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Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. The Revisionaries is now playing in select cities. New Yorkers, see it this weekend at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.
Tribeca: How do you describe the movie in your own words?
Scott Thurman: The Revisionaries is a story about a small town dentist who chairs the Texas Board of Education and the complexities of a creationist worldview applied to 21st Century politics and education.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Do you have a background in education? Or politics?
Scott Thurman: I had a fun and unpredictable 5th grade science teacher named Jerry Keller who made a big impression on me, but the specific event that inspired The Revisionaries was an article in The New York Times titled, “Put a Little Science in Your Life.” After reading the article by Brian Greene, I started looking for an engaged, and slightly nutty science teacher like Jerry, to address some of the thoughts and concerns about science education raised in the article. For the short portrait, I intended to follow the teacher’s classroom instruction on evolution paralleled with more personal conversations about the role that science can play in giving context and meaning to our everyday lives.
After most school administrators blocked my access to the classroom due to the controversial nature of the issue, teachers turned my attention to the debates happening on the State Board of Education. I started filming at board meetings during the science standards review process, but stayed interested in finding a science teacher for the “face” of the film. Eventually I found the conversations and character traits I was looking for in Don McLeroy and Ron Wetherington, while two other main characters, Cynthia Dunbar and Kathy Miller, were developed as we took a closer look at the political strategies employed in the process of determining Texas’ educational standards.
Tribeca: How did you approach your subjects? Were they immediately willing to talk with you?
Scott Thurman: Board members were generally more difficult to gain access to than educators and political activists, but I think Don and Cynthia eventually opened up to me once they saw that I was continuing to film at board meetings long after news cameras fled for the day. I’d continue to wait around after meetings to introduce myself to board members, who usually agreed to be interviewed at a later point once I explained my intent for the documentary.
Over the first 6 months, I did about 30 interviews, gathering expository information about the political process, while getting my foot in the door to film more observationally with a selected few at work. Although most of those interviews were not used in the final cut, they helped to determine the best characters to explore further in the film.
I was given more access to Don and Cynthia throughout the following year, as I continued to explain my views and purpose for filming. Eventually, I earned their trust enough to have been given permission to follow them in their homes and at church.
Tribeca: It feels very much like a “breaking news” movie, in a good way. It’s totally relevant. You present both sides of the evolution/creationism argument in your film, and you don’t tell the audience what to think. How do you view the documentarian’s responsibility when it comes to being objective? How do you feel your role differs from that of a journalist?
Scott Thurman: The Revisionaries does have certain journalistic qualities, such as “presenting both sides” of the political debate, but I don’t think documentarians should be limited to a particular type of storytelling “language” or the same code of ethics that journalists abide by. There are multiple aspects of the truth that can be reached through various modes of filmmaking, and I hope audiences understand and appreciate that going into any documentary. However, I still think documentarians should strive for more accurate representations of reality within any given framework.
Tribeca: I predict this movie will totally fire people up. (It certainly did me.) What do you want audiences to take away from your film? Are there action steps they can take?
Scott Thurman: Although we don’t advertise any specific action steps, we hope the film motivates audiences throughout the country to become more aware of the public school standards in their own state and understand the importance of participating in state board of education elections.
Tribeca: Did you always know you wanted to direct? As a first-time filmmaker, what’s the biggest lesson you took from the experience? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Scott Thurman: I didn’t think I’d be directing films, but I always drifted around the visual arts. After high school, I learned the basics of shooting with video and digital editing at a junior college while working in the news. Later, I learned better lighting techniques and more conceptual approaches to subject matter as I focused on photography and printmaking in undergrad. Immediately after that, I started a masters program covering the academic and technical aspects of documentary film production, while developing my thesis project, which became The Revisionaries.
Along the way, I was going to be an actor, music video editor, graphic designer, conceptual artist, and photojournalist, but changed course for various reasons. I realize now that every one of those pursuits packed me with skills I used throughout the making of The Revisionaries. So, my advice to aspiring filmmakers would be to learn about and explore multiple interests outside of filmmaking, because your films are going to develop from the palimpsest of your experiences.
Tribeca: What makes The Revisionaries a must-see?
Scott Thurman: The Revisionaries is a very important and timely film about the politics of education. I hope the creative director at Tribeca, Geoff Gilmore, won’t mind if we mention that he’s stated, “It’s such an intriguing point-of-view with the Christian right-wingers.” In an election year, what could be more important than learning more about a major battleground in the American Culture Wars?
Scott Thurman worked as a news photographer for four years and has produced three short films, including Smokey , which screened at AFI Dallas and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Scott originally conceived of a documentary film about the Texas Board of Education for his thesis at the University of North Texas.
Watch the trailer: