A conversation with Pamela Roberts about Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel


Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel engages leading historians, biographers and personal friends to reveal a complex woman who experienced profound identity shifts during her life and struggled with the two great issues of her day: the changing role of women and the liberation of African Americans. A charismatic force until a tragic accident lead to her death at age 48, Mitchell rebelled against the stifling social restrictions placed on women: as an unconventional tomboy, a defiant debutante, a brazen flapper,one of Georgia’s first female newspaper reporters, and, later, as a philanthropist who risked her life to fund African American education. Emmy®-winning executive producer/writer Pamela Roberts uses reenactments based on Mitchell’s personal letters and journals to show how her upbringing and romantic relationships influenced the creation of Gone With the Wind. The film also explores Scarlett and Rhett’s place as two of the world’s greatest lovers and the public’s initial reception to the book and David O. Selznick’s 1939 epic film – from racial lightning rod to model for survival. 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize win for the only book published during her lifetime and Gone With the Wind’s lasting popularity seems permanently etched in the American cultural landscape.

Bijan Tehrani: I think that every filmmaker has a personal reason for making a film, what was your personal reason for making Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel?
Pamela Roberts: You’re absolutely right; there was a personal reason for making this. It had to do with the fact that, four years ago, I got a call from one of the people in the documentary about Joe Johnson who had gone to Morehouse College in Atlanta and he said, “Mrs. Roberts, do you know anything about the fact that Margaret Mitchell secretly funded the education of African American doctors during one of the most racially dangerous times in the south—in the 40s.” And I said, “No”—I had no Idea and that is where it all began. All of a sudden I was learning about this person that I had never thought about; I knew she had written Gone with the Wind and I had loved the movie, so I started looking into her and I saw she had led a secret life to educate African American doctors. She had done a lot of other things that frankly, I did not have time to put in the documentary, but the starting point was my interest in basically this secret life of Margaret Mitchell and she did such good for the world and wanted no one to know about it. For me, it was a huge process of discovery about her working backwards, and eventually I realized that I am going to have to learn more about the book that she wrote and actually read it—which I did and I liked it a great deal—but yes, you are absolutely right; there is a personal passion that you have to have when you do a project like this.

BT: An interesting perspective on the film was that they both did well internationally. I remember when I was kid, my mom in Iran saw the film and then read the book—she was one of the few educated women of her age, and they all wanted to be Scarlett and, interestingly enough, there was this Clark Gable look alike actor who became the most important actor in the history of Iranian films. For several decades, he was playing parts that all resembled Gable. What do you think was the secret behind the international success of this book and film, which was mainly known as a Civil War story?
PR: That is such an interesting issue, and that is another thing that just got me fascinated! I found out that the book is constantly being published in new editions around the world, and in fact there are two new Iranian editions that came out while I was making the documentary. One of the things that I will say is that there is a man named John Wiley who collects all of these editions and he is featured in the documentary. He personally owns about 800 of the thousands editions that have come out of Gone with the Wind. My sense is that Gone with the Wind operates on many levels, and that is what makes it an enduring classic novel as well as a great story. Certainly what seems to be the case in terms of how people around the world feel about it is the fact that these characters are not just fighting for their own existence on a very deep level, they have to come up with new ways of surviving, and that is a metaphor for peoples’ own situations, which can be very difficult. Scarlett was a liberated woman and had eventually changed from being this beauty to becoming this person who took care of everybody and you may not like her—you may think she is too tough, too mean and that she does not care about people—but she had to be that way in some aspects in order to survive and to be sure that her people survive. So, when people are dealing with issues around the world in the decades since Gone with the Wind has been published, that seems to be the inspiration for them. There is a person there in a very small corner of the world named Scarlett O’Hara, and there is a person named Butler who shows us how we can be to get out of our own situation. One thing too that is so cool is that I discovered that, in a lot of prisons, the book was read secretly and passed around among prisoners, especially war prisoners, and there are so many great stories about how the book was divided into many sections and how different prisoners would have different sections and they would come together and share the reading of it. The book almost became an anthem for the survival of people; so on one hand you have this book appealing to average folks who just want to see a great love story, and there is that other aspect. Margaret Mitchell did not intend that, she was fascinated by that and had no clue that that would be the case. All of that international distribution and publishing took off and in her own life she was overwhelmed. In fact, the publisher at the time was McMillan and McMillan could not believe the international interest, so McMillan washed his hands and said that we could not deal with this because it was too much. What also happened during World War II that was very upsetting to Margaret Mitchell is that the publishers in these different countries would begin to disappear. In the Soviet Union, they would suddenly not be there anymore; they had been in contact with her, writing her to keep her posted about what is going on and how the sales of the book were going and—suddenly—they are gone; they are killed or they are imprisoned because of Gone with the Wind, and suddenly she realizes that this was so serious and very devastating to her. So actually, along with the great glory and accomplishment, there was this side that became a real burden about having written Gone with the Wind.

BT: Did you work with any other creative members when it came to composing the screenplay?
PR: You know, that is interesting because I didn’t actually. Certainly my re-enactment director Kathy White, we would talk about details before we would shoot the re-enactment and find out what we were going for, but I had to come up with the re-enactment and they we would hone them so they would be much better. I could not have done this film by myself, there is no way. My editors, Charlene Fisk and my Director of Photography Kevan Ward, we became kind of a foursome who deeply cared about what was going on with the project and all aspects of it. I consider them my main creative team but I did not get much writing help. We would try things and then I would go back and rewrite if things did not work, and so forth. I did a lot of rewriting, and that was just how it worked out for us.

BT: So the rewriting happened during production?
PR:  Yes, so we were shooting re-enactments and doing interviews and gathering all of that archival material, but we would try rough cuts of sections of it and see if it was working or not. I would then go back and re-write sections that did not work and it was a constant process of evolution. It took us a year and half to do this project. The first interview was in 2010, and the project aired for us just locally in the middle of 2011; the date was June 30th and that was the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind’s publication so we aired it.

BT: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
PR:  I had divergent opinions about Margaret Mitchell and I had to weigh the evidence for myself because some of the biographers were really at odds with each other, and some of the Mitchell historians felt that I should not tell the race story. The race story was the story that was the most controversial and, for me, it was key—this was why I did the project. I found out that, at one point, Margaret Mitchell had refused to be in class at Smith College with a black student. She then wrote a book that was racially very controversial, then by the end of her life and career she is doing things that are very different and I felt that I had to tell the truth about it. I had a lot of push back from people saying, “Why don’t you just celebrate who this person is rather than making her look bad?” But, you know, I could not do that. We had to share what we thought and what we discovered; what the truth was. Some of the viewers did not like it; we love Margaret Mitchell we love Gone with the Wind, so we don’t like to see this kind of critic, but to me that made her more interesting. All of us have a journey of discovery, and hers was in that particular field of race because she was a product of her environment and she grew. That was the great thing about her, that she grew and she changed, and so there is nothing to be ashamed of. You can surmount your cultural context and say, “Hey, I can think differently from how everyone else around me does.” I think it is a great thing and I had some of the biographers who really took umbrage at what I was doing.

BT: When you go about recreating the life of the subject of the film. It is always a big risk; how did you go about this?
PR: What was great is that we had access to Margaret Mitchell’s letters and her journals, so basically all of the re-enactments come from her words and that gave me the courage to do the re-enactments. It is very hard to make something out of nothing and, in this case, I would analyze what she said and then I would talk it over with various experts. I would read biographies and look at their take on that particular point in her life, and from there, sit down and pen that re-enactment. Then I would take those to Kathy White and team and they would say, “Okay, this is working.” They would challenge me, and we would agreed to disagree, and one of the things that Kathy White contributed was making sure that we were never making something that was not believable, that we were never overstating or making it too slick or something like that, you know. We don’t show the faces too much or much of the people in general, so the re-enactments are more suggestive of the people. That seemed to work very well within the context of this kind of program.

BT: It’s always hard for a producer/director to work with another producer/director? How was it working with Kathy?
PR: She was great to work with and she was tough, but she made my job easier because I can play the good cop and she agreed to play the bad cop. We would get in there together and we would have my script, and the crew would come in and she would be really tough on what we were going for and uncompromising. They would all look at me like, “Are we really supposed to do what she says?” Because this team had never done this level of re-enactment, and I said, “Absolutely, she is our expert!” I asked her completely so she would look at me and give me certain look, and we would keep going and, by the time the crew had been with her for a few shoots they came to me and they said, “We understand now why you backed her, she is great.” She had done re-enactment directing before for the American Experience and NOVA, so she knew that she had to be really authentic and uncompromising, and I attribute the look and believability mostly to her. But, in terms of us together, we had a great truth with each other and we were also playful, so we were just together by ourselves we would play with the idea and laugh and we would also make it fun. Then we would get on set and she became the tough minded director, but they did not see that for a while until they got to know her, so it was really a great experience. I’d work again with her in a heartbeat; in fact we are trying to do some other things together now, so it was great.

BT: I know that your DP has his own style through the films that he has shot, how did you work with him to get the visual style that you wanted?
PR: It was very interesting because Kevin came to me and said, “I do not want to use the cameras we have here in house.” They were Sony 700s and they were more HD cameras that were very expensive, but they did not give us what we wanted, which was a filmic look. So he said that we should use DSLRs, which are interchangeable with lenses and that would give us a more filmic look for the re-enactments, so we did that. We wanted the re-enactments to have a different kind of look to them, so when we look at the re-enactments, we know that we are sort of in that dream world. That was a fantastic decision and that is something that we figured out before we started shooting that we wanted to have that different look, and this was all Kevin’s idea. He was a huge contributor and he was very instrumental. He used unusual angles and he would go to any length to get the shot that was not boring, and every shot had a purpose to it. He worked very closely with Kathy on the set and she would communicate about what she wanted, so they worked great together, and all of us came together to work on the overall look of the project.

BT: After watching your film, I wanted to read the book again. Do you think viewers will see the book in a different light after watching your film?
PR: I really hope so. We know that it is a great, big, fat book and very seldom is it used in colleges, high schools or literature classes. First of all, it is so big and its too long for that kind of reading, and it is controversial in some senses. Is it literature? People have always asked that question, but what I know from own experience is that I knew the movie, but I did not know the book. When I read the book, I realized that there is greater depth to the book than there could ever be with the movie. I think that, by drawing people back to the book, it will give freshness to it because people do not read the book as much anymore. People are more familiar with the movie, and that is the trend in our culture and society; people are very visually oriented, and reading is a very important factor for all of us and it goes deep within ourselves for the process. I hope that this film will help us get back to the book.

BT: Any new projects lined up?
PR: I can’t talk about my next one, but I do have one—actually two; one is about an artist, and one is a great figure in American history.
BT: Thank you for your time, and good luck!

Watch Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel on Monday, April 2 from 9-10 pm on PBS.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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