Interview by Emmanuel Price
Booker T. Mattison is an author, filmmaker and professor. His most noted work is a film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic story “The Gilded Six Bits,” which aired on Showtime. Booker is the critically acclaimed author of Snitch and Unsigned Hype. Visit: www.bookertmattison.com
AV: What was your main inspiration on becoming an author and screenwriter?
Booker: To be honest, being a screenwriter and author was not a lifelong ambition. However, creating worlds, characters and stories was something that I always did, without giving it much thought. I just enjoyed it. Beginning when I was as young as two years old. There is an ancient Hebrew proverb that says, “A man’s gift makes room for him, and brings him before great men.” That has certainly been the case in my creative and artistic life.
AV: What is your main goal when writing? Do you look for a specific audience when writing?
Booker: Characters and story come to me before target audience. And that process happens organically. My main goal when I write is to cause the reader or viewer to emote. A good story will always find an audience.
AV: It seems that The Gilded Six Bits is your most famous work. What was the inspiration behind this screenplay? How long did it take you to put this together?
Booker: I came across Zora Neale Hurston’s classic short story in an African-American Literature class when I was as an undergraduate at Norfolk State University (Go Spartans!) What appealed to me about the story was that though it was set in the Deep South during the Great Depression, the focus of the story was not racism or oppression. Did those things go on in the 30’s? Absolutely, but Black people also lived full lives that consisted of love, betrayal, redemption and community. Zora was often criticized by her Harlem Renaissance peers because she didn’t write enough about racism, but it was that very quality that attracted me to the story. It was fresh, vibrant and alive. A black love story set in the 30’s.
After Norfolk State I went to NYU film school and I felt that my thesis film would be a good time to do a black period piece. This was in the mid-90’s, and at that time black period pieces were box office kryptonite. So I felt that this was my last opportunity to do a film that I had complete control of free from the gatekeepers at studios or networks. I was able to attract a stellar cast that included Chad L. Coleman (“The Wire,” “The Walking Dead”) in his first starring role, T’keyah Keymah (“That’s So Raven,” “In Living Color”), Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Treme’”) and Novella Nelson (“The Antwone Fisher Story”). It aired on the Showtime cable network in February of 2001. I hold the proud distinction of being the first filmmaker to adapt any of Hurston’s work for film or television. Mind you, this was three years before Oprah adapted “Their Eyes Were Watching God” for ABC in 2004.
AV: To some, the plot for Habeas Corpus may seem crazy, but what is the message behind this story that you want your readers to understand?
Booker: Rather than crazy, I would say bizarre. And the film’s genre is magical realism, which incorporates the surreal or super ordinary as a narrative device. Habeas Corpus is the story of a man who can’t get over the death of his father so he steals his body from the funeral home. As odd as that logline may sound, it actually happened in Detroit. An article I read in the Detroit Free Press inspired the idea for the film. The story features a strong redemptive message and explores themes of the miraculous, faith, and the unexpected ways that prayers are answered – issues that most everyone can relate to. We have all experienced the death of a family member or a loved and we are left to grapple with where the person is, and how to reconcile life on opposing sides of the mortal coil.
AV: Habeas Corpus has won five film festival awards and is continuing to gain buzz. How does this make you feel?
Booker: It has actually won six! Awards recognition is paramount when you are creating art for public consumption. The truth of the matter is, I don’t know if a film, screenplay or book is good until the audience tells me so, either through critical acclaim, awards or sales. The moment you begin to create stories that exist at the intersection of art and commerce you are at the mercy of what others think, namely the audience. There’s no escaping it. And any artist who tells you otherwise is deluded, fantastically arrogant, or an excellent actor!
AV: Your first novel Unsigned Hype was nominated for a South Carolina Book Award. After your first book award, how did it build your confidence going into your next novel?
Booker: Believe it or not, I was terrified before my second novel Snitch came out because Unsigned Hype had been so well received. I was not sure that I could repeat that success and I didn’t want to let the readers down. However, when Snitch received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, I felt that I could confidently call myself a novelist.
AV: You’ve written novels and screenplays, and directed films. How was the transition going into teaching on the collegiate level? What inspired you to go into teaching alongside the other things you were doing in the entertainment industry?
Booker: I come from a long line of teachers so the transition was rather seamless. As well, being a full time professor keeps you current in your field, yet still provides you with the time to create new works and stay relevant in the marketplace. Finally, I cannot underestimate the importance of sowing into the next generation of filmmakers. That is how you establish your legacy.
AV: Your book Snitch is now adapted into a screenplay. What was the main reason you chose this novel to adapt into a screenplay?
Booker: Because I am a filmmaker by training, I write novels precisely so that I can adapt them into films that I direct. It is part and parcel to what I do as a filmmaker and author. This allows me to exploit my copyrights in multiple mediums, and to engage in transmedia storytelling.
AV: Out of all the plays and novels you have written, which is your favorite and why?
Booker: That is like asking me which of my four kids is my favorite! I love them all the same, and they are all equal in my eyes!
AV: Which one would you deem your most successful work and why?
Booker: I would have to say the film adaptation of “The Gilded Six Bits” because it got an excellent review in The Hollywood Reporter that said, “Mattison’s direction and feel for her characters match up to Hurston’s sterling piece of fiction…full of atmosphere and strongly developed characters,” and Snitch because of the Publishers Weekly starred review which stated, “author and filmmaker Mattison’s sophomore outing reads like it’s ready for screen adaptation…Mattison has a superb ear, and his skill keeps on growing.”
AV: What advice would you give to a young aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter?
Booker: Write every day. Shoot often. It’s not about scale, but repetition.
AV: You are involved in so much, what keeps you motivated?
Booker: God, my wife and my four children.
AV: What can the world expect from you in 2016?
Booker: I am in post-production on my next short film Bird, which is the story of a college track star training for the Olympics who is wrongfully accused of a crime. We are trying desperately to finish the film in time to submit it to the Sundance Film Festival. I am also working on my third novel Friendship Village, which is the story of a white, rookie Virginia Beach cop who clashes with his veteran white partner after the senior officer shoots an unarmed black teen. The aftermath tears the city apart and turns the officers against each other. (Editor’s Note: Bird was completed a few months after AV’s interview).
AV: What gives you the most satisfaction being involved in the entertainment industry?
Booker: Making people feel, making people think, and providing visceral fodder that effects change in the hearts and minds of readers and viewers.
Emmanuel Price attends Hampton University and he is an aspiring writer. For information on Emmanuel visit: Hampton University Interns.