Virgil Williams has written for shows as varied as Criminal Minds, E.R, 24 ,and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but it was his appearance as a child in The Blues Brothers that where the movie bug bit him. He ran across Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound one day while sorting through a stack of books and knew this was the one he had to adapt.
It would take years of perseverance before his screenplay would land with Dee Rees and finally be produced. The film made its powerful debut a year ago at Sundance and there was a special person with him to witness the screening: his daughter.
I caught up with Williams recently to talk about the experience of adapting Mudbound. Read our chat below:
Your background is TV and you’ve done a lot. What took so long for you to write a feature film?
When I was a kid I actually started as an actor and I was in The Blues Brothers and that’s what bit me. That’s when I got bitten by the Hollywood bug when I was lucky enough to be cast in that movie. So, in my head, it had always been movies, movies, movies. I came out here to make movies. I went to USC but got rejected to the film school. TV found me. I got a job as a writer’s PA on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
I used to watch that in the UK.
It was a huge international show. I remember that. So, TV found me. There’s a team, a pace, and the writer is king or queen and I fell in love with it. I’m blessed enough to have my TV career subsidize my feature career. So, I have the luxury of writing movies that I fall head over heels in love for. Like, I fell head over heels in love with that novel, it grabbed me by the throat.
How did the story find you?
It found me almost eight years ago now. I had a great TV career going, but I was not getting the feature attention that I wanted, so I switched agencies. When I got to CAA, I told them I wanted to adapt books because every movie I see is “Based on a novel by…” It seems like something I could work into my day job. We had a long conversation about the stories that I like and they sent me a stack of books that was about two feet tall. Mudbound was the third one. After I finished that, I was done. I didn’t need to look at anything else. I really felt like it was To Kill a Mockingbird for this generation. Hillary Jordan wrote the story in that revolving POV. Every story belongs to one of the six characters. Have you read the book?
I did and I didn’t want to put it down. It drew me right in. The only time I set aside was when I wanted to remember each moment and absorb what I was reading.
It’s like a fine French dinner. It like, I can’t eat another bite… ok, maybe just one more bite.
I love that.
It’s so rich and pure and crafted with such love and attention and you can feel that. Hillary is my buddy now. She’s written an American classic and that’s what it felt like. It felt like a responsibility. I was warned by my reps not to do the book. They were saying, “It’s Jim Crow and it’s a period piece and that’s hard to sell.” It was before 12 Years A Slave. Even a phenomenon like Empire in the TV landscape really changed the narrative and the perception because the party line has always been, “Those storylines don’t sell.” Clearly, they do. Good stories sell.
I was prepared to write it on spec, for free, but we went out to pitch it and got the same response. “It’s beautiful but it’s a period piece.” I knew how we were going to approach the six different voices. What TV taught me was to be really literate in communicating tonal intent. I don’t know who my director is going to be in television so you need to be really clear about your tonal intent. I knew I was going to try to write Jamie as wet and cold. I knew Ronsel was going to be hot and claustrophobic. I knew Henry needed to be in love with the land. I might start with prose that covered how and why. “He’s small against the land.” They were just signposts. I wasn’t picking lens packages, I was leaving breadcrumbs, but I knew the movie could translate on to the page.
I was lucky to meet a woman called Sally Jo Effenson and along with her son, Carl Effenson, they are both producers on the film and I tricked them into both believing my take. They paid me scale to adapt the book. It was miracle number one. My first produced feature film. You know there is a daisy chain of miracles. So, the Effensons were miracle number one because they paid me money to adapt a book.
For four years, people were attached and they fell out and it did what movie scripts do in this town. They sit around. That’s what it did. I think in 2015, a little over five years in the process, it got into the hands of Cassian Elwes. Cassian Elwes managed to get the script into the hands of visionary Dee Rees. I truly believe that only Dee Rees could have directed this movie. I really believe that. I believe that it took so long to get it to her because the world wasn’t ready for the story yet and she wasn’t ready for the story yet. Certain things needed to happen so that convergence could happen. She brought such an astounding amount of personal history and grit and skill and will to this project that only she could have done it. She took these little breadcrumbs and she created a feast. It’s astounding what an achievement she made in less than a month. She shot this film in 29 days.
It’s incredible. It’s so rich and deep and just immense that you would think it took longer.
And she shot it on a shoestring budget. No money. This is an $11 million budget. Again, it’s a daisy chain of miracles.
There’s a lot in the book, how do you decide to make Ronsel and Jamie the core of the story and go from there?
As you look at that story, part of my job is almost like air force reconnaissance, I have to fly at a super-high altitude and take pictures of the whole field. The climax is what answers that question. The flashlight in the dark so to speak as I was sifting through that, was their relationship. It is the coming together of those two guys. They’re a pairing. When I look at it as a writer, with an architectural eye, the column that bears the most weight is the relationship between Jamie and Ronsel. It is their relationship that ultimately becomes a powerful climax. Anything that didn’t have to do with them, was expendable-ish. That’s the process I used to make certain decisions. When Dee came on board, she had to make that movie her own so there were things that she put back. She put Hap breaking his leg back in the story. She put certain things back in to broaden it and make it about the two families and balance it. It worked like gangbusters. In the fetal stages of the process, for me, it was all about Jamie and Ronsel and those two. The story reveals those things to you.
When Jamie makes his revelation about why he’s helping Ronsel, it wrecked me, it destroyed me because it just explains everything. That wasn’t in the book so who put that in?
It was something I made. Part of my job is to turn a book into a movie. You see a movie, you put popcorn and sour patch kids in your mouth and your eyes are wide open. It explains a lot. In the book, there isn’t a reason and in the movie, there’s an opportunity to show me that reason. It just made sense and it was a fantastic opportunity to show, two segregated units in a movie. The first time I saw the movie was at Sundance. I was waiting for the sequence and you’re making me emotional that you love that part because that part was important to me. I’m proud of that part and it works beautifully. The way that Dee shot it. There’s no music and no sound, just his voiceover taking you through the whole thing. It’s something where I wanted to understand Jamie and it’s a cinematic movie moment.
What’s that responsibility of when you’re adapting Mudbound?
Immense. My grandfather fought in World War II in a segregated unit. He was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. It’s the unit that Spike Lee highlights in Miracle At Saint Anna. His brother, on the other hand, fought in a white unit because he could pass. My grandfather did not claim Negro because out of a sense of racial pride. He claimed Negro because he thought they would not send black boys into combat and he was totally wrong about that. For me, it was a responsibility to my ancestors so to speak. When I finished Mudbound, I thought, “Mudbound is me. Mudbound is all of us.” Someone has somebody in their history that they can connect to in that story. I’m lucky to have more than one person I can connect to. I am Jamie and Ronsel. I’ll be honest, I prayed a lot. I would be like, “Please don’t let me mess this up.”
I was on Criminal Minds at the time. I had a four-year-old and a one-year-old. I’d go to work during the day. I’d come home, spend some time with the family and eat dinner, then I’d say to my wife, “I’m going to the delta.” She knew when she’d come in, especially towards the end when I was crying, during that lynching scene. I had to feel those scenes when I’m writing. I did it with great respect.
I called Hillary I was going to change the ending of the film and it was a huge responsibility and I did it with hard work, reverence, and faith.
I saw it around the time the time of Charlottesville, and what struck me was how I could have walked out and that lynching scene could have been a news story. Did you ever think it could have been so timely for that to even be the case?
I’m half black and half Puerto Rican. I grew up in the notoriously segregated Chicago and If you were to ask any American minority the stuff that’s happening now, it’s been happening, generationally. We are well aware of this. If there’s an upside to this man who calls himself “my president” It is the realization of what has been happening.
Now, everybody can see. Now, there’s a big spotlight. You can see what we have been seeing. You no longer may think, no we are not whining, we are stuck in the present. When that book found me, it felt relevant then. I could not have predicted that these events would come to pass as such. I think you would have called me crazy. You would be like, “Virg, what’s wrong with you? Enjoy the moment. Obama is up there. Everything is good.”
I can’t write this stuff. Fiction has to make sense. That’s why fact is stranger than fiction because the fiction has to make sense. So, it’s astounding and sad how relevant this has become.
If you are black or brown in America, we’ve seen this. If you haven’t then your eyes are closed.
On a positive note, the casting is phenomenal from Jason to Mary to Garrett. What was it like to hear everyone speak your words?
It was transcending. I’ve seen my words on TV. That communal experience is a different deal. Sometimes you’ll see playback and you’ll be on the soundstage and it will be up on a giant screen, it’s always cooler. That scene you described was when my hair stood up on my arms.
I insisted my children go to Sundance because first of all, Trump had just won. I had to have a conversation with my daughter about how just because someone is in power, it doesn’t always make them right and you have to remember that. By the way, if anyone ever touches you in a way you don’t like or haven’t invited, you are allowed to knock them the fuck out. So, for me to have that conversation with my daughter in the same breath, I insisted that they were going to Sundance because I knew the Women’s March was going to happen. I needed that little girl to see with her own eyes, the tenacity and hard work and faith of what sticking to a thing and believing in a thing actually does. I need to show her that. I can’t just tell her about it.
She was ten. I did the math and for 70% of her life, her father had been working on that movie, so she was going to come see it. That day we did the Women’s March and my daughters are looking around at all these beautiful, strong, creative women and marching alongside them. I know that did something to them. It got into their hard wiring.
That night, I took my eldest to the screening, and there’s a standing ovation and I stand up, I’m hugging my girl and I said, “we did it.” You asked what it was like and to introduce my daughter to Mary J. Blige and the woman who made her father’s movie after the screening. I’ll take that memory to my grave. It was transcending.
She’s going to remember that for the rest of her life.
Yes, she will.