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February 16, 2012
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November 16, 2011
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November 15, 2011
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August 25, 2011
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Reel Talk with Michael Seitzman writer of NORTH COUNTRY
Michael Seitzman stumbled across the material for North Country on the Today Show. He watched as Katie Couric interviewed Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, the authors of “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,? and felt the story was compelling enough to adapt into a script.
The up and coming screenwriter poured over the contents of the book and thousands of pages of court transcripts to develop a group of composite characters to represent the women who lived through the day to day harassment in the iron mines of Northern Minnesota and their 27-year battle against sexual harassment.
Seitzman, who is currently working on The Chancellor Manuscript, recently participated in Stephen Farber?s REEL TALK series at Landmark?s Nuwilshire Theater. If you?re interested in joining the series, which meets each Monday for ?good film and heady conversation,? click HERE.
What convinced you there was a movie in this story?
I felt the story was compelling and I was looking for something that would take me in a different direction both in terms of writing and in terms of my career. I wasn?t happy with either at the time and I was looking for something that moved me. I made a list of things that I thought were my strengths and the things I thought were my weaknesses as a writer and the things I was interested in. Then I turn on the TV one day and they were talking about this book.
Did you have to persuade the studio?
No, the book had come out a year earlier. Like a lot of books, before the book comes out in stores it shows up at studios in manuscript form and people get an early look at. It?s a hard book to see the movie in it right away because it is very dense and it?s very comprehensive. It?s a wonderful book and a terrific document of a 27 year struggle. When you see it ? it looks enormous and I think it was daunting for the studios when it first came around ?
I felt that what the movie is about is the obvious ? women going to work at the iron mines and the men not wanting them there, but then I felt what the movie could really be about is a story that had an irony in it and a personal and almost a primal impulse in it. What the story is really about to me is a woman who is trying to reconcile, while she?s fighting all the men around her, she?s trying to reconcile her relationships with the two males in her life that are closest to her, her father who has long since stopped trying to keep her safe and her son who no matter how hard she tries to keep safe, she doesn?t feel like she can ? I thought it would be something I could relate to and something that other people could relate to. It?s hard I think to relate to sexual harassment ?
How did you come to understand the women?s point of view for this story?
I never really thought of it as a woman?s story. I thought of it in terms of these universal feelings. I don?t know if anyone has ever expressed it this way, but I heard people or filmmakers sometimes refer to the movie inside the movie as the filmmaker?s secret movie ? What the movie is really ? about on a really emotional level that you can?t quite articulate ? To me ? my secret movie was really about safety and fear, which is the flip side of safety. So to me I could relate to the women as human beings and we all want to feel safe and make the people around us feel safe ?
If you?ve ever been up there it is incredible. First of all the cold is breathtaking, literally breathtaking. It takes the breath right out of you and you step off the plane and it?s 25 below zero and that?s before the wind blows. Then the wind blows and it?s like someone is crushing your bones. I?ve never felt cold like that. It makes for a very hardy person. Then the machinery itself is so big and steel and it?s loud, it?s so loud you can?t imagine. It?s a very masculine culture so I get it that they were fearful and I understand that ? I don?t know that you have to be a woman to be a feminist. I think I felt bad ?
Did you decide early on that you needed to fictionalize it rather than tell the full story?
Yeah ? [Critics] have a tendency to want to prove how smart they are about history and throw darts at your story because of it. I think the point that some of those critics are missing is that ? you have a different responsibility as a narrative filmmaker as opposed to a documentarian ? the experience of a narrative film is one that requires you become a participant in the events ? You can?t always do that by telling the true story in the exact way that it happened, but what you can do is be responsible to the historically relevant events and the personally relevant events to the people that lived them so you don?t offend anybody and that you don?t denigrate their experience.
The rule for me in the writing ? if it happened on screen at the mine, all those things that happened to those women it had to happen to somebody in real life, because what I never wanted to happen is for an audience to walk out of the theater and say, they glammed it up for us. Hollywood did it again to us and they invented things that didn?t happen ? You can?t tell 38 women?s stories on screen but you can tell three or four and you can condense those experiences and make them fit in a manageable timeline so the audience doesn?t find a doorway out in the middle of it.
Did anyone suggest you stick closer to the story and use real names?
At one point we had talked to Louis Jensen, who is the woman who?s name is on the lawsuit, ? she decided she didn?t want a movie to be made about her, or rather she didn?t want to be involved with it ? You find this with a lot of people who are so called whistle blowers. They don?t feel like heroes after the fact. It doesn?t really go away. They win but then they have to go back to their community and there are a lot of people who are really angry at them, the men for example never really stopped being angry at them and she was terrified of her name being out there again and of people ostracizing her, so a big part of changing the name was to protect Louis? privacy ?
All the miners came out [to the premiere] and Louis came and she had come to the set and she said the most extraordinary thing to us, she said ?I was so afraid of the fiction in the movie ? I started out being afraid of you telling the true story and then I was afraid of the fiction, but some how you found the facts in your fiction.? I couldn?t think of a higher compliment for her to pay ?
In addition to all of the material that came from the book it sounds like you actually met some of the real people up there and did your own research too.
You have to get an ear for the dialogue so it?s not just their story you want to hear it?s the turn of phrase. It?s a different part of the country and you want to capture the authenticity of it so you listen to the way people talk ? One thing Glory says is ?Ain?t that a heck of a? I heard that so many times up there ?ain?t that a heck of a? I?d never heard anyone say that before. It?s just an example of a little colloquialism which I thought would add some authenticity, but in terms of their characters ? they are very hardy. I go back to that word because I can?t tell you ? they have an incredible sense of humor with what they?ve been through ? I?m not sure I would have necessarily found the smiles had I not met them up there.
How did the film come together in terms of finding a director and cast? Were you involved in the whole process?
Nobody felt necessarily right [for the part of Josey] and it was hard to picture it ? I don?t think anybody was really sure yet and then we all saw Monster all in the same few days and we just felt Charlize ? was transcendent, there was something else going on there so she became obvious, but we didn?t have a director yet ? Whale Rider and this movie do share certain DNA. Whale Rider is a tribal community, very isolated from the rest of the culture. It also is about a girl who is going to upset the cultural balance in the community as this is. There is a feeling of authenticity in Whale Rider about that community, you feel like you get immersed in it ? I just thought that [Niki Caro] was great and so did everybody else and she just turned out to be terrific.
What do you think she brought to it that other director?s wouldn?t have caught?
I think she brought restraint to it ? The scenes like the polka sequence with everybody dancing ? it makes me think of that scene from the Deer Hunter ? just how authentic it felt. Like you were there ? There was something about it that you can?t quite articulate or put your finger on. There was almost a roughness to it ? that?s the great thing about Niki, she doesn?t care if it?s polished as long as it?s authentic.
So they consulted you throughout? Often times screenwriters are disposable.
Part of the bargain you make when you?re a screenwriter as opposed to a writer of short stories or novels is that you know that you will replace other people and they will replace you ? it?s the nature of the beast and I didn?t get replaced mercifully?
Is there anything you wish you had done differently with the court room scenes or do you think there is any validity to that criticism of the movie?
I don?t want to sound defensive ? well I will be a little defensive. I feel like court room scenes always end the same way. We?ve seen it a million times ? the jury hands over the piece of paper to the guy in uniform, who hands it to the judge, the judge reads it ? gives the verdict and then gives someone $200 million. I just felt like that shouldn?t be what the movie is about ? It had to be about some other idea and to me that idea was if we stand together we?re stronger, if we stand up for each other we?re stronger if we stand up for ourselves we are stronger ?
When did the litigation end?
Did Bob Dylan write any new songs for the movie?
The name of the movie comes from a Dylan song called Girl from the North Country. He did one original song for the movie, which shows up in the scene when [Josey] first signs the paperwork to join the mine.
How or when did Participant Productions get involved?
Yeah, Participant Productions, for those of you who don?t know, was started by the second largest shareholder of ebay named Jeff Skoll and he created this really extraordinary company which is mandated to only co-finance films that he feels have some sort of a social relevance or political relevance ? in order to help encourage a studio to make a movie they might not have ordinarily made ? They are a really extraordinary company and they came in sometime maybe a couple of months before Charlize and Niki came in but after the studio had decided to make the movie.
Have you gotten any criticism over the Hollywood liberals coming down on the working man?
It?s funny; the only attacks we?ve gotten in some of the articles are from liberals.
What was the most difficult scene to write?
The scene on the steps with Josey and her son where she has to tell him [the truth]. That scene was the hardest scene I?ve ever done ? What the scene had to do was make it ok for him, if it?s ok for him then some how it makes it ok for her. I spent weeks walking around my house, like brushing my teeth in the morning going ?what the hell could she say to him to make that ok?? I?m making eggs in the morning going ?what is she going to say to him?? ? then it sort of hit me that the first thing she has to say is his worst fear because it?s our worst fear ? which is ?I didn?t want you? ?