By Greg Carlson
12 August 2021
The premiere screening of Tom Brandau’s final film, "Sadie Breaks the Silents," will be held at 1 p.m. at the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, September 11, 2021. The program is free and open to the public. Refreshments and conversation will follow at Drekker Brewing Company.
Janet Brandau talked to HPR’s Greg Carlson about the project and Tom’s legacy.
Greg Carlson: I know you appreciate silent films, as did Tom. Had he made anything like “Sadie Breaks the Silents” before?
Janet Brandau: Tom had not explored a time period as far back as the 1920s in his directorial work. His interest in history and the past showed up in collaborations related to Edgar Allan Poe, but “Sadie” was a departure for him.
GC: A lot of Tom’s fiction and nonfiction work drew from the 1960s.
JB: Yes, his films -- mostly but not exclusively -- tended toward autobiography. Events that took place during his childhood played large in his storytelling and his imagination. Especially social justice issues, race relations, and the space race. As a kid, NASA heading to the moon had a huge impact on him.
GC: The earthly and the cosmic.
JB: The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The American civil rights movement. As a Baltimore boy, he was surrounded by a city associated with all its joys and all its problems. He kept that foremost in his mind when he was writing.
GC: Knowing Tom, I am guessing that “Sadie” retained themes that were important to him.
JB: The movie maintains his focus on social justice. This one is set during the Roaring Twenties and expresses Tom’s passion for the history of motion pictures. The silent era saw so much evolution, so much technological and artistic development. Until the advent of synchronous sound, women worked in greater capacities behind the camera. A lot of that went away once talkies were cemented by the 1930s.
GC: In the silent era, it seemed like anything could happen, anything was possible.
JB: Things changed so much and so rapidly. We had a great deal of fun working with the time frame and the art direction and the locations. We have a basement full of props and furniture for all the 60s and 70s-era productions, but not so much for the 20s.
Sadie navigates her way with a crew on a low-budget, B-level movie. She encounters sexism and doubt. Some of his films featured all-male casts, but Tom wrote good parts for women. His mom was a character in a number of his films. During our journey as a couple, he wanted to create parts for me.
GC: Would you describe “Sadie” as a comedy or a drama?
JB: We’ve been talking about this during post-production. It is a comedy and there are dramatic moments. There are different sides to Sadie’s world. She has to handle a dominant producer, even at a distance. He is not on the set, so they communicate on the telephone. He provides plenty of conflict, along with the director, who is played by Tom.
GC: Do we get to see any of the movie-within-the-movie?
JB: There is a section in the beginning presented as silent to establish the era and initiate the story and reveal the conflict. And then later, you see the filmmakers starting to shoot. Parts of the silent film were shot using a Bolex so we could achieve that specific look.
GC: I am just floored by Tom’s determination.
JB: His illness definitely influenced the journey of this movie. For a long time, Tom would make a film every year. Then he settled into shooting a movie every other summer and submitting to film festivals in between, all the while beginning pre-production for the next cycle.
We met about a dozen years ago and started working together. My background is in theatre, so I came aboard with skill sets that complemented his. We had worked on a number of films before we were married. His diagnosis came six months after our wedding, Christmas, 2014.
GC: He never really stopped working on his films.
JB: Ordinarily, we would have been shooting something in 2015, but he spent part of spring at the Mayo Clinic for his original treatment. Even though he was weak and ill, he kept writing scripts. One of those scripts was “Sadie Breaks the Silents.”
We went back to work in the fall, and shot in the summer of 2016. Post-production was interrupted when Tom did not have the energy to keep working. His treatments increased in complexity. We had to temporarily shelve the project. He took early retirement in 2019 and I took early retirement to take care of him.
It was weird, in a good way, because we had nothing but time to spend together. We discussed many projects, including “Sadie.” You mentioned how Tom would not let up when dealing with people and there was a kind of superhuman component to him.
Seeing behind-the-scenes the degree to which his illness affected him, and then how he would go out and do things . . . he called on wells of strength. So even having conversations about a project that he knew he would never be able to see is a testament to Tom. That takes guts.
GC: Many people are grateful to have the opportunity to see Tom’s last movie project. And to you for completing it.
JB: So “Sadie” is very much as he planned and shot it. The movie is also an evolution, because I have made final choices to get it finished. And our collaborators are indispensable. Amber Johnson shot it and is also the editor and post-production supervisor. We have a composer. We have support in audio and color correction. And we have a hard deadline, with the screening coming up!
It has been a joyful process. Every time I see him on the screen, it makes me really happy and I think other people who love Tom will get a kick out of it. The character he plays is nothing like him.
GC: So many people in Tom’s orbit still think about him every day. To know he will be appearing in the movie is a special treat.
JB: Tom was a good filmmaker. The completion of this project comes from a place of joy. The loss of Tom is immense. I know I am not the only one who, like you said, thinks about him every day. Now that we can be together in person, which was not possible in March, this is a way we can share more of Tom with each other.
GC: What can we expect at the premiere?
JB: The screening will include two additional Tom Brandau films before “Sadie.” One he made with friends during high school that will serve as the cartoon. The other is his undergrad documentary “Whales, Ltd.” There are a lot of local people who have not seen that one before. And Tom provides the narration, so we get to listen to his voice together. The whole program runs about an hour.
Following the movies, those who would like to celebrate Tom are invited to Drekker Brewing Company for some additional fellowship. I want to hear all the Tom stories, so people should come prepared!
September 26th 2021
September 20th 2021
September 15th 2021
September 6th 2021
August 30th 2021
By Kris Gruberperriex1@gmail.comThat old adage no longer applies: There is now such a thing as a free lunch, and it is here to stay. With help from a willing community, the founders of Lunch Aid North Dakota are continuing their…
Sabrina Hornungsabrina@hpr1.com15 July 2021“We have a guy that's been involved with the show for many years as a landlord and knew what it was like in the heydays. So he knows where he wants to take it.” says WE Fest General…
By Greg Carlsongregcarlson1@gmail.comTing Poo and Leo Scott may be the directors of record, but “Val” unfolds almost purely as the kaleidoscopic personal diary of subject and writer Val Kilmer, the mercurial one-time superstar…
by Kris Gruberperriex1@gmail.comAdam Quesnell's last show at The Cellar beneath the Front Street Taproom in Fargo was in early September of 2018. He was embarking on a seminal move from Minneapolis to LA. As always, his comedy was…
By Kris Gruberperriex1@gmail.comSpring is here (mostly), and our area is buzzing with people eager to get back out and about -- many newly vaccinated and feeling a bit safer. Partnering with Jade Events, Fargo Brewing is just…
By Theresa L. Goodrichsubmit@hpr1.comIt was day ten of our epic southwest road trip and we’d made it to Arizona. After camping in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and New Mexico, we were exhausted, but fortunately our night in…