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Filmmaking in Jail: How Director Madeleine Sackler Shot Two Movies in a Maximum-Security Prison

"O.G." and "It's A Hard Truth Ain't It" are the products of Madeleine Sackler's five year journey capturing the lives of men behind bars.

Jeffrey Wright in "O.G." Tribeca Film Festival

Jeffrey Wright in “O.G.”

Five years ago, documentary filmmaker Madeleine Sackler started the process of making “O.G.” and “It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It” – both feature-length films premiering at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival – with the goal of capturing the experience of living in a prison. While there are millions of people incarcerated throughout the U.S., gaining access to a group of prisoners (and a prison) would prove extremely difficult. The only state Sackler was even able to engage in conversation about her films, after numerous inquiries, was Indiana.

“In certain ways, what I learned was that the walls are there to keep us out more than to the keep [the prisoners] in,” said Sackler in an interview with IndieWire.

Yet once Sackler finally was able to visit the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Indiana, and sat down to interview dozens of the inmates and staff, she discovered nearly all the men were anxious to tell their stories.

“They really wanted to share the truth. There was very little hesitation and that’s what was particularly powerful for me, the desire for the truth to get outside the walls,” said Sackler. “Prisoners and guards didn’t feel the ways prison is represented [in movies and television] to be representative of their experiences at all. It was infuriating to them that the world keeps showing you in a certain way.”

"It's A Hard Truth Ain't It"

Filming “It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It”

Level 4 Films

When Sackler first visited Pendleton her principal goal was to make a scripted narrative film, but during that time it occurred to her that a nonfiction film would make for a perfect companion piece. The narrative feature, “O.G.,” which is in competition at Tribeca, follows the story of an inmate (Jeffrey Wright) on the verge of being released from prison after serving 24 years for a violent crime and facing an uncertain future.

Based on her previous documentary experience, Sackler’s instinct was to be as transparent as possible about her intentions, while keeping her requests to a minimum in her initial meeting about access with the Pendleton administrators. Knowing that at any point she could be permanently locked out of the facility, the key was keeping her creative process open. Sackler and screenwriter Stephen Belber left Pendleton with hundreds of hours of interviews to use for their “O.G.” script. The filmmaker had also been shown all the spaces and rooms she could potentially access for a film shoot.

“When writing the script, I did a spreadsheet breakdown of every scene and location,” said Sackler. “I would highlight in the spreadsheet anything special about the scene – 100 men in the gym, 80 men in the chow hall, a weapon is being smuggled in here, the correctional officer doing something corrupt. I then reviewed the spreadsheet with the prison administration, thinking we may need to cut 30% of the things and rewrite it. They approved all of it, which was surprising and exciting.”

Rewriting the script was part of a feedback loop, as Sackler became reliant on the comments from a group of the Pendelton men who helped shape the characters, in addition to getting all the details right. After a casting call that included a 140 guards and prisoners, Sackler spent a month at the prison running lines and doing improv exercises to prepare her first-time actors, who never had worked in front of a camera and would be shooting in situations where quick adjustments might be necessary. Production itself was never going to be easy.

“We shot ‘O.G.’ in five weeks, getting completely locked out one day, but we were able to make it up on a Saturday,” said Sackler. “There were lots of location-related challenges.” One scene planned for a three-hour shoot had to be done in 25 minutes; at other times, they were stuck in a single location and unable to move on. “The crew had to stay together, no one could go back to the holding area if you forgot something,” she said. “There were things we just had to get used to.”

"It's A Hard Truth Ain't It"

“It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It”

Level 4 Films

Before production on “O.G.,” Sackler submitted a proposal to teach a filmmaking workshop to 13 inmates. Screening 10 classic documentaries like “Grizzly Man” and “Murderball,” the class analyzed the films, talking about the different shooting styles, music, and editing. This led to the men interviewing each other and experimenting with what it was like to tell each other’s stories. The exercise went so well that the group decided they wanted to make a film together, which eventually grew into “It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It.” Sackler shares her directing credit on the film with the 13 inmates.

While it wasn’t Sackler’s intention, when she screened the two films together, she started to see how documentary served as a kind of prequel to “O.G.”

“You get to know this character Louis (Wright) so well as he’s leaving prison,” Sackler said. “Then you get to go back in time and imagine how he got there in the first place with these men who are being so open and honest with their first experiences.”

Watch an exclusive clip from “It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It” below.

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