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The Making of Cora Unashamed

Interviews with the screenwriter and the director

Anne Peacock, screenwriter | Deborah M. Pratt, director

Photo of Deborah M. PrattDeborah M. Pratt, director of Cora Unashamed, first came to California as a performer with numerous LA companies of Broadway shows. Turning to writing, she penned twenty-two episodes for the hit NBC series Quantum Leap and produced all ninety-seven. She made her directorial debut with the prize-winning short film Girlfriends which she also wrote and produced. Cora marks Ms. Pratt's full-length directorial debut. She next plans to direct the live-action version of the film musical Shadowdance for which she has also written the script and composed the music. As a television writer, she is five-time Emmy nominee, a Golden Globe nominee, and winner of the Lillian Gish Award from Women in Film.

What's the theme of Cora Unashamed? What's the material really about?

Deborah Pratt: Love. I really felt it was a series of love stories. The love story between Cora and Joe, the love story between Cora and Josephine, the love story between Cora and Jessie, and Jessie and Willy. I think they all weave together. Cora was willing to take her chances in life, to have an affair with a man who wasn't going to stay around, to raise a child who she didn't get to keep, to open her heart again to invest in Jessie, and then to realize that she had done all she could do within the confines of being an African-American woman in a small town in the Midwest in 1934.

How did the fact that the story was set in the Midwest, and shot on location there, challenge you?

DP: Oh I think it was magical, in the sense that I felt it was a part of Americana that we really don't get to see. Again, it was something that was fresh. There have been films that have been shot in Iowa -- Field of Dreams -- but not a lot. And most of them have always depicted it as miles and miles of lush green corn. And we came at a time where it was harvest season and the corn was brown or browning, the leaves were turning. So I really tried to make Iowa a character in the film and utilize that element of time to show a unique piece of Americana.

Cora is isolated in that little town. To what extent were you focusing on that?

DP: I made a very concise choice about the film for two reasons. One, Masterpiece Theatre by its name is the theater, and there was an elegance about the way the whole script was written. And I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were invested, but invested in a different way. It was Cora's world, and she was an outsider, so I wanted the audience to feel like an outsider. If you look at how I chose to shoot and edit the film there were a lot of times when she was in the hallways listening as the action passed her by. But we're always with Cora because I wanted to evoke the feeling of what it was like to be a servant in a house, a step away from the hubbub of what was going on.

What aspect of the story were you most personally invested in?

DP: That it was a love story, that it was an interracial love story ... the fact that there was an opportunity to show love between two human beings and even back then it didn't matter that one person had one color and another had another, that love can overcome anything including color.

Especially true in the case of Cora and Jessie.

DP: Absolutely, because they so needed each other when Josephine died and Jessie reached out to her. I wanted to build Jessie nudging her way into Cora. The culmination scene, and I think my favorite scene in the movie, is when Cora and Jessie are out picking blackberries and they come across the ribbon that Josephine left. Without words, just the idea of holding her hair (and I set it so that you saw Josephine do it two or three times) and offering that ribbon to say, "I'll be your little girl," said so much about that. I think it just melted Cora's anger and everything and Regina [Taylor] was brilliant there, just brilliant.

That's what Anne [Hopkins, screenwriter] said. We asked her what her favorite scene was and she said that and the addition you made.

DP: (laughs) Well, I had a great script to work with.

The film is really a duet for two actresses. Regina Taylor and Cherry Jones have very different training and very different backgrounds but most of the movie happens between them...

DP: Yes it does, and they're two different women from two different worlds. I especially wanted people to understand Mrs. Studevant. They didn't have to like her, but they had to understand her, and I wanted people to go, "Ooh, I know someone just like that." And I really think we did that. Cherry was subtle with the moments that she played with Regina when Regina stepped too far... but yet stepping in a way that Cherry wanted. Another moment I loved was when Cora and Jessie are in the kitchen making a cake and Cherry is watching. And she goes to make a stand to say, "Come on, let's get changed," and Regina says, "I'll take care of it." You feel for her as a mother knowing that she's letting her child go to someone else's arms. That was really important for me so that when she took her back, when Jessie was grown and pregnant, it was too late and such a wrong stand to take.

But you can understand why she thought it was the best thing to do because of the mistakes she felt she had made in her life, the choice of her husband, giving up life in the big city and not being as sophisticated as she had her dreams to be. She put them all on that little girl, all on Jessie. And again, that's seen when she says, "What about your hopes and dreams?" And Jesse says, "But he's all I want." And she says, "No, he is not!" Cherry was stellar, no question.

What was the most daunting aspect of the shoot?

DP: Twenty days. (laughs)

It was, truthfully, a very short prep time, twenty days to shoot it in. A major period piece that went from 1915 to 1934. Regina had 47 changes, Cherry had 43. We had makeup for aging through three periods. So it was coordinating everything so that we could have actors on the set in the time it took to get them ready and get them together and keep it going. We could pull eight page days when we had to. I guess my background as a producer in television really came through for me because I walked through the door with my shot list and said, "This is where we're going, this is where we need to be." I had a great team around me also -- Marian and my assistant director and my script supervisor really understood where I was going and supported me along the way.

Did anything in the final film turn out differently than you thought it would?

DP: I think I'm still in the phase of thinking, "Ooh, I should have..." But what I'm thrilled about, maybe not amazed, but thrilled about, is the fact that people get it, they get caught up in it. I achieved, with these wonderful people, an emotion or a lot of emotions. I found myself caught up... even as someone who knew every piece of how it went together to the very, very end... I was caught up in those emotions. Regina's performance when Josephine dies and her grave and that last scene between Cherry and Jessie's coffin... I felt I was able to detach myself and became a viewer. To me that's the greatest gift that I could give.

Which scene scared you the most?

DP: Probably Josephine's death. It was a very tough scene, on a lot of different levels. I was working with a very green six year-old, and I was asking her to die on screen... Regina had to adlib past the point of dialogue. My instincts were to not shut the camera off. I let her go to wherever she went, and she gave it to me. The only thing I said to her was, "You call her back from the dead. You make her come back."

When I yelled, "Cut," at the end of the first take, which was the master, there was not a dry eye in the house. These grips who are so hard-nosed and jaded who have been in all these big movies and everything, were just weeping. And I went in for the tighter shot, and originally had set it up to go in two more times, and then said, "I don't need it, it's here." Because, again, I wanted the audience to feel as helpless as she was. They couldn't even get in to see what was going on, so I knew that I had it in performance. All I had to do was go in enough to pick up Mom saying, "She's gone," and tie into Regina.

Some things you just have to trust are there, and I trusted it completely. Tinashe [Kachungwe, as Josephine] was just incredible. I said to her, "When you take your last breath just close your eyes and just... you're a noodle." Kids are great... "You're a noodle." But after the first take, when I said, "Cut," she started to cry. She couldn't open her eyes and she didn't know what was going on, it was all in her ears. She really gave me the cue as to how emotional the scene was because she just didn't know.

This story was written originally by a man but takes place almost exclusively between women. And virtually every person in a major creative role on this film was female...

DP: I found it exhilarating. I've worked for twenty years in very much a man's world so it was really thrilling to have that mentality. I found that there was a different kid of ego that came in, a collaborative ego. It was a real pleasure to deal with. We always talk about not hearing enough of a woman's voice. I think the greatest compliments I got were from men who said, "You know I don't generally like this kind of movie but this one really got me. I really liked the story." To move men through the voices of women, and have them admit to it, is good for us. Hollywood so often says, "Oh, nobody wants to hear what women have to say, it's a chick-flick." And it's not. It's a human-flick. It's about love and love transcends sexuality, color, all things, and it gets down to our human nature.

All the elements came together from being in Iowa. I love that it was Marian's home state [Marian Rees, executive producer] because she cradled this baby, she really protected it through a very tough, very intense time and to her credit, again, I thank her... she trusted me to take the baby.

Anne Peacock, screenwriter | Deborah M. Pratt, director

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