The Making Of
Filmmaker Susanne Mason talks about creating a film with no access to the subject and a lack of archival material, the blatant brutality towards prisoners in the '60s in Texas and leaving a scene in the film that could be considered "cheesy."
What led you to make this film?
I was making a documentary short about women in prison back in 1991 and was given the opportunity to meet and interview a longtime prisoner of the Texas prison system. The interview had no connection to the project I was working on, but it became a fascinating chapter in my documentary filmmaking career. I finished the short film, took a position with a veteran PBS producer on several films and began in my spare time to research the history of the Texas prison system that this prison “old-timer” had introduced me to. He had served in the State School for Boys and the Texas Department of Corrections beginning in the early 1950s, and had witnessed the dramatic policy shifts brought about by prisoner litigation during the 1960s and '70s. His shocking and often terribly sad stories were the seeds that led to WRIT WRITER.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The greatest challenge in making WRIT WRITER was fundraising. I learned almost everything I know about grant writing by undertaking the development of the project. The reasons I faced an uphill climb, from start to finish, are 1) I had no track record; 2) I am a woman telling the story of a very male institution; and 3) It is difficult to find funders willing to contribute money to a film about a convicted criminal who demands his rights. This third reason is the one that I think presented the biggest obstacle. And the fact that the convicted criminal whose story I tell was Mexican American may have added to that difficulty.
Another challenge that I faced is one that I think would have convinced a lot of more experienced filmmakers to drop the project altogether. This is that the main subject of the film, Fred Arispe Cruz, is not famous. Worse still, there was no film footage of him and a very limited number of photographs.
Initially, this didn’t deter me because I found Cruz’s story so compelling and important that I believed I could put the power of filmmaking to the task of conveying his moving story. During the course of editing, I did question my own judgment at times, but I felt deep down that I could make it work. I had to create for viewers the palpable presence of Fred Cruz and bring his words and voice to the story in such a way that we could come to know him.
One other challenge worth noting is that film footage of Texas prisons and prisoners that dates back to the 1960s, when Cruz was incarcerated, is difficult to locate. Excluding news film, the footage I found tended to be for guard training, prisoner orientation or promotional in nature. Archival images that are truly “fly-on-the-wall” style documentation are not easy to come by. Prison officials don’t generally allow journalists to film what goes on behind closed doors. So in order to create the physical spaces of the Ellis prison farm, and convey the impact of that environment on people day-to-day, we worked carefully with the available imagery, both new and old, to create its atmosphere. Sound and music helped to enhance the experience.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
There are several scenes that I had to remove from the film in order to cut it down to the required length for Independent Lens—53 minutes and 30 seconds. One of those was a story told by Floyd Patterson, an ex-convict who is interviewed in the film, about a workday on the Ellis Unit when he was serving time in the late 1960s. The prisoners were working in the woods, cutting down trees to clear more land for farming. The inmates used axes to fell trees and when they were about to fall they shouted “timber.” Floyd recalled how a new inmate heard men working on one tree yell “timber,” and ran to clear the way. But he ran in the wrong direction, and the tree fell on him. Floyd remembers the cracking sound when it hit him and seeing the blood coming out of his eyes. “I‘m thinking they gonna call for the truck... come down there and take him in to the hospital. …This happened about 10 o’clock. They laid him over there until 12 o’clock, ‘til we knocked off to go eat lunch. And that’s when they took him in. … Told us to go back to work you know. And that guy laid over there and died,” said Patterson.
Another scene we cut out described one of the beatings that Cruz endured at the hands of two building tenders (inmate guards) following an appearance he made in court in 1971. He was hospitalized as a result, and Frances Jalet, his attorney, was prevented from seeing him. It was another example of the types of retaliation Cruz experienced for publicly criticizing the prison system.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
About 17 minutes into the film Cruz tells us about the time he was sentenced to solitary for possessing a copy of the United States Constitution in his cell. This story epitomizes the dogmatic authority and extreme punishment prison officials such as Warden McAdams used to limit prisoners’ activity—even when that activity involved studying the U.S. Constitution.
There is a scene later in the film after Frances Jalet has come to meet Cruz, and has agreed to help him with his lawsuits, that I think reveals the deep sense of alienation that prisoners feel when they have little contact with people inside or outside of prison. Fred tells us: “I couldn't see outside from my cell, only the light of day breaking. …after spending so many hours in dark cells, I learned to appreciate the daylight and other small gifts of nature.” The image of Frances Jalet smiling at the camera then appears. While editing the film, this image often made me laugh because it is such a literal allusion to the relationship that will form between Cruz and Jalet that it could feel “cheesy.” But in the end, I kept it because it reflects the tremendous hope that Frances represented for Cruz even when he was locked up in solitary confinement.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
There were no great technical challenges. There was the annoyance of being in the midst of the rapid development of new tape formats and editing systems. Early on we used Avid to edit, and then I decided to purchase an early version of Final Cut Pro, which did not offer a very robust organizational platform for the hundreds of different motion and still assets produced. A lot of time and money was spent converting tape formats and migrating from one edit system to another.
I decided to shoot 16mm film to document aspects of modern-day prison life that could augment the available archival film footage of the prison system during Cruz’s incarceration. This was for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Aesthetically, the black and white slow motion footage gives a more dream-like or memory-like feel to the prison imagery. Practically, the black and white film grain and the use of manual zoom lenses provided a look similar to archival film I used. Ultimately, I needed to cast viewers back in time, and this helped to achieve that. Cinematographer Deb Lewis captured beautifully the rhythm of prison life and work that have hardly changed since the 1960s.
In my hunt for historical imagery of San Antonio between 1940-1975, I found very little that was useful or affordable. The imagery used to portray Cruz’s childhood and teen years had to be drawn from a wide variety of sources, both archival and original. It was here that I took the most liberty with images. For example, the film footage of the boys swimming in the creek is not from San Antonio. It does, however, accurately simulate the creeks that Cruz and friends swam in prior to the water projects that would eventually eliminate such natural swimming holes in urban San Antonio.
To portray San Antonio in the 1970s, we shot 16mm color negative and Super-8. The imagery was not pure documentation, so much as an interpretation of Cruz’s point-of-view upon returning to his hometown in 1972. Some images were drained of color or balanced to simulate the color balance of 1970s film stock.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
WRIT WRITER had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March with two screenings. Overall, people seemed genuinely moved by the film. A state legislator thanked me personally. The third public screening was in April at CineFestival in San Antonio, Cruz’s hometown. Three of the men interviewed in the film who were friends of Cruz attended, as well as several other people who knew him. I was very anxious to know what they thought of the film, and was hugely relieved when the audience gave it a standing ovation.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The possibility that my work might inspire people to reconsider assumptions, or touch their hearts and minds, inspires me most. The ability to reach a wide audience is also a tremendous motivator.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I have always deeply admired and appreciated the kinds of programs aired on public television, and have drawn inspiration from them. So I feel like I am in the best of broadcast company because just about anybody with a television can watch the film. It’s important to note that much of the funding that made WRIT WRITER possible came from public funding sources.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
A friend and I shot a short documentary about one of the inmates who appears in WRIT WRITER, Benny Clewis. He is a prison cook, and we documented him with his crew preparing and serving Christmas dinner behind the walls. It has yet to be edited.
And during the 10-plus years of working (off and on) to make WRIT WRITER, I tried to thank all of the people who helped. Yet there are still people that I need to thank. The credits are long because a lot of people helped along the way.