Director John Henry Summerour on Sahkanaga
The following Q&A is an excerpt from a conversation between filmmaker John Henry Summerour and John DeVore, a writer for The Pulse, Chattanooga’s weekly alternative. (DeVore’s Pulse feature on Summerour can be found here.) Summerour discusses the importance of his personal relationship with the South in making his newest film Sahkanaga (“Great Blue Hills of God” in Cherokee), which is inspired by the Tri-State Crematory scandal. In 2002, it was discovered that over 300 bodies that had been committed to the crematory in Georgia for proper disposal were never cremated and instead buried or left in a shed and the woods. Sahkanaga, which used local talent, tells the coming-of-age story of Paul, the son of the director of the funeral home. It opens at the reRun Theatre on December 7.
You mention that you wanted to “reflect the beauty, mystery, and subtle terror that pervade southern culture, specifically as experienced by teenagers.” Are you referring to the fear and uncertainty that is common among most teenagers, or is there something especially different about the adolescent experience in the South?
Definitely, I think there is something universal about the teenage experience. Feeling misunderstood, feeling isolated, angry, scared, powerless. But the experience of growing up in the American South is inextricably linked to our shared history — the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of the Bible Belt — and I don’t think I fully realized how unique the environment is until I moved to New York and studied with kids from different parts of the country and the world. When I was growing up, I remember having a sense that the kids I met from Atlanta (at summer camp) seemed very different from me, more sophisticated and jaded. They even had different accents.
But leaving the South and entering the mix in New York really made me aware of my differences, and a lot of that is tied to self-confidence. Janet Elizabeth Simpson, our set decorator on Sahkanaga, is a musician/writer living in Birmingham, and she once wrote a piece about Birmingham suffering from a century of low self-esteem. I think this is true in many parts of the South. We’re taught to focus on our Christian values, our strong family bonds and the importance of community, but there’s a sense of shame regarding the darker aspects of our history, and a subconscious awareness that we’re marked somehow, that the rest of the world sees us as being different and possibly inferior. Even today, when the subject of racism enters a conversation, people turn to me just because I grew up in the South, as though racism doesn’t exist anywhere else. This is utterly absurd, but it’s also a strong reminder of how the South is perceived, and I think it’s something that the best Southern literature, music, film and art explore.
In addition to that, when the crematory story broke in 2002, I started thinking about how this event defines the place where I grew up. What message does it send to the kids who are suddenly having their sense of home shattered? Could this have happened anywhere in the world? What does this say about us as a community, as a culture? I began writing the script as a way to work through these questions and also investigate the ways in which we process and heal. I think there is something very particular about a woman baking a coconut cake as a peace offering, or a little girl making hundreds of Popsicle crosses as a symbol of Jesus dying for our sins and granting us salvation, or two kids sitting on an old train trestle screaming at the top of their lungs for someone to save them. When I was little, I walked into the kitchen and announced to my mother that Jesus had told me to stop sucking my thumb. My friends from the West Coast and New England didn’t have this experience.
Also, there’s a wild beauty in the rural South, which is why the film has several shots of decaying factories, kudzu-covered hills, the remnants of a chimney standing in an abandoned lot, the layered slopes of the Appalachian foothills. The rural South, and in particular Appalachia, is incredibly unique. I wonder how the technology boom of the last decade is changing that, if kids still feel as isolated, or on the other hand, as deeply connected to their culture?
I wasn’t living in the area when the events in the film were depicted. I have only heard about it through word of mouth, and now, your film. What was it that really drew you into the story? How did you come to decide that this story needed a feature film?
When I heard the news that hundreds of bodies had been discovered only miles from where I grew up, it was incredibly upsetting for several reasons, but I felt particularly remorseful that this would confirm and exacerbate prevailing stereotypes about the South for the rest of the world. I began to imagine the worst Hollywood version of this movie in which everyone is depicted as a toothless, shoeless, mud-covered yokel, and the crematory operator is a necrophiliac or a cannibal, and it broke my heart.
I’m often discouraged by mainstream depictions of the South — we’re either wealthy Southern belles with Scarlett O’Hara accents, or savages biting the heads off of squirrels while picking at a banjo. I felt compelled to make something that represented the place where I grew up for all of its beauty and complexity. I wanted to share a cinematic point of view that felt true and authentic. And I wanted to involve the community on both sides of the camera, because this is their story.
When I was growing up, the concept of making a movie seemed so far-fetched for someone like me. I figured that you had to live in Atlanta, New York or LA to do something like that (going back to that issue of cultural self-esteem). At the same time, I craved that creative experience and felt that I was talented enough, that I deserved a shot. When people encouraged me to send the script around to agencies in LA and cast young Hollywood actors in the lead roles, I politely declined. Part of my mission was to give teenagers in the Tri-State area the opportunity that I had always dreamed of. Also, making the film was a way for me to reconnect to that childhood self, to prove that it’s okay to dream big. In some ways, the act of making my first film in Walker County is a message to the rest of the world that the legacy of great Southern storytelling didn’t die with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and to other artists in the Tri-State area that we should consider ourselves artistic equals rather than “regional” or “outsider” artists.
I’ve seen many local productions and short films that use local actors. Many times, the amateur actors give somewhat stilted performances. This was much less of a problem with your film than others I’ve seen. How were you able to pull such strong performances out of your actors, especially the younger ones?
My background is in acting. I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the British American Drama Academy in London to study acting, and I worked as an actor in off-Broadway theatre and indie film for several years before transitioning into writing and directing film. Working with actors is the easiest task for me compared to learning how to write a script, create a shot list, hire crew, storyboard, conceptualize how the footage will cut together, negotiate pricing for lighting and gear and film stock, etc.
I also learned as an actor that I responded best to positive reinforcement. Some directors try to torture actors, to intimidate them and bully a performance out of them. This can be effective, but I think it’s incredibly damaging. I think the best acting comes out of a sense of play, the idea that we’re doing something fun, and the knowledge that there is no right or wrong. I took an excerpt from the feature script and shot a short film in 2007 as a litmus test, because I was aware that the process of casting local non-professional actors, none of whom had acted in front of a camera, could turn into Waiting For Guffman with highly exaggerated, awkward performances.
The other tricky element was that we would be telling a fictional version of a real-life story that directly affected each of them. So would they be able to act in front of the camera, and on top of that would they be able to act out situations that had such deeply personal context? The short film mainly focused on the kids, so I contacted area high schools, church youth groups, and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre to find teenagers who were interested in working on a film. The audition process was pretty incredible. I don’t know if it’s a product of growing up in a culture saturated with reality TV, but so many kids immediately got the subtlety of acting in front of the camera. They understood on a gut level that film acting comes through the eyes, that you can communicate so much by doing very little, but you have to be engaged emotionally.
Each actor came to the project with an individual comfort level, so I really didn’t work with any two actors the exact same way. For instance, Charles Patterson Jr., who portrays the crematory operator in the film, is a firefighter in Chattanooga, but he also writes, directs and stars in his own stage plays, and he is a phenomenal, phenomenal actor, so I just had to discuss the logistics of the scene and let him go. His greatest challenge was taking an incredibly polarizing figure, and imbuing the character with depth and dimension in a rather limited amount of screen time. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chip Jones, who portrays the father. He had never acted in his life. I’m not even sure he’s stood up in church and read a Bible verse aloud. The people I had originally hoped to cast weren’t able to commit to the shooting schedule because of their jobs, so we didn’t have anyone to play the father two days before we were set to begin. Krista Seckinger, one of our associate producers, stopped by Chip’s business in Chickamauga, and she thought, “He’s good looking and laid back.” So she snapped a picture on her cell phone and sent it to me, and I said, “Great!” We juggled the shooting schedule so that the father’s scenes didn’t begin until the second week, and we spent the first week rehearsing with Chip and getting him up to speed. He was so nervous, but to see the progress he made from our first meeting where we sat in his office and read a couple of scenes to his final performance in the film is remarkable. And again, I think it boils down to positive reinforcement. The actors trusted that I would be honest with them, that I wasn’t going to let them turn in sucky performances, so it really became about focusing and breathing and being completely present with each other. Finally, the fact that we made a short film first greatly increased the comfort level for the feature. The teen actors had already worked with me and played these characters, so jumping into the feature was pretty effortless from a performance perspective.
Christianity plays a strong role in the film, as well it should for a film based in this area. How did your own experience shape the depiction of religion and its pervasiveness in the region? Did your views evolve through the process of making the film?
My father is a Methodist minister, so I grew up in the church, next door to the church, on top of the church, all over the church. I don’t think I’ll ever make a film that doesn’t explore spirituality to some degree. But I also must say that my experience growing up in the church was very positive. During the times when I was bullied at school, or felt misunderstood and marginalized, the church was always a safe haven of acceptance and love for me. To this day, if you visit Elizabeth Lee United Methodist Church in Chickamauga, you will meet some of the nicest people in the world. They still treat me like family. I wanted this to be true in the film as well. The church is a place of healing and acceptance in the film, without being simplistic. The youth group scene in the movie is one of my favorites because the kids bring up issues of racism and distrust and forgiveness, really processing this tragedy, while collaborating on a church skit that is meant to provide a moment of hope and reflection during a dark time. The irony is that when I screened the film in San Francisco, I went out with two people who were raised by atheists and agnostics, and they both felt the depiction of the church was incredibly suffocating. In contrast, our Variety review came out of that same San Francisco screening, and the critic totally highlighted the complexity and sensitivity in the film’s exploration of faith and the role of the church.
The process of making the film has given me a great sense of pride in where I come from. When I set up initial meetings to discuss the possibility of coming home and exploring this story, I was aware that people might slam the door in my face. The crematory scandal is not something that people are proud of, and ten years later there are still some open wounds. Instead, people in Walker County opened their homes to us, donated food, volunteered on set, performed as extras in the film, and genuinely supported me through the entire process, something that takes a considerable amount of trust and courage. When I was a teenager, I felt that I had to leave the South to pursue a career in the arts, so making Sahkanga was an inspiring and emotional experience for me. I will continue telling Southern stories and making films in the South throughout my life. There’s so much talent and potential, but we’re responsible for creating the opportunities.