‘Mudbound’: Producers Detail the ‘Risky’ Racial Epic’s Journey to Screen

Mudbound” has been honored as critics and guilds hand out their year-end awards. But if movies used an Olympics scoring system, “Mudbound” would get extra points for its degree of difficulty.

The film had a 29-day shooting schedule with a budget of only $11.5 million. That’s extremely fast and inexpensive for a film set in the 1940s, with multiple locations in the U.S. and Europe, and a plot that links six principal characters from two families in Mississippi, one black and one Caucasian.

“It was incredibly ambitious, to say the least,” says producer Tim Zajaros.

The producers knew that this wouldn’t be an easy project. But they pulled together and producer Christopher Lemole says a lot of credit goes to director Dee Rees: “It was a big script on a short amount of days and it was hard to pull off. But she knocked it out of the park.”

Lemole and Zajaros are partners in Armory Films, which was formed four years ago. Their second film was a remake of the thriller “Cabin Fever,” and that film’s editor, Kyle Tekiela, mentioned an “exceptional script” he’d read called “Mudbound.”

The script by Virgil Williams was also read by Cassian Elwes, longtime indie producer whose company had recently signed a production deal with Armory.

“Mudbound” began in 2008 as a novel by Hillary Jordan. It was being developed as a film by MMC Joule Films (producers Carl and Sally Jo Effenson) and State Street Pictures (George Tillman, Bob Teitel). The credits on the film list seven producers, including the Effensons, Kim Roth, and Charles King, plus Elwes, Lemole, and Zajaros.

There are also 11 exec producers, including the State Street duo and Teddy Schwarzman and his Black Bear Pictures.

That’s a lot of credits, which is not surprising. As Zajaros says, “‘Mudbound’ is a very risky movie on paper. It’s a drama, and set in the American past, so it’s not an obvious foreign breadwinner. But the attitude was, ‘This is a movie we have to make, so we will figure out a way to do it.'”

Lemole says Rees was the first attachment (she also shares the screenplay credit). Since the producers were chasing financing, they wanted recognizable names but Rees was adamant about two pieces of casting: Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige. Morgan was virtually unknown, and Blige was famed for her music, not her acting. “But Dee said ‘I need these actors’ and she was 100% correct,” says Lemole.

The project finally came together, with most of the filming targeted for Louisiana. While the WWII scenes in Europe don’t take much screen time, they’re crucial in depicting the bond between Ronsel (Morgan’s character) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), which triggers much of the action in the second half of the film.

For budgetary reasons, there was talk of filming the scenes in the U.S., or even of cutting them, but Lemole says, “We weren’t going to let that happen. We needed those scenes.”

Rees’ efficiency made it possible to keep the film on track in the U.S., allowing for the Hungary filming. As Zajaros says, “Dee was up against it day after day. I don’t know anybody else who could have made it happen like she did.”

Lemole adds that the film addresses “a lot of current issues; they were relevant when we started the project, but given the current political climate, they’re even more topical.” The subjects include racism, sexism, and America’s neglect of its military veterans.

The film centers on racial and gender equality with the two families, but those virtues were also represented behind the camera, including Rees, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, editor Mako Kamitsuna, and composer Tamar-Kali.

The film got its first public screening at the January 2017 Sundance Film Festival, exactly two years after the Armory duo first heard of the project. It debuted to a standing ovation and Netflix bought rights to the film, which is getting a strong Oscar campaign from the streaming service.

At an American Film Market panel in November, Elwes praised the company: “Netflix is the only company that would step up to buy ‘Mudbound’ at Sundance. They are the bravest company in the business.”

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