Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the intensely moving drama Clemency follows prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard, in one of the best performances of the year), who has spent years carrying out death row executions that have taken their toll on her life and her marriage. Before she must carry out yet another execution of an inmate (Aldis Hodge), Bernadine finds herself confronting the emotional and psychological damage the job has done, as she figures out what that means for her future.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu about how Clemency became an all-encompassing life project, volunteering on clemency cases, creating a film program at a women’s prison, the journey to getting this movie made, working with an iconic actor like Alfre Woodard, meticulously planning out the execution scenes, that incredibly moving long shot at the end of the film, why post-production is her favorite part of the filmmaking process, and being excited to next explore the story of Elaine Brown, the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party.
CHINONYE CHUKWU: I definitely committed, but there were long gaps, where we couldn’t get financing. I had to still eat, so I was teaching at a collegiate level. I also decided to create a film program at a women’s prison, so I had a very full life, as we were trying to get the movie made.
How did you end up creating a film program at a women’s prison?
CHUKWU: I don’t know. I’ve been teaching for over 10 years, at the college level. And so, when I started volunteering on a clemency case in Ohio, I was spending a lot of time in a women’s prison there. I just looked around at all of the many women who are disregarded, and that their stories are never going to leave prison walls, was something so unsettling to me. I just had the idea of bringing my college curriculum to the prison because I feel like people being able to tell their stories shouldn’t just be restricted to those who can pay tuition.
What was that experience like?
CHUKWU: It was phenomenal. The inaugural group of women in the program are all now released. We still keep in touch, and they’re phenomenal. Their stories are incredible. The fact that they started with not knowing what a screenplay was and ended up making these really extraordinarily powerful short films. They’re phenomenal.
It seems like that could be really inspiring, too.
CHUKWU: It was. It was humanizing. I just felt like I was in company with sisters and we were just connecting, on a very real, woman-centered level.
Anytime you do a movie like this, it takes a journey to get it made and get it out there. How many times did you think it just wasn’t going to happen?
CHUKWU: What’s interesting is that I had some, I was definitely depressed, every once in awhile. I was just like, “How in the hell is this gonna happen?” I remember, very vividly, a journal entry that I wrote. I would journal, and there was one particular day where everybody said, “No.” My phenomenal producer, Bronwyn [Cornelius], and I had our hopes set on this one lead and it fell through, and I just had no idea how it was gonna happen. I was in Ohio and I had $300 in my bank account, and I was like, “I don’t know how this is gonna happen.” And even then, I remember laying in bed, because I was in a depressed stupor, as one is sometimes, and journaling, and I remember vividly writing, “I have no idea how this movie is gonna happen. I’m incredibly sad about it. I don’t wanna get out of bed. But I’m writing this journal entry, so I can read it, after this film gets made because I know it’s gonna get made. I have no idea how, but I know it’s gonna get made.” And I kept that journal entry for a moment because I knew it was gonna happen, I just had no idea how.
What was the moment when you realized that it was actually going to happen?
CHUKWU: I don’t think it really hit me until we screened it, and then it was just like, “Wow, we really did this.” There are even some moments now, where my producer and I look at each other like, “How did we do this?!” But, we did. So, it was after it started screening that it hit me that, “Okay this film that was just an idea in my head in 2011 has now completely been actualized and is about to be in theaters, for people around the country and around the world to see.” I’m still gonna have a moment, on the weekend of the release, where I’m like, “Oh, my god, this happened.”
Did you have a moment on set, at all, when you had to deal with the fact that you were working with an acting icon like Alfre Woodard?
CHUKWU: I had a moment, not on set, but in pre-production, when I was thinking about the emotional beats and the blocking of the anniversary scene between her and Wendell [Pierce]. I remember calling my best friend and saying, “I’m about to direct Alfre and Wendell in an intimate scene. Oh, my god!” We both were in awe of that. So, I definitely had to get a lot of those moments out in pre-production, so that I could come on set and be like, “I know what I’m talking about.” I definitely had those moments, like when we shot the long take on Alfre. She channelled something magical, and literally left everyone speechless. It is some of the most brilliant, magnificent acting on screen, period.
Could you feel all of that emotion, when you were watching it happen?
CHUKWU: I knew, as we were going. I was the only one who knew how long we were gonna go. Nobody else knew, but everybody was just transfixed. I was watching it and I was totally in awe, but I always have my director brain on, as well, so I knew when the moment ended. I knew when it needed to end and when that shot was complete. In the moment, I knew that I had to keep it all and that all of it was gonna go in. That was a moment in the assembly cut that never changed, from assembly to locked picture.
Did you have to do a bunch of takes of that moment?
CHUKWU: We did one take. We did a one-minute version, but that long version was one take.
For the execution, did you know how you wanted to approach that, both in the beginning and in the end?
CHUKWU: In my research, I was very detailed-oriented with how every little step works, and I flew out a retired warden who had overseen dozens of executions to help me with the blocking of it, as well. Those were scenes that my cinematographer and I thought out, very meticulously. We had to because there was such complex blocking. For the opening execution scene, we had a rig for the body. There were a lot of logistics, so we had to make sure that we knew exactly what we were doing. Those were the moments that were blocked out and planned out, meticulously.
It seems like there could have been so many different ways to do that, but what you did is so effective.
CHUKWU: Oh, thank you. I knew I wanted to be so meticulous, in the beginning, so you understand what’s going on in the space and you understand the stakes. The horror in it is the lack of sentimentality. There’s no music. It’s the heartbeat that’s the soundtrack, and that’s brutal.
We don’t often get to see what it’s like for the people who have to carry out executions. Why was that something you took such an interest in?
CHUKWU: A black man named Troy Davis was executed in 2011, and there were retired wardens who had also protested against the execution. These were wardens who, collectively, had overseen over a hundred executions, and they spoke, firsthand, about what it’s like to have you and your prison staff carry out these executions, and they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences. And so, the morning after Troy Davis was executed, I really was just obsessed with the question, what are those consequences? What’s it like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life? That’s really where it started. We’ve never seen this perspective before, in American cinema, and I wanted to investigate.
Alfre Woodard’s performance in this really is incredible. What made her the person that you wanted to carry this story?
CHUKWU: She was attached two years before pre-production. I knew that very, very few people could do this role. My producer just casually brought her name up and everything made sense. She’s one of our greatest living actors. For me, part of her brilliance is what she does with her eyes. I knew that whoever played this role would have to carry so much of her inner world through her eyes. And Alfre is one of the very few actresses that I could think of, who could do that.
Did it then become more challenging to find who you could surround her with, or did it make it easier?
CHUKWU: Everything came together really organically. With Aldis, similar to Alfre’s character, I knew that the person who played Anthony had to say so much with his eyes. He doesn’t speak for half the movie. And so, I remembered watching an episode of Underground and Aldis’ character didn’t speak for 10 minutes, and I was just captivated. I said, “All right, that’s our Anthony.” And he read the script and was like, “All right, I’m in.” It was that simple. Richard Schiff reminded me of a lot of the lawyers that I worked with on clemency cases and, of course, he’s an amazing actor. And Wendell was attached before Alfre, actually, and I just felt like him and Alfre would have such great chemistry.
Was this film challenging to edit?
CHUKWU: No, because I’m not precious about anything. Even though they’re amazing actors, I’m clear about what takes work the best and about what I want the emotional arcs to be, for each character. So, it wasn’t difficult, at all. Post is actually my favorite part of the process. It’s not difficult for me to cut, whatsoever.
How long was your first cut?
CHUKWU: Three hours. That was the assembly cut. So, there’s a whole other movie, on a hard drive somewhere. The first day of editing, I came with a long list of things to cut. It is super easy for me to let things go. I am not precious. I just want to make a great film. When things aren’t working, things aren’t working. There was one shot that I’d envisioned for years that I wanted to do, and it looked beautiful, but it just wasn’t working, narratively, so I had to let it go.
Do you also screen the film for people, like friends, family and other filmmakers?
CHUKWU: Yeah, we had friends and family watch it. And then, we also did some test screenings, where we just pulled in a whole bunch of random people that I didn’t know to watch it and give feedback.
What is that experience like, and how did those experiences compare?
CHUKWU: I’ve been a film professor for over 10 years, so a big part of my teaching is feedback and critique. Also, I have an MFA, where my film program was me receiving feedback and critique. And so, I receive feedback very, very well. What I actually don’t like is when people softball me. I find that from some of my friends and family, who are trying to be nice about it. I’m like, “No, tell me.” I don’t want to put myself out there and make something whack. If something sucks, something sucks. If we can’t fix it, we can’t fix it. I just wanna know how it’s being received. And so, I enjoy it. Of course, there are times when you’re really nervous about what they’re gonna say. If they just don’t like something, then of course it stings, but I would much rather know that and try to figure it out and work through it.
Was there anything you heard from that feedback that most helped with this film?
CHUKWU: Yeah. With the first test screening, there was some really good feedback about Bernadine and her husband’s relationship, and how to better construct the emotional arc of their relationship, so that there was more of a gradual disconnection, as opposed to it happening too quickly, in very early cuts of it. That was actually really, really good. I think the test screenings helped me the most with figuring out the pacing of that relationship.
Where do you go from here?
CHUKWU: This year, I wrote two different scripts. With one of the scripts, I’ve written three or four drafts of it. I’ve been focused on other things, out of creative and emotional necessity. I’m done with Clemency. I’m good. I need to think of something completely different. Also, I love to write. I just really was itching to write another script. I’m also itching, right now, to write another script, now that the last one’s completed. That’s where I go from here. Making more work and writing more scripts.
Whose story are you hoping to tell next?
CHUKWU: One of the stories that I’m going to tell is Elaine Brown. She wrote an amazing best-selling memoir, called A Taste of Power. She’s the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party, and I’m going to be writing and directing that adaptation. It’s good. It’s delicious. I can’t wait. It’s exciting because it’s completely different from Clemency. It’s gonna be fun.
It seems like it’d be so exciting to cast something like that.
CHUKWU: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m excited.
When you do something like that, do you immediately start to think of actors, as you’re writing it?
CHUKWU: No. Mostly, I don’t think of actors. It’s the story. A strong script is the foundation of a good movie. Sometimes there might be one or two characters where I’m like, “Oh, it would be really great to cast this person.” With this one, I have a few people in mind, but I really need to get the story right.
When do you hope to shoot it?
CHUKWU: I’m not gonna say, on the record. We don’t have that confirmed yet, but we’re working it out. We’re figuring out availability.
Clemency is now playing in theaters.