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An Inspirational Jouney To The Screen
It took several years of all-consuming historical and creative searching - including time spent as a Feature Film Program Fellow at the Sundance Institute -- for Nate Parker to finish his screenplay. He acknowledges the process was lonely, and at times felt like being locked alone in a dark tunnel, but he also says, "that is part of the cost of trying to not only make a movie but disrupt a culture."

During that time, Parker's own life underwent major changes. When he started writing, Parker was a former All-American wrestler just getting his acting career started. He drew notice in 2007 in THE GREAT DEBATERS, personally selected by director Denzel Washington to play a 1930s debate whiz. He went on to star in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, RED TAILS, ARBITRAGE, RED HOOK SUMMER, AIN'T THEM BODY'S SAINTS and NON-STOP, among others.

Even as his acting career took off, Parker never wavered in his resolve to tell Turner's story. A devoted team soon set out to beat the odds and get a production off the ground that, on paper, was an improbable sell: an explosive story from a first-time filmmaker, an audaciously fresh take on the slave movie as heroic epic, and to boot, a period action-drama with large-scale battle sequences to be shot on an indie budget. In Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert and Preston L. Holmes, Parker knew he had found his ideal partners.

Each of the producers thought that bringing Parker's original voice to the world was a uniquely motivating force. Though they all shared in that, the producing team had very little overlap, notes Berman, Vice President of Mandalay Pictures. "We all brought very different skill sets - and Nate seemed to understand how to use each of our specific skills when they were needed. We were all there to serve his vision and he saw that and integrated it, but didn't ever take it for granted."

Given the subject matter, time stresses and budget, the production was rife with challenges. Yet as a first-time director Parker never allowed himself to flinch. He set out from the beginning to leave no stone unturned, meeting with directors he admired, including Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Mel Gibson, whose direction of BRAVEHEART battle sequences were an influence. "It was a kind of compressed apprenticeship," muses Parker. "I was told you have to be so prepared that you are never second-guessed. You have to know what you want but also know when you get what you want."

"That this movie got made is a kind of miracle," observes producer Turen, President of David S. Goyer's Phantom Four. "There was no previous business model that fit this film. It happened because a group of people came together who deeply, deeply believed in Nate and who felt we were making a film that could be important and great. We were betting fully on Nate's ability to execute something special and he has."

Turen says it was Parker's incredible promise that gave him the driving confidence that he could compel financiers to back a project that looked high-risk at the outset. "Nate has one of the most amazing minds I've encountered in the film business and he also has a work ethic that means he is always brilliantly prepared," says Turen. "He's worked hard for everything in his life and has a real appreciation for that - and you sense all of that when you meet him, which was our main advantage."

Berman also had a fervent response to THE BIRTH OF A NATION. "I've been involved in my fair share of independent film but this is by far the most ambitious film I've been a part of," he says. "I thought the screenplay was beautiful, exciting and extremely important. Though it was clear it could be major financing challenge, that didn't bother me. I thrive on challenges and the script and Nate were so incredible, I was completely up for it."

The key to the financing, Berman came to believe, was Parker. "When I met Nate it was game over because he has a quality you dream of in a filmmaker: an incredible energy that transfers to everyone he meets. This film could only have worked with a strong leader and Nate was that leader. I'm a persistent and aggressive person, but Nate has given me a run for my money in that area."

Parker says it was natural to talk to investors from the heart. "I knew I wanted to create a film that could be a creative legacy. I knew I wanted to be able to show it to my children and have them see that I made an effort to change things. So I said if those are the things I want to achieve, then why can't those ideas become the game plan for talking to investors? I put it in those terms: what movies are we leaving for our children and our children's children?"

Berman also saw the impact in action when they were hiring the crew. "Everyone wanted to be involved because of Nate's passion. It's also important that as strong as he was, Nate was equally kind, humble and gracious and I believe you see that on the screen. It's all about his humanity and ability to get the best out of people."

For Berman, one key thing sets the film apart: "It's the empathy we feel for the characters," he says. "When indie films break out the reason is never just the performances or the relevance of the social issues they tackle - it's the fact that audiences can really relate to the characters, can root for them and really feel why they do what they do."

A huge piece of the financing puzzle fell into place when Canadian producer Gilbert's Bron Studios came aboard with an unrelenting commitment to get the film to the screen. Gilbert says he was blown away by the power of the script and its exciting, relevant perspective on a past that still has a profound impact; but, as with others, it was meeting Nate Parker that utterly sealed the deal.

"I met Nate for what I thought was going to be a little hello and we ended up spending the next four hours together," Gilbert recalls. "I've had a lot of different experiences in the film industry, but I can say this was truly one of the absolute most important, life changing meetings of my life. Nate and I had a wide-ranging and emotional conversation about how he got to the point of needing to tell this story and his vision of how it would be made and by the end, there was no way I could not make this movie. There's something rare about Nate where he has that ability to move people, to touch and challenge them in a motivating way and you feel that instantly."

"This story might take place 200 years ago, but it depicts the era of slavery in a vital new light," says Gilbert. "You see Nat Turner standing up for his people. Some will argue about his methods, but drastic times can call for the most drastic measures. It's also a story that speaks to our own times and what's happening in the world right now, with so many oppressed people still living these kinds of stories."

The feeling that THE BIRTH OF A NATION brings a new, necessary shift in perspective also drew producer Preston Holmes, known for such productions as MALCOLM X, HUSTLE AND FLOW and NEW JACK CITY. "I've had an interest in African-American history throughout my career," says Holmes, "and the story of Nat Turner is too little known. There has been very little seen previously to even indicate there were many rebellions against the institution of slavery by kidnapped Africans. The film is unique because Nat Turner was not content to go along with the program. The opportunity of a film like this doesn't often come along, so I was thrilled to take part in it."

Parker's confidence to take on an emotionally demanding central performance while trying to direct a visionary first film at the very same time enthralled Holmes. "This would have been a difficult task for the most experienced filmmaker," he points out. "But Nate was always very clear about his overall vision. We all worked hard to make this film happen, but no one worked harder than Nate."


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