A Prison Film Made in Prison
When Theothus Carter was eleven, he and some friends stole a car, just for kicks. This led to his first arrest. It was the early nineties, in the Haughville section of Indianapolis. His older sister, who liked to watch reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show,” often called him Oppie, for Opie Taylor, the cute kid played by Ron Howard, but Haughville wasn’t Mayberry. By the time Carter was twelve, Oppie had come to denote his alter ego, who began each morning by smoking a blunt and was often drunk by noon, and whose principal skill was beating people up. “Oppie never lost a fight,” Carter told me. “God gave me the talent to kick ass.”
When Carter was fourteen, his father was shot and killed by a family friend who’d got into an argument with Carter’s brother over a box of blunts. Carter and two of his brothers (he had seven siblings) were sent to a juvenile home. There followed a cycle of drug dealing, ass kicking, and incarceration. When Carter’s mother died, in 2001, of complications related to aids (“She contracted it from my father—he was an everything addict”), Carter was serving a couple of years on a drug conviction at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. For the rest of the decade, he was in and out of jail. Out again in 2010, he kicked in the door of a house belonging to “some guy with too much money” and shot one of the inhabitants. He was convicted of armed burglary and attempted murder, and given a sentence of sixty-five years. Carter, undone by Oppie, was back at Pendleton, to live out most of his life in jail.
Before long, he began to tire of Oppie, and all the trouble he’d caused. “He’s the motherfucker that destroyed my life,” Carter said. “I gotta keep my foot on his neck at all times.” Carter wanted to be a role model, or a vestige of one, for his son, Theothus, Jr., who was born in 1999 and lived with his mother in Indianapolis. “He’s the only good thing I got out of the dope game,” Carter said. “I see him every week now. I told him, ‘It took your daddy going to prison to make sense of himself.’ ”
In the fall of 2014, word got around the cell blocks that a crew was coming to Pendleton to make a feature film. The movie, called “O.G.,” is about an older inmate who, on the verge of his release, befriends a younger inmate; complications ensue. It was to be shot inside the prison, using inmates and guards as actors and extras. No one had ever attempted anything like it.
At the time, Carter wasn’t eligible to participate. One had to be free of any recent disciplinary writeups, and he had just been caught with a quarter pound of marijuana. But, as preparations for the film inched along, Carter’s probationary period ended, and he got a chance to read for two small roles. Something about his ability to inhabit two very different characters, while remaining very much himself—to act without seeming to act—bowled over the filmmakers. When Carter was done, the casting director exclaimed, “That guy just won the Oscars of prison!”
By last summer, Carter had a new nickname in the prison yard: Movie Star. He’d been cast as the younger inmate, Beecher, beating out an eighteen-year-old who soon thereafter got into trouble and lost his film privileges. “One guy’s misfortune is another’s opportunity,” Carter said. Only Jeffrey Wright, in the role of the older inmate, Louis, the original gangster of the title, had more scenes. Wright found that although he’d worked with the likes of Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Anthony Hopkins, he had never worked with an actor as intense as Theothus Carter.
The director of “O.G.” is Madeleine Sackler, who is best known for her 2010 documentary, “The Lottery,” about a Harlem charter school and the debate around school choice. While shooting “The Lottery,” she began thinking, vaguely, about prison. “It’s kind of the flip side,” she recalled. “It’s what happens when people don’t get a good education. I knew we had more people in prison than anywhere in the world, and that, with the longer sentences, we were letting them out older. I knew I wanted to make a narrative film, and that I wanted to tell a story of an older man on the eve of his release. And I wanted to make it with prisoners acting.” This would be her first fictional feature.
Sackler is thirty-four, slight, with a deliberate and unhurried air. A mild disposition and a tendency toward upspeak disguise an abundance of self-assurance and drive, and seem to have the effect of putting her collaborators and subjects at ease. You don’t see her coming. When she first showed up, the prisoners weren’t sure who was in charge. It may be that, weary of being ordered around by uniformed, armed guards, they were open to her kind of command. Wright referred to her as “our quiet general.” Stephen Belber, the film’s screenwriter, said, “She has an inner confidence that replaces the need to flap her wings loudly.” Sackler doesn’t make a big show of her good intentions, or of her affluent background.
Her grandfather Raymond was one of the three Sackler brothers who owned Purdue Pharma, makers, since 1995, of the painkiller OxyContin. Opioid sales have made the Sacklers one of the nation’s wealthiest families. Sackler’s father, Jonathan, is a Purdue director (and notably, in light of “The Lottery,” an avid charter-school advocate). She nevertheless describes her upbringing, in Greenwich, Connecticut, as fairly ordinary, by the standards, anyway, of Greenwich. She went to a public high school, and then to Duke.
One might detect a certain irony in Sackler’s social activism. A great portion of the Pendleton population is there because of the scourge of drugs, or, if you’d prefer, the scourge of the drug war. OxyContin has undoubtedly deepened the problem of addiction, and contributed to the current heroin plague. So one might suppose that Sackler’s concern and sympathy for the incarcerated is some kind of expiation. But she thinks this is baloney. She points out that her other grandfather was a mathematician, and that she has also made films about basketball and Belarus. It pains her to think that the perception of her project, and of the hard work of everyone involved, would be tainted in some way by her pedigree.
Sackler reached out to about twenty state departments of correction before Doug Garrison, the chief of communications at the Indiana D.O.C., responded with something other than a pro-forma no. Garrison, a former special agent in the F.B.I., had helped create the Discovery documentary “G-Man: Making of an FBI Agent,” and so had developed an uncommonly dovish perspective on the relationship between the media and law enforcement.
“The more people who know what we do, the more support we get,” Garrison said. “Still, there was a long tradition of law enforcement being distrustful of TV or media or of opening ourselves up. I thought it would be cool to teach offenders about the process—not that they will ever get out to practice that skill. It would improve their mind and spirit and make their time in prison better.” Nonetheless, he suggested that Sackler set aside, for the moment, the impracticable notions of shooting on location with real prisoners, and focus on conducting background research. She went along for the time being, although, in selecting from Garrison’s array of possible penitentiaries, she had those notions still chiefly in mind. She wanted maximum security—“Maybe because the inmates would be the most marginalized,” she said—and picturesque. “So I picked the prettiest one.” Garrison got everyone to buy in: his boss at the D.O.C., the Pendleton superintendent, even the office of the governor, Mike Pence, who was not much known for such indulgences.
Pendleton was built in the nineteen-twenties, mostly by inmates, after the warden realized that it would be cheaper to have them do all the work. John Dillinger was an early inhabitant. On one side, it abuts a golf course. Just down the road is a medium-security prison and a juvenile lockup. This is corn and soybean country, but there’s a trace of strange fruit in the soil. The small town of Pendleton, nearby, sits on the site of the Fall Creek Massacre of 1824, in which a gang of white settlers slaughtered a band of Native Americans, including women and children. Twenty years later, a white mob attacked a group of abolitionists gathered for a lecture by Frederick Douglass, who was badly beaten and left unconscious.
The state pen isn’t one of those spare, futuristic, lightless dystopias, as in “Oz.” It’s an old-fashioned hoosegow—brown brick, arched windows, red tiled roof—not unlike Shawshank. From the parking lot, you might mistake the place for a dingy version of Stanford. But, like any prison, it is a soul-crushing complex, with its own fraught history of violence. In the eighties and nineties, the inmates called it Little Nam.
Sackler visited Pendleton in September, 2014, with Belber and Wolfgang Held, her director of photography. Over five days, they did dozens of hours of interviews on camera, with staff and inmates of all ages, races, and affiliations. Belber used these interviews to write a script. In January, 2015, Sackler returned for what she called the good-will tour. “We needed to stress-test filming and casting there,” she said. “I had no idea how they would react to reading a script like this. Would they be uncomfortable, or find it cheesy, or just bad?” She led readings and discussions with groups ranging from five to sixty prisoners, and tried to get a sense of whether the general population would abide the story, and the process of shooting it. Sackler and the crew had to undergo inmate-manipulation training (to protect themselves from what are called “setups”). She also spoke with leaders of the bigger gangs to secure their permission to incorporate gangs into the plot.
Whenever Sackler mentioned the project to anyone outside the prison, the two things she almost always heard were “There’s no way they’ll let you do it” and “Are you afraid?” They did, and she wasn’t, really. She was ill at ease, at first, imposing on the prisoners’ lives. “If anything, I was afraid of offending people,” she said. Wright told the prisoners, “My challenge is to fit in with you guys.”
To Garrison’s surprise, if not Sackler’s, the authorities started to buy in. Sackler met with the superintendent, and he approved the over-all concept. “If she had a script about how hopeless and shitty prison is, with someone who gets fucked in the end, we wouldn’t have coöperated,” Garrison said. “I desperately want this to be successful. My neck is out there a bit.”
The guards in the film were taking part on their days off. They, and the twenty-eight inmates with speaking parts, were being paid scale, the Screen Actors Guild minimum of three hundred and thirty-five dollars a day, with ten per cent of the inmates’ earnings going to a victims’ fund and another forty per cent to the prison for “room and board.” The non-speaking extras weren’t getting paid but were promised meals—a craft-services recompense that, in light of their usual chow-hall fare, was enticing enough on its own. (They got a taste on the good-will tour: “What was that green stuff, with the chips?” “Guacamole, man.” “That shit was good.”) Really, prisoners and guards were happy for the break from their usual routine, the chance to interact with some civilians and movie stars, and the opportunity to convey to the public a more nuanced sense of their lives.
Precedents were tenuous and few. “Caesar Must Die,” a 2012 film shot in Rebibbia Prison, outside Rome, consisted of real convicts putting on a performance of “Julius Caesar.” “Act V,” a 2002 radio segment on “This American Life,” followed a group of prisoners as they staged the last act of “Hamlet.” While making “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone attempted to film a riot scene in a prison outside Chicago, using prisoners as extras, but the riot turned real, and the authorities shut down the shoot for a week. There has recently been a slew of documentaries and reality shows shot in active prisons, including “60 Days In,” in which a group of civilians are embedded in the general population at a county jail, unbeknownst to inmates or guards. But shooting in an active maximum-security state penitentiary, with the inmates taking on most of the parts, using a script modelled on their own experiences there: this was new.
I first visited the prison in June, 2016, during the final week of rehearsals. The previous month, an inmate had died from an overdose, and for a while the prison had been on lockdown. The filmmakers had been barred from the grounds. Shooting was to begin in less than two weeks and last just twenty-four days, not an hour longer.
Past security, Sackler, in jeans, Stan Smith tennis shoes, and an untucked blue plaid shirt, awaited the arrival of Michelle Rains, an administrative assistant and Sackler’s fixer. Habituated as Sackler had become to the place, and as its inhabitants had become to her (they called her Maddy or Miss Madeleine), Sackler still couldn’t move around without a minder. Rains, known to all as Mo, is a compact, lightly sardonic woman in her forties who has worked at the prison since she was nineteen. She held a binder and a big ring of keys and had on jeans, Day-Glo-orange sneakers, and a green T-shirt with “Indiana Reformatory” on the back. She is married to a retired internal-affairs investigator at Pendleton, Mike Rains, whom she met in the prison. Their daughter worked there, too. Rains also oversees the prison’s cat sanctuary, an abandoned office overrun by rescued strays, where several members of the cast of “O.G.” are employed. A placard in her office reads “Meow or Never.” “Mo is everyone’s agent and everyone’s boss, including mine,” Sackler said. “She’s the movie fairy here.”
Rains led us through a series of locked gates—“If it’s a lock, lock it,” the signs read—and past a shoeshine stand where an inmate was buffing a guard’s boots. After passing through some more gates, we emerged into the yard, a grassy expanse that Sackler referred to as the Quad. (Guards are called correctional officers, or C.O.s, although the inmates, who are called offenders, occasionally refer to them as “cops.” The offenders’ baggy milk-coffee-colored jumpsuits are “browns.” Sackler prefers to call the offenders “men who are incarcerated,” so as not to define them by their status; she doesn’t generally ask what they are in for.) On the left: J-Cellhouse, a vast three-story stable of cells. On the right, K-Dorm, where offenders sleep in open bunks. Across the yard are the laundry, the chow hall, and an old schoolhouse that was to serve as the film crew’s base of operations. Farther on, past mazes of fencing and razor wire, was the mental-health unit and, surrounding the whole complex, a wall thirty feet tall, with guard towers every hundred yards. Cell blocks devoted to “restrictive housing”—solitary confinement—are scattered throughout the grounds. Rains instructed us to step aside as the line—a few dozen inmates on the move—ambled from chow to J-Cellhouse, under the supervision of a few guards. Some of the offenders called out to Sackler and waved. Others glowered.
For a low-budget independent film, the location was peerless, as was the talent. “Prison—it’s like a character-actor convention,” Sackler said.
“You can’t fake that funk,” Wright said.
In a big, drab conference room on the second floor of the schoolhouse, we found Sackler’s friend Boyd Holbrook, her partner in a production company called Madbrook Films. Holbrook is an actor; he plays the lead D.E.A. agent in the Netflix series “Narcos.” Entering the prison on his first morning, he was caught with a pack of cigarettes (tobacco is banned at Pendleton), so the next day he resorted to hiding a nicotine patch on his upper thigh. He was there for a few days to help teach the inmates some acting techniques.
Wright had told me, “Some of these guys are really interesting actors. They’re gonna bring it. You see some charismatic guys who were the star of their hood or their block. They were forceful and had presence, because they had to. They have skills of persuasion.”
“We really been acting our whole life,” Theothus Carter said. “We act every time we go in a courtroom to try to get out of this shit we put ourselves in.”
Holbrook sat with an offender named Markus Murray, thirty-nine, with a pharaoh’s beard, a shaved head, lots of tattoos, and shades resting on his pate. He was playing a white-supremacist gang member who, in the script, gets into a violent dispute with Jeffrey Wright’s character, Louis. Sackler said, “Markus has the unfortunate job of being Louis’s fall guy.”
“You don’t like each other,” Holbrook said. “But Jeffrey’s a professional. He’s not gonna pull any weird shit on you.”
“He’s a nice guy,” Murray said, recalling earlier read-throughs. There was a hint of Texas in his voice.
The room was bare, except for a card table and a few chairs in the middle, some chairs along the wall, and a basketball. An officer named Brooke Edwards stood sentry, as she would throughout the shoot. (She had also been cast in the film, as a forensic photographer.) Charles Lawrence, a shy, muscular, middle-aged African-American with a genial smile and wraparound sunglasses, was hanging out, after his rehearsal. He was doing a hundred and twenty years, for murder and attempted murder. Another inmate, Franklin Cox, known as Franko, also in for murder, was recording the proceedings on a video camera. Lawrence and Cox were both students in a documentary class that Sackler was teaching; she’d been helping them make a documentary about their lives, and also grooming them to work on the “O.G.” crew. Cox, tall and skinny, with dreadlocks and glasses, was a keen pupil; he had become the ubiquitous production assistant, although, as Sackler said, “Franko can’t be much of a P.A., because he can’t have a phone.” (The entire production was allowed just three cell phones, owing to their value as contraband. “Actually,” a producer told me, “I’m more concerned about making a film without cigarettes.”) Just before filming began, prison brass decreed that the inmates wouldn’t be permitted to work on the crew, after all. Soon afterward, Franko was accused of mouthing off to some guards at count (Franko says it was a miscommunication), got written up, and had his film privilege temporarily revoked.
Holbrook and Murray began running the lines, which required him to repeat, over and over, a slur that his character shouts at Wright’s: “Fucking coon!”
Murray stopped. “I feel so odd saying this.”
“It’s make-believe,” Holbrook replied. “I don’t care if we’re in a prison or a fucking hedge-fund office. A certain rage builds up in each of us.” He tapped out a rhythm.
Murray tried to make it rote: “Fucking coon! Fucking coon! Fucking coon!”
Lawrence, leaning back in his chair, chuckled. “That’s bothering him.”
During a break, Murray recalled an earlier version of the scene, in which the script had him addressing Wright as an ape. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I told them, I’m not gonna say the N-word, either. I have to live with a lot of people in here.” He also wasn’t sure that, in the context of Pendleton, either was a realistic insult. “Coon” was the compromise.
“They used to call me Carcass,” Murray told me. He was in his seventeenth year of a murder sentence of sixty. (Because of good-behavior provisions, he is unlikely to serve more than thirty.) “I went to a guy’s house, I’d heard he was abusing a girl, I broke down the door, and I beat him to death with a baseball bat,” he said. (Many of the men I talked to described their crimes in righteous terms, if they admitted to them at all—they cast themselves as avengers and vigilantes in a wicked world.) Murray also said, as one will, that he was not in a gang. Others said that he was a member of the Saxon Knights, a white-supremacist gang that was founded at Pendleton.
In any case, he seemed to have a gentle disposition and an inquisitive mind. He said that he’d read about a thousand books during his time inside. “I like history—European history, the Vikings.” He was a movie buff and said that his favorite film was “The Virgin Spring,” the Ingmar Bergman classic about a farmer’s revenge on some goatherds who have raped and murdered his daughter.
“If I have a legacy at all, maybe this film would be something to be proud of,” he said. But he was worried, too, about being known, inside the prison and out in public, for as long as people watch movies, as the racist guy who called Jeffrey Wright a fucking coon. “A lot of people think this stuff is real,” he said.
“What’s up, Hollywood?” Holbrook said. Theothus Carter strode into the rehearsal room. An immediate presence: he was tall, lean, and broad-shouldered, with long low-calibre dreads drawn up in a ponytail, gentle-seeming brown eyes, a deep voice, an air of self-containment, and no shortage of self-confidence. He had on heavy brown boots and a fancy-looking watch, which he’d accepted in payment for a gambling debt.
He picked up the basketball and flipped it from hand to hand. “I’m a professional with this right here,” he said.
“I don’t know, I’m from Kentucky,” Holbrook said. They talked some smack about hoops. Then Holbrook led Carter through a routine of breathing, stretching, and vocal exercise: “This is going to be your ritual every day. Get the instrument loosened up and ready to go.” They made nonsense noises and funny faces. “This is a little silly, but stretch your tongue in circles.” Carter complied, without embarrassment. He mentioned his Ramadan regimen, and Holbrook looked concerned. “You’re going to need sleep, food. You’re going to have to drink a lot of water.”
“It’s going to be hard. I don’t like water.”
“You guys get limes here?”
Carter tapped the script and said, “There ain’t nothing in there I haven’t been through. I don’t know where that motherfucker came up with all this shit, but everything in there has happened here. I don’t know how they did this. It’s like they were living in my head and then wrote a script about it, then handed it to me and put me in my own movie about me, and they didn’t even know it.”
No offender carried a bigger load, or evinced greater devotion. He read the script more than a hundred times, hardly venturing from his bunk except to attend rehearsals. He steered clear of the rec center and the chow hall, in order to avoid entanglements. There were certainly inmates and guards who disapproved of the “O.G.” shoot, whether because of their racial views (some white inmates complained to the filmmakers, in idle moments, that the script was too sympathetic to black inmates) or because they objected to coöperation with authority of any kind. And so Carter was vulnerable to provocation. It is hard for a civilian to understand what form such challenges took—he was coy about all this, and no one, among the daytime visitors, could really comprehend what it was like to live there—but he made it clear that the threat of instigation was incessant.
He lay as low as possible, listening to music and going over his lines. He ate once a day, of provisions he bought for himself in the prison commissary. “I got ramen noodles, pickles, sausage, potato chips, Debbie cakes—a lot of fucking gas-station food,” he told me. “I drink microwaved coffee all day.” The cash came from poker. “No one sends me money,” he said. During the weeks of rehearsal, he was observing Ramadan, though he said he was not a Muslim. “It’s a discipline thing,” he said. “Take out one thing at a time.” His job, inside, was cleaning the dorm, which he did at around 1 a.m. “I eat at two-thirty in the morning, sleep from 5 a.m. to the afternoon. Get up, shower. Maybe play some cards or chess. Watch ‘SportsCenter’ all fuckin’ day. You got a whole lot of older men just busting on each other.” Carter was the youngest in the dorm. “Those old fuckers just wanna lay around all day,” he said. “They will not help me run lines.” The listlessness frustrated and depressed him, as much a glimpse of his future as a pox on the present. During lockdowns, when the filmmakers weren’t allowed inside, he did nothing, really, but sleep. “This is the only thing I’m focussed on. Eye on the prize. I gotta make some sacrifices, not just for me but for the other people involved. I don’t wanna fuck it up.” He had to keep a boot on Oppie’s throat.
They sat down to run lines. Carter ignored his script—he already had it memorized—and stared back at Holbrook with a slack expression. Through the windows you could hear the thwok of a handball hitting the wall. Discussing a scene in which Carter’s character is about to get into a fight with Murray’s, Holbrook asked Carter about his mind-set. “Like I’m ready to fuck him up?” Carter said. “I was daydreaming on this. I go back to when I did actually get in it with a white dude. I remember how it felt. I’m trying to bring up all that shit that was going on around me when it happened—the bouncing of a basketball, the weights clinking, the smell of sweat.”
Next, Carter and Holbrook worked through a six-page scene set in the chow hall, in which he and Wright’s character discuss how the prison works.
“This scene right here is meat,” Carter said. Leaning back in his chair, spinning the basketball on the floor, he began running through the lines:
Beecher: Food here’s fuckin’ gross, man.
Louis: Half the time I eat in my cell.
Beecher: People put money on commissary for you?
Louis: No one puts it there; I got my pay.
Louis works in the prison’s auto-body shop, the real version of which features prominently in the film. He also earns money betting on sports. He is a former gang head now minding his own business and trying to finish out his stretch without incident. Beecher’s arrival at the prison enmeshes him in gang politics, as he tries to steer this younger version of himself away from violence. These efforts jeopardize his own release, about which he’s somewhat ambivalent, or at least very anxious.
Beecher: What you readin’?
Louis: “War Against the Weak.” About eugenics, America’s attempt to make a master race by breeding out the so-called weak.
Beecher: Why you readin’ that?
Louis: Try an’ understand the history of why things are what they are around here.
Carter and Holbrook rehearsed the scene while playing five-card draw. Carter, slipping out of character, admired the deck. Usually, he said, the prisoners had to play with Indiana cold-case cards—each card has a different crime victim on it. “Idea is, you look at them so much you’ll feel so bad that you’ll say something, if you know something. They force us to buy these. Casinos used to give us their used decks, charge us a buck a pack. Now it’s these dead-people cards.”
Later, when it was time for Carter to return to his bunk for count, he told Holbrook, “I’m having so much fun here. Time’s going so fast. I sold dope my entire life and thought it was the most exciting thing. Crack, women, walking around with guns, the life at night. People don’t know—it’s actually fun as fuck. But this here, this is past dope. This is the most exciting thing I done my whole life.”
“There’s a magnetism between you and acting,” Holbrook said.
“I’m busting up inside. When you come from where I come from, where I grew up, and you look at who I’m working with? I’m in prison doing sixty-five years, and I’m working with Jeffrey Wright.” He was standing in the middle of the room with his boot on the basketball. “Let me tell you what it feels like when you’re in prison. It feels like you’re dead. And this is like waking up.”
In late June, Buck Staiger, an assistant director, drove a Ryder truck with all the film equipment from Brooklyn to Pendleton. After an inspection of the cargo, he and the crew unloaded everything into the schoolhouse basement. On the way out, prior to the last gate, the truck, now empty, approached a yellow line. The guard escorting Staiger told him, “If you don’t stop at that yellow line, I can’t tell you how many holes’ll be in you.” Staiger pulled up, got out with his hands up, and stood aside for another inspection.
The rest of the crew, two dozen in all, arrived soon thereafter, and filming began. Sackler said, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Each morning, in the schoolhouse basement, Wright changed into his browns, and a makeup artist reapplied his temporary tattoos. He had grown a bushy beard and shaved his head. Because of the costume, guards and inmates, unfamiliar with his work, sometimes assumed he was an offender, and occasionally treated him like one. “This is a powerful piece of cloth,” he said.
He’d been at the prison several times in the previous year, to rehearse and to get to know the guys. It was a delicate act for him, instilling trust without being disingenuous. Like most of the inmates he was working with, he was a black man in America. His father died when he was a year old, and he was reared in southeast Washington, D.C., but he went to fancy schools (St. Albans and then Amherst), played lacrosse, and became an acclaimed actor, who did a lot of philanthropic work in Sierra Leone and was an impassioned supporter of Hillary Clinton. “Jeffrey is trying to understand what it’s like to be a prisoner in America at this moment in time,” Belber told me. “He juggles a lot. The accusation of exploitation is so huge.”
There were other professional actors in the cast: William Fichtner, Yul Vazquez, David Patrick Kelly, Stephanie Berry. They flew in for short stints. But Wright was in every scene—in and out of Pendleton for six weeks, though he flew to the East and West Coasts on a couple of weekends to surf and to attend a party for his goddaughter’s fourth birthday in the Hamptons, where he felt out of place. “People seemed soft,” he said. As hard as it was to be in that bad place, he missed the guys.
The shooting schedule was unrelenting and vulnerable to the whims of the prison or the prisoners. On Day One, a guy in a key part had to appear at his own murder trial; the role was recast. On Day Three, there was a half-day lockdown. Inmates slotted for roles suddenly lost their film privileges. Waiting for the line to cross the yard began to cost time, and therefore shots, and even scenes, that the film crew would never be able to make up.
The security measures were stiff. The crew arrived just after dawn. One at a time: shoes off, pockets emptied, film equipment examined, I.D. check, metal detector, X-ray, full-body pat-down, and a glance at the soles of your feet. Once cleared, the whole crew moved together—always as a pack, no stragglers allowed—through a succession of I.D. checks and steel-barred doors. They crammed into holding pens that, like submarine airlocks, acted as passages from one environment to another. They were constantly admonished against leaving behind so much as a pen or a roll of tape. Prisoners are magpies. Still, the crew kept slipping up. One morning, someone forgot a battery charger and a spring clamp. At lunch, Brooke Edwards, the guard assigned to the shoot, addressed the whole crew: “Here’s the deal. Every one of you have heard me talk about this. This leaving shit behind? I’m fucking done. You’re fucking with my job. Keep track of your stuff. I’m not your mother. Understood?”
“Understood,” they mumbled, but they chafed at such scoldings. As the weeks wore on, the novelty and the thrill of entering a prison gave way, in many, to a kind of depression and irritability over the miserable surroundings. After an incident in which an inmate called the cell phone of one of the women on the crew, some of her colleagues did a little Internet sleuthing and discovered that one offender with a speaking part had been convicted of sex crimes: he had drugged and sexually assaulted several women. A few crew members began to regret taking the job.
There were all kinds of cons among the extras, including, I was told one day, a number of child molesters. “I could throw a deck of cards and hit twelve of them in the head right now,” Murray, the Bergman enthusiast, told me one day on set. “They get the best jobs. They won’t bust a grape. The cops used to say, ‘Have at it,’ but now it’s ‘Leave my child molester alone.’ ” Rains said that, to her knowledge, only one inmate who acted in the movie had been convicted of a sex crime.
The crosscurrents of injustice were confounding. One day, as the crew made its way back to the staging area, an order went out: “Everybody off the sidewalk. Everybody off the sidewalk.” The crew stood aside and went quiet as a pair of white guards approached, escorting a black convict in an orange jumpsuit, his ankles and wrists in irons. Orange meant solitary confinement. He had a bewildered, twisted half smile, as though struggling in vain to convey to these improbable witnesses that he remained unbroken. Was he to be pitied or feared?
Wright leaned hard toward the former. “All the negligence, abuse, addiction—a lot of these guys never had a chance,” he said. “You see in the eyes of these guys, the older ones, an absence of direction, a lostness, yet a desire for course correction. Here they are, living in a series of buildings choked to the brim with warriors. The air is heavy with positive ions. It’s palpable. It’s dense.” He went on, “Some of these guys are smart, forceful, ambitious characters. I mean, sure, some guys are just fuckups. There are some deranged guys, too. Still, the numbers could be reduced. It’s purgatorial.” He was troubled by the relationship between certain white guards and black prisoners. “If you don’t think that this all goes back to the original sin of fucking slavery—it’s as clear as day. Look around. It’s like the antebellum South in here.”
Around the prison, the white inmates were reputed to be inferior fighters. Mike Rains, Mo’s husband, told me, “Shit, we had to teach the white boys in here to fight.” (Mike is white.) He told the story of a black inmate, Christopher Anderson, one of Theothus Carter’s mentors, who had a small part in the film. One night, years ago, four Aryan Brotherhood gang members burst into Anderson’s cell. Anderson shut the door behind them and throttled them all, nearly to death. For this, he spent six years in the segregation unit—solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day.
Anderson, known as Anda Janda, was now forty-six. He was first sent to prison in 1987, and arrived in Pendleton in 1996. On this stint, he had been there since 2001, serving a sentence of a hundred and four years for murder and other charges. His brother had committed suicide at Pendleton. “I known Theothus when he got here,” Anderson said. “Reminded me of a young version of me. That’s why we get along.” He had glasses and gold teeth, and talked without moving his mouth much. When I asked him for his independent assessment of Carter’s fighting skills, he looked at me sideways and said, “If you want confirmation, he done whooped a few motherfuckin’ asses, that’s for sure.”
A certain symbiosis kicks in. Captors and captives come to see the arrangement as a natural one. Mo Rains told me that it’s prison that seems normal to her and civilian life that’s unruly and strange. “My anxiety increases on the outside,” she said. The premise of the film, in some respects, was that this is so for many of the prisoners, too. It’s the world they know. The anxiety of the soon to be released is a corollary of the air of jocularity one sometimes detects between guards and inmates—the collegial recounting of old conflicts and wounds. Or was this, too, a bit of a put-on? A guard told one of the crew, “We got the bad guys hidden. It’s not normally like this.”
On July 15th, the week after a cop shot Philando Castile, in Minnesota, and a man in Dallas killed five policemen, the prison was shut down again, for reasons unexplained and a duration unspecified. The following day, an inmate tried to sexually assault a guard, beating her badly in his cell. The lockdown ended before I showed up a week later, to watch the filming of some of the more violent scenes in the movie, including a fight between Wright and Carter, one between Wright and Murray, and, finally, a race riot set in the chow hall.
My first day on set ended in the laundry, a cavernous industrial expanse that Sackler and Held, the director of photography, had chosen as the site of a tense meeting between Wright’s character and a gang leader named Terry. They had a little more than three hours before count, and so they worked with fretful intent to set up and scheme a series of shots. They wouldn’t get another chance to film here. The heat and the time pressed in. A few extras lounged around, their browns shed to the waist. A couple of others filled out W-4s. A sign at the supervisor’s station read “Don’t Judge Someone Just Because They Sin Differently from You.”
The inmate playing Terry was James Durham, who’d been sentenced to a hundred and seventy years for killing two people and wounding three in a tavern shooting. His attorney had recommended that he plead insanity, but Durham had decided against this. He was edgy, high-strung. During rehearsals, he’d asked Wright, “Do I make you nervous?” At the first read-through, he stopped and said, “I’m gonna be straight with you all. I don’t trust anyone in this room.” In Wright’s view, Durham wasn’t crazy. Instead, as a child of the streets and the crack wars of the nineties— like so many of the men here—he was a possible victim of P.T.S.D.: a combat veteran, essentially. “He is as naturally gifted a performer as I’ve ever seen,” Wright said.
I asked Carter, who was sitting off to the side, if Durham was a friend of his. “Actually, no,” he said. “But you gotta work with people in any profession, right?”
Durham—fit, compact, bald, with wraparound shades—sat on a table, fidgeting, kicking his legs, and muttering to the guy playing his henchman, as a few extras (his character’s cronies) looked on and sorted laundry. The shot called for Wright to come down some steel stairs into the heart of the laundry, where Terry was holding court. They did a dry run, and Durham blew his second line. He growled with embarrassment, “Oh, shit! This heat is getting to me.”
“It’s all right,” Wright said. “It’s all right. It’s all right.”
He tried to get Durham to remove his sunglasses: “Madeleine wants the option, for later. I like no shades. This is a mask—drop the mask. Let’s see your eyes.”
“I have killer eyes, man. Don’t look at these eyes.”
“Well, that’s where we need to go,” Wright said. Then he added, “This is your world. I’m here to learn.”
“I appreciate it,” Durham said. Wright went back upstairs to commence the first take.
Durham said to his henchman, “Fuck it, I’ll take a sock.” The henchman handed him a sock from the laundry pile, and Durham used it to pat his face dry of sweat.
The henchman murmured to him, “This is the real moment. You gotta kill it.”
They did a few takes, settling into hard stares and hard talk, with some ad-libbing at the margins, with the encouragement of Sackler and Wright. As per the script, Durham, as Terry, was saying, of Beecher, “He’s got good hands, he’s smart, he’s an asset.” (Carter himself was sitting off to the side, getting his neck and shoulders rubbed by one of the extras.) But then Wright went off script, and Durham, with an odd smile, began calmly improvising proverbs and threats: “You want the velvet glove? Or the iron fist?”
When this take was done, everyone laughed, and Wright said, “You fucked all of us up.”
Durham, dabbing at his forehead, as though waking from a trance, said, “You got me wiping myself off with a sock.”
As Wright walked upstairs for another take, Durham spoke quietly to the henchman, their conversation audible through the film crew’s headphones.
“He made me do that,” he said. “You like that? Was that cool? I just gotta stick to the script. They keep trying to make me go off.” He looked around with a grin. “I think we got this. I could do this all day.”
“I bet you could,” the henchman said.
Later, during a break, Durham asked Wright, “We going to do a party or something, when this is done?”
“There’s limitations,” Wright said. “We can only do what they let us do.”
“It’d be like an album-release party,” Durham said. He paused, and went on, “Don’t forget about us, man. I can’t stand this place.”
“We can only control what we can control. We’ll get the story out there.”
A few moments later, Durham leaned in again. “I just found some stuff in the library about sentencing orders.”
“About what?” Wright asked.
“Sentencing orders. If anyone can help . . . I ain’t saying give me anything. I just want a door to be open.”
“Ain’t no guarantees in this,” Wright said.
“Don’t forget about me,” Durham said. “I want to stay in contact. I want some humanity.”
Wright had resolved to refrain from offering false hope (“Never overpromise—I learned that in Sierra Leone,” he told me), but he also needed to maintain the trust and even the shared sense of mission. The extent to which these men viewed him as a movie star, capable of miracles, in some respects undermined his attempt to pass himself off as one of them, yet it also induced them to put in the effort required. He said, “The best you can do, the best I can do, is do this thing right now.”
Wright went upstairs again, and Durham said to his henchman, “They gonna be mad about this, boy. The females. We pioneers. We gonna benefit on this and take it to the next level.” He was quiet a minute, then said, “They got me bent.”
Theothus Carter, wearing headphones, called out, “I can hear everything you say.”
The next day, a stunt coördinator named Jeremy Sample, a former linebacker at Notre Dame, was at Pendleton to help shoot the rough stuff. The crew set up in the rec yard, next to a Quonset gym, for the fight between Wright and Carter. No one was sure how simulated violence would play in this setting. “Just another day of doing stunts in a maximum-security prison,” Sackler said. “There’s pushback against our using a shank, for some reason.” They were shooting by the east wall, which was pocked in a way that was pleasing to a director of photography. A white guard watched from a tower. At one point, he called down, “Can I get in on the fight?” Carter had a towel over his head and a plastic coffee mug in hand. Dozens of offenders milled around in T-shirts and shorts—extras. Some played handball, others kibbitzed at a picnic table, a few jumped rope. Staiger, the assistant director, said, “These guys are the best background I’ve ever had. Their continuity awareness is really great.”
Every day was a race. There was something perverse about being so squeezed for time in a place where no one had anything but. This morning, the opponent was the sun; the shot was in the wall’s shadow, which would be gone by eleven. The heat was already grave. Sample, tank-framed and motivationally upbeat, quickly choreographed a scuffle only vaguely delineated in the script. He pantomimed overhand right, left hook, defensive block, choke, rear naked choke hold into the wall. “The reaction sells the violence,” he told Carter and Wright.
“It’s cool trying to unlearn how to beat someone up,” Carter said. “I’ve had to unlearn some shit I might do in a real fight to do a fight in a movie.”
He said to Wright, “Don’t sucker out, now. Put on the pads and let’s do this.” He and Carter fake-fought along the wall, over and over. Between takes, Wright had to change his sweatshirt, owing to grass stains. After the fifth take, Sample did a little dance. “I love it when it comes together,” he said. Makeup got to work on Wright, who had a raspberry on the back of his head. Carter said, “Make sure you tell them I don’t do makeup. I don’t even wipe the sweat off me.”
By the pull-up bars on the far side of the gym, Sackler and Held tried to block out a few shots of Louis attacking the white supremacist played by Markus Murray. It was time for “fucking coon.” Wright explained that he wanted to hit Murray so hard that he’d go slack. Carter said, “You hit a motherfucker and they just freeze up. Their whole body locks up.” (None of this, in the end, would wind up in the film.)
An order came down from the tower to halt filming, while offenders in a nearby cell block, who’d been on lockdown for days, were released into the yard. “They just got out of restriction, so if we’re filming they’ll act like ding-dongs,” a prison official said. Crew and extras milled around the idled set. Carter entertained them by performing, at a sprint, four back handsprings and a backflip. Thunderheads massed, and the yard darkened. When shooting resumed—Wright kneeling over Murray, delivering phantom elbows to his head, over and over—a cooling wind blew in, followed soon by a heavy downpour, and lightning. The crew scurried to protect their gear. Mo Rains, with the approval of the tower, unlocked a back gate to the rec gym, and cast and crew dashed inside. She conducted a count, offenders dripping in the middle of the basketball court, and then a kind of snow-day tumult broke out: wet-floor-wipeout hoops, fake-fighting tutorials, general horsing around. At the weight station, Durham and some others goaded Wright into bench-pressing two hundred pounds. Someone wheeled in a trolley of individual pizzas—guacamole dreams deferred—and the inmates closed in.
Carter stood to the side, disdainful of uncontrollable appetites. “I won’t come here no more,” he said. “Everyone tough, everyone argue.” He watched a crew member swat at a fly. “I wouldn’t even kill a fly,” he said. “I’m done hurting stuff.”
The rain let up. The production moved on to a loading dock behind the chow hall. Scene 7: two black inmates beat up a white inmate and steal his shoes.
The culmination of the stunt work was the race riot in the chow hall. Sackler had a day to shoot it. This involved all the participants—some eighty inmates, the full crew of thirty, the guards—packed into a dining hall about an acre in size, with eighty tables, each with four stools, everything bolted to the floor. There wasn’t much security on hand. For whatever reason, the guards and the administrators didn’t seem nervous about the prospect of inciting a brawl.
The kitchen cranked out meals as props: each a cardboard sectional tray with a spork, a pepper packet, and portions of corn, iceberg lettuce, corn bread, and a macaroni-and-ground-mystery-meat confection that the offenders call goulash. An inmate invited Sackler to try some: “Take the Pendleton challenge. Show us you’re one of us.”
Sackler declined. “I get offered food here more than I do when I go to friends’ houses,” she said.
The riot kicks off as Wright and Carter have a hushed conversation—the one about eugenics. Shooting went deep into the afternoon, as the prisoners hung around doing nothing in the suffocating heat. One felt bad for them, having to endure such excruciating boredom, until one realized that, on a good day anyway, excruciating boredom was their lot. The run-up to the riot has blacks and whites sorting themselves on either side of the dining room, as Wright and Carter talk. Eventually, Christopher Anderson gets jumped, the black guys rush in, and the mayhem unfurls. Jeremy Sample had choreographed a slew of individual jousts. Come riot time, he took over the set and excitedly called out orders, as though this arrangement of cons were a nickel defense.
A white inmate nearby, sixty-seven years old, said, “I was here for a real riot, in 1976. I got stabbed in the neck. I saw a black dude stab a friend in the face, and I hit him with a crowbar three times. All the black dudes and white dudes separated and then—” Sample pulled him into place for another take.
Mike Rains, standing with a cane in the corner next to another guard, had an idea for better verisimilitude. “I keep telling Mo: we gotta go to the captain’s office and get a gas grenade in here. C.S. gas: it’s awful. It will change their thought process.” He laughed. “You gotta make it a comedy. It’s prison, man.”
With thirty minutes until count, they re-racked for one try. Anderson got his fake beating, and off it went, bodies flying all over the place, well past the call of “cut.” Sample opened his eyes wide: “That one looked a little real.” The offenders, sweaty and ebullient, collected their pizzas and filed out, under guard.
The last day was seventeen hours in the cell block. The crew wrapped just before dawn and said farewell. Sackler would be back, to record additional dialogue and sound, and to cut the prison choir’s versions of “Old Man” and “Love or Confusion” and other songs for the “O.G.” soundtrack, but for the most part the offenders’ work, and, more acutely, their respite, was done.
Weeks later, Sackler told me, “I had concerns about Theothus’s well-being. It was a very emotional experience for him.” She went on, “Sometimes I found myself looking around and wondering about the outcome, about whether we might be doing more harm than good. But, at the end of the day, it showed that this could be done.”
“It was the most powerful experience I’ve ever had on a movie,” Wright said. “I miss those guys. I think about them every day. But I needed to get away from the place.”
He and Carter had talked often about their lives, and about the trials of being a parent. Carter’s son, Theothus, Jr., who was sixteen, had apparently been getting into trouble in school. “It sounded intense,” Wright said. Wright had heard from some of the guards that they’d had to reprimand the boy on previous visits for comportment—for, say, wearing his jeans too low. “He’d been noticed,” Wright recalled. Wright got to meet the kid, and his mother, one day when they came to visit Carter.
Theothus, Jr., had expressed some interest in pursuing the military, but Carter, out of opposition to the system, had discouraged this. “He felt this would be joining the wrong team,” Wright said. Wright urged Carter to reconsider; the service could be an escape from the streets, and the life that had brought the father low.
Three weeks after filming wrapped, Wright and Sackler set up a call with Carter, to discuss a few things. While they waited to be connected, Sackler got a text from Rains. Theothus, Jr., had been killed in Indianapolis. A gunman had shot him multiple times at a gas station while the boy was sitting in a car at the pump. The assailant drove off, caught on camera but not by police. (The case remains unsolved.) Carter came on the line. “He was clearly devastated and rocked,” Wright recalled. “At the same time, he seemed somewhat rational about it. Clearly, premature death is not a new phenomenon for him. But this was his only son.”
“I look at death different from most people,” Carter told me, over the phone.
Carter, of course, wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. He sent the boy’s mother two thousand dollars—half his savings—to help cover the cost. He seemed determined to continue his commitment to the film. He wanted to dedicate his performance to his son. He got a tattoo on his back that read “Madbrook Films-JW.” But a couple of days later he had a run-in with a C.O. and was put in segregation for two weeks. Sackler and Wright could no longer even talk to him on the phone.
“It’s impossible to know what’s going on in there,” Sackler said. “That’s part of the persistent anxiety of this project.”
In the course of the next year, Sackler labored to finish. Time dragged on, in the penitentiary and in the editing bay. She returned again and again to Pendleton, increasingly devoting her time to working with her students, as they assembled their documentary. That film, called “It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It,” had grown in scope; she and the men had decided to add animation sequences (created by Yoni Goodman, who made “Waltz with Bashir”) to dramatize their recollections of the circumstances and choices that had led to their confinement. Sackler was now completing two full-length films about the place—one fiction, one nonfiction—with little in common save the setting, a few faces, and a resolute regard for the humanity of men doing hard time.
By the second week of this year, the two films were nearly done, and Sackler and her producers (among them George Clooney, whose Smoke House Pictures signed on over the summer) had begun talking to distributors about how best to show and market them together. I saw near-final versions of both, and they make for a powerful pair. One could even say that they aren’t really prison films, according to the traditional mechanics of the genre. There’s no rape, no evil warden, no solitary-confinement montage. Prison is the village where they live. Sackler hopes to stage a screening at Pendleton, for all the inmates and guards who participated. Durham may get his party, after all.
Theothus Carter might not get to join them, though. He’d found trouble again. Last week, I received a letter from him: five pages on lined paper, in a careful script. Accused of assaulting staff and attempted drug trafficking, he’d been sentenced to two years in segregation. “I’m not allowed anything,” he wrote. “Basically I’m confined to an 8 x 10 ft cell for 24 hrs a day.” He enumerated the deprivations—no phone calls, even with family; no visits; limited shower privileges; lousy hygiene products—and wrote, “So life isn’t looking pretty bright for me at this present moment.”
He was certain that his role in “O.G.” had made him a target. “I’ve been harassed by the guards more during and after filming than in my whole time I’ve been in this prison,” he wrote. “I could never understand why they would allow us to make a film in prison if all they were gonna do was punish some of us for being able to participate in it.” (A prison official said, “Offender Carter is being held responsible for his actions.”) Nonetheless, Carter deemed the experience to have been more than worthwhile—the best time of his life, “second only to the birth of my one and only son.” He was determined to continue to improve as an actor. “This will be my new profession.” ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the January 29, 2018, issue, with the headline “Getting a Shot.”