Before we begin let’s give you a little background information on director Johnathan Paul. He is an accomplished and award winning writer, filmmaker, and illustrator. In his early career he worked as an illustrator, painter and concept artist. His love for filmmaking goes back to the late 1980’s and he has been developing films for nearly two decades. Currently he is in the Graduate Film Program at the University of North Texas, and The Great Hanging Documentary is his thesis film. His previous documentary film Hustler of Providence is currently in consideration at Austin Film Festival, TIFF, IDFA, DOCS NYC, RIIFF as well as Sundance. He has been nominated for the Kodak Scholarship Award and the David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award for his role as director of the film.
Now, that you know a little more about the director let’s hear what he has to say about the film.
TGHMovie.com: Johnathan thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, we know your busy with the film, but we really appreciate the opportunity.
Johnathan Paul: Absolutely! Glad to help.
TGHMovie.com: What we want to do today is just gain some insight into the film, your process, your perspective of the events and what your hoping to accomplish. If that’s not too much?
Johnathan Paul: No, not at all. Sounds great.
TGHMovie.com: Alright, well let’s start with this question. How did you discover the story of the Great Hanging and why did you want to cover this for your next documentary and thesis film?
Johnathan Paul: Well, I grew up in Gainesville Texas, the site where the great hanging events took place. But, I didn’t learn about it until I was probably around 18-19 years old. I couldn’t believe that happened in my hometown, and I was a little surprised that it wasn’t really talked about. I told myself back in 2001, once I found a copy of Tainted Breeze, that I was going to make a film about this one day. Though I was thinking it would be a fictional film, not a documentary. But going into the graduate program at UNT I knew that for my thesis film this was the story I needed to cover.
TGHMovie.com: Have you closed the door on the possibility of directing a feature length non-documentary film about the Great Hanging?
Johnathan Paul: No way. I believe at some point and time in the future I’ll direct it, but I also see directing the documentary film as giving me a great foundation for that film whenever the time comes. I don’t think I want to pursue that right out of the gate once I graduate, but it is on my future production list.
TGHMovie.com: Going back to your comment on growing up in Gainesville, why do believe it wasn’t talked about openly?
Johnathan Paul: That’s pretty obvious. It’s a heavy subject and at first glance it really doesn’t cast a positive light on the city. I remember an article from the Dallas Morning News where Dr. McCaslin (author of the Tainted Breeze) was quoted saying that the story is kind of a “clunker”, and to be honest it really is. However it’s still apart of the town’s history, and an important story.
TGHMovie.com: What has the process been like getting ready to produce and direct the film? When did you really begin preparations?
Johnathan Paul: To be honest I really started gearing up for this film back in 2001, but it was really from a research standpoint. And too I wasn’t even thinking about doing a documentary. So, as far as the doc goes, I guess that really started back in spring of 2014. At least that’s when I started reaching out to people like Dr. McCaslin and Dr. Ledbetter about the possibility of producing a film.
TGHMovie.com: Why have you decided to use re-enactments in the documentary film? Are you taking artistic licenses with these sequences?
Johnathan Paul: First and foremost I consider myself a filmmaker, and that encompasses fiction, non-fiction and experimental. My deep roots in fictional filmmaking are something that I can’t escape from, and to be frank they’re something I embrace and use. Does it work with every documentary I do? No. But for this doc it fits perfectly. Especially when you add the element of the October Morning stage play, which we will be shooting soon. By adding the artistic element of a stage play, which I have no personal part in, it allows me to have a little creative leeway. Plus I want to give audiences a glimpse into that time and space. Could my personal framing of the re-enactments sway the audiences opinion on the subject one way or the other? Sure there is that possibility, and I’m okay with that because I’m building them from historical sources.
TGHMovie.com: As you’ve approached film and it’s structure, which perspective are you looking at this event from?
Johnathan Paul: It’s not really being developed from one perspective. I’m trying to approach this from a very neutral standpoint, because I feel that’s an important part of being good documentary filmmaker. You want both sides of the argument and then you craft your narrative from that. One of my early goals was to make sure that I don’t take sides one way or the other just present the evidence that I have.
TGHMovie.com: So you don’t believe the film will sway toward one groups perspective over the other? Particularly the perspective of the victims versus those of their accusers?
Johnathan Paul: I believe at the end of the day I’ll present a very balanced film and narrative. Now, given the historical facts that narrative may lean one way or the other, but that will be due to the facts, not a personal push for one viewpoint over the other.
TGHMovie.com: What are you hoping to accomplish with this film? Short term and long term?
Johnathan Paul: Do you want the short answer or the long answer? (Laughing)
TGHMovie.com: Whichever you prefer.
Johnathan Paul: Well, short term I would say that I want to create a solid documentary. I want a doc that brings to light a significant event in the history of the South during the Civil War. I also want to prove to myself and my peers that I am a filmmaker with integrity, and that I can respectfully represent these events narratively and visually. Events like this deserve that in my opinion. Long term, as I said before I see this as a practice run leading to a much larger and impactful fictional film. I want the documentary to do well during its festival run, and I believe it will, but I almost look at it as an extended trailer or proof of concept for what’s to come. The story is so large and there are so many individuals involved that to really tell it fully it needs to be a feature length film.
TGHMovie.com: On that point, could you tell us which historical characters you will be highlighting?
Johnathan Paul: Sure. With the current film length we’ll be focusing on 4 specific individuals. The two main characters will be Cooke County provost marshal Colonel James G. Bourland and hanging victim Nathaniel M. Clark. We’ll also be looking at the role of local minister Dr. Thomas Barrett who was a juror on the citizens court and the involvement of slave Bob Scott who was the man that drove the newly convicted from the citizens court to pecan creek to be executed.
TGHMovie.com: How many people were executed in all?
Johnathan Paul: There was a total of 42 men who were executed.
TGHMovie.com: Has this been hard for members of the community to get involved in? Are they reluctant to speak about it?
Johnathan Paul: There is some of that. But I’ve been met with so much more positive interaction than not. I know for many people in the community it’s not really a subject that they want to talk about, and I understand that. They want Gainesville to be known as the Medal of Honor Host City and the Most Patriotic Small Town in the US, and I think that’s fantastic. I’m proud of my hometown for that. But just like many cities and towns in the south there are skeletons in the closet. And I’ve openly said that the community should open up about those skeletons and view the events of October 1862 in a positive light.
TGHMovie.com: How in the world can these events be seen as a positive?
Johnathan Paul: I know that sounds crazy, I get that a lot. But when you get right down to it you have a large majority of a community standing up saying that they don’t want secession, they want to remain a part of the U.S. and therefore stand with the Union and the abolishment of slavery. To me it doesn’t get more patriotic than that.
TGHMovie.com: Well, I think that’s a great place to end our little Q&A. Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. And the best of luck with the rest of filming.
Johnathan Paul: Absolutely. Glad to help. And thank you, exciting times ahead.
We want to once again thank director Johnathan Paul for taking time away from filming to give us insight into his latest documentary film. The Great Hanging is a production of Datalus Pictures, of which Johnathan Paul is a co-founder. Currently the film is slated for release in May 2016.
Remember to keep up to date with all news on the film right here at the official website. Also give us your thoughts on the interview in the comments below.