Determinedly striving to achieve your long anticipated dreams can be a harrowing experience, particularly when you’re attempting to achieve long sought after goals that have appeared to be impossible. But the new independent musical drama ‘Freedom’ entrancingly proves that having enough perseverance to execute those goals can actually be an emotionally fulfilling experience. Australian theater, film and television actor Peter Cousens captivatingly accomplished his desire to transition into working behind the camera by making his feature film directing and producing debuts on the American drama, which was shot in Connecticut. The new helmer’s initial movie powerfully emphasizes how slaves in two different time periods in American history struggled to obtain their freedom, and therefore their happiness, even though that seemingly wasn’t an available option to them.
‘Freedom’ follows two men who are separated by 100 years, but are united in their search for freedom. In 1856, a slave, Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and his family escape from the Monroe Plantation near Richmond, Virginia. A secret network of ordinary people known as the Underground Railroad guide the family on their journey north to Canada. They are relentlessly pursued by the notorious slave hunter Plimpton (William Sadler). While also haunted by the unthinkable suffering he and his forbears have endured, Samuel is forced to decide between revenge or freedom.
100 years earlier, in 1748, John Newton (Bernhard Forcher) is the Captain of a slave trader ship that sails from Africa to America with a cargo of slaves. On board is Samuel’s great grandfather, whose survival is tied to the fate of Captain Newton. The voyage changes Newton’s life forever and he creates a legacy that will inspire Samuel and the lives of millions for generations to come.
Cousens generously took the time recently to talk about making his feature film directorial and producing debuts on ‘Freedom.’ Among other things, the actor turned filmmaker discussed how he was inspired to make his helming debut with the drama, as he was drawn to the characters’ emotional journey that screenwriter Timothy A. Chey crafted in both periods of the story, which is in part aided by the use of music and singing that chronicles the obstacles the slaves were forced to overcome; and how he enjoyed working with the drama’s American cast and crew on location in Connecticut, as they were driven by the possibility of success, and were willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new historical drama, ‘Freedom,’ which focuses on the continuous search for freedom for American slaves over a 100 year period. What was it about the script, which was written by Timothy A. Chey, and the characters’ continuous determination that convinced you take on helming the film?
Peter Cousens (PC): The fascination with the script for me was the use of the music inside the story-I found that to be intriguing. I come from a musical theater background, and I have also acted in films and on television. So the notion of having the songs inside this serious film that’s about slavery just seemed like a bizarre concept to me at first. Sometimes music can trivialize such a dramatic topic. So for me, it was about trying to find a way to incorporate the songs and music into the film, while still emphasizing the story.
I also wanted to realistically show this emotional journey, which the music helped do. The music serves as a metaphor for the blossoming of freedom in the main character’s heart. He then finally has the ability to open his mouth and sing, which for me, is the ultimate expression of freedom.
I was also attracted to the fact that this is a period film, as I love period pieces. I have performed in a lot of period pieces over the years. But it was a huge challenge to make this movie. My cinematographer (Dean Cundey) kept saying to me, “If only we were doing a film with five actors who are in a room, as that’s a much easier project to shoot.” This film had tall ships, actors who were playing slaves, horses and carriages and gunfights. We had to film everything in 25 days, which brought a lot of challenges.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you’re also an actor, how did your acting experience influence the way you approached casting, and subsequently directing, the cast in ‘Freedom,’ especially since you also played Seaton Cervisse in the drama?
PC: Acting with the cast on this film was great fun. We speak the same language, so they really loved that they could talk to me. Often times when you’re working with directors as an actor, you have to interpret what they say, because they see and look at things in a different way. When actors talk to each other, there’s a shared language that’s accessible and easy, so that was certainly an advantage for me.
For me, not only coming from being an actor on stage and in films, but also producing helped me discover that so much of directing is about taking on a leadership role. It’s about getting the clever people who are around you to collaborate with you on the vision you have. You have to make sure the vision is clear enough so that they understand it.
Also, particularly in this case, you have to inspire them with a passion for the story. We all felt that passion, which we needed to shoot the film in 25 days. It’s about the combination of collaboration, and being with the right people. You never know when you have the right people-you can only do things on instinct. You just hope your instincts are honed, and you can engage with each other in such a way that you can share a common belief and passion for something. On this film, I was lucky to be around a really great group of people.
SY: Besides directing ‘Freedom,’ you also served as one of the executive producers on the drama. Why did you decide to make your producing debut on the film? How did your helming and producing duties influence each other while you were filming?
PC: Well, if you’re ever marooned on a desert island, gather some independent filmmakers around you, because you’re sure to survive. In this case, producing and directing in an independent environment was so enlightening. The wonderful thing about the process, with American filmmakers in particular, is that they’re so welcoming and driven by the possibility of success.
In other cultures and countries, particularly where I come from, that notion of anything being possible is sometimes knocked down by a disbelief that these things can be achieved. But I found that while working with the American film crew, nothing was impossible, and everything was going to work. We found a way around whatever obstacle was placed in front of us. I was so relieved and excited by that attitude.
On the producing side of the film. I worked with a great producer, Michael Goodin, from Monolith Pictures, and he was instrumental in making a lot of things happen. The American East Coast sense of filmmaking is so well honed, and filmmakers there can make something out of nothing.
So for me, as a first-time director, it was nice to have a great mentor in cinematographer Dean Cundey, who worked on such films on ‘Jurassic Park,’ the ‘Back to the Future’ series and the original ‘Halloween.’ He’s this guy who has all of this experience, and we ended up loving working together. He and I are going to co-direct a film in the States, and he’s also working on a film that’s developing in Australia.
So this experience has been life-changing for me, in a way. I’m so grateful to have worked with people with such expertise, who could help me do the things I want to do.
SY: The film follows slave Samuel Woodward and his family as they escape from the Monroe Plantation near Richmond, Virginia in 1856. The story also shows Samuel’s great grandfather 100 years earlier in 1748, as he travels with John Newton, the Captain of a slave trader who sails from Africa to America with a cargo of slaves. Why do you feel it was important to showcase both stories? What was the overall process of chronicling both men’s stories?
PC: It was kind of tricky, since we split the story between the two characters. While two-thirds of the film features Cuba, it was still like we had two films. We shot one story right after the other. We had about 15 days to shoot Cuba’s story in the 1800s, and then we switched over to film everything on the ship in 10 days.
Obviously we had the divisions of period. A portion of the film was shot on location outdoors in the forests, amongst the trees, creeks and rivers. With the other period, there was soundstage work, and we were shooting on the ship for a majority of some days. So there were all those challenges we had to contend with, and Connecticut stood up to the challenge. It offered beautiful autumn weather. Though on the last day of shooting, which was in the middle of November, it started to snow.
The costumes were also amazing, and helped show the audience which period the story was taking place in. We had Ciera Wells serve as the costume designer on the film. We found some costumes from director Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander,’ which starred Russell Crowe, that we were able to use, and we also made made a lot of the slave costumes.
It was very much about creating unique looks for both stories. We even played around with the idea of changing the color in the two periods. So there were subtle differences in the way the stories look, in regards to the color.
Also, the film is a bit more staged, and has more of a musical element, in the 1700’s story. The character that Jubilant Sykes plays (Ozias) also slightly changed the form of the film. A lot of his scenes take place with him singing. That element was certainly different from the 1800s period.
But it took me a while to find a way to connect the two stories. It wasn’t until later that we came up with the idea of passing down the Bible through the generations, and then Samuel finally picks it up on the waterfall. Then the two stories were able to fully come together.
SY: The movie is (currently playing) in theaters, as well as on VOD and iTunes. Are you personally a fan of watching films On Demand? Why do you think the platform is beneficial for indie movies like ‘Freedom?’
PC: I would love if everyone could see this film in the cinema. But at the same time, I also think VOD is a fantastic distribution platform for independent films. I stream films all the time on my tablet and computer. It’s such a fascinating and new way to discover film and television.
So I think that over the next few years, there’s going to be so much product that’s going to come out on VOD. Hopefully it will inspire people to fell as though they can get their work seen, particularly since it’s a cheap platform to share content on. So I think this platform is going to be great for independent films.
Written by: Karen Benardello