CATEGORIES SXSW, Festival Reports, Interviews, Celebrity Interviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
When I Rise is director Mat Hames' second feature length documentary, and it's a moving film about a racially charged incident that drew national attention at the University of Texas in 1957. You can read Cinematical's review of that film here. We sat down and spoke to Hames during SXSW, and he went into great detail about the production on this film, what it was like documenting Conrad, racism in Texas during the event, and what it takes to craft a good documentary. Read on beyond the break for the full interview.
Cinematical: Well tell me your background briefly. I know your background, but for everybody else. How did you get to this point?
Mat Hames: Well, I started off doing motion graphics and design, and started doing that as a 22, 23 year old. I was doing on-air design in Dallas, and then I moved down to Austin and started getting clients that wanted more and more motion graphics that were the entire spot. And so I kind of got into writing stuff for video that way. And I was doing commercial stuff and corporate stuff for agencies like GSD&M here in Austin, and then met up with a marketing agency that hooked me up with a client that was very small at that time called the Lance Armstrong Foundation. And that was in the late '90s, early 2000s.
And then I started just doing more directing and stuff, and then just started Alpheus Media in 2000 with one partner, Wilson Waggoner. And we started doing all the Lance Armstrong Foundation work. And then because of my relationships as a freelancer, we started getting other clients, and then I did a film called Last Best Hope that I edited and did motion graphics on. And that was like the first really long film that I edited. And it had already started before I got involved, and they had another director, and then they started working with me. And once I put it together, I became the director of that project. It was a labor of love. There really wasn't any money in it, but we got it and we sold it to PBS. It aired nationally, and that was in 2005.
After that I just got hired to do a PBS series called State of Tomorrow, and I was the series director on that, and then did a film called Fighting Goliath for Robert Redford. He basically had the idea to do this film and then they were looking for filmmakers in Texas to execute his vision. And so I directed that film and they funded about half of the budget, and then we funded the other half. So we kind of co-owned that film -- Alpheus and the Redford Center for The Sundance Preserve owned that. And then after Fighting Goliath, I started looking around for the next project and talked with The Briscoe Center about a film that executive Don Carleton wanted to do, about Barbara Conrad's life.
Did they approach you, or how did you find out about it in the first place?
The Briscoe Center for American History approached me, and I knew that they had wanted to do a film for a while about Barbara Conrad, and they hadn't really started it. And so when they approached me, it was like, "Can you go to East Texas? She is going to be visiting her hometown, and film this homecoming weekend? And she is also teaching a Master class in East Texas, so go up there for like a week and film the Master class and her homecoming and we can see if there is a film here."
And, of course, I started to read the papers about Barbara Conrad and look at some oral history stuff that had already been done over there. And I knew immediately there was a film. And then we went up there and met Barbara. We started filming. I interviewed her and we shot a bunch of footage that was almost enough to make a trailer out of. And so the next step was we went to New York for a quick trip, on a 48 hour trip, where we shot B roll of her in New York City, and her working with some students, and a little bit of interview stuff up there. And then with that footage plus the East Texas stuff that I had, I put together kind of a long trailer. It was like an 11 minute chunk of the film, kind of just establishing the tone and style of the film.
Then Don Carleton and the Briscoe Center people used that to do additional fundraising. And then we were able to get other fundraising on board after that, which allowed me to finish the film. The total time for the film was about 2 ½ years from the first day they talked to me to the completion.
The Briscoe Center is part of the University of Texas, and they own the film. Did they fund part of it or was it all privately funded?
There were lots of different people that came together to help fund the film. There was some of it that came from the Briscoe Center. There was some that came from the office of the President. There was some that came from the provost. There was some that came from the diversity department. And then there was some that came from ... a large chunk of it from AT&T as a corporate sponsor. And the Briscoe Center was spearheading that fundraising effort.
So you first met with Barbara when you guys went out to East Texas.
Did she know the whole thing that was going on, or was she just like, "Well, they are just here to film a little footage," or did she know this was maybe going to become a whole film about her?
I think that Don had made it clear to her that he wanted to make a film about her, but I don't know that anything was set in stone when I showed up. I mean, of course, if I had done a bad job, then they could have decided that they didn't want to pursue it, or if it didn't work out or something like that. But basically, I went up to East Texas and I took my wife Beth and my kids and wanted to meet Barbara with my family and just kind of introduce her to my kids, because I knew that ... from everything I had done to research her, I knew that she was sort of a family oriented person and I am a family oriented person as well. And so I wanted her to kind of really get a sense of who I was.
It was funny, because when I met her, the conversation was going pretty well for about five minutes and then my kids both started jumping on the floor, and then one of them started crying and screaming and melting down, so it started to go the other way. So thankfully, I was able to get them quiet, and Barbara, she actually started playing with my kids and picked one of them up, and was just super open. So we established trust pretty early on. Not to say that everything was perfect at the beginning, because the first time I interviewed her there wasn't quite as much of a connection as the last time I interviewed her. I interviewed her, I think, four times total. And each time I got more and more information out of her. So in the film, there are four different interviews, but I tried to hide that by covering it up with other shots and stuff. But that was kind of the way that I first met her and started off the project.
Were you worried at all about telling this story as a white filmmaker. Were you worried there would be resistance?
Yeah, I mean I was definitely nervous about that. And, you know, of course, also the fact that I am from Texas ... she lives in New York now, so you have this white blond haired, blue-eyed Texas guy showing up to make a film about her. I mean I was very anxious about that. And if Barbara was anxious about it, she never showed me, because at the very beginning she was totally cooperative and open with me. But as it went along, we got more and more connected. And I feel like now we are good friends. But, yeah, if I had been in her shoes, I don't know if I would have wanted me to tell her story. So I think I was just lucky that she was just such a trusting person.
There is a lot of historical footage of racism in Texas in this movie. Were you surprised by all that stuff when you were digging it up? The Greenville sign, for instance?
Well, I guess in a way I am young enough to be surprised by that stuff. Well, I think that that the Greenville sign was actually still up when we were born. I think it was up until like 1972, '73, something like that. Yeah. And my mom had actually told me about that sign when I was a teenager or something. It was really surprising to me to see the White Citizen's Council and the Klan in Austin, because I have always thought of Austin as a sort of progressive place that is very tolerant of everyone and open-minded compared to the rest of Texas. Growing up in Dallas, that's how I thought of Austin. And to see the Klan marching down Congress Avenue, to see White Citizen's Council members standing right outside the Paramount Theater holding the signs without anyone trying to stop them was very surprising to me.
And in the course of research, I read a lot of tracts and pamphlets about race science, and those kinds of theories were still kind of lying around back then. In fact, the University of Texas president, Logan Wilson, received a lot of like little booklets, and tracts, and pamphlets and stuff that talked about the differences between white and black people in a scientific way that it was disturbing to read. It was disturbing to see the return addresses being places like, you know, Waco and Plano Texas. Just a random thing, but it just showed me that that was all pretty mainstream at the time.
Was there any resistance in making the film, in a sort of "we don't want to reopen old wounds" sort of way? Did you try to contact Joe Chapman or Logan Wilson's families?
No. I mean I looked into Chapman's family, first of all to see if he was still alive, and he is not. He is actually buried pretty close to the Capitol. But I didn't really think it was needed to talk to his family. I didn't think that would do anything positive for the film. I did try to find out if there were any of the segregationists in the legislature still alive, and they are all dead. I mean I didn't find anybody, because those guys were old and crotchety even at that time.
But as far as resistance goes, I didn't have any resistance whatsoever. I think it was just the opposite. I mean within the university, everyone was opening every department to me, any closet I wanted to go into or any archive I wanted to go into, and that was...Because of the Briscoe Center being behind the film, I think it opened doors. And frankly, the Briscoe Center has an incredible amount of archival stuff themselves. So since they were making the film, I had access to all that stuff there. They have the collection of letters that were sent by ordinary Texans to President Logan Wilson, either in support of him removing Barbara from the opera or opposed to him removing her.
What was the balance? Like did it even out or was it heavier one way?
I think it was probably 60% in support, 40% against. In other words, I think 60% were saying, "You did the right thing," and then the 40% were saying, "I am ashamed to be a Texan," basically.
Conrad carries herself very regally, and it is unfortunate her parents are no longer alive, but did you get a sense of where that came from? Was she just taught that way?
That is the thing that I got the most into at the beginning of the project. Center Point was this ... I can't say enough about how intriguing Center Point is to me. I am intrigued by that place because it was this sort of enclave of education and music and art that was in the East Texas woods, kind of cocooned away from the rest of the outside world. And it was actually founded by five freed slaves, one of them being her great grandfather. And the culture of Center Point, in its heyday Center Point had probably a few hundred people. It wasn't a huge town or anything. But they had a school that was actually the first accredited black boarding school in Texas. The school, actually, everybody that taught in the school got a Master's level degree, and so the music department in the school was really strong.
There was the school, and there was the church, and that was pretty much the whole town. And so, there was definitely an overlap there. So the people in the town were highly educated, and Barbara was born into the very end of that world. And the school was actually closed by the time Barbara could have attended it. But all of the, sort of, echoes of Center Point's former glory were still around when she was growing up as a child. Her parents were both teachers. They were both educated. Her father was actually a war hero, and he had come back from World War II having seen all this amazing stuff. So the town was this place where everybody was encouraged. Everybody had a gift. Whether you were good at music, or good at theater, or good at farming, you were encouraged. She had this existence where she felt, I think, that she could do anything when she grew up.
Is still a community like that?
Well, the people of Center Point, the relatives of those people, have pretty much moved away to other places, but they do get back together once a year and have a homecoming where you can still feel that spirit. But in terms of the town itself, the only thing left, really, is a church. And it is like a lot of communities. A small town just doesn't really exist anymore the way that it was.
You got some really great footage with Harry Belafonte. Was that difficult? Was he totally eager to do this?
Yeah, scheduling was difficult. He was definitely interested in doing it, but actually figuring out how to do it, it took a long time. We interviewed him in Austin. And the way that that came about was that we knew he was going to be in town for an event that was associated with the Texas Book Festival, so we kind of kept asking and kept asking, and getting positive, encouraging answers, but, you know, not getting a definite answer. And then about two days before he was due to be in Austin, we got a call from his assistant saying he will be happy to give you an interview.
So we met him up at the Renaissance Hotel in the arboretum and set up. That was one shoot that we actually spent some money on making it look really good, because we wanted to impress Harry Belafonte. And he came out without anyone; without an entourage, without an attorney or anything. You know, just like walked in alone, set down, and started hanging out with us. And an hour later, he had given us the greatest interview maybe of the whole film, because his interview basically gave the whole story. I mean I maybe had to ask three questions. And he gave me these very long answers, but they were all sort of the whole arc of the film. It was exactly the way that I wanted it.
It's impressive because you forget how influential he was at that time.
Yeah. Yeah, I mean he was a very powerful figure in entertainment at that time, and he still is. But at that time, for him to intervene in some girl's life ... I mean especially today, when you have like college football players that just will leave college immediately at the first sign of any interest professionally. But Barbara decided to stay, and she was really risking that he might forget about her.
Even though Harry Belafonte presents her with this amazing offer, she decides to stay at UT. Does she just put her head down and graduate?
Yeah, that is what happened.
She wasn't in any more performances?
She did some recitals. She did student recitals at the end of each semester, and she actually performed in churches a lot. And after the incident, a particular university Baptist church started to have her in and actually paid her to sing there. And then a Lutheran church did the same as well. So she continued to perform mostly at churches, but also at recitals in school. But she didn't have a big role in anything else after that, at the University of Texas. In terms of her staying and just putting her head down and being a student, that is pretty much what happened.
I think the best way to say why she did that is just what she says in the film, "This was a dream and I wasn't going to have that dream destroyed." To her, I mean at the time, going to the University of Texas was her dream, and she just didn't want to have that taken away from her. So it would have been easy to go with Belafonte in 1957 get out of the University of Texas and go to some other school, but she just, on principle, didn't want to have her dream taken away from her.
She seems very proud to be a Texan, which is surprising after what happened at that time.
Yeah, it is surprising.
In speaking to her now, do you think that she feels a sense of closure over the whole thing?
Yeah. I think that she does feel closure. In '85 she was invited back to accept the distinguished alumni award, and it was nice. It was a nice gesture, and it was the beginning of a restoration of a relationship between her and UT. I think that she didn't really want a big formal apology. She didn't want a huge production made out of it. What she really wanted was a relationship with the university that had rejected her. And so in '85, that relationship started. She started to come back and teach and perform at the University of Texas, and started to develop relationships with people that were in the UT family -- other alumni, and faculty and other administrators at UT. And that kind of just culminated, really, in the Briscoe Center's desire to do this film.
And so it's been a process of healing. It's not like everything was perfect in '85, and it's a process that I think has culminated with her going to the legislature and the legislature honoring her with this resolution. And she said to me that after that happened that everything that was left was totally washed away. She doesn't feel any anger anymore.
You get a real sense that it's very difficult for her to open that file and read those letters.
Yeah. I felt a little guilty for asking her to read some of those letters. But I did feel like it was important for her to know what Logan Wilson, the president of UT, was looking at when he was making this decision to remove her from the opera. Because from her perspective, I mean, she never met him. When he would talk about her, we would always just say "the student." He would never even say her name. And so there was this impersonal thing, there was this distance between Barbara and the decision makers who had decided, basically, the course of her life that started this whole story. And I kind of wanted her to be brought closer to him after 50 years.
He never talked to her once. Even to explain "I'm sorry we have to do this."
Right. Yeah. And he made the Dean of the College of Fine Arts carry his water and actually remove her. And Dean Doty actually ... I couldn't really put this in the film, but he continued to talk to Barbara, keep in contact with her after she graduated. And he actually even came to New York several times to see her in operas, and would write her letters, and visit her every time he was there. I asked her, "Do you think that he felt guilty?" And she said, "I think he did, and I think he was always trying to make amends." And so he tried to keep a friendship going with her.
Speaking of things you couldn't include, what else did you have to cut?
Well, there were probably a couple of areas that were just very difficult to blow out. And one of them was Center Point, the community that she grew up in. The community of Center Point to me is such a rich place with many stories, Barbara just being one of said stories of Center Point. But this idea of this rural, idyllic community that was segregated, or I guess sort of forced by segregation to be an all-black community that had all this art, culture, and music in it was really fascinating to me. And I would've loved to have talked to more people from Center Point and really built a more three dimensional perspective of Center Point in the film.
Unfortunately, when you have a film, you have to have a conflict, and you have to keep moving the story forward. And so it could've just gotten turned into this pastoral almost Disney movie or something. Because it just would've kind of been floundering around. But I shot a lot of stuff there with the intent of doing more, of talking more about Center Point. And then the other thing would be the Texas legislature and explaining a little bit more of what segregationists' goals were, what their motivations were, and also how powerful they were. Because in 1956 when she enrolled, there had been this big scandal at UT called the Rainey affair. And the Rainey affair had happened a couple of decades before. And basically there were professors at UT that were accused of being Communists. And the Rainey Affair culminated with the president of UT being forced out by members of the legislature.
So it must've been on Logan Wilson's mind what happened with the Rainey affair when he was making the decision to remove Barbara from the opera. There was also a lot of crossover between the Civil Rights movement and fear of Communism and the Red Scare. And there was the real sense that people that were actively engaged in Civil Rights were also active Communists. And there was more than one letter that I read to Logan Wilson that was talking about how the people in the music department were probably agents of the Soviet Union trying to foment an uprising on campus, basically. So there was a lot of political stuff that I thought was really interesting, and back-story. But it just could've become way too academic.
You also didn't use some footage of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who received some boos in the credits.
Yeah. It just didn't work. I mean it wasn't any particular reason other than that, yeah. When Barbara arrived at the Capitol, the first person that met her actually was Rick Perry, and he gave her a proclamation. And actually I thought it was really nice of him to do that. And for him to take the time, for his people to take the time to set that up, and then for me to be able to not use it, I actually felt sort of bad about that. But the truth is, is that at the Capitol there were just so many events that happened. There was the meeting with Rick Perry, and then there was the resolution in the House, and then there was the singing in the rotunda. I mean, already I'm a little worried that there's too many big emotional crescendos. And the Rick Perry thing just would've been one more of those things. It ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately.
There isn't much information about her personal life these days. Did you want to keep that out?
Yeah. I chose to keep out too much about her personal life, not because she was...not because she was unwilling to talk about it, but just ... it just seemed like a sidebar to me. It seemed like another film. And in wanting to focus on the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, it just didn't really fit in with that story.
Are you going to do the festival circuit for what's the next step?
Yeah. That's pretty much the goal, is the standard thing, is to try to take it to film festivals to kind of organically find its audience, and then from there to distribute it. Get it on television, get it on DVD. We'd like to do some limited screenings theatrically as well in a few cities like New York. I'd really like to take it and show it to the people in East Texas and have a screening near Center Point. And in a way that, to me, I'm almost as nervous about those people seeing it as I was about Barbara seeing the film for the first time. So that's really high on my list of priorities.
I also want people in New York to see the film, just because in the opera world up there, I want to remind them of Barbara's greatness. And I feel like a lot of people in New York that have known her in the past and worked with her would come out to that screening. And it would just be a neat thing to see her reunite with all those people that she worked with in the '60s and '70s. But yeah that's the basic plan. And then I know that President Powers at the University of Texas wants to show this film to the students on campus, which I think is great. So I think that this is just the beginning of the life of the film.
You said you were nervous showing it to Barbara. What was her reaction? Were you in that screening with her, or did you let her view it by herself?
Oh, no. No. I was terrified to show the film to Barbara, because other than that original trailer that I put together, she had never seen any of the footage that I'd been shooting for the year and a half after that trailer. So Don Carleton and I went up to New York and we booked a screening room in New York that was right on Times Square. And it was a really nice screening room. And had Barbara brought in and saw it, because we just really wanted to make the environment good for her to see it in. And she asked me to sit on one side of her, and Don sat on the other side of her. And as soon as the film started, within 30 seconds when you see a shot of young Barbara in the "Daily Texan" office from 1956, she started yelling, "Oh my God!"
You know, she had never seen that footage before. And then so many of the photos that we had of her, and the other footage that we had of her, she had never seen before. And so it was very emotional. And when the film ended, she just grabbed my hand and grabbed Don's hand and told us that she had never cried over that incident. When the incident actually happened in 1956, '57, she never cried once. But she was crying because she was like, seeing it all again from a different perspective and connecting with herself as a younger woman. So she cried a lot. I mean, a good 10 minutes, probably. And then said that she loved the film, and it was great. There were no sort of huge comments or big things she wanted to change or anything like that. So it was as good as it possibly could have been, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
What was the Daily Texan footage shot for at the time?
We don't really know. It was like a newsreel footage that a collector in Chicago had, and we really don't know what it was shot for. It almost seems like it was some sort of a video news release or something where it is just B roll, because there is no sound. All it had was it just says the word "Texas", and then it shows the exterior of the capitol, it shows Joe Chapman, and there is audio under that part, and then there is like an establishing shot of him just sitting at his desk, and then there is the shot of Barbara in the Daily Texan office, and then an exterior shot of the campus. So it seems like it was shot to be edited into some sort of a news report. But I don't know if it ever was.
Our archival footage specialist found it just by checking around at some sources that she knew. And this guy in Chicago has a bunch of just obscure types of footage, and he had this big list of stuff that he put online for us. And all it said was "Opera singer removed from opera," "Texas legislature," and so we were like, "Oh my God." So we ordered it. We were all trying to keep our expectations really low, thinking that it might just be some photos or something. But I just about fell out of my chair when we saw Joe Chapman there hanging himself, basically, with his own words, and the footage of Barbara, because there is really no other footage of her that exists from this event.
She gives that great defiant look towards the camera.
Yeah, it is a great expression. I practically wanted to slow that expression down and just use that for half the film, because it pretty much says everything.
Did she get a standing ovation at that first screening?
Yes. She got a standing ovation at the end of the film, and it was real emotional. She got up on stage and ... especially considering that in 1957, when this story all started, African Americans would not have been allowed to be in that theater. To have Barbara be able to come into that theater that she was denied access to fifty-something years ago, and for her to come into the theater on the red carpet with media and reporters everywhere, I think to her was very gratifying. So it was a really emotional night.
If someone wants to get into her music, what would you recommend they check out?
I think what is really representative of her would be her Spirituals CD. It is just called Spirituals, and you can get it on iTunes. And it is basically her singing the spirituals that she grew up singing in a style that is more classical and operatic. I think it is a great CD, great representation. We use some of the songs in the film. And that is kind of what is interesting about Barbara is she kind of combines her East Texas roots, growing up singing spiritual music, with classical and opera music. Which, to her, all that stuff just all goes hand in hand, and it is a weird combination and it really works with her.
Also, in the rotunda I think was a very difficult thing for her to have done, because it...you know, the acoustics in that place aren't the greatest for singing. And to not have any piano and to be able to still sing that well, it is just amazing. I mean she is an amazing singer at 72.
This is your second documentary. What are you plans after this? You mentioned that you want to do a narrative. Do you have immediate plans for something else right away, documentary or otherwise?
I don't really have immediate plans for something. I am definitely going to be doing something else, but I am just sort of kicking around several different ideas. I would like to do a narrative. I am still very interested in documentary. I really like doing projects that weave history with current events. So I am looking at a few different ideas, but I would like to take a few months and just play Xbox and veg out for a while. These types of film can be a lot of work for a long time.
Well, thank you for your time, and thank you.
Thank you for talking with me.