Booker T. Mattison. Filmmaker. Novelist. Screenwriter. Professor. Want to know more about Mattison? Read The Interview.
TDR: Who named you “Booker T.” and why?
BM: My father’s best friend is named Booker T., and dad and his friends called him “BT”. They were very close. BT was killed in a car wreck; so, when I was born, he and mom gave me the name to honor his memory.
TDR: Your parents are from South Carolina. You spent summers there. A summer’s vacation with southern relatives is a common right-of-passage for many African American children. What were your summer experiences like in contrast to living in the big city?
I am a hyper-sensory person, so I am really plugged into how things feel, taste, and smell.
BM: Actually being on the family land in Williamston—which is considered “the country”—well, my grandfather owned a huge amount of land there. I know the history of the people to whom he sold the land … just knowing that the entire area was all owned by my grandfather—just knowing my history and having a street named for the Mattison family name gave me an incredible sense of self. The people who came before me did incredible things—even my family. It is an awesome feeling.
TDR: Your writerly voice is impressive. Let me read the opening lines from your novels, published by Revell in 2009 and 2011 respectively.
Somebody’s banging on my front door and it’s rocking the house harder than the beat I’m laying down in my bedroom.
Now, from your novel Snitch:
It’s cold tonight. So cold that if you listen hard enough, you can hear the ice that’s wedged in the cracks in the street expand and make greater fissures.
These are very visual openings. They sound. They move.
BM: I’m a hyper-sensory person, so I am really plugged into how things feel, taste, and smell. It gives life to my voice as an artist. You mentioned “hearing” sound in those lines, well sound is so important in how I describe experiences. While at Tisch [School of the Arts], I lived in the metropolis of New York, so I listened and watched how the city functions in the seasons.
TDR: What contributed to your hyper-sensory perception?
BM: It comes from being an artist and wanting to communicate with the world in any way that I can. Most of the artists I know are in tune with the senses and what is going on around them. We are aware of the affect our experiences have/had on us.
TDR: How do you move into telling your story on the white page? What does literature do for you as a storyteller?
BM: The dilemma of the blank page is terrifying. I do not enjoy writing—the process to get to a draft is not pleasant. This is a recent development for me that happened last spring in a creative writing class. I learned in that class, however, that it does not matter what you write, you can’t even make it great until you write it first; it doesn’t matter if it is bad … horrible.
Directing is probably … the easiest for me to do because as a director, it enables me to traffic in all of my gifts …
TDR: As a creative writer myself, I’d like to know how do you manage the writer’s fear as you move to write on the white page?
BM: Literature for me is fuel—knowing that when I write a product from my efforts will emerge. Really, writers have to remove the critical brain because it has no place until there is something on the white page to criticize. The rewriting … the editing … these are where and when the gems appear.
TDR: When did stories matter to you?
BM: I’ve always had stories in my head and worlds I wanted to shape, mold, and create. I wrote a novel when I was 9 but I did not realize it. I had characters but it was only later I was able to articulate exactly what I was doing.
TDR: You are a novelist as well as a screenwriter as well as a filmmaker — three different media. Discuss the challenges you meet when approaching each genre. You’ve touched upon literature in the last question. Let’s continue with screenwriting …
BM: The goal is the same for all genres: to tell a story. The novel is a complete art form. I write, edit, and publish—there it is … it is complete–done. Notice I said “I write” because in the strictest sense it is not collaborative until you interact with an editor. As for screenwriting, it is the blueprint for the film … it’s collaborative … a team usually is involved to get that story on the screen. The story will move and morph in very different ways. Personally, it is far more difficult writing for screen than writing a novel because it is the form of writing that I have done for the least amount of time. As I keep writing screenplays, however, I am finding that I am getting better at it.
TDR: Film …
BM: It’s incredible to create and watch a film I have made. Directing is probably out of the three — author/screenwriter/director — the easiest for me to do because as a director, it enables me to traffic in all of my gifts: storytelling, visual, creating characters and worlds, and it gives me tools that I do not have when writing a novel or screenplay …
TDR: Specifically, what tools?
BM: If I want to show intimacy or a tense situation, I can use the film form called the close-up. If I want to give the audience a full range of the environment wherein my story takes place, I can pull my camera back and show depth of field which gives the expanse of a setting. I can use lighting, color, and other visual effects to enhance the images onscreen. And sound … sound is fifty percent of the movie. I can use sound to horrify and to excite; to augment and intensify the sense of sight. In other words, I can direct the audience’s emotions through sound … Being able to capture tone, mood … it’s amazing!
My work encourages and uplifts by examining dark and disturbing aspects of who we are but providing triumphant and uplifting endings that builds people up … that offers hope at the end of the day.
TDR: The Gilded Six Bits is a short story written by Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston in 1933. In 2001, you produced a film short of the same name. What drew you to Hurston?
BM: An African American lit course at Norfolk State; it is a rare love story from the Harlem Renaissance. I found it refreshing to read something that wasn’t dealing exclusively with racism. Had she done what all of the other Harlem Renaissance writers were doing, a degree of her uniqueness would have been lost …
TDR: In your opinion, what made Hurston stand apart from her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries or contributed to her “degree of uniqueness” you have mentioned?
BM: The Gilded Six Bits is a love story set in the 1930s. Typically literature from that period … the focus is on the struggle against racism and oppression in the United States; but that was not Hurston’s voice. She tells us that racism was not the only concern among African American people. Hurston was very interested in the day-to-day life of African Americans—how they lived and interacted with each other. The story, in particular, has an emphasis on the relationship between a young married African American couple living in the south. She specifically focuses on how one couple would enact forgiveness after a betrayal.
TDR: … and what had to be forgiven … who could do it …
BM: Exactly. Hurston takes on the power of forgiveness. People told me post-screening that a whole lot of midwives saved a whole lot of marriages. It’s Zora’s genius, really. I went back and forth through the story with calendars to figure out who fathered that baby but I realized Hurston regards love and family to be more important than betrayal.
TDR: Were you guarded in your interpretation of the story for the screen?
BM: I did not want to offend her fans! I plaid close attention to Zora’s voice as I read her. I wanted to “hear” her voice on the screen. At the film’s screening, I was holding my breath. Judging from the audience’s reactions, I gathered that I was true to her vision of the story and the message she wanted the audiences to take away from it.
… it doesn’t matter where you go to film school just learn the business. Learn the craft. Learn the culture–that’s equally important.
TDR: National Black Child Development Institute recognized Unsigned Hype. To that recognition you stated, “I am called to uplift, encourage and challenge readers, but to do it in a way that is morally and ethically responsible. As a media professional, I am acutely aware of the power that media has to introduce and nurture ideas in the minds of young people. And it is these ideas that ultimately shape their worldview.” How do you see your work encouraging and uplifting your readers and viewers?
BM: My work encourages and uplifts by examining dark and disturbing aspects of who we are but providing a triumphant and uplifting ending that builds people up … that offers up hope at the end of day …
TDR: You earned an M.F.A. from the Tisch School of the Arts, after earning your Bachelor’s from Norfolk State University in Virginia. So you are credentialed in filmmaking. There are plenty filmmakers – successful filmmakers — who are making films without the formal college degree. How important do you deem formal education in the visual arts? Is it necessary?
BM: No. it is not necessary. There are far too many people who are successful without the formal degree but it is helpful. Tisch has a conservatory environment, and I absolutely needed to be in a culture and setting that catered strictly to people who aspired to become filmmakers and/or already were working in the field. Formal education, I do believe, is beneficial but it is expensive! You can be so starry-eyed about a school but the financial debt has to be weighed in the decision. If you decide to go, it doesn’t matter where you go to film school just learn the business. Learn the craft. Learn the culture–that’s equally important.
Booker T. Mattison currently is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Hampton University in Virginia. For more information on Mattison visit http://www.bookertmattison.com.
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