A new prize-winning film with potential Academy Award appeal has a strong local connection.
Asheville-based multihyphenate Maryedith Burrell, whose experience includes work as a screenwriter, actor and educator, served as creative consultant on Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, a new documentary about the late nationally syndicated political columnist and author. The film opens Friday, Sept. 20, at Grail Moviehouse, where Burrell will be in attendance on opening night to participate in a post-screening Q&A.
Burrell met director Janice Engel in 1981, and the two have worked together on several projects, including the Discovery Channel documentaries The Road to Miss America (2000) and NYC Inside Out (2010). When Engel asked Burrell if she wanted to collaborate on a film about Ivins, she quickly accepted the offer.
“Molly helped me be a better citizen,” Burrell says. “For her, citizenship is a verb. It’s not ‘You’re born, you’re automatically a citizen.’ No — you’ve got to work at it. It’s beyond voting.”
Inspired by the 2010 play Red Hot Patriot, a one-woman show that opened with Kathleen Turner as Ivins, Engel began seeking funding for the film around 2012 and was told no one wanted to see a biodoc — especially about someone who was no longer living. Engel’s pursuit was years before 2018, when Won’t You Be My Neighbor and RBG became box office hits.
While the independent project allowed the filmmakers to craft the work they wanted without strings attached, Burrell says the crew went into business early on with the American Civil Liberties Union, to whom Ivins left a significant portion of her estate. Burrell feels that “creative consultant” is a fair catchall for her various roles in shepherding the film to completion and notes that the title helped simplify contracts and salary details.
“I did a little bit of everything on the project. You do whatever it takes. I line-produced a shoot in Austin, [Texas], I helped write some structures for the film, I did some PR, I raised completion funds — whatever needed to be done,” Burrell says. “The main thing with my job on this project was being another set of eyes for Janice and giving notes on all the cuts and suggestions for ways to go with the story.”
Indeed, finding a road into Ivins’ large life proved challenging. Burrell was tasked with going through the prolific writer, lecturer and frequent TV show guest’s existing written material, books and footage — which Engel dubbed “the mountain that is Molly.” Burrell combed through numerous editions of the same speech given at different times and locations, as well as interviews on C-SPAN, “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show.” Dedicated to telling Ivins’ story in her own words, Engel leaned on Burrell’s comedic background to edit Raise Hell for humor.
Once Burrell found the best version of a video snippet, obstacles occasionally arose. For example, Dan Rather, one of the film’s interview subjects, said the crew was clear to use any clip from “60 Minutes,” though CBS had other ideas. Navigating the various completion funds to license footage and music were further complicated by the disparity between the relatively low rate for copyrighted material’s use at film festivals compared with the commercial rate once the film is picked up for distribution.
“This is why no one ever makes money on a documentary,” Burrell says.
Once the funny yet informative and moving work was accepted for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the crew panicked, having a mere six weeks to raise enough funds for licensing. Burrell says Sundance proved to be the magic word when she called financiers who’d initially passed on the film. The team met its goal in 24 hours.
Following what she calls a “family reunion” at Sundance, where Raise Hell received an “overwhelmingly positive reception,” the film won the SXSW Audience Award in the Festival Favorites category and was booked at other major film festivals — including Full Frame in Durham. Magnolia Pictures then came on board in June as a distributor and vowed to release the documentary by this autumn, before the elections — a promise that thrilled the filmmakers.
Also a cause for celebration is the new wave of Ivins fans that Burrell sees at enthusiastic Q&As around the country. While many millennial viewers were previously unaware of Ivins and her work, they’re inspired by her message of active citizenship. Burrell feels that such efforts as the Year of the Woman and #MeToo have helped pave the way for Raise Hell’s success.
“The two messages [about the film] that stick out for me are politics in this country isn’t right to left, it’s top to bottom, and the idea that this country is run by us,” Burrell says. “These people are just people we’ve hired to drive the bus for a while. It’s our job, it’s not somebody else’s job, to make sure things are going right.”
WHAT: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
WHERE: Grail Moviehouse, 45 S. French Broad Ave., grailmoviehouse.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m. $7.50-$10