nature is known for its story-driven classic blue chip natural history films and stunning cinematography work, such as Ocean Giants — which is scheduled for rebroadcast three consecutive Wednesdays beginning March 28 — we also feel it’s important to address some of the key topical conservation issue-oriented stories as we did in Salmon: Running the Gauntlet, which looks at the collapsing Pacific salmon populations and the ongoing debate on how to save this endangered species.

We’re also attracted to stories that require “special access” and give our viewers an inside look at an environmental situation that may otherwise be off-limits. One of Nature’s filmmaking teams took great risks to produce Braving Iraq, the story of one man’s extraordinary efforts to restore both animals and people in the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990’s.  And Radioactive Wolves examines the health of wildlife populations in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, the area around the reactor that remains too dangerously radioactive for human habitation 25 years after the meltdown of the nuclear power plant.  You can catch a special encore presentation of this film Wednesday, April 25.

Watch a preview of Ocean Giants:

You work closely with wildlife filmmakers who have a wide range of experience and narrative styles. What does your work with them involve, and what do you find most rewarding about these collaborations?

BM: I have a great job!  I get to work closely with some of the most passionate and dedicated people in the filmmaking business who, in spite of long grueling days working in some of the most inhospitable environments, all seem to really love what they do for a living and are genuinely grateful that we’re providing them with the opportunity to make films for Nature’s loyal audience. Every film requires a different level of attention, but in general my job involves working with my colleagues on the development of stories and shaping our films editorially, both in the field and during post production.  I’m also responsible for pitching story ideas to potential international co-production partners in order to raise funds to help us finance our big projects, and I act as the point person on the Nature team for producers and co-production partners on all production-related questions and concerns. I also negotiate all the production and co-production deals.

Do you have a favorite personal memory from your 15 years of working on Nature?

BM: One of my favorite memories was spending time in Alaska during the Winter of 1999  filming  one of my favorite Nature programs, Sled Dogs: An Alaskan Epic. It was an extremely cold winter with evening temperatures averaging 50 degrees below zero as we followed several sled dog teams participating in the Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.  Nature was still shooting on super 16mm film at that time and it was so cold the film was snapping in half as we tried to load it into the cameras.   Our production team slept mostly in tents and, when lucky, cabins as we traveled across the beautiful state of Alaska using planes, helicopters and snow mobiles. The film crew was fantastic and somehow found a way to persevere all of the weather and logistical challenges and still make a beautiful film.

Is there a program you’re particularly excited about in the 30th anniversary season or beyond?

BM: One of my favorite programs that premiered during Nature’s 30th season is My Life as a Turkey, the true story of writer, naturalist, and “turkey mom” Joe Hutto.  If you haven’t seen it, I recommend streaming it from Thirteen.org.  It’s must-see TV.  I’m also very excited about our pipeline of films in production for our 31st season,  so stay tuned!

Watch the full episode of My Life as a Turkey:

Live from the Artists Den Features Amos Lee on March 23

March 21st, 2012

This Friday, Live from the Artists Den features singer-songwriter Amos Lee, who returns to Tucson, the city where he recorded his “Mission Bell” album, for a performance at the historic Fox Theatre. Joining Lee onstage are several guest artists, including local favorite, Calexico.

The concert features songs from Lee’s latest album, as well as past hits like “Windows Are Rolled Down” and “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight.”

Live from the Artists Den with Amos Lee airs Friday, March 23 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch a behind-the-scenes video and view the full song listing below:

Song list:

“Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight”
“Cup of Sorrow”
“El Camino”
“Hello Again”
“Street Corner”
“Low Down Life”
“Skipping Stone”
“Out of the Cold”
“Windows Are Rolled Down”
“Behind Me Now”
“7 Spanish Angels”

Intelligence Squared Debate: China Does Capitalism Better Than America

March 13th, 2012

Tonight at 6:45 p.m., Intelligence Squared will host China Does Capitalism Better Than America, a live debate moderated by ABC News Nightline correspondent, John Donvan, featuring panelists Orville Schell and Peter Schiff (for) along with Ian Bremmer and Minxin Pei (against). Watch the full debate below.

About the debate:

For all appearances, China has emerged unscathed from the global economic crisis, in stark contrast to its biggest debtor, America. China’s admirers point to its ability to mobilize state resources, quick decision-making and business-friendly environment as reasons for its economic ascendancy. But can its brand of state-directed capitalism overcome rampant corruption and the threat of growing inequality, or will the American model of innovation and free markets prevail?

Downton Abbey Heads into the Roaring Twenties

March 1st, 2012

Flappers, jazz, life after World War I (and the birth of the BBC!)… The Downton stars dish on what they hope the future holds during the Roaring Twenties when season three of Downton Abbey arrives next year.

Missed any of season two? Watch full episodes online through March 6, and read episode recaps on The Downton Dish.

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