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The VO Talk with VIFF Director Paul Saltzman

The Vancouver Observer sits down with Paul Saltzman, director of Prom Night in Mississippi.

VO: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a filmmaker?

PS: Relevant to this, when I went to University in 1965, I went down to Mississippi and I volunteered with the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). I did voter registration work, I got arrested and spent ten days in jail, got punched in the head by a guy from the Ku Klux Klan and fortunately I ran faster than he and his three friends, or I would have really been in trouble.  

So that's my background in terms of Mississippi films. Other than that, when I got back from Mississippi I got offered a job at CBC, in fact I had two jobs. I was an on air host of my own one hour/week youth public affairs television show. Me and a young woman were co-hosts and I also was a researcher and interviewer for This Hour has Seven Days. It was the top Canadian public affairs show, reviewed in The New York Times as being better than 60 Minutes.

After two years, the CBC killed it, and they killed it due to pressure from the cabinet because they kept taking on the politicians and the politicians didn't like that. So there's a pretty interesting history there.  

I worked for the film board, I worked for CBC, I did freelance work, and then in 1972 I started making my own documentaries. I made documentaries for ten years. I made 70 of them, and then switched to drama and did the premier episode of HBS's Family Playhouse. That was the first time I had stepped on a drama set, so that was pretty cool. 

Before that, I was the production manager, tech and unit director on the first IMAX film, and that was an incredible job at the age of 25. Fourteen Countries, eight months, seven days a week, twenty hours a day, but it was fantastic.  

Then I started my own company, but basically, to make it all short, I did documentaries for ten years and drama for ten years. Danger Bay was the connection to Vancouver. I co-created and produced Danger Bay and that was a hit with Disney and CBC and ran for six years and 123 episodes. I did about 300 productions, if you count all the episodics, about 70 or 80 documentaries, 225 dramas, and then I stopped.

About fifteen years ago I stopped filmmaking. I'd had enough of it, didn't want to do more. I had built my company up to be the third biggest in Canada, but I was just tired of it. 

I had no intention of making another film until I met Morgan (Freeman) and went back to Mississippi to take a look at how things had changed. In talking to Morgan, I thought people should hear what he was saying.  

My wife and I started to make a film called Return to Mississippi, which is a personal journey film, me in a car driving over the Mississippi border talking about being there in 1965 and how scary it was and that I was now interested in seeing how things had changed. 

We shot that documentary, and Morgan Freeman is in it, the Ku Klux Klan is in it, Harry Belafonte is in it, and the day we finished shooting that, we found out about the separate proms in Morgan's home town.  We paused on Return to Mississippi, put it on the shelf, because we had to start right away on Prom Night in Mississippi or we'd miss the event.  

My wife and I moved down to Mississippi for five months to the Mississippi delta and shot the film. We came back and edited for ten months and the result was Prom Night in Mississippi. In a month or two, when we get back, we're going to finish Return to Mississippi.

VO: What was it like getting access to your subjects?

PS: The reason we moved there was not only for our own pleasure at diving into a subject, but also because we knew that to have people talk openly about something that was always kept under the table, they had to trust us. We wanted to live in the community and have people come to know us, and wanted them to trust us. That was done completely consciously.  

Over time, the young people saw us every day at the school. We shot pretty much every day. The town is small so they saw us in the streets, the restaurants, and gradually a trust came out of us just being there. So with the young people, it was a matter of building that trust. In terms of the young people whose parents are racist and didn't go to the prom, but went to the white prom, those young people wouldn't talk to us no matter what we did. We were the enemy, to them and their parents, we could not get them or any of their parents to talk to us. They wouldn't even meet with us without a camera. 

The Glen character, Heather's father, didn't want to talk to me. I got him on the phone by accident. I phoned his daughter and he answered her cell phone. I told him I really wanted to talk to him on camera, an he said that he didn't want to do that. So I suggested bringing over a couple of beers, sitting and chatting, with no camera. He said “I don't drink beer”. I said “neither do I”.

I haven't drunk a beer in my whole life. I just said it because I thought he was a beer drinker.

I said “I drink Pepsi”. He said “So do I”. So I suggested I pick up a couple cans of Pepsi and a couple bags of chips and we just sit and chat, and he said ok.  

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