Monday, February 08, 2010

Director responds

TJ Martin, director of The Donner Party, which I slammed in my last post, responded with thoughtful response detailing the history of the project and how it evolved into its final form. It's too bad he didn't get a chance to make the film he wanted to make. With his permission, here's his email:

I write this letter because I thought you and your readers might be interested in knowing why we made some of the changes. I also wanted to address some of your concerns with the movie by explaining our process to you.

The producers and I originally had this project set up at with an Oscar winning production company at a much higher budget. We got to the point where we had 2 well known actors in the lead roles and we were ready to shoot. One of the actors even shed 20 pounds in preparation. Suddenly, the production company pulled the money from us.

So instead of quitting, my producer raised as much funding as he could with limited time. Most people thought were were crazy to try to shoot it at this budget and within a 12 day schedule, but we had already put so much time into it and the alternative would have been to abandon the project and our dreams of making the movie.

So we forged ahead. Our new budget and schedule meant major script changes. First we would have to do it without the bigger name actors. We had to lose Lemuel and William Murphy, even though the children were a major part of the original script -- there simply wasn't time or money to have children on set. (SAG has very clear rules about how much time they can work) We had to condense the number of characters and lose the extensive costume changes that would have showed the wear of the clothes through the journey. New actors were cast, actors who did not have time to shed weight. (I considered hitting the streets and methadone clinics to get people with the right look, but it was obvious I needed people who could act and I think our cast delivered amazingly well)

We hoped the audience would take the leap with us despite not having the means to accurately depict the severity of the physical look. It was more about getting the tone right for us anyway.

As far as making Foster the leader and this was in the script from the beginning. I wanted to explore the theme of false leadership and the resentment many teamsters felt towards the captains. It was a theme that was echoed across the rest of the journey and just because I was focusing on the "Forlorn Hope" I didn't want to lose it. Other choices were creative, some done in editing to make the movie flow better. The bottom line is that we were more interested in making a movie that worked. We never set out to make a documentary, Ric Burns already made an excellent one.

So what about the title change? "The Donner Party" was strictly a business choice made by the distributor. (This also explains the error filled synopsis on the back cover) I was not consulted and I was angry about the change at first, but I understand it. If you are an average Joe picking up a movie for a weekend are you going to rent "The Forlorn" or "The Donner Party?"

I don't write this letter to make excuses for the movie. I stand behind it and the cast and crew who worked so hard to get this done under severe restrictions. I'm relieved that we got it done and I'm glad people are talking about The Donner Party.

I never saw this as be all and end all of movies about the subject. I think to properly tell the entire story you would need a "Band of Brothers" mini-series style production. I encourage you and your readers to try to write it and then convince Steven Spielberg to put 200 million behind it, because I will be the first in line to see it.

"The Donner Party" a.k.a "The Forlorn" is my first movie and it's simply my take on a small part of the Donner Party experience. I am proud of the all of the hard work people put into it and I hope it continues to spark interest and debate into a fascinating dark corner of American History.

T.J. Martin


Dweller of the Crag said...

Gotta love it when The Powers That Be make decisions that leave you swinging in the wind. You can either shuffle home in defeat or carry on the best you can.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you post the paragraph where he consulted you about the script prior to filming? I find it interesting that you go to such lengths to torpedo a small indie film that is the ONLY feature drama made about your subject of fascination. This film was not a documentary. Get over it already and move on with your life.

If you are going to present yourself and this site as a FORUM, let people speak their mind and stop editing information to suit your own ridiculous ego.

Kristin Johnson said...

See my response in blog post above.

Billy said...

I understand what the Director is saying- but for me, my main criticism has nothing to do what he is responding to. I can certainly overlook the name change, or there being no children there, or even that the actors appear well-fed. I don't even mind just concentrating on the Forlorn Hope part of the story. It should not cost more money for Franklin Graves to naturally die out there than for him to kill himself. It should not cost less money to put in some "imaginary cache" than it does not to have it. These aren't money problems, these are 'script' problems. This does not accurately depict the Forlorn Hope- in fact, it appears just to trade in on the "Donner Party' name for someone to create their own fictional drama that bears some resemblance to the facts but doesn't even attempt to be a real representation of them- all the while trying to cash in on people's interest in the real events. That's what is so disappointing, not low production values!