George C. Wolfe has been celebrated for his groundbreaking work on stage as a playwright and director for decades. It was very much a natural shift when he made his way behind the camera on projects like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Lackawanna Blues. But in his latest directorial endeavor Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wolfe not only found joy in bringing the late playwright August Wilson’s work to screen, but he also discovered some new truths collaborating with an exceptional cast to tell the story of a legendary singer and her band.
DEADLINE: What was your first impression of August Wilson’s work?
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Well, it’s just his language and details about the culture. I saw the original stage version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom back in 1984 and one of the things particularly joyful about his work is how actors are enacting it, because they get to strut, they get to shout, to celebrate, to use language that is glorious and complicated. And as a result of that, all of the production sparkled in this really interesting play, not just because of the language that he wrote, but the relish that actors felt in saying that language. And that’s the thing that is really fascinating to me about his work.
DEADLINE: Everyone always talks about the language of August Wilson, how would you describe it to someone who’s never experienced his work?
WOLFE: You don’t describe it. You see it and find yourselves inside the language and discover the truths inside of it. So, you don’t describe it, you embody it so that everyone can feel free to connect to who they are and find something exhilarating inside of the storytelling.
DEADLINE: Does that feeling extend to directing his work?
WOLFE: My job is not to be enthralled. My job is to animate a world and make it live. So, it’s just fun. It was fun just working with people who were incredible craftspeople. We had a two-week rehearsal in which we would dig in and get at the material, and the truth that was going on inside of it, and try to animate it and elevate it and excavate it, and try to find as much stuff that was inside. It’s great when there’s wonderful language and character and detail.
During the rehearsals, we roughly staged some of the scenes with the band members, but most of the time it was just asking questions and finding out what was going on. It was there that we could make it personal and get at the truth. It could also put us ahead so that when we started filming, we collectively had already become an ensemble. Then when we have to go to these very deep, complicated places, the actors felt safe with each other.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting that everyone was so open to breaking down and discovering the piece together.
WOLFE: In the not knowing, you can discover how the pieces, the language, the storytelling, and the truths are resonating inside of you. And so, it was a really intensely valuable period. I remember when we started filming, at least once a week, Chad [Boseman] would come up to me and say, “Thank God for those two weeks.” Because I think it was a chance to completely make themselves vulnerable to the material, to allow the material to affect them so that once we started filming, it was in them. They weren’t searching for it.
DEADLINE: How did Viola Davis approach this material?
WOLFE: Viola is an extraordinary artist because she’s ferociously smart. She’s ferociously smart about text and about human behavior. There’s a ferret in her who is just digging and digging and digging to get at what’s underneath. Then add on that she’s an incredibly skilled actor who is flawlessly trained. Inside of her is this deep, powerful, emotional reserve.
One of the first things that she and I talked about was the wear and tear of having to perpetually fight for your right to be an artist, to fight for your right to be paid, to fight for your right to be respected. The physical, emotional, and spiritual wear and tear of having to be a warrior just to make it through the day. That’s what Ma has been doing from a very, very young age, being from the South and all that that entails. And from the abstraction of those early conversations, you see that unbelievably brilliantly manifested in her work.
Viola was also interested in the fact that the film is set in 1927 and Ma Rainey never recorded after 1928. So, in essence, you see a person who is realizing that the peak of her career has passed, and the consequences of that.
So, you have these conversations with her, and she’s exploring these truths, and then you see it manifested in how she sits and talks and holds her head, how the philosophy of one moment can give way to the fragility of another one.
DEADLINE: That must have been a joy to observe.
WOLFE: It’s just fascinating watching this consummate artist at work. You can’t wear your accomplishments when you’re doing a new role. All you can do is try to make yourself as available as you possibly can to the role, and part of that journey is the not knowing. One of the most crucial aspects of doing good work is giving yourself permission to discover that which you don’t know.
DEADLINE: Do you see that element in Chadwick Boseman?
WOLFE: Yeah. You can tell when it’s really glorious; when you are witnessing something that is quite magical. When Chad was doing the scene where he cursed God, which was physically and emotionally monumental, once cut was called, he’d go out, and there were these stairs just outside of where the band was, and he’d just physically collapse. He’d see me approaching and I’d ask, “You have time for some notes?” And he’d gesture for me to come over and give him some notes and then 20 minutes later for the next take, he would have fully incorporated it. In addition to the brilliance of the work, he was also on the perpetual journey of discovering and finding new truths to the material.
All really good actors are searching. And you can’t search if you say you already know it. One of the things that Tobias [Schliessler, Director of Photography] said to me was, “The film takes place in that band room and I’m not sure how to shoot it.” And I said to him, “If you knew how to shoot it, then you shouldn’t do the movie.” Doing any good project is confronting the things that you don’t know how to do so that you can figure them out.
What’s so great about starting something new is you get to confront what you don’t know, and there’s an equation. There are some moments of panic, but those moments of panic give way to discovery, which gives way to asking questions, and then the questions give way to solutions. And then you’re coming up with something that’s hopefully new and startling. I believe that an audience can tell when they are in the presence of a truth that was discovered just for them. They can also tell when they are in the presence of something that you have recycled from another project.
DEADLINE: What was it like to show this film to August’s wife Constanza? Was that screening a little bit stressful?
WOLFE: What you going to do? I mean, it’s done [laughs]. We did a screening in this beautiful deco theater in Atlanta. And she was very excited and happy. She said it felt like August and I were talking the entire time while I was directing it, which was a really sweet thing to say. I was really thrilled.
DEADLINE: Producers Denzel Washington and Todd Black want to make all of August Wilson plays for the screen. Have you discussed directing any more with them?
WOLFE: Denzel would love for me to do something else, but there are 10 plays and so maybe I’ll do number seven or eight or something like that. But anytime I do a project, I want to do something very different next. To me, the ambition is to perpetually put yourself in a state where you have to be vulnerable to the material and to dive in and do something that is completely and totally different from the last thing that I’ve done. I am constantly having to evolve new muscles and new understanding, and digging into another time period or another series of truths, and to make myself available to that.
I wrote to somebody the day after Ma Rainey started streaming on Netflix. I said, “I’m ready to jump off a cliff and fall into deep unknowing waters, and start to work on something new,” because the fun is in the not knowing and the discovery of the journey.
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