Offering an intimate and unflinching look at the journey of an incarcerated man’s final path to freedom, after he served a lengthy sentence, is a unique opportunity for filmmakers. Emmy Award-winning director, Madeleine Sackler, perfectly embraced that challenge of showcasing the difficulties that prisoners face as they’re set to reenter society after finishing their sentences in the new feature film, ‘O.G.’
Besides calling into question the disadvantages of the American prison system, especially for prisoners who are almost done with their sentences, ‘O.G.’ is also noteworthy for the fact that it was filmed on location at Indiana’s maximum-security Pendleton Correctional Facility. While directing and producing the feature, Sackler also helmed and produced a documentary, ‘It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It,’ at the state prison. The documentary was co-directed by 13 men incarcerated at Pendleton, who studied filmmaking as a vehicle to tell their own stories. Several of the prisoners were also cast as first-time actors in the feature.
‘O.G.’ is set to debut this Saturday, February 23 at 10pm on HBO, as well as on HBO Go and HBO Now. The prison-driven drama will then be released On Demand the following day, on Sunday, February 24. The official cable release comes after the movie had its world premiere during the US Narrative Competition section at last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where it won the award for Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film.
‘O.G.’ follows Louis (Jeffrey Wright), a maximum-security prison inmate on the cusp of release from a sentence he’s served for the last 24 years, after committing a violent crime as a young man. His impending release, after which he’ll face an uncertain future on the outside, is upended when he takes a newly incarcerated young man, Beecher (Theothus Carter), under his wing. Louis offers Beecher, who’s being courted by gang leadership, much needed-friendship.
Their new relationship isn’t without unfortunate complications, however. The younger inmate stirs instincts within Louis that had long been buried beneath a tough exterior. Coming to grips with the indelibility of his crime and the challenge of reentering society, Louis finds his freedom hanging in the balance as he struggles to save Beecher.
Sackler and Boyd Holbrook, who also starred in the drama, generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at The Roxy Hotel in New York to discuss directing, producing and starring in ‘O.G.’ during the Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the helmer and actor discussed that they were drawn to tell Louis’ story in a feature film, because American audiences rarely see movies about an older inmate getting ready to be released from prison, and these types of stories can help change society’s perception of the offenders. They also embraced the experience of premiering both ‘O.G.’ and ‘It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It’ at the Tribeca Film Festival, as they introduced audiences to the idea that inmates deserve the right to humanely integrate back into society following their release from prison.
The conversation began with Sackler explaining why she was interested in directing ‘O.G.’ “I had been to a prison for the first time in 2008. I went with a family; the young boy was six-years-old, and he was going to visit his father,” the director shared. She then admitted that “I was really struck by how normal that was for him…This was how he got to see his father. So I had seen the impact of how one person being incarcerated has on an entire family.”
Sackler also realized that she hasn’t “seen any films about an older inmate getting ready to be released from prison, and going back to his family, which has grown. I felt like that was an important part of the story to tell. But I also felt like it was important to come from somebody who was going through that experience themselves, and not from me,” she divulged.
“So I found a prison that would give me access to people who were going through that experience. That came about through men in a maximum security prison in Indiana, who were really open to collaborating together on writing, and ultimately acting in, that story,” the filmmaker added.
Holbrook then chimed in, emphasizing what Sackler was saying. “A lot of these prison movies are about cops getting the criminals…But this is a real prison story. What Madeleine has been able to do is create the most authentic experience of what it’s like to really be in a prison…(Louis) is a guy who’s served his time after being judged by a jury of his peers, and convicted,” the actor pointed out.
“You have to let somebody off at a certain point. He’s been locked in a cage for almost 25 years, so how much human growth has he had?,” Holbrook pointed out. “He now has to integrate back into a system that legally won’t give him a job because he’s a felon. So how’s that going to work out? I’m interested to see that, and that’s what Madeleine has made.”
The performer then further delved into what drew him into starring in ‘O.G.’ “There has to be an access point into a project, as an artist, that would make me decide to leave my family, and spend months working on a project. It has to be unique and important enough to do that. With this film, we’re talking about someone spending half of their life in prison…This is a very complex issue, and we’re trying to create a language for people to be able to talk about what’s going on,” he explained. “We’re a country that incarcerates double the amount of people of any other country. Showing things like that is the responsibility of an artist, in my opinion.”
Doing research into the subject of prisoners serving such lengthy prison sentences was something that was important to both Sackler and Holbrook. “Madeleine did about 100 hours of interviews, in order to extract the story,” the actor shared. “A lot of writers will write a screenplay about what they think happens. But what Madeleine and Stephen Belber did was actually speak to the prisoners, and extracte their experiences.” He added that he has “read a lot of screenplays, but the approach to this one couldn’t be more real.”
The helmer then shared that “Stephen and I went with Wolfgang (Held), our DP (Director of Photography), to the prison for a week the first time we visited. We did back-to-back interviews all day long. Stephen and I then did flushed out the story. He’s a fast writer, so he wrote the first draft in about six weeks,” she revealed. “The prison then set us up with more prisoners and internal affairs officers to speak with during that process.”
“We also did a conference call with all of the top gang leaders, just to check on everything,” Holbrook then chimed in. “We asked them if things were coherent and clear.”
“We also made sure it was okay with them that we were telling this story,” Sackler also divulged. “Once we were finished with the script, we then had to decide if it was good enough to make. We didn’t know, since we’re not incarcerated right now. So we went back to the prison for no other reason than to share the script.
“We did table readings and plot, dialogue and character workshops with about 30 or 40 men, and got their feedback. During the very first session, we knew we were okay…They were cracking up while they were reading what we had written. They were like, ‘How did you know this stuff? Did you serve time?,'” the filmmaker also disclosed. “But we were just so focused on listening to them during that first trip, and we took what sounded the most important to the men and put it into the script.”
Rather than shooting in a studio, where they could control the environment, the crew decided to film in Pendleton, in order to obtain a more genuine environment, Holbrook also divulged.
“To also have the prisoners read the scenes cold, without having ever read a script before, was amazing,” Sackler also admitted. “While they were reading the scenes, Stephen and I instantly knew that the story would work. You can’t recreate the way that they were reading the dialogue, and interacting with each other.”
Holbrook then praised the performance that Wright gave as Louis. “It’s outstanding because of that environment that we created. It facilitated a strong foundation for him. Jeffrey was there at the prison, and with these guys, everyday. If the prison would have allowed him to sleep there, he would have,” the actor revealed.
“I realized going into casting that if we made the film with as many men from the prison as possible, as well as a few incredible actors like Jeffrey, everyone would have had something to learn. That’s what I think made the movie,” Sackler disclosed.
The director then pointed out that the “criminal justice system is based on punishment, not rehabilitation. The court’s aren’t looking at people’s cases and asking, ‘What happened, and why? What can we do to help you make sure it will never happen again?'”
“So we’re seeing an astounding number of people going back to prison,” Holbrook also pointed out. “They’ve been tried by a jury of their peers and served their time, and that should be enough. Going to prison shouldn’t be the end of their life, and cause them suffering. So that’s why we’re trying to create a conversation about this topic…So Madeleine and I are working with the rest of the cast and crew to articulate the complexity of this situation. We’re artists who extend the medium of film to the public, and get them to engage.”
One of the first things that Sackler and the rest of the cast and crew said to the men who were both incarcerated, and work, at Pendleton, and featured in ‘O.G.,’ was “‘Guards are not guards, and inmates are not inmates. We’re here to do a job.’ In that moment, you could feel a sigh of relief from everyone, even the guards. They were able to keep their baggage at bay.” She added that “That was the overall feeling on the set. We were all there to collaborate as people to tell the same story, in the most realistic and true way possible.”
Filming on location at Pendleton was a bit complicated, at least on the logistical level, the filmmaker then admitted. “But on the creative level, it was very dynamic and open. We didn’t work with that many guards, since the story is told from Louis’ perspective, and he’s a prisoner.”
Sackler added that “Jeffrey did something really unprecedented in his performance. Most days that we were filming, we logistically all had to be together. That meant we were spending time with about 100 men who were serving time in prison, and there wasn’t any barriers between them and us,” she divulged. “There weren’t any trailers for Jeffrey and the rest of the professional actors. So that, along with the overall logistical obstacles, yielded creative opportunities, since we were all together.”
Holbrook also mentioned that “There was a lot of pressure for Jeffrey, to not only get his character right, but also be amongst these men, and serve their story…His performance is outstanding.”
The idea to cast Wright as Louis in ‘O.G.’ came about “halfway through the writing of the first draft. He was the first person I thought of for the role,” Sackler disclosed. “So I was very lucky in that regard. We passed along the script to him through a mutual friend that he and Stephen have, and I met him very shortly after that. We told him what we wanted to do in the prison, and I think that was very appealing to him.”
“Filming in a prison like this hasn’t really been done before,” Holbrook confessed. “From an actor’s point-of-view, it’s terrifying, but also very exciting, especially from Jeffrey’s point-of-view, I imagine. I think that’s what excited him about it.”
Sackler then delved into what the experience of screening ‘O.G.’ at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s been great to premiere here. We’ve been getting excellent feedback, especially about Jeffrey’s performance. We’re also cherishing the opportunity to premiere both ‘O.G.’ and ‘It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It’ here at Tribeca . I don’t think the festival has ever screened a feature and a documentary about the same subject during the same year. We’re curious to see people’s reactions of watching both films during the same festival. It’s been a wonderful experience we’ll never forget.”