If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Montgomery:
That’s what we made and presented in fall of 2005, and since then we’ve gotten to do a lot more interviews and get to know a lot more people, including Asa Carter’s brother who we tracked down and I’ve gotten quite close to over the past year. He told me that, first of all, there were no two funerals, which was very disappointing to hear because it was such a great story. More to the point, his theory was that his brother became a virulent racist—as opposed to a garden variety segregationist—white supremacist—because he was shell shocked in World War Two. He said that he thought it was all post-traumatic stress disorder. People still have different theories about that. He said that after Asa lost the governor’s race in 1970, he called all of his family members around him and said, “Look, I’ve got to leave Alabama, I’ve got to reinvent myself. I’m never going to be published again as Asa Carter, and if I’m going to make this work I’ve got to become a new person.” His family accepted it, and from then on he was Forrest, and that was that.
That’s the story as we have pieced it together so far.
Laura Browder: Any questions, I‘d love to take them—so I don’t have to keep talking all by myself up here.
Q: He was—was he not—confronted a few times, as Forrest Carter, with being Asa Carter?
LB: No, he finessed it all the time. I mean, up to the very end, his editor thought that he was Forrest. He just denied the rumors to her. She believed him—many, many people believed him. When he was on the Barbara Walters show in 1976, after Little Tree first came out, people all over Alabama said, “Hey, you know, there’s old Asa there. What’s he doing on TV?” Wayne Greenhaw, who is one of the guys who you saw interviewed, wrote an article for the New York Times saying basically, “Forrest Carter is Asa Carter,” and no one paid attention. And the book went on to sell 600,000 more copies before anyone paid attention again.
Q: What is your sense, I mean, about this transformation? Is it a farce? Is it some kind of comedy that he sets up? Or is it some kind of self-repudiation?
LB: I don’t think he ever repudiated his racist politics, as far as that goes. Bob Daley, who’s Clint Eastwood’s producing partner, told me that they worked together on the movie to some extent. And Forrest was very, very kind to him when his father was dying, wrote him a wonderful series of comforting letters, but later on, when Forrest felt that he should have gotten more money out of the deal and wanted to rewrite the contract (as so often happens), he sent Bob Daley a vicious anti-Semitic letter full of kind of ugly racist stuff. So I think he was both. I do think he wanted to, in some ways, escape who he was seen [as] by the world. Interestingly enough, when he was exposed the first time, his wife India (otherwise known as Thelma—she reinvented herself, too, as time went on), she wrote a letter to Wayne Greenhaw saying, “You’ve misunderstood; the man who you think is Forrest is not Asa, but is Asa’s sensitive artistic nephew, who came to visit us in Texas, and he and I fell in love and ran away together,” leaving horrible old racist Asa behind. So she had a fantasy going, too. But at the end, the way Forrest Carter died… it was very ugly. He got into a drunken fistfight with his son and choked on his own vomit. What a horrible way to go! I think there was a limit to his reinvention. But you know I think there were moments where he did like to believe in it, too.
Q: Laura, a couple of things—one sort of technical but one more specific. Do you have any ideas or information about why he didn’t go all the way in this change, and kept the same last name? Was it simply because they had invented this story of the nephew, and that’s the reason? Or, it seems to me it suggests a certain ambivalence about it.
LB: I think he did want to keep his family ties. I mean, he saw his family—his birth family, his siblings—every year. They’d have a big reunion, so I don’t think he wanted to go absolutely all the way.
Q: A second and technical question: there’s a scene towards the end where he’s on the steps with the son, and there’s a very quick morphing into the contemporary time. Was that actual documentary footage, or was that . . . ?
LB: No, that was actually Wayne Greenhaw’s buddy, who was the commissioner for funeral home oversight for the state of Alabama. No, we did a reenactment.
Q: How did you feel about that reenactment within the documentary form? Did you debate how…?
LB: We did debate back and forth, but we finally decided that it was ok as part of the storytelling, because I don’t think that scene did any great violence to whatever the reality was. I mean, we know that he picketed the inauguration with a sign, and we know that after the inauguration, he basically left town. It took a little while—but I know what you’re saying.
Q: I’m just wondering—I mean, I don’t know how other people feel about it, and it’s not so much the ethics as the aesthetics of it that sometimes I have issues with. If you go on the History Channel, they have all these cheesy reenactment kinds of things. I mean, this story is so compelling, I wonder whether it even needs that kind of blurring of this being presented as really actuality.
LB: One perhaps cheesy way out of that quandary is to say that, since this is a film about re-invention in part we felt a little more free. We didn’t want to do reenactments of any of the big things—and in fact, that was actually the car that was used by Wallace in his inauguration, that he drove off in. A dealer in town lent it to us, which is very nice—we tracked it down. We didn’t want to do that traditional—I mean, there are plenty of talking heads in there, but we didn’t want to do just that—one talking head, another talking head, Ken-Burns-slow-pan over the same photograph forty times.
Q: You know, you’ve looked into this a long time now, between the book and all that you’ve put into this film—do you have any idea, any speculation, as to why people didn’t respond to his “outing” in 1976 in the New York Times?
LB: When I wrote Slippery Characters, I was shocked at how many times these impersonators—famous ones—for the past 160 years had been “outed” over and over and over again, and people just don’t want to know. They really don’t want to know, and if they do find out, they want to forget as quickly as possible. I mean, Little Tree is still taught as autobiography in schools. We all know better. I think people want to hang on to their romantic images of the “authentic” Indian, or the “authentic” whoever else, and that’s why.
Q: Leaving aside the sort of political offensive nature of this case, there are cases where you have people re-inventing themselves as writers—I forget the name of that famous Portuguese writer who is actually a right-wing Portuguese writer and re-invents himself as a Brazilian modernista poet and he has at least three different careers with three different kinds of work published—what is the need there? I mean, it’s not simply schizophrenia or multiple personalities, it’s something very interesting that he feels the need to complete himself with a new personality and a new type of writing, and there’s a certain kind of effort here to complete the personality, maybe even to deny the refashioning in some ways—I also stumble over the sort of pernicious aspects of the case—but I see something else going on there.
LB: Well, I mean, I think it can be wonderfully liberating as well. I mean, one of the other people who we’re going to focus on, Danny Santiago—you know, he was Daniel James, the W.A.S.P. Communist screenwriter for Charlie Chaplin, and he had been blacklisted in the 1950's. He was called up in front of H.U.A.C. and asked to name names, and he showed up with his family’s first edition of Voltaire, and he was all prepared with this wonderful speech about freedom—and they didn’t want to hear it. They said, “That’s it. Next.” And from that moment on, he developed this thirty-year-long writer’s block. He could not write in his own voice. And it was only by moving to the barrio and hanging out and becoming friends with people there, and sort of living among them, that he began to find a voice again. And when he wrote again, it was in this very exuberant young Chicano activist voice. I mean, I love that story, because he didn’t seem to be playing into racial stereotypes at all. It’s harder to get excited about the noble redskin as interpreted by a white supremacist.
Q: When the news broke, when the story broke that Asa and Forrest were the same person, is there any footage of people out there? If I was a news person, I’d want to talk to Wallace—especially in his re-invention of himself, especially in his later years as this sort of “moderate statesman” person. Is there any footage around? Was Wallace ever asked on record?
LB: I don’t believe so. I mean, the news really didn’t make a dent. It appeared on page fourteen or something. No one followed it up.
Q: When he was Forrest, did he have interaction with the Native American community? I mean, was he embraced? Was there any kind of documentation on that, or was it purely a book, and that was it?
LB: He would, especially when he got drunk, perform Native American chants and dances for his friends. The persona he created for Bob Daley and Clint Eastwood was very much—and for his agent—was this shy, backwoods, Native American country-boy who was too much of a hick to really know what was going on but had this story that he really believed in, that he wanted to share. I mean, they all say—especially his agent, Rhoda Weyr—“He played us. He knew exactly what he was doing.” But he didn’t hang out with actual Native Americans, that wasn’t his constituency.
Q: “Playing us,” that was something I was thinking about—said he would never be able to write again as Asa Carter, and so he makes this transformation into Forrest Carter and knows what it’s going to take to write something that’s going to fly. Have you talked to anybody about or thought about the mercenary aspects?
LB: Oh, it was absolutely mercenary. I think he was a great hack. If you—please don’t shoot me for saying this—when you listen to the Wallace speeches, even his rabid speeches that he wrote on his own behalf, they’ve got a certain flow to them. They’re very stirring. You don’t want to be stirred in that direction, but can absolutely understand why he was so successful doing what he did. His family was just happy that he had gotten out of violence. Really, that’s what his parents were most concerned about, that he would be killed, or kill someone else, which in fact he did do in the 1950s—shot a fellow Klansman. They were happy that he got out of it, but I think for him there was a great mercenary quality. It wasn’t that he felt he wouldn’t have a writer’s voice, he just felt like he couldn’t get published as Asa, which I think is a very clear distinction between him and someone like Danny Santiago/ Daniel James.
Q: Being such a racist, why do you think he re-invented himself as something that he probably hated?
LB: Well actually, Klansmen often love Native Americans. White supremacists often love Native Americans because they see them as representatives of a pure but doomed race. You know, in the 1930s one of Hitler’s race theorists wrote an autobiography in the voice of a Native American that sold pretty well: White Horse Eagle, My People—something like that. Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance—who was one of the most successful impersonator Indians of the 1920s—you know, he was a movie star, with his own line of running shoes and his own book on sign language. The only way he succeeded was because all of the white supremacists and race theorists were promoting him as the representative of a noble but doomed race. So it makes a lot of sense. I would have been very surprised if Asa had re-invented himself as Joel Bernstein, but a Native American, not so much of a stretch.
Q: Thinking about the extent to which he was—I mean he’s actually hoaxing—do you think that the choice of “Forrest” is a deliberate Nathan Bedford sort of . . .
A: It absolutely was. Nathan Bedford Forrest was his hero, and that’s why he chose Forrest. No guesses there; that’s very well documented, which is also interesting, going back to Richard’s comment about why not change Carter. I mean, in a sense he was hiding very, very much in open view.
Q: Seems like one of the interesting things about this form, that separates it from normal financing of a movie, is this ability to raise the money as you go along and keep taking it one step further and then one step further?
LB: Oh, yeah.
Q: What has that process been like—of making a documentary where you don’t know how long it’s going to get to be, because you don’t know how much money you’re going to end up with?
LB: Well, we do know we’re going to have a sixty-minute and a ninety-minute version. And the sixty-minute we’ll sell to TV, and the ninety-minute will be for festivals. We actually . . .
Q: Do you need the sixty-minute to raise the money to make the ninety-minute?
LB: Not necessarily, although it will help. I think it will certainly help. One of the people who we met with at the IFP Market last year was a Paris-based producer, a black woman from Hampton, Virginia whose brother had gone to VCU, and she had ended up as an HBO producer, moved to Paris, started her own production company and we’re her first client. So now she’s writing grants for us and raising money over there, so we can do a European sale and an American sale. It’s a whole weird new world for me, but we’ve just gotten so used to doing things on the fly that we say, Ok, we’ve got seven thousand dollars now—that means we can go to Montgomery and take another trip to somewhere else, or have a symposium, or you know, whatever it is. In fact, I’ll do a little show and tell. The most recent thing that I did in this kind of fundraising effort was write an uplifting article for the Brandeis alumni magazine about how wonderful it was that these two alums had gotten together to make this movie.
Q: And by the way, if you want help us out…
LB: Well, I mean what we’re using it for now, is when Yvonne Anderson in Paris is meeting with backers, she can give them copies of a very glossy-looking, folksily-written article. The article was created solely for fundraising purposes. It’s a little weird, but you know you have to do weird things when you’re trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars bit by bit.
Q: Are you shooting all of this on digital?
LB: Mm hmm.
Q: I was just wondering about a lot of the images that you were using. I guess, how much of that money is going for paying for copyrights?
LB: Well, when you make a promo like this, you don’t worry about copyright, but when it does come to copyright, and dubbing, it’s going to cost us like a hundred thousand dollars to go from a sixty-minute rough cut, or a ninety-minute rough cut, even, to something with copyright, music that’s written for us. We’ve got a great music producer.
Q: What about the images?
LB: The images—that’s going to be more money. It’s all part of that hundred thousand, but, you know—like the great clip of the Clint Eastwood interview? That’s going to cost us a lot of money.
Q: And the part of the movie you use…the part of The Outlaw Josey Wales…
LB: Mm hmm. That’s going to cost, too, but once we have the rough cut, we can sell it. So…
Q: Did Eastwood direct Outlaw Josey Wales?
LB: Mm hmm.
Q: What about the old footage of Asa Carter? How did you come by that? Was that expensive?
LB: Well, the expensive thing was that it was on a form of tape—I can’t even remember what—it was like inch and a half to— you know, some weird form that was used in, you know, 1969 and 1970, and never before or since. We got it from Alabama, and then we had to search all over New York to find a place that could transfer it. Because these machines were almost completely unknown—briefly used, and then never again. We’re going back to Montgomery in March, and one of the things we’re going to do is more archival research to just fill in the gaps.
Q: Is that kind of archival footage much cheaper to get?
LB: Yeah—depending on where you get it from. But you know, the Clint Eastwood footage, that’s going to be very expensive. That’s going to be our biggest . . . .
Q: The people that you interview, how much background do you give them? Do you explain to them what the whole project is like, and then do they sign a waiver, or, I mean . . . ?
LB: They do sign something. The thing that’s been the trickiest with all that—the people we interview, we hang out with them a lot. Usually I hang out with them a lot, because I do most of the interview. And with Asa’s brother, I talked to him for a full year before he would even agree to be recorded on audio tape. When I was going down last fall to interview, you know, I had to rent this special DAT recorder from some godforsaken corner of Midlothian. And Michael [Keller] gave me a digital recorder, just as a backup. Finally, finally went down, spent a day talking to him, and after eight minutes the DAT recorder failed, and didn’t realize it until months later, because we didn’t have anything to listen to the tape on. So luckily Michael’s tape worked, and that’s what we’re going to use.
But—Asa’s brother, you know, when I talk to him—I want to be as sympathetic as possible. His beliefs are not my beliefs. You know, I think he’s come a long way, but he still comes, as he says—he’ll be the first one to say—he comes out of small town Alabama, in the 30s and 40s, when white supremacy was what everyone believed in. And so we’ll, you know, we’ll talk about that. You build some very interesting relationships, doing this kind of work.
Q: Have any of the—your interviewees seen the promo yet?
LB: Some of them have. Wayne Greenhaw has, and I think we sent one to a couple of other people, and we’ll send most everyone a copy of the rough cut.
Q: Has the response been positive?
LB: Very positive so far. And one of the reasons that we’re trying to step on it and move the project forward as quickly as we can now, is we’re getting started on a new documentary about wounded women veterans. And we want to be able to have this one under our belts and sold before we start the next project, so we can have, you know, again, more credibility fundraising. That’s all I’m talking about now is money, money, money—but that’s what you end up talking about, because that’s such a big part of it.
Q: Did you say that HBO—did they—have they already invested some?
LB: No one’s invested anything yet, they all said when you have . . .
Q: We’re interested when you have—come back—so you have no strings at this point?
LB: No strings.
Q: No first refusal or anything like that?
LB: No. I mean, one company said, “When you need the last hundred thousand, come to us.” Which we might do, but there might be strings. That’s a tricky one to finesse, so we’re still living on grants, bit by bit.
Any other questions? Yeah…
Q: . . . go through this whole thing, are you more apt to do it again?
LB: Oh, yeah.
Q: The second thing is, is that, are you now looking to do things that are research-oriented that are actually strict “write for film” and not a book?
LB: Well, this new project I’m working on—about wounded female soldiers who come back from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars—I started off thinking of that as a book of photo essays and oral histories that I’m working on with a photographer friend. And I mentioned it to Douglas, and he said we’ve got to just get a film crew there and do it as a documentary as well.
You know, we just got this idea in late October, and we’ve already written three grants and hooked up with these Armed Forces Foundation people, and you know, we’re moving ahead with it, because I think it’s a topic that has a lot of steam at this particular moment. And I’ve got to say, I mean, there is something—I mean, it sounds horrible, but—there is something that’s very refreshing about your work just being chatting to people and riding around in a mini-van, you know, along these back roads looking for B-roll possibilities. It’s such a nice break from that other kind of intense research-focused, single-author project. Everyone does their bit, and then editor takes it and makes it all look great. It’s nice that way; it’s a relief. So, yeah, I could absolutely see moving in that direction for a while.