Filmmaker Scott Thurman on the Texas Textbook Wars

head shot of filmmaker Scott ThurmanWe sat down with filmmaker Scott Thurman to discuss what went on behind the scenes of his documentary, The Revisionaries, which chronicles the oft-rancorous battle over Texas textbooks. The Revisionaries premieres on Independent Lens January 28 at 10 PM (check local listings).

What impact do you hope the film will have?
I hope people pay more attention to public education and participate in local elections, especially the primaries for Texans.

What led you to make this film?
I was interested in evolution education and later heard about the 2008 Texas Board of Education’s controversial process for revising the science standards. At first I was looking to profile an energetic science teacher like the one I had in the fifth grade, Jerry Keller, but as I gained better access to politicians and people involved with the board of education, I decided to shift focus to the political issue as I recognized the dramatic ingredients for a more interesting and accessible story about the politics of education.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Working with the other producers and our editor, Jawad Metni, for a year to create the most succinct representation of the educational standards review process from over a thousand hours of footage.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I started sticking around after the board meetings to meet board members, and after I was given a few initial interviews, I put together a short piece to apply for grants. I also showed it to subjects to help convince them that I was interested in presenting all sides fairly. I think this early trailer combined with my persistence over three years greatly contributed to my access.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I filmed extensively with Ide Trotter, among other individuals heavily involved in the board’s process. But we decided to cut many of the public and experts because of our time restraints and also because we felt a flurry of characters was overwhelming and unnecessary when we could use four or five to walk us through a majority of our story.

Don McLeroy in plaid shirt with backdrop of bookshelf

Dentist and Republican former member of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The two moments when (Don) McLeroy’s position on the board shifts are the most powerful dramatic points and both clear examples of our distinct storytelling style. They’re dramatic because it allows us to see McLeroy in a very important, transformative situation, and it feels like we’re following a man’s “life,” rather than a political issue. Both scenes reveal a distinct style by encouraging viewers to see the more compassionate and human qualities of a character some would consider to be a villain.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Most people are both alarmed and amused to find out how this political process works. I tell them I consider the movie a tragicomedy. All major characters in the film have seen it, and Don McLeroy, Kathy Miller, and Ron Wetherington have all participated in numerous post-screening Q & A’s. Ron is very proud and plans to show SMU students the film in class, and Kathy and her group, The Texas Freedom Network, continue to publicize the film’s achievements in their newsletters.

Don is happy with the way he’s portrayed, and gives our treatment of the science standards review process an “A,” but gives the history section an incomplete because he feels it makes the far-right appear to be against the separation of church and state. I still talk with Don about this even now, and I’m sure it will come up in the “Ask Me Anything” live chat on Reddit we’re doing Monday from 8pm to 11pm CST with Don, Kathy, and Ron.

Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A—interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?
Everyone wants to know how I got access to Don and what he thinks of the film. It’s always a great pleasure when I can bring Don up to the stage and let him speak for himself. Although I’m not politically aligned with Don, I’ll work to allow his voice to be heard, but I try to make it clear that I’m not suggesting science and non-science should be considered equally for the public school science class. I do think because of his political position, we should shed light on his educational philosophy so that the voters can make informed decisions, and I especially thank him for his willingness to participate.

woman in blue jacket and skirth prays at podium with flags in backgroundWhat didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I only scratched the surface with respect to developing the main characters, understanding that the bigger picture and more of our screen time should be devoted to the political issue. Although these individuals are at the forefront of the story, I would’ve liked to explore more personal qualities of each character because I think it would reveal a more rich and complex narrative.

What are your three favorite films?
I enjoy every Errol Morris documentary because of the way he unveils information to create fascinating character portraits. Robinson Devor’s Zoo persuaded me to relate to someone I never thought possible, and similar to Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, it expanded the documentary art form by demonstrating alternative ways to use reenactment. On the fiction side of the fence, I put on Bottle Rocket once a month, like an album spinning in the background. In fact, Don McLeroy reminds me a little of the main character, Dignan.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Research the topic as much as possible before approaching potential characters, but at the same time, try to be a blank slate, open to the impressions of people you encounter and the personal stories that unfold.

 What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (This question is meant literally.)
I’ve been making a mean power breakfast mix about five days a week for about two years now! It consists of fig yogurt, super nutty granola, almonds, blueberries, bananas, cinnamon and coconut flakes. OK, maybe it’s more of a dessert that I’ve convinced myself is a healthy breakfast.

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  • LB

    This is absolutely disgusting. I’m embarrassed. The truth is being omitted and altered to parallel the ignorant ideas and theories of people like Don.

  • alexandra constantin

    Woaw, SHOCKING, not just Don but most board members… I can’t believe this is happening in 2012… but then again, we came so close to having Romney as our president. How do people like this get so close to decide on my kid’s future? That’s because I don’t go into a church, yell amin and get 1000 votes.

    Thank you Scott!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jackie.rowlandmackey Jackie Rowland-mackey

    Does the religious faction think man really walked with dinasours?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ludwig-Von-Schitzenhaus/100001741767535 Ludwig Von Schitzenhaus

      Yes, think Fred Flintstone and his obedient wife Wilma.

  • B. Ellis in Canada

    I have just watched
    Independent lens, the show about teaching evolution in Texas. It amused me that
    before their debates, the panel of people prayed to God for guidance. I wonder
    what this God has done that He should be petitioned as such. They deny His role
    as Creator then pray for His guidance in order to push evolution in schools and
    teach their children that God has no hand in their making but that they were
    instead a series of random accidents that turned pond scum to people. Does no
    one else see the irony in this?

    I have spent many years researching the “science”
    behind the idea of evolution. I am never
    content to accept things merely on
    popular belief and have always been the person who asked “why?” and “explain
    how that can be”. I was astounded at the
    ignorance of these people (with the exception
    of the creationist dentist)regarding the facts available from qualified
    scientists proving that not only is evolution not possible by many, many
    scientific standards, but that there is overwhelming evidence for
    a young earth and a worldwide flood as described in the Bible. If I can find these articles and information,
    why haven’t some of these people whose important job is to make the policy that
    influences the next generation found them also? I found them staggeringly
    uninformed. Pro-evolutionists are reminiscent of the flat –earthers who decried
    the science of Galileo and others long ago. They are incapable of letting go of
    absurd notions that modern science has proven totally outside the realm of possibility.
    If Darwin had any idea of the intricacies of a single cell as we now know, he’d
    have never suggested such a thing as
    evolution. He may even have coined the term “irreducible complexity” himself.

    • rob23

      Do you know what evolution is? It is the change in the DNA of a population over time. It is part Darwin and part Mendel. Fitness equates with the ability to produce offspring. The DNA data sets used in courts of law to convict or exonerate are the same sets used to identify lineages that go back tens of thousands of years. The dating methods used for human and archaic hominids is the same as for geology and astronomy. The physics and chemistry behind every thing I’ve just stated is the same. Those laws are as applicable to evolution in biology as they are in stratigraphy, anitclines and examining class G main sequence stars. Of course, I doubt my ‘facts’ will change your mind anymore than yours will change mine. Having said that, regardless of what you or any creationist beleives, nature does not care one whit about your beleif system. Evolution will continue unabated in prokaryotic, archaic, and eukaryotic species regardless of your actions.

  • paraclete2u@aol.com

    Never confuse the will of the majority to be the will of God. More and more scientific data points to (and proves) the creation model as opposed to the evolution model. The problem is man refuses to believe that God created everything just as we see it today. Man is born in the image of God, but is separated from Him until he accepts Jesus Christ into his life. 1 Corinthians 2:14 “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” No matter how many education degrees you have, until you believe Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was personally for you, God’s ways (and God’s people) will always seem as foolishness to you.