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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Unborn in the USA” co-Directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Unborn in the USA" co-Directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson

Directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson‘s documentary is a revealing and provocative look into the deep secrets and deep pockets of the pro-life movement, “Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion” weaves a story from more than 70 exclusive interviews with pro-life activists and seldom-seen archival footage to document one of the most controversial social movements in American history. The duo gained unprecedented access to pro-life groups, movement icons, fundraising machines, and even university students being specially groomed to carry the pro-life message for college credit, traveling across 35 states to bring this eye-opening and often startling story. First Run Features opened the doc on Friday, June 15 in limited release.

Please introduce yourselves…

Stephen Fell and William Thompson: We’re both 24 years old.

SF: I was born in Atlanta, and grew up nearby in Snellville, GA. I now currently live in Studio City, CA, where I work various jobs in the entertainment industry. We started making this film when we were 20, so our young adult life has circled almost completely around this project.

WT: I was born in Houston, and grew up nearby in Cypress, TX. I now currently live in Houston, TX, where I’m the Chief Software Engineer for a legal publishing firm. By night, I edit and work with Stephen tirelessly to get this film off the ground.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become filmmakers, and what other creative outlets do you explore?

WT: The ability to interact with real people and tell true stories are what initially fascinated me about film. That it is possible to connect with real people and relate to them through films is a continually fascinating concept to me. Technology is constantly changing what is possible with film – documentaries in particular – and it’s exciting that these advancements will allow us to tell more intriguing and immersive stories. I’m also a painter and very interested in technology, art, art history, and music, more specifically, I enjoy learning how all these elements evolve and contribute to storytelling.

SF: I’m also a writer, and get a lot of enjoyment out of writing screenplays. I’ve been writing scripts and plays since I was in elementary school and started turning them into films soon after. I’ve always found movies to be the strongest form of human communication and have been intrigued since a young age in their ability to make people think.

Did either of you go to film school?

SF/WT: We didn’t go to film school, and learned almost everything we know about filmmaking from being out in the field and figuring it out ourselves. We’ve found that film school is helpful for a lot of people, but we were more interested in building a foundation of academic substance and content; ultimately so we would have a lifetime of material. We did take the film classes they offer at Rice, but they revolved more around theory and the study of representation in film. That being said, there have been countless mentors along the way. We’ve found that if you’re passionate and tenacious, successful filmmakers will help you. It’s just not always the easiest thing to find them, especially if you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles.

“Unborn in the USA” co-directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson. Image courtesy of First Run Features.

How did the idea for “Unborn in the USA” evolve?

SF/WT: We met on our first day as students at Rice University and began a friendship that led to us working on this film together. We started the project as students when we were 20 years old. In a documentary class, we were told to do a short documentary on any individual we found interesting.

Will had known about a pro-life display in Northwest Houston that someone had erected next to a high school. It was a field of a 1000 blue crosses and a 1000 pink crosses with 15 billboards scattered throughout with messages from aborted fetuses to their parents. Stuff like, “I wouldn’t have eaten that much mom!,” or, “Now that grandma is becoming a burden, are you going to abort her too?” We found the display to be ridiculous, but we were fascinated that someone would do something like that and face the ridicule and scorn of an entire community. We thought that whoever did such a thing would make for a perfect short doc because the person would obviously be crazy. We eventually convinced the man to participate, and when we met him, he completely proved us wrong! He was just a regular guy who felt he had to voice his opinion, and this was the best way he knew how. So at that point, we were intrigued, and he introduced us to other individuals in Houston who were doing similar things.

President Bush had started the ball rolling on a lot of federal pro-life policy at the same time, so we were beginning to ask questions on a national scale. It eventually led us to Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, the annual pro-life protest, and we were convinced that there were going to be a million other filmmakers documenting the pro-life movement because of the changes we thought were about to happen. Well, we were literally the only journalists who showed up. We kept looking around thinking, “Surely other people are doing this…” But they weren’t, and we were able to grab interviews with some of the biggest pro-life leaders in the United States. When we sat down with them, we’d ask them, “Has anyone done a documentary about the pro-life movement before?” The answer was always no.

We had scheduled an interview with a prominent pro-life leader directly before a summit of national leaders, and we found ourselves milling about in a large conference room with almost every major pro-life leader in the country. Liaisons from the White House and part of President Bush’s cabinet showed up to lay-out the groundwork for something. They saw us [and] we were quickly escorted out. But as the door was closing, we heard the first lines from the speech from a member from the White House: “This is the most pro-life president we’ve ever had…” The door closes. We turned to each other and immediately knew that there was a huge story here that nobody was covering, especially the mainstream media. So that day began a 13-month journey across 35 states that took us behind closed doors with unprecedented access into the biggest pro-life groups in the country.

Pro-choice protesters in a scene from Stephen Fell and Will Thompson’s “Unborn in the USA.” Image courtesy of First Run Features.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?

SF/WT: The biggest challenge was convincing people that this wasn’t a pro-life or pro-choice film, that it was a film meant to understand the cultural motivations, tactics, and world view of one of the most controversial social movements in American history. We didn’t go into it with an agenda to slam these people, and people definitely wanted us to. For us, it had to be an organic process that grew strictly out of a curiosity for how these people think. Why would a person stand out on a sidewalk with a graphic poster of an aborted fetus and face verbal and physical abuse? It just drove us crazy trying to find out. Once we met writer/producer Suzanne O’Malley, she championed us and the film and helped us navigate through the difficult process of finding the right distributor for a film such as ours. With such a controversial film as ours, it was a tough sell.

How did you finance the film?

SF/WT: The minute we decided to make a feature-documentary about the most controversial issue in America, we knew that our funding would be heavily scrutinized. We were offered money by both pro-life and pro-choice groups, but we turned it all down. This was a great idea in theory, but it really made the filmmaking process incredibly difficult. We put all the money we personally had into it (which wasn’t much) and relied on university grants, grants from our parents, and friends’ couch grants! But in the end, we can say that we completely financed it ourselves and made the film we wanted to make without the financial influence from anybody. With a film that involves the topic of abortion, hopefully the audience will understand that this was a story we felt we had to tell, not one that some political group paid us to tell.

Who or what are your biggest creative influences?

SF/WT: For this film, it was “Hell House” by George Ratliff. It proved to us that you could make an unflinching and compassionate film on an incredibly controversial sect of fundamentalist Christianity, yet allow the characters within the film to be three dimensional. It ultimately invites the audience to participate in coming to their own conclusions on the characters. It’s a very brave and organic style, and one in which you’re not making the movie to prove you’re right. “Jesus Camp” was successful last year at accomplishing this as well. Granted, our film ambitiously takes that style and places it into a national context, but we’re confident that our film will be received in the same way as those two landmark films.

How do you define “independent film?”

SF/WT: The independent film movement of the ’80s and ’90s has almost been completely absorbed by mainstream studios and financing. We feel documentaries are still on the last frontier of independent film, primarily because you can go out there with a few people armed with passion, curiosity, and a camera, and tell the story you want to tell. Getting someone to pay you to do it…well, that’s a whole different story.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

SF: Passion is contagious. If you truly have the passion and talent for telling cinematic stories, you will find people along the way that will help you grab that chance to realize your dream.

WT: If you have an interesting story to tell, people want to hear it – you don’t need a big studio, and you don’t need a multi-million dollar budget to make it happen. I think we’re a pretty good example of that. So don’t wait to make your film.

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