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“A Level of Determination That Can Border On Insane”: Producer Sam Widdoes on As We Speak

A young Black man wearing a white t-shirt and hoodie sings into a microphone at a recording studio.As We Speak, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

As We Speak, the directorial debut from J.M. Harper, follows the growing phenomenon of rap lyrics being used during legal battles both in the U.S. and abroad. Rapper Kemba acts as a guide through the murky waters of the First Amendment, investigating who it protects—or doesn’t—when musicians and their art stand trial.

First-time producer Sam Widdoes, who currently works as an attorney and was formerly a journalist, chronicles how he came aboard As We Speak and the myriad ways that his career background acted as a boon during the development of this documentary.

See all responses to our questionnaire for first-time Sundance producers here

Filmmaker: Tell us about the professional path that led you to produce this film, your first? What  jobs within and outside of the film industry did you do, and what professional  experience best prepared you to be a producer? 

Widdoes: I am an attorney as well as a producer, so I was initially drawn to the legal issue at the heart of this film: the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. And as a former journalist, I found the stories of the hundreds of artists who have had their music presented against them in court incredibly moving—fertile ground for a dynamic, wide-ranging documentary. My background in the law and nonfiction storytelling gave me all the skills to acquire rights, outline a creative treatment for the film, and relate to both the film’s subjects and the creative team.

Filmmaker: How did you connect with this filmmaker and wind up producing the film? 

Widdoes: We knew J.M. Harper’s work and were incredibly impressed. We connected through his management company, which I had pitched another project to several years ago. Our initial conversations were positive and he seemed to be immediately drawn to the subject matter. As the development process matured, so did our communication in terms of allowing for all different kinds of ideas to come forward. We pitched the project together to streamers and had a great rapport, which is what helped sell the project and get it made.

Filmmaker: How long a process was it to produce the film, and if you could break it into stages, periods of time, what were they? 

Widdoes: Seven years, all told. The first phase was making contact with the experts that first wrote about the issue of rap lyrics being used as evidence, and gaining their trust over the course of several months to adapt their research and expertise to film or television. The next phase of development lasted four years, during which the scope of the project expanded and contracted, and took many different forms, including a scripted television series, a documentary short, a doc series, and finally a feature documentary. Once we got a studio supporting the film, then we connected with the director and really started honing in on the shape, tone and style of the film. Then, just as we were preparing to pitch to streamers, Young Thug was arrested in Georgia in May 2022 on a RICO charge with 27 co-defendants. This was the highest profile case of rap being used as evidence, so that impacted our pitch and our approach momentarily. We finally got he project setup with Paramount+ in February 2023, and were able to deliver the film 9 months later in October.

Filmmaker: Did you have important or impactful mentors, or support from organizations, that were instrumental in your development as a producer? 

Widdoes: Two folks that have been tremendous mentors and sounding boards in the unscripted space have been Todd Lubin at Matador Content and Amit Dey, formerly at MRC. They both have worked on so many films and are open at any time for a chat about issues that inevitably arise during production. I also have a great producing partner, Peter Cambor, who is an incredible sounding board at all times.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult aspect of producing this film? 

Widdoes: The most difficult aspect was convincing buyers, studios, streamers and financiers of the immediacy of this issue, and the potential for real impact if the film was done right. Unfortunately until the arrest of Young Thug, rap lyrics on trial was received as a niche social justice issue, one that could not warrant a real budget or resources. Once we found the right director and the right studio partners, the execution came easily because everyone understood the real impact they were going to have with this project—it was an amazing team to be a part of.

Filmmaker: What single element of the film do you have take the greatest amount of pride in, or maybe were just most excited by, as a producer? 

Widdoes: The most rewarding part of producing this film was the small role I could play in feeding the creative vision of our director with the legal basis of knowledge that allowed him to explore how these complex issues might be represented on screen. J.M. is a brilliant artist, and a truly open collaborator who welcomes feedback. So being welcomed to his creative process with my legal expertise was a true joy.

Filmmaker: What surprised you or was unexpected when it comes to the producing of the film? 

Widdoes: The biggest surprise was how much can be accomplished in such a short amount of time when you have incredibly capable department heads. Our line producer, DPs and editor were exceptional and were able to deliver a Sundance-quality film in nine months because they could take the responsibility off the shoulders of the producers and director. Our director’s vision was crystal clear from the outset, but when issues arose, we all had the capacity to constructively discuss and quickly pivot. It was an incredible team effort.

Filmmaker: What are the challenges facing young producers entering the business right now at  this unique historical moment? And what could or should change about the film  business to make producing a more sustainable practice? 

Sam Widdoes: I equate producing to entrepreneurship or inventors—we are literally creating something from nothing. It is tremendously difficult, and requires a level of determination that can border on insane. But that is the nature of creating something new—it is very hard. So I am not sure we can change much except continuing to encourage and incentivize financiers and studios to take risks on new filmmakers and producers, and to lend support when they are starting their careers. There is little infrastructure in place to nurture independent producers, so I would encourage those with more experience to avail themselves of first-timers that are willing to put in the hard work to make new, great things.

Filmmaker: Finally, what advice would you pass on to a future young producer preparing to  embark on their first production? 

Widdoes: Prepare for a long journey. Understand that the project will take lots of twists and turns, and maintain a positive attitude.

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