Exclusive: Screenwriter Virgil Williams Talks About Bringing Mudbound From Novel To Screen

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Exclusive: Screenwriter Virgil Williams Talks About Bringing Mudbound From Novel To Screen
Posted by Wilson Morales

December 8, 2017


Currently playing on Netflix is director Dee Rees‘ critically acclaimed WWII indie drama ‘Mudbound,’ starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan and Jonathan Banks.

Having had its its World Premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, followed by appearances at the Toronto Film Festival, New York Film Festival, and AFI, the film has garnered enough rave reviews to make a run for the Oscars.

Mudbound is based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, in which Virgil Williams wrote the screenplay with Rees.

Set in the post-WWII South, Mudbound is an epic story of two families pitted against a barbaric social hierarchy and an unrelenting landscape as they simultaneously fight the battle at home and the battle abroad. The film is about friendship, unacknowledged heritage and the unending struggle for and against the land.

Newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis, the McAllan family is underprepared and overly hopeful for Henry’s (Jason Clarke) grandiose farming dreams. Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture, meanwhile, for Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), whose families have worked the land for generations, every day is a losing venture as they struggle bravely to build some small dream of their own. The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) forge a fast, uneasy friendship that challenges them all.

For Williams, having worked as a writer and producer on several established TV shows such as 24, ER and Criminal Minds, this is his first screenplay. The Chicago native recently signed on to develop a couple of new TV series, one with Debra Martin Chase for Fox and another with Vin Diesel for NBC. To say the least, this guy is in high demand.

Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Williams on his involvement with Mudbound and how his light is brightening.

How did you get involved with this project?

Virgil Williams: The book found me back in 2010. The second I closed the book, a couple of things struck me really hard. The first was the book honestly felt like “To Kill a Mockingbird” for this generation. I knew that revolving POV that Hilary Jordan used in the book needed to be. That was the story, a major part of the story. It also felt like a responsibility. To be frank, it felt like Heaven had handed me my orders. I was prepared to adapt that book on spec. There were people who were looking out for me and telling me that it would be an extremely tough story to sell. This was before “12 Years a Slave” really made an impact. I was warned but I knew that it had to be done. Again, it felt like a responsibility. Just before I was going start writing it based on spec, I ended up meeting Sally Jo Effenson and her son, Carl Effenson, who are producers on the film. They were familiar with the material and they sat down and listened to my tape. They believed in my ability to adapt the story into a screenplay form.

It was no small task breaking that book down into a screenplay and also utilizing that rotating point of view. Give or take about a year later, we finally arrived at the draft that would eventually get everyone on board, including Dee. Before Dee came, there were different directors attached. The script finally got to producer Cassian Elwes and as I’m told, he closed the last page and was crying. I made a decision to change the ending of the book for the movie to end it on a hopeful note. The book ends ambiguously but I chose to end on a hopeful note.

Cassian did everything in his power to get the movie made and that’s how it got to Dee. Once Dee Rees came on board, it kicked into high gear. She was able to bring her extraordinary vision and skill and will to bear. When you saw the film and saw what she did, only she could have done that. I really believe that. If you saw her previous work “Pariah” or “Bessie,” she did it again. It’s been outstanding to watch her evolution as a fellow other in the industry, a fellow unicorn in the industry; it’s been a privilege to watch what she did.

With so many characters in the film and each having their own point of view, was it a challenge to balance their scenes so that it remains equals between the black and white stories?

Virgil Williams: For me, that process was like tending a garden. The challenge is ever present. Balance was something that was essential. The flashlight in the dark for me as I change novel into screenplay was the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel as well as the love triangle between Henry, Jamie and Laura. Those were the two guiding light as I was being surgical about what would be and what wouldn’t. Dee added to that synthesis further in giving the Jackson family a different path. It was like having a radar on all the time, and you had to be ever vigilant of that balance. I knew the first thing was to take a lap through every character, all six of them. While that was happening, the story was unfolding as well. There were six introductions as it were. That was something I kept an eye on. It was one of things that was so crazy it might work and it did.

From Sundance, New York, Toronto, AFI and now on Netflix, this film has received a lot of attention and so have you. You seem to be hot these days with some of your future projects making headlines. Is it your time now?

Virgil Williams: That’s a really good question. I think it’s like I’m a 20 year old success right now. In this moment, if I seem to be making any splash right now, it’s about the culmination of what’s literally years of hard work. I was an actor when I was eight years old. I was SAG and AFTRA Equity by the time I was eleven. This is quite frankly a lot of hard work. A lot of faith. A little bit of God given skill. There aren’t that many of us. I personally probably know every African American television writer in the business and we’re all unicorns. I’m blessed and humbled by this whole experience. It’s really been quite a ride. I’m just trying to stay in the moment and keep learning.

Can you talk about some of your upcoming projects?

Virgil Williams: The one I have with Debra Martin Chase at Fox is called “Hard Knocks” and that was inspired by a New York Times article that I read. It’s about a convict who got his Masters degree in Criminology inside and when he came out, he became a Criminology Professor. That’s a procedural where that man gets out and he ends up teaming up with the white female cop who put him away 20 years ago. She realizes that he can actually help in the murder case that she just got and they end up becoming this unlikely team. He’s a professor at this Ivy-like university and she’s a robbery-homicide detective and they become this ring-yang crime solving team. He’s also father to a daughter and how he missed 20 years of her life and reconciling with his past and finding redemption.

The other project I have is based on a true story. It’s about a woman named Sally Hazelgrove from Chicago, my hometown. I first saw her on a six-part CNN documentary that Robert Redford’s company produced. It was called Chicagoland, where they follow several people in Chicago around for several episodes. I then saw her again when she was voted from Chicago magazine one of Chicagoans of the year. She’s like a modern day Joan of Arc. She’s this white woman who moved from the suburbs to a neighborhood called Englewood, which is part of the area which folks come to know as Chiraq. Most of the violence is happening in the south and west sides. She moved there with her two biracial daughters and opened up a boxing gym for the kids in that neighborhood. Several years later, there are several hundreds members of that gym and she has produced a Golden Gloves champion. Those kids’ grades are up and the trouble is down. The gangs hate her because she is stealing their soldiers and is bad for their business. That show is about this white woman and these black children and I’m trying to affect the narrative that is coming out of my city with some hope and spiritualness.  Hopefully, both those shows get on the air and do some good things.

Clip: “Ronsel & Jamie”

Clip – Hap and Henry

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