One of the striking aspects of “Confirmation” — the new HBO film starring Kerry Washington (as Anita Hill) and Wendell Pierce (as Clarence Thomas) about the judge’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 — is that it doesn’t pick a side. Those watching the film to find out who was telling the truth — Hill, who accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when they worked together 10 years prior to the hearings, or Thomas, who denied every word of her allegations — will be sadly disappointed. And that’s very much a conscious choice made by screenwriter Susannah Grant and director Rick Famuyiwa because, as the “Dope” helmer put it to Indiewire, “to some extent, we will never know.”
What fascinated him instead was how the hearings became a national phenomenon and came to propagate everything from the 24-hour news cycle to coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial to reality TV. Balancing a film about how the hearings affected two individuals with how it affected an entire country is a tricky act, and Famuyiwa almost didn’t take it on. Below, he explains why he couldn’t turn down the project, how you avoid the pitfalls of too much makeup and what he shared with star Wendell Pierce that changed during the production.
I read the script a little over a year ago. It was sent to me, and I was just blown away by it. I remember the events pretty vividly. I was in college at the time. I was a political science major before I decided to transfer to the film school. We were all riveted by the story, the process and obviously the human drama and the stakes of the Supreme Court. When I read it, I forgot a lot of things that had happened. It was good to revisit and it felt like it was a good moment to look back on this event that was almost 25 years ago. A lot of these issues seem relevant today, and so I quite eagerly jumped into the process, which had already been going for a little while. The producers and Kerry [Washington] had been championing the film for several years, so I came aboard at the stages where they had already got it in with HBO.
No, “Dope” wasn’t released yet. I was in the middle of starting the publicity for that, and I was just at the end of locking picture and finishing the mix when this came. I was wary because I had just jumped off that project the year before and wasn’t sure I wanted to jump immediately back into something. But the story was so compelling to me that I felt even though I was dog tired, [laughs] I was gonna muster up the energy to jump back into it because it was such an important story.
I can imagine that being a bit of a tough choice.
As a filmmaker you go, “Hey, when great opportunities come, you don’t let them go.” I’m so happy to slug away and make it work.
You mentioned how Kerry Washington had already been attached, but was the other casting set when you joined up?
No, she was the only one and was obviously set to play Anita. But everything else we went through the process. And Wendell was someone I had in mind from the beginning to play Clarence. I had worked with him a little in my film career and always loved his work and was introduced to him even before he did “The Wire,” so I was already a fan of him before and obviously have watched as his career has grown and he’s played these memorable roles. I just knew Clarence’s character was such a complicated figure and such an enigma that I wanted someone who could get to the heart and humanity of this person that we don’t really know much about in the public record. And obviously [we needed to] have an actor who can hold his own with Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. I always felt he was the guy I wanted in this role. I met a lot of amazing actors in every role — and felt the same for Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden — and we ended up with a phenomenal cast and a lot of people were interested in the film. It was a great process to find the talent for the movie.
One of the things that stands out when you’re watching it is they all kind of look like the people you expect them to look like, but it didn’t look like they were overly made up. You didn’t go too far, to where certain films have gone in the past where it’s almost distracting how much you make them look like said person. Is there a secret to finding the right balance when both casting the actors and applying make up to play the part?
It’s interesting because unless it’s someone with such a distinct look or unless people understand what this person looked like, I don’t think you need to go to the lengths that sometimes we do as filmmakers to make characters look like their real-life counterparts. Because so few people are familiar with how these people really look that it just becomes about embodying a character or characteristic of this person as opposed to makeup or visuals effects. For me, I wanted to have a light touch when it came to hair and makeup and the wardrobe because I wanted to feel the period and feel these real characters, but not necessarily feel like we are trying to draw attention to the period or individual characteristics that it distracts from the people who they are.
We’ve all seen films and TV like that. I was very conscious to get great actors because they embody a role and they disappear into a role and the audience goes with them. But obviously there are unique instances with people, with such a specific look or such a specific physical characteristic, that you have to honor that. I always feel like that’s what great actors should do: make you forget that you are watching the person, but watching the character they are portraying on screen.
What kind of focus did you put on using the televised events as a basis for matching the events in the movie? Did you make sure the speeches and setup adhered to the actual live broadcasts?
We used archive news footage in a couple ways. The first way was research, we researched a lot of sets and wardrobe; obviously the main senate building, the caucus room. We had a vast public record that all of our departments were able to use as resources for what we were going to recreate. And then I wanted to use the archive news footage as a storytelling method and another character in the drama because as I remember these events and how they were covered, the 24-hour news cycle that surrounded the coverage is what we remember. It’s how we engaged in the story. It was one of the first, that I can remember, nationally televised events in this way that really took hold of the entire nation. It was just as that 24-hour news cycle started to emerge with CNN coming of age after the Gulf War.
A few years later there was the O.J. Simpson trial, which blew it up to all forms of ridiculousness. This was the first entry in that kind of coverage that I remember so I wanted it to be part of how the story was told and how we contextualize the story as well as providing the research and analysis to get right what we needed to get right. It served multiple purposes, but it was always something I wanted to incorporate.
But obviously connected in that the events took place very close to each other and both took place in this world where you can still have 65 million people watching one thing at the same time. I don’t know if it’s the same anymore with the way media is consumed in so many different forms. For those who went through it and look back on it, it was an interesting time in the ’90s when technology and media were just meeting that urge for human drama that would become what we now call reality TV, and these were the first two memorable entrants into that. Both of them dealt in some ways with sex and race and gender. I think also what ties them together — even though one involved violence and murder and one did not — but I think they were tied together in so many other ways. I think it’s interesting they are coming out around the same time. I guess it’s probably because they happened around the same time.
Do you think anything in our culture right now feels the need to revisit these stories? Something in the way the media is or how the media is presenting these stories?
There is some of that. And some of that is you have a generation of artists and actors and filmmakers who came of age during these times and just like the generation before us who examined Watergate and Vietnam in the ’70s and other generations the ’80s.
You mentioned how you were a poly-sci major in college. Did you have a strong opinion on the hearings before you took on this project and did it change at all when you got into it?
And as years have gone by and I’ve revisited it, my thoughts about all of it changed in different ways — especially how I saw Clarence Thomas at the time. I didn’t have much regard for him, but going through the process you understand how much these two people have in common versus what they didn’t. There was this very traumatic event that happened that they both went through. I didn’t go into it saying I have a point of view about who was telling the truth. I don’t feel that’s an interesting way to tell the story. We can all have our own inferences about who was telling the truth but it was the idea that you had these two very accomplished black people on a national stage in front of this panel of all white judges, for lack of a better term, and the imagery of that was powerful. It changed a lot of how we saw our politics and the initial shock of what that all meant for this future judge on this court all felt like interesting things to deal with. So I felt myself being more drawn into that than any notion of who was telling the truth or not because, to some extent, we will never know.
Our schedule conspired in a way, because of Kerry on “Scandal,” we had to shoot her scenes very early and then Wendell’s scenes mostly came after. Because of scheduling as well, all of the stuff with Greg and the senators came after. We had an interesting dynamic with scheduling where it was almost like three separate films were being shot. So we shot one version which was all about Anita, and then one version that was all about Clarence and then another version which was all about the senators and Joe Biden. They converged and in the middle of the schedule was the hearings themselves. So it made it easy for me to be in one world at one time, so when I was with Anita it was all about her.
And so our conversations were about getting out this story and your truth and what you feel. And right after that, you jump into one scene with Clarence Thomas, so it was easy to say, “Now it’s all about you and your truth and your world,” and so when I was dealing with Wendell it was less about, “Are you guilty? Did this really happen?” and “Did you do anything?” But more about, “Here you are at this point in your life. Whatever happened or didn’t happen was 10 years ago when you were younger. You are in a different place now. You are married. You have this incredible opportunity. You are about to reach the pinnacle of your success and something from your past comes back to threaten that. How would you react? Whether you were complicit in that or not, the moment of having to come to terms with something you may have said or done, whether you felt you were innocent or not, is coming back to threaten your life 10 years after the fact.”
We talked a lot about that idea of mistakes you make as a young man and if you had to live by the standards of those mistakes you made. I think that was enough to have to chew on without necessarily having to say, “You told the truth, so let’s reveal that truth.” It’s more about dealing with the complexity of something that was said coming back and haunting you in that way. Whether you agree with allegations or not, that became a part of our conversations and Wendell on his own did a lot of research on Thomas on his own, and found a lot of connections between them which helped him to play this guy. When we initially met, he wasn’t sure if he liked this guy. [laughs] And by the end, he was like, “I kinda want to meet him and dig into him.” It’s that great process actors have to go through.
“Confirmation” premieres Saturday, April 16 at 8pm. Watch it anytime on HBO NOW, and make sure to subscribe to Indiewire’s Awards Season newsletter for in-depth analysis on this year’s Emmys race.