Starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, The Best of Enemies tells the story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater facing off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration. Writer, Director and Producer Robin Bissell takes us behind the scenes of helming this film from start to finish.
ProductionHUB: You've been a Producer on some pretty big films throughout your career; Pleasantville, Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games to name a few. On this film you not only produced, but you wrote the script and directed the film. How was that an advantage or disadvantage?
Robin Bissell: It was definitely an advantage. The fact that I’d been on sets before really helped reduce any anxiety or nervousness I might have felt as a first-time director had I not been experienced. It’s also advantageous to already understand the hierarchies of each department and trust in delegating.
ProductionHUB: Would you do it again or would you prefer to focus on just one aspect of the filmmaking process?
Robin Bissell: I absolutely would prefer to both write AND direct anything I do in the future. It wouldn’t be an absolute necessity, but it helps to keep the whole movie in my head throughout the process. I definitely would like to delegate more of the producing end of things — to allow me to focus on the directing process — but I don’t see myself ever being completely out of producorial decisions.
ProductionHUB: If you had to choose just one discipline, what was your favorite part of the process and why?
Robin Bissell: I feel most at home in the directing chair. The visual medium is just easier for me. It also just suits my personality best when lots of things are happening at once — that keeps me engaged and moving. That’s where I thrive and accomplish more. I love writing but it can be isolating and I just making myself sit down is the most difficult part.
ProductionHUB: As a first time director, you likely made mistakes or ran into unforeseen problems that demanded creative solutions. Please share some of the on set issues.
Robin Bissell: There were PLENTY of issues on set! Especially only having 29 days to shoot. Nearly every scene I had to throw out part of my shot list and get to solutions quickly to get the scene on film. And sometimes those solutions ended up working better creatively than what I had planned.
I learned a BIG lesson about which “side” to shoot first as well. There was a particularly emotional scene with Taraji P. Henson and Babou Ceesay where Taraji is furious. I only had time to shoot 2 set-ups for that scene; one for her side and one for his. The scene begins with Taraji walking toward camera and Babou following her. I rehearsed that first camera move with Steadicam and then we spent 45 minutes lighting that side (night exterior). On the very first take, I realized I had made a huge mistake.
Because after a few seconds, Taraji turns around in anger toward Babou and away from the camera, which becomes his coverage. And that’s a problem because it’s Taraji’s scene. She explodes on his character and now I’m on her back while she’s doing the scene for the first time. And she was nailing — but to light the other side and be on her face was going to take another 45 minutes — and there was a chance she’d lose that emotion she’d had. She didn’t, and the scene came out incredibly once we “turned around” but it was a huge lesson learned for me.
ProductionHUB: What was it like working with prominent talent?
Robin Bissell: I’ve done it before, but never as a director. It’s a different relationship. As a producer, you’re there to offer support to the actors and problem solve. As a director, you’re a collaborator, and great actors want to be directed. But great actors can also smell bullshit a mile away. So I had to have a clear vision and deep understanding of the characters and be able to articulate that, but also be flexible enough to know when their ideas about their characters are better than mine.
ProductionHUB: Take yourself back to the first day of shooting. What would you tell yourself then that you know now?
Robin Bissell: Next time shoot somewhere where there isn’t as much lightning! Seriously, my first day as a director I got the first set up and then we had to shut our generators down for the next 3 ½ hours because of continuous lightning strikes. Every time one hits within 7 miles, you have to shut down the generators for 30 minutes.
ProductionHUB: Why this script? What was it about this story that made you want to commit so much time to one project?
Robin Bissell: Well, I loved the story. I first found out about it in 2005, but it wasn’t until The Hunger Games was released in 2012 that I decided it was time for me to write and direct something. And this is far and away the story I thought needed to be told. Also writing it was really out of necessity. I knew that in order for someone to let me direct at that point in my career, I would need to fully control the rights and a script that everyone loved. Then I would have leverage. It’s ALL about ownership.
ProductionHUB: Talk about the process...re-writes, input from trusted sources, etc.
Robin Bissell: Before I wrote the script, I asked my friend Danny Strong to produce with me. He is a close friend and had become a very successful writer (Recount, The Butler, Empire) and I wanted someone to check me throughout the process. I outline heavily — for longer than I write the script. I write a paragraph for every scene in the movie with various information from my brain.
This kind of outline lets me see the movie in a shorter form and I tinker until I know the structure is completely sound before I write a word of the script. Danny was very instrumental in zooming out and helping me streamline things in the outline. So much so that my first draft was pretty much the final shooting script. I think after Danny read the first draft I only did a few days of notes that he and I talked about.
ProductionHUB: Talk about the money. Did you raise it in a traditional way or seek alternate solutions? What did that look like?
Robin Bissell: It was difficult to raise the money, as is the case with most period dramas. You get turned down by studios, then you have some entities dipping their toe in the water by offering a percentage of the budget to see if others will join the party.
After about a year, I called another producer friend of mine, Matt Berenson, who had been wanting to be part of the project after he’d read the year before. I told him, “if you can find the money” you’re in. He dove in and found this newly formed company called Astute Films that was funded by a man in Georgia named Rick Jackson. They loved it and Rick ended up literally writing a check for the entire budget. Before we had a distributor and without any foreign pre-sales. That’s belief. And for a movie like this, you need people to believe. We were very fortunate that Matt sent this to Astute. It was pretty much their first movie.
ProductionHUB: How did producing this movie compare or contrast to your previous producer responsibilities?
Robin Bissell: Early on, almost everything was my call. That hadn’t happened before because I had always produced with people like Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Jon Kilik, Nina Jacobson. And I had always produced for director Gary Ross. All of those people had way more experience than me so even though I was very involved in Pleasantville, Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games, I was never the final word on anything.
But now, because I had these great relationships with crew built from my past producing, I had most of my key crew members already identified IN my directing deal with the production company. And I already had my two lead actors in Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell. AND I had paid for life rights and book rights out of my own pocket and had paid to do several budgets already. So we were ready to rock by the time Astute signed on. But then there’s making the movie and everyone stepped up and I was able to start focusing on directing.
ProductionHUB: You are working with people that have a high level of skill in their disciplines. How do you balance their technical skills with your creative vision?
Robin Bissell: Well, again, when you have the trust of a production designer like Jeannine Oppewall (who I had done 2 previous movies with) and a casting director like Debra Zane (also a close friend) then other people you haven’t worked with before give you their trust a little bit easier. Of course you have to have a vision, but it’s been my experience that when you’re with real pros who you’ve chosen because of their work then you all can get on the same page pretty quickly. David Lanzenberg (DP) and J.R. Hawbaker (costume) have impeccable taste and work tirelessly toward perfection. Within days of prep, I knew I had the right people. Because they were changing my mind on things for the better — but all in support of the vision. And that’s what you want. They’re the experts, not me. The same goes for Harry Yoon, our editor and Marcelo Zarvos, our composer.
ProductionHUB: How do you find the right crew to support your vision? Talk about the hiring process.
Robin Bissell: Again, I knew a lot of the keys prior to this film. And I leave it to them to hire their own departments. Yes, they’ll have conversations with me about certain hires just because I’m the director (camera operator, set designer et al) but you have to trust them to fill their departments with people they trust.
Of course then there are other smaller departments that fall to the Line Producer to hire, in consultation with me. Especially on this movie because we shot in Georgia and had to hire most of the crew locally. I could only fly in a couple of members of each department because travel and living get expensive.
Jeremiah had done several movies in Atlanta so he knew the “go to” people for sound, extras casting, craft service, UPM, stills photographer, transpo, etc. You need a great Line Producer who can deliver you those people that are essential to the movie's success.
Watch The Best of Enemies trailer.