Cora, One From the Heart – The Film of a Woman’s Triumph Over Adversity
By Bob Hershon
As Kevin Maxwell listened to his grandmother Cora tell her story of how she overcame the tragedies in her life; he became imbued with the strength and the vision to create a film that has traveled from Santa Monica to Cannes. Both Cora’s and Kevin’s stars continue to rise this August, as the film won Best Short Film at the 2016 Prague Independent Film Festival (PIFF) and was screened at at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center as part of The 22nd Annual Black Harvest Film Festival.
Cora, set in Tennessee in 1966, chronicles the struggle of an African American woman who against all odds, triumphed over racism and domestic abuse as she raised her son and ran her diner called “Cora’s Place”. The town’s only black owned business, it became a target for abuse by local law enforcement. Hearing his grandmother’s story transformed the course of Kevin’s life.
“I was in a really dark point of my life and when she told me how she overcame her experiences with adversity, I envisioned her story and it gave me this deep-seated strength and feeling of resilience, Kevin said.” “I knew I had to share her story with others. My life and career were immediately altered because I resigned from a stable career (Homeland Security) and embarked on a risky path of entrepreneurship and filmmaking in search of a way to bring her story to life.”
How Kevin got the film made and finished was far from smooth sailing. Rather than take part in the Hollywood hustle, Kevin chose instead to speak from the heart, communicating how much he cared about Cora’s life lessons and how badly he wanted to bring her story to the screen as he describes his method for success.
“The importance of sharing your experiences and feelings is that people see you are authentic and care deeply about your work; then, they will begin to enlist in your cause.”
First time filmmaker Kevin learned a host of hard lessons on how an independent filmmaker gets it done after the initial crowd funding campaign failed.
“At first, I wanted to produce a full-length documentary about her life, but eventually shelved it because of funding challenges”, Kevin explained. “And given the lack of resources I had at my disposal at the time, I continued searching for opportunities to no avail. After about a year, the SMC Film Program took a chance on my grandmother’s story, so I finally decided on capturing, what I thought the most compelling fragments of her story, which were to me at the time, in short film format.”
“After, our first Indiegogo crowd funding campaign failed, one of our producers Juan Felipe Zuleta suggested that we approach Santa Monica College Associated Students and attempt to raise money through them, Kevin explained.” “In our pitch meeting, I was simply transparent and vulnerable. I spoke from the heart, expressed how much I sacrificed in my personal life to make this film a reality and why it was very important to my grandmother Cora and I.”
Later additional funding came Kevin’s way after writing a letter to Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven Spielberg) Cora’s executive producer. Then Deidre Weaver at the Santa Monica College Foundation reached out to Kevin and introduced him to a new source for crowd funding that allowed him to finish Post Production.
In addition to the exceptional cast which includes Latarsha Rose (Being Mary Jane, The Hunger Games, Willie C. Carpenter (Men In Black, Grand Canyon) and John Lacy (NCIS Los Angeles), Cora’s stunning visuals, shot on the 4K Red Camera as part of the film program at Santa Monica College, were aided by colorist David Bernstein (Titanic).
“Much of the credit for the look of the film goes to our Production and Costume Designer Melissa Cripe, Cinematographer Marcus Karlberg, and Cinematography Supervisor Vishal Solanki, Kevin said.” Melissa Cripe took home 2 awards at the recent Santa Monica Film Festival where she received honors for her costume and production design.
All the scenes in Cora’s diner were shot during two long nights at the now defunct diner Callahan’s, on Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica, the same diner the movie Zodiac used as a location. Through the magic of lighting, production design and later color grading in postproduction it was transformed into a 60’s diner in Tennessee.
One of the best kept secrets in town, The SMC Film Program, has in the past 3 years been selected by Cannes Film Festival twice and received the Kodak Scholarship Award, a world wide competition awarded to only 3 student directors a year.
The trip to Cannes Film Festival was Kevin’s first excursion out of the United States and introduced Cora and Kevin to the wider film world as Kevin points out.
“The fact that we had a chance to screen my grandmother’s story on the other side of the globe was humbling. It was by far the best feeling that I have ever had. My grandmother was extremely satisfied, happy and beyond proud. This may sound cliché, but given how hard I fought for this, it was a dream come true. “
“By far, one of our most valuable interactions and contacts we made in Cannes, was meeting with a film producer that is interested in investing into the feature length version of CORA. He invited us to his million-dollar yacht to network on the harbor of Palais De Festivals, where we further discussed Cora. It was such a mind-blowing experience. Our producer David Field made this possible. He streamlined the conversation and we are now deepening our interaction with this contact to make it all a reality. “