The Making Of
Director, producer and writer Loren Mendell and producers Terence Greene, Joe Fries and Bob DeMars discuss the challenges of crafting a documentary from decades-old audio recordings and television shows that allow their iconic subject, Petey Greene, to tell his life story in his own words—even though he's been dead for 25 years.
What led you to make this film?
I wanted to do a film about Petey based on my boyhood experience of watching Petey Greene’s Washington and being drawn to his honesty and his charisma and being indelibly marked by that.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
"We had 50 30-minute episodes of Petey Greene's Washington, with topics ranging from 'how to eat a watermelon' to 'the viability of a black president' to 'how much you should tip at a restaurant.'"
My biggest challenge was figuring out how to craft a story from Petey’s audio recordings and television shows. We had 50 30-minute episodes of Petey Greene’s Washington with topics ranging from “how to eat a watermelon” to “the viability of a black president” to “how much you should tip at a restaurant.” Ultimately, our goal became for Petey to tell his own story using as much of his voice as possible supplemented by stock footage, photos and commentary from the interviews. Helping Petey tell his story 25 years after his passing was both a great challenge and an honor.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Terence Greene (producer and Petey’s nephew) and Laura Howard (production manager) live in Washington, D.C. and have relationships with many of the subjects in the film. Otherwise, they were great at getting us in the door and greasing the wheels.
Everyone was eager to tell their side of who they thought Petey was to them after seeing Talk To Me. So it was not hard at all.
What was your experience like working on both a feature film and a documentary about Petey Greene?
My experience with the film Talk To Me was a magnificent Hollywood journey that took nine years of tenacity and blind faith. The documentary was just a joy because we conceived and executed it in under one year.
Are there any voices on radio or TV today that you would consider comparable with Petey?
Tavis Smiley, on PBS, is probably the closest thing today to Petey Greene. They were both able to overcome hard upbringings and succeed in lending their voice to the media, including speaking to public affairs that often go ignored. However, nobody was ever as brash and outspoken as Petey Greene, nor has there ever been anyone like him since.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?
I would have liked to include more stories and perspectives from Petey’s family members. There were also lots of interviews we shot with people whose lives were impacted by Petey, but who didn’t know him personally. However, the way we structured the film didn’t allow us to include many of those testimonies.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I was moved throughout. I miss Petey very much.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
We had to record Don Cheadle’s narration in Marseille, France with a two-hour window and we were given only 12 hours notice. After finally scheduling a studio, a sound engineer failed to show up minutes before the scheduled session. We used the power of Google maps to book another studio one mile away within minutes. This entire process took place between midnight and 7 AM PST and took 74 translator-assisted calls.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in ADJUST YOUR COLOR: The Truth of Petey Greene seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The audience that has seen the documentary AND the feature [Talk to Me] are moved and enthusiastic about how each informs the other and how amazing Petey in real life was—as electric as Don Cheadle portrayed him to be.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The lifestyle of an independent filmmaker is something you must embrace. The uncertainties of funding and distribution are frustrating but the experiences of documentary filmmaking are truly unique. You are granted an all-access pass into the world and cultures of your choosing. Every project is life-altering and not only helps shape my view of the world, but has allowed me to be a more empathetic person.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Petey Greene was all about the public. He spoke for the people who were not represented in our government, for those who didn’t have a platform to express themselves. Petey’s first television show was broadcast on public access so I think it’s only fitting that ADJUST YOUR COLOR: The Truth of Petey Greene premiere on PBS.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A—interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?
Just stay as true as you can when telling someone’s story.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
There were a few interviews that we would have liked to capture that fell through at the last second. Howard Stern would have been a great interview because he was always one of Petey’s biggest fans when he was on the air in Washington, D.C. Luckily, we have him on Petey’s show; so, in a way, we didn’t need him because we already had 30 minutes of him on a Petey Greene’s Washington episode.
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