Interview: Director Peter Cousens of “Freedom”

Posted on June 9, 2015 at 3:41 pm

Freedom” interweaves two stories of slavery. In one, an enslaved family led by Samuel (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) escapes via the Underground Railroad. In the other, set a century earlier, John Newton, the captain of a slave trader sails from Africa with a cargo of slaves, bound for America. On board is Samuel’s great grandfather whose survival is tied to the fate of Captain Newton. This portion of the story is based on the real-life captain who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Director Peter Cousens talked to me about the film, and I  began by asking him about the significant role played by music.

The music is certainly an important part kind of the kind of content for the film. It took a little bit of a while to massage the script and the story to make sense of these songs so that they came organically either out of the character’s kind of world or it just by chance within the storytelling.  Obviously, some of the choices were scripted and sometimes we found other choices. Some of the music is a little bit anachronistic and not necessarily of the period but seemed to make sense with the story. And then the music for me that is probably the emotional heart of the film.  “Amazing Grace,” which eventually get into full flight at the very end, obviously.

The other songs for me sort of become the emotional road to freedom. Being a singer myself, I understand that music is enormously releasing emotionally and psychologically releasing. The music sort of plays a kind of megaphone.  As the songs become more and more kind of uplifting, when Samuel finally discovers his voice and is able to sing “Amazing Grace,” it’s really about him finally finding true freedom and it is expressed through the opportunity to sing.  That for me is kind of metaphorically just happening throughout the film as he discovers his voice, he discovers his heart.

How did you approach telling two stories from two different time periods and in two different locations, keeping it all as one organic whole?

Initially in the script there was no real connection between these stories so I had to try and work out how we could do that. The central notion of that Bible and the boy became a connector to the two stories.  But dealing with the two periods, especially for a small independent film, it was challenging, discovering how to create part of England, the Atlantic Ocean, a journey to Richmond, Virginia, all in Connecticut. I was lucky I had a really great designer and costume designer and director of photography and locations manager to kind of discover how we could actually create those two worlds. And she has challenges as you could imagine with the costume in those periods and just creating and finding ways. For instance at Mystic Harbor in Connecticut we shot in one direction just to create a particular harbor in West Africa.  And then we just turned the camera around the next day and faced it the other way and created Charleston in Carolina. Those sorts of great cinematographer choices, that sort of trickery is kind of a way of solving some of these problems which were many.  But I find with working with Americans in particular nothing is really impossible. If you ever were to be marooned on a desert island, get marooned with an independent film crew and you will survive.

My favorite scene in the film was the stop on the Underground Railroad with the theatrical troupe.  It reminded me of the Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby.

When I was a younger actor I actually had the good fortune of performing in the eight-hour theatrical version of “Nicholas Nickleby.”  I played Lord Verisopht and my wife played Fanny Squeers and Miss Petowker.   It’s a favourite of mine and when I was doing this film the Crummles and that notion of Nicholas Nickleby was very present in mind as well.  That sort of heightened actory campery that goes on in a troop like that.  To me that as quite fun just directing those scenes obviously. So I’m glad you made that reference that was certainly in my head as well.

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