EXCLUSIVE: In what could give new meaning to the term breakout performance, Great Curve Films has managed to shoot a pair of feature films in Indiana’s maximum-security Pendleton Correctional Facility, with the hundreds of men who are incarcerated there. Its producers claim it is the first time a fiction and a nonfiction film have been shot entirely within the walls of a Level 4 prison.
A vast, 33-acre facility, Pendleton is surrounded by solid-concrete 30-foot walls and holds about 1,700 incarcerated men. Built in 1923, it is most famous as the only prison that John Dillinger never escaped from.
Emmy-winning producer-director Madeleine Sackler directed and produced both films. One is a cinéma vérité docu It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It, which Stacey Reiss produced and Dream Hampton exec produced. The second is O.G., a fictional drama which Boyd Holbrook, Brookstreet Pictures and Smokehouse Pictures’ George Clooney and Grant Heslov produced. Sharon Chang is exec producer of both.
“Madeleine has crafted a beautiful and thought-provoking film, providing a window into the world of incarceration and the effect it has on countless Americans and their families,” said Smokehouse principal Heslov. “Jeffrey Wright’s performance is stunning, as is Madeleine’s supporting cast, played in large part by men serving time. We were happy to help in any way we could to get this terrific film to the widest possible audience.”
Sackler was granted unprecedented access to Pendleton Correctional Facility and served a five-year stretch, conducting interviews with scribe Stephen Belber for O.G.
O.G. tells the story of Louis Menkins (played by Wright), who is five weeks away from being released after 26 years in prison. He is faced with the decision to put his own release at risk in order to protect a young man named Beecher from growing gang controversies. Wright stars alongside Theothus Carter, who plays Beecher. He’s a first-time actor who is incarcerated at Pendleton with a 65-year sentence. He never had any formal acting training. More than 120 men who are incarcerated participated in the film as cast and background, as well as dozens of guards who work at the prison.
The producers worked long and hard to gain the needed approvals and supervision of the prison facility.
“IDOC recognizes the significant societal value of telling a dramatic and redemptive story through the lens of imprisonment,” said Douglas S. Garrison, Chief Communications Officer at the Indiana Department of Correction. “We hope that together, the films will make an important contribution to the national discourse on issues relating to incarceration and rehabilitation.”
During that research process in the prison, Sackler led a workshop that taught 13 inmates about documentary filmmaking. After dissecting docus they’d never seen before, they put together their own film to share their reality and stories with the outside world. It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It features interviews, animation by Yoni Goodman, and vérité footage of their exploration of filmmaking as they interview one another, run production meetings, edit workshops and ultimately make the hard decisions of how their stories will be told to the outside world.
“We never knew what might happen tomorrow or the next day while making these two films, and so we constantly had to remain open-minded about where the films would take us and what the narrative structures of each film might be,” Sackler said. “It was a collaborative filmmaking dream … that enabled us to make two completely different films that share the some of the real-world experiences of being in prison today with people living outside the prison’s walls.”