Directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco Sj, Flannery centers on the life and work of acclaimed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard To Find). The documentary hits virtual theaters starting Friday July 17, and the filmmakers talked about their long but gratifying journey of making Flannery.
Flannery is the first ever recipient of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. Along with interviews from a slew of Flannery O’Connor enthusiasts (Tommy Lee Jones, Hilton Als, Tobias Wolff,Alice Walker), directors Elizabeth Coffman and Mark BoscoSj also bring a refreshingly cinematic approach to the proceedings. This is not a static, talking head documentary that simply praises O’Connor. Instead we are treated to an in-depth look at a writer who, though diagnosed with Lupus, persevered to carve out a distinguished literary career.
Flannery O’Connor, as seen through your documentary, was really focused on the craft and not acclaim.
Coffman: Absolutely. In really trying to capture her point of view and her perspective in the film, I was drawn to her. She was on crutches for much of her adult life and she didn’t let anything slow down or stop her. That is what drove her – was to be a great writer.
Bosco Sj: There is something about the single mindedness. She really thought her vocation was to be a writer and coming out of her devout Catholic background, vocation has truly theological ramifications. She was single minded about craft, about learning from others. The way she learned from her MFA program. It was all about how (to) become a better writer.
Coffman: Going to the University of Iowa when it was first starting to become a great writers’ program – she really took it to heart and she went to Mass instead of going out drinking with other writers in the program and really put them to shame eventually.
Bosco Sj: She’s so focused and meticulous about what she wants to be and what she wants to do and the value it would have to be a great writer for the right reasons. As opposed to the wrong reasons – for fame or acclaim.
It’s also intriguing to see how she approaches her storytelling from the point of view of a devout Catholic.
Coffman: I’m not Catholic and I approach her work from a more secular, Protestant perspective. This is where Mark and I make such a great team. I didn’t really understand how important her theology was to her and when I read her fiction, that was not the first thing I drew out of it because I didn’t know the Catholic theology behind it.
So what impressed me so much about her as we did this documentary was an understanding of how her faith helped her get through her challenges in her life, as well as the literary aesthetics behind her Catholic theology.
BoscoSj: For me, what Flannery O’Connor’s Catholicism is really about is how (does one) take the great drama of faith – suffering, death, and resurrection; how does this spiritual experience get dramatized over and over again, and how does she do this as a modern writer?
She’s a modernist. All of the violence in her stories. All of the deformed bodies. How is that then described or written about? I think in some ways, faith gave her a perspective – a place to stand as she was observing her Southern world, observing New York or wherever she lived. It gave her a place to come back to, to sift through and find a language that would be explored in her art.
How much of a labor of love was this for both of you?
BoscoSj: Elizabeth and I have this running joke about when did we really start. I like to say we started in 2011 when I asked Elizabeth to come on board to film some critics who were going to be at a Flannery O’Connor conference. But I think you would say, Elizabeth, that 2013 was the year where we really saw the documentary film that we had. We really made the commitment. We thought about the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanties). We thought about ways of doing it. That’s why we had that discrepancy of time.
We really fell in love with our subject and how she was representative of a time in American history. She’s a Catholic woman from the South who’s disabled, dealing with race and civil rights. Dies early. An extraordinary dramatic artist.
It all kind of came together. And then we kept on getting more collaborators who said “Let’s help.”
Coffman: Mark was in love with the subject first. I was a documentary filmmaker so I knew how much work it would take and how much money and time. I certainly appreciate Flannery O’Connor but in 2013 I took a closer look at these interviews that Mark had inherited and then I knew they were strong enough with valuable people (and that) we had an NEH project on our hands.
And so we took it, starting in 2013, from there and I got one of my colleagues – Bob Hercules who produced American Masters’ Maya Angelou documentary, he came on board. We got an NEH grant in 2016. The money started coming in. We were able to hire animators and Miriam Cutler, who is a wonderful documentary composer.
BoscoSj: The fact that both Elizabeth and I already had full time jobs – we were doing this as a passion project in some ways. We had to find our summers, our weekends, to really do the interviews and the story.
What is the key to encapsulating someone’s life within 96 minutes?
Coffman: My filmmaking partner and life partner Ted Hardin (he’s the cinematographer) and I’m more or the writer/editor/producer. We really (work) as a team; he also helped with sound design. We really tried to capture point of view cinematically and in terms of sound.
The bird sounds, the peacock sounds, the sounds of the crickets. Particular sounds in Georgia and not the sounds of anywhere else. What was her point of view? How could she walk through the kitchen with crutches?
So capturing those sounds as well as that point of view cinematically – really my partner helped a lot with that. And then editing her story to try to capture her – her heartbreak after a boyfriend dumped her for someone else and those kind of dramatic moments where we know our audience can (latch onto).
Bosco Sj: I remember when Elizabeth sat down with 20, 30 hours of film and we got it down to a little under four hours. It was still a behemoth. It was so much. I was new to this and I learned so much from Elizabeth. I always call myself the Flannery O’Connor geek and she’s the documentarian artist. If there is something I’ve learned about filmmaking is what a collaborative effort this is and how you have to listen and maybe change your thoughts about things and be shaped by this conversation.
We had this extraordinary ability to tell Flannery’s story so she’s almost a character but also see how her vision, her issues, her anxieties, and her own sense of struggles are worked out in some of her short stories. There is a real connection between her art and her life.
During this seven year span, what has been the key to collaborate with each other?
Bosco Sj: In many ways, there was already a mutual respect as colleagues because we worked at the same place. I knew Elizabeth that way.
What it was for me was making sure that we started on the same page and we listened to each other. For me I wanted to make sure (Flannery O’Connor’s) theological imagination and her faith was explored and what Elizabeth brought to it was a Southern Protestant mode. So talking about the differences throughout this thing and figuring out what I call the four pillars.
The four pillars of the film might be around Flannery and her disability, Flannery and her faith, Flannery being a Southern white woman of privilege, and of course Flannery and the context of race.
As long as Elizabeth and I kept conversing – I would say Elizabeth we didn’t have a whole lot of difficulties. There were some moments when we disagreed on what should stay and what should go, but from the onset it was a really good working relationship. I don’t know what else to say.
Even going out for the interviews, making sure we each play our part. There was never a place where we put our foot down and said “I can’t do this anymore.” It really was accompanying each other with whatever our talents or gifts were in this moment. I appreciated that.
Coffman: Well that’s because you let me win Mark! That’s why it worked out. (Coffman and Bosco laugh)
For movie fans, is Wise Blood the best way into Flannery O’Connor’s work?
Bosco Sj: I certainly think Wise Blood is a fantastic film. It certainly gets you into Flannery O’Connor’s world and some of her issues. Some of those shorter pieces that we have in our film too like The Displaced Person hold up on their own.
What I find more and more fascinating is that people have figured out that there is something dramatic in her story that can be filmed. Her stories are like that. There are people now who are working on her short stories that have gotten the rights to produce different films – A Good Man Is Hard to Find, probably her most signature short story, that’s now being worked out as a two hour film.
Looking back you can say Wise Blood but I see a lot of younger contemporary artists, directors and dramatists looking to explore her work.
Coffman: In terms of love of cinema, I have a PHD in Cinema Studies so it’s not an easy question to answer. I think for this film, if I had to pick two films that really inform my sensibility, one would be Jane Campion’sThe Piano.
One of the films that turned me into a documentarian was Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies. If you combineTiticut Follies with The Piano, that’s where you get my interest in Flannery.
How did you get Mary Steenburgen for the project?
Coffman: I had seen Mary Steenburgen’s work in a film on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ life (Cross Creek), a writer from Florida. I’m from Florida originally too. I wrote her agent a heartfelt letter of how we knew she would be perfect. She and Ted Danson do environmental work so I really respect their work a lot. Mark and I both felt her voice would be – it’s an Arkansas accent – it’s not a Georgia accent but it’s distinctive and it works. She’s just a wonderful actress that needed very little directing.
Was introducing or reintroducing generations of readers to Flannery O’Connor’s work the main reason why this documentary was made?
Bosco: That was really the reason I wanted to do it. If I write another essay or a book on Flannery O’Connor, 25 to 100 people would read it. But if we could get a documentary film that could receive a national broadcast or show in cinemas – we’re just inviting people into the world of Flannery O’Connor. New generations of readers. She’s got these universal themes – that was definitely my first intention.
Did both of you have a theory on how someone writes through pain?
Coffman: (With Flannery) we’ve already done some fundraising for The Lupus Foundation of America. She was never overly sentimental or felt sorry for herself. With all of her challenges and being differently abled, I think she is a hero for people who have personal challenges, who have to work through pain. She just did not let that stop her.
BoscoSj: I think she used her suffering – her pain and channeled it into her work. She wrote with this cloud of death kind of hovering over her. Her father died of lupus. The single- mindedness that her suffering will not be for naught. The pain in her life will be redemptive in some ways. Through her personal faith life and the raw talent as an artist, coming together, it propelled her work.
Coffman: After winning The Library of Congress Award, the book sales for Flannery O’Connor went up and we’ll be delighted if that happens after the film (comes out).