SARA TOTH – EDITOR
When Jonathan Sanger is considering what films to develop, he’s realized that he tends to be drawn to films about real people — and people who have had an impact on society. It’s what drew him to such celebrated movies as “The Elephant Man,” “Frances” and, more recently, “Marshall,” a 2017 biographical legal drama about one of the first cases of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s career.
Sanger is a film, television and theater producer and director with 20 Academy Award nominations – and three wins — to his name. He served as a producer for “Marshall,” and at 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 26 at Chautauqua Cinema, in a special Meet the Filmmaker event, Sanger will be on hand following a screening of the film to answer Chautauquans’ questions.
“Marshall,” which stars the late Chadwick Boseman in the title role, follows the NAACP lawyer assigned to State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. Spell, who was accused of rape by his white employer, was defended by Marshall and Sam Friedman, a local insurance lawyer reluctant to take the case.
“ ‘Marshall’ is a pretty heroic tale, but it’s not just the tale of Marshall,” Sanger said. “It’s also the tale of Sam Friedman, who ultimately had to be lead counsel in the case because Marshall wasn’t allowed to even speak in the courtroom. This basically galvanized (Friedman) into a career choice” — he went on to work in numerous civil rights cases.
Marshall and Friedman ultimately won Spell’s case. At the time, in 1941, Sanger said that Marshall was really the only traveling lawyer for the NAACP. And though the film is set in Connecticut, the majority of it was filmed just north of Chautauqua Institution, in Buffalo.
“The main reason you go anywhere is to find the locations that suit the action of the story,” Sanger said. “And one of the biggest things in a movie like ‘Marshall’ was that you knew that about a third of the movie was going to take place in a courtroom, so we had to find a courtroom that was in the right (time) period.”
It’s notoriously difficult to find suitable courtrooms to use as a movie set, Sanger said, but in Buffalo, the crew got lucky.
“We found a building that had three courtrooms that were all correct to the period, and that weren’t being used,” he said. “As soon as we saw the courtroom, we realized this was a tremendous advantage to us because that was three weeks of our shooting schedule, all in one place, that we could have for 24/7.”
Finding that building inspired them to scout additional locations, and they found “a remarkable array of other buildings and locations in and around Buffalo that were perfectly suited to the story.”
And he’s already working in Buffalo as a producer again. Production just began on “The Untitled Cabrini Film,” a movie focused on the life of Francesca Cabrini, an Italian-American nun dedicated to supporting fellow Italian immigrants to the United States. For her efforts, she was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
“She wound up being wildly successful beyond anybody’s imagination,” Sanger said. “For a woman of that time, what she was able to accomplish — she created 67 institutions in her life — is pretty amazing.”
This will be Sanger’s first time at Chautauqua Institution, and he’s looking forward to sharing the work of “Marshall” with the audience. The film, which stars Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown and James Cromwell, premiered at Howard University in September 2017 — Boseman’s alma mater, and now the home of Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, named for the actor after his passing last summer of colon cancer — a disease he’d be diagnosed with while working on “Marshall.”
“I would count Chadwick in the very top percentile of people that I’ve worked with,” Sanger said. “He was a warm, wonderful, funny guy. … It was a great, great loss to the film community and to the world, because he was a humanitarian, as well as an actor.”
Boseman was hesitant at first to take on the role of Marshall, but realized “I want to do this. This is a story I want to tell,” Sanger said.
“It was a great part, but it was also Chadwick’s social consciousness that drove him to want to play this role,” Sanger said. “That speaks very much to who the man was.”