Interview: Director Peter Cousens talks ‘Freedom’

Slavery is obviously a very tough issue to tackle on film. It’s a truly unfortunate thing that exists and whenever it’s brought up, people tend to be repelled. The new film Freedom, however, doesn’t repel. In fact, it is powerful story that shines a light on slavey but is more a story about people and the overcoming of certain obstacles. Director Peter Cousens was kind enough to speak with me and give an inside look at the Cuba Gooding Jr. drama. Here’s how it went:

So I just watched the film. Very, very good. How did the project originally come about?

Well, like all projects, you know, something just turns up, and in this case, the investor was handed this script, and he handed it over to me. He and I had been in business together producing some musicals in Australia, and we had talked about wanting to move into film because we had stories we wanted to tell and a view of the world that we shared. So this just turned up, and he handed it to me and said, “Have a look at this,” and it was intriguing insofar as the concept of the music and the storytelling was so integral to it. It was kind of weird, in a way. I hadn’t really seen this done on film too often, coupled with the African-American story inside it, the politics of that as well, and obviously then that we sat down and looked at it and worked on it. And the script evolved quite dramatically as time went on, and yeah, we just decided to make the film. It seemed like a much easier place to make it, in America rather than Australia because of the nature of the story, but also the nature of the filmmaking. Independent filmmaking, the world out of there is so capable and so welcoming and so, you know, vibrant that you come to the East Coast, but you know, I just fell into and was at home very quickly with a fantastic group of really clever people, and everyone collaborated. We all call it the “common vision,” and off we went. And we filmed the thing in 25 days.

Really?

Yeah, that was the actual, the amount of time we had to roll camera. So yeah, I’m very proud of, given the restrictions of time and budget and all sorts of things that make up an independent film, that yeah, I’m glad you liked the film.

Of course! Now, it must have been very difficult, dealing with such sensitive topics as slavery. What was that like?

Well, it was pretty odd, isn’t it, for white boys in Sydney. You’re telling a story which, you know, I had to learn a lot about on the job because when I first, you know, what attracted me to the story was literally the story and the music and not so much the politics. But once I got inside the story and we searched and read and talked and shared with the actors and the crew, it obviously became something which has changed my life. I’m now heavily involved in bringing awareness to human trafficking around the world, it’s very much a part of my, a lot of my charity work revolves around that, so it certainly, you know, it wasn’t specifically African-American politics but certainly the politics of slavery that the film stood on the side of doing something about. But the actual specifics of the African-American policy is fascinating, and people like Cuba, you know, has a particular view because of what he has achieved and where he is. And then the other side of that, you have other African-American actors or amongst the extras or the crew who had a different life experience, and therefore their view of politics of being black in America is quite different. So it wasn’t a minefield, but the sensitivity to it was something I discovered and was very nourished by the experience.

That’s great. So was there a consultant on the film to help with the historical props and costumes?

No, I had – my background is certainly in theater. I’ve done a lot of period work, so having an eye for detail or at least being able to make choices based on what the prop designers and costume designers and production designer is bringing to me. We did a fair bit of research and looking at images and books that can show me that I’m on the same page with the period. But also having a great costume designer in Ciera Wells and Steven Legler, production design, they had a great sensitivity to the period, and you know, they borrow and steal time too, isn’t it, with an independent film, and again, you know, I’m really proud of what we all achieved or what they brought to the table, that period which is so difficult to pull off for an independent film crew. But yeah, again, I think what happened with the film, we all got very passionate about it. We worked much harder than we were paid for it, so the film sort of took on its own life and generated and motivated us to do as best we could with the results that we had. So that was part of the result of, there’s a lot of love inside the film.

Yeah, yeah, I could definitely see that. Obviously, music is very important to you. There are some strong musical moments in the film. Were those actual slave songs in the film?

You know, some of them are, obviously things like “Swing Low” and “The City Called Heaven,” for instance. They came out of that. And then there’s a whole range of those slave gospel songs about what they meant and what they were.

How did you end up working with Cuba Gooding Jr.?

Cuba came on very early, and he was just someone we, again with a bit of chutzpah, we just rang his agent, and he was on-board, like, straight away. But again, fascinated by the concept, fascinated with the challenge that possibly he was going to be asked to sing on camera. It was an amusing, if not, you know, interesting challenge for him, which I don’t think he’d done before. So yeah, Cuba came on-board very early and very generously. He was filming The Butler just before. We had to hold up our production two weeks, they had a cyclone down in New Orleans, and it just held up what he was doing on that film. He came straight to us from The Butler. He was great, I mean, he was completely engaged with the film. He was very, very generous with me, particularly in post-production. You know, he introduced me to Lee Daniels, and Lee watched some of the rough cut of the film. Again, Cuba has just a generous collaborative approach to the film, and you know, he had a good time and I had a good time with him, so it was great to see that, you know, from someone of his stature, really getting involved.

How did you discover Jubilant Sykes?

He came really from the very original script. He was attached to the film I think even during the writing of it, and he was just, I think that the writer had connected with jubilant very early on. When I got to Los Angeles and started casting this and I was working as the producer as well on the film, he and I met and had lunch together because I didn’t know him. I wasn’t sure who he was or what he was about. As soon as I met him, he was just kind of ideal for the role and, you know, he’s a great presence in the film. It’s the first time he’s ever acted on film. I mean, he’s performed as a singer around the world, but he, for a first time actor, he was really quite wonderful.

Yeah, he definitely has a presence in the film. I definitely hope to see more of him.

Yeah, yeah, and the presence of that sort of vocal thing, the musical element, it’s kind of important and sets him apart, actually.

So tell me a little bit about the casting process. What do you look for in your actors?

In this case, you know, I was looking for a sense of period, whatever that means. It’s kind of an instinct thing, you know, and some actors are going to wear the costume and speak the language and have a sense of a period, even if it is kind of contrived. You sort of have a sense of what that is. I did most of the casting in New York and mostly, you know, from Broadway actors. They brought a particular sensibility to the casting process that I related to because I come from that theater world myself. But yeah, in this case again, I was looking for particular personalities that would bring some life to these characters. Some of the characters were well drawn, and others would really require an actor’s contribution, and that’s what I was looking for. Sometimes casting and the screen tests, actors sometimes solve problems in the casting process. Sometimes you have, you’re stumped. You stumble over what’s required, and then an actor walks in and they make it all clear and you find the answers.

That’s great. So what do you hope audiences take away from Freedom?

I hope they’ll be moved. I hope they’ll understand the notion of the music, that the music is a metaphor for freedom, the expression of music and singing, and the singing, which is what Cuba’s character Samuel sort of discovers at the very end and finds a voice, that freedom is part of that whole idea of being able to express not only who you are and a political freedom but also freedom of imagination, which is what for me singing kind of is. But look, I hope audiences are moved by it, they find the history interesting and they get a notion at the end of the film that there’s a connection between modern slavery and the fact that ordinary people during that time did extraordinary things, very brave, courageous things that saved a large number of African-American slaves, and the notion that the job hasn’t been finished. We still have 30 million slaves around the world, some of them in similar sorts of repression, and I hope that it kind of may be shocking, thinking, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

I’m curious, you definitely want to bring the civil rights to the forefront obviously around the world. Do you plan to screen this film overseas in places that have slavery as a problem?

Well, you know, it’s not, the slavery is a problem in America. There’s a slavery problem in Australia, you know, it’s, we can point toward some of the Asian, Chinese countries, Middle Eastern countries, certainly parts of Europe, particularly Middle-Eastern Europe, Greece. I mean, they will eventually, certainly the film has been sold to Europe and parts of South America and Asia where slavery is kind of rife and human trafficking. Every time there is a huge global event like the Olympic Games or the World Series or the soccer and football World Cups, you know, human trafficking people move in. And when there’s a natural disaster, like in Nepal with the earthquake, all those displaced people, the human trafficking people move in. So you know, the film I think belongs in many ways to first-world nations like ours because we’re the ones who can do something about it.

Well, I do hope that this film helps in some way. It’s definitely a great film with a great message, and I just want to thank you for giving us this film.

Oh, thanks so much. It was a real pleasure talking with you, and thanks for sharing those thoughts.

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