Photo: Two Trains Runnin' - Buddy Guy
Two Trains Runnin’ is about the search for two forgotten blues singers, set in Mississippi during the height of the American civil rights movement. Directed by Sam Pollard, narrated by Common, and featuring the music of Gary Clark Jr.
Interview with Writer Benjamin Hedin
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Benjamin Hedin: Initially, because the story is so fantastic—and has never been told before. Two groups of young blues enthusiasts who go to Mississippi the same week, each unbeknownst to the other, in the hope of locating a great, lost blues singer from the time of the Great Depression—and they get thrown into the storm of the civil rights movement.
Eventually these two stories collide, and as they do they reveal quite a bit about American history and the American character. And that was another reason why we made it: the longer we worked on the film, the more relevant and timely it became. An eerie feeling. Voting rights, police brutality, the value of black life: all of the central questions of our film are once again at the forefront of American conversation and our endless, agonizing quest to understand our history.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Two Trains will open up a dimension of history you might be unfamiliar with and can certainly help you to understand the present moment better. Plus there’s some of the best music you will ever hear. Even if you think you know the blues, chances are you probably don’t know this.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
I don’t wish to generalize too broadly, but it would be interesting to watch the movie with this question in mind and then reflect on how the answer is different for the white characters and for the African Americans. The white members of the cast can say: we were part of this waking up to black culture that occurred in the 1960s. Nowadays everyone says the blues is America’s greatest gift to world culture—but nobody thought that before the time of our movie.
And in the civil rights movement something similar happened. American democracy is just a joke—a bunch of words without any corroborative reality—until the movement. In the voting rights movement in Mississippi in 1960s all the staples of a democracy—voting, the nuance of elections, the debt we have to our fellow citizen—is pondered and reinvented.
This is not something that white American can lay claim to. It is a legacy and a contribution that belongs squarely to African Americans.
The whites in the film, then, testify to this recognition. But the members of the movement who participated in the doc have a different mind, I think—though I am hesitant to speak for them. Because the civil rights movement never really ended.
So many of the problems persist, and the kind of recognition that I referenced above needs to occur again. And how do we do that? Not an easy question, but the movie puts it squarely in front of you.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production?
Emphases change; beloved things drop out. That’s essentially what happens. Something we thought was a major part of the story going into postproduction ends up getting totally wiped out, and then an interview snippet or a song performance—we filmed the most amazing music for this doc, have hours of footage of Gary Clark Jr., Lucinda Williams, many others performing—that's so interesting and vital just cannot be accommodated.
It’s heartbreaking but also a measure, I think, of your maturity as a writer or filmmaker that you understand this has to be done from time to time.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The movie has screened only a handful of times but has been received very favorably at festivals.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
The audience feedback is gratifying and confirms our belief that Two Trains Runnin’ is a worthwhile and valuable project; there’s better way to spend 80 minutes of your time.
Conversations with sales agents and distributors, on the other hand, confirm what everyone else working in independent film already knows: it is very hard to sell a documentary, historical documentaries in particular. There are so many reasons for this and inevitably one develops a sort of defense against frustration and despondency.
Someone may well love everything about your film but still not feel it is right for their brand, or they recently took on a film with similar subject matter, and on and on. On the other side, it only takes 1 for the match to occur.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
We hope to enlarge our audience and are grateful for the platform.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
We are seeking distribution. All territories are available, and so sales agents and distributors are welcome to get in touch with us. We are very pleased with preliminary media coverage, with pieces about the film in The Root, for example, and on Oklahoma and North Carolina Public Radio, and there’s an episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast on the film that will drop once we have secured distribution.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
We hope the film has a tangible effect on the audience member’s life: that afterwards they buy an album by Son House or a book on the civil rights movement or attend a rally. That kind of thing. Later this fall there will be screenings in North Carolina to accompany voter registration events and we are excited about that.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
When it comes to race, it often seems as if in the past fifty years everything in America has changed—and nothing has. What is one to do with that contradiction; how can we make sense of it?
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Sam Pollard is directing a PBS American Masters episode about Sammy Davis, Jr.; Dava Whisenant is directing a bold and funny and heartbreaking documentary about a little-known facet of 20th century American music, industrial musicals; and I am writing a novel.
Interview: June 2016
Two Trains Runnin'
Length: 79 minutes
Director: Sam Pollard
Producers: Benjamin Hedin, Dava Whisenant
Executive Producers: Common, Derek Dudley
Writer: Benjamin Hedin
About the writer, director and producer:
Director: Sam Pollard is an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-Award winning filmmaker, the producer of the HBO docs When The Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls and the director of Slavery By Another Name, August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, and two episodes of the pioneering series Eyes on the Prize.
Producer and Writer: Benjamin Hedin has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Nation and other publications; he is the editor of Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader and the author of In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now.
Co-producer and Editor: Dava Whisenant is the editor of Learning to Live with Myself, the PBS documentary about Merle Haggard, Under the Electric Sky, as well as several other documentaries and television specials. She is also the director of a forthcoming documentary The Industrial Musicals Movie.
Key cast: Common, Gary Clark Jr., Lucinda Williams, Buddy Guy, Valerie June, North Mississippi Allstars
Looking for: sales agents, distributors, film festival directors
Funders: Hundreds of individuals via nonprofit donations made to fiscal sponsor
Made in association with: Avalon Films In Association with Freedom Road Productions
Release date: TBD
Where can I watch it? At film festivals: check www.twotrainsrunnin.com/watchthefilm
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series and music video. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela