In 2011, when then-Loyola University Chicago professor Mark Bosco approached his colleague Elizabeth Coffman about an idea for a documentary about the writer Flannery O’Connor, “I groaned a little, because documentaries are a lot of work,” said Coffman, who is currently a filmmaker and scholar at Loyola.
A documentary about the Georgia author seemed especially arduous, because she gave only one existing television interview, a 1955 conversation with Harvey Breit on his NBC television show “Galley Proof” about her short story collection “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
“She was on TV before she even owned one,” said Bosco, a scholar on O’Connor and now a Georgetown professor.
But Bosco had another way in. He had been given a handful of video interviews with people who had known the author in the 1990s, done by a friend who had wanted to document people who knew O’Connor before they died.
So at a Flannery O’Connor conference in Chicago in 2011, Bosco and Coffman got started, interviewing the Flannery fans and scholars.
This was the beginning of their work on “Flannery,” a film that will be released virtually on Friday due to the pandemic and that can be watched at www.flanneryfilm.com. Bosco and Coffman will also be holding four discussions on Mondays, from July 20 to Aug. 10.
The documentary provides an account of O’Connor’s life, and how it fed her Southern-Gothic style work. The film delves into her Roman Catholic, Southern upbringing in Georgia, and tackles questions such as whether O’Connor should be seen as an exclusively Southern writer or a national one.
The issue of race was a significant consideration, particularly in light of the era in which O’Connor lived and the fact that O’Connor’s letters and fiction use racial slurs.
According to Bosco, the directors were already “very conscious” of how race played into the film when they began work in 2011. In light of the current national dialogue about race, however, they have revised sections of the film by including more interview clips that explore how O’Connor interacted with race and racism.
“We think that we dealt with race in a complex way, [and] tried to show the texture of the times,” said Bosco.
The film tracks O’Connor’s development as an artist and writer at college and writing workshops up until her early death back in Georgia from lupus in 1964, before she turned 40.
The lack of footage of O’Connor herself meant that the film’s directors “had to think creatively,” said Coffman. This yielded a documentary that combines O’Connor’s pictures and documents with other authentic archival footage of the same period. Interview subjects include artists and intellectuals such as Alice Walker who were influenced by O’Connor. The interviewees, such as writer Alice McDermott, are filmed reading aloud from their favorite passages in O’Connor’s work.
“We really wanted to have the words of O’Connor spoken by other artists … to honor the fact that these people were Flannery O’Connor fans,” said Bosco.
In order to reach interviewees, the directors appealed to a common love for O’Connor. The film is narrated by actor Mary Steenburgen, who reads in O’Connor’s voice. It also includes comedian Conan O’Brien and actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Both Jones and O’Brien wrote their undergraduate theses on O’Connor, according to Bosco, and so “we went and asked, ‘Can we interview you, we heard you love Flannery O’Connor,’ ” said Bosco. “[With] Mary [Steenburgen], we wrote her agent a heartfelt letter and she responded.”
To conduct their archival research, the directors hired two archival research assistants and pushed to find “every single image we could.”
O’Connor’s cartoons and her children’s books, which are shown in the documentary, came from the Emory University Library in Atlanta, which holds the Flannery O’Connor Archive. The careful research led to “Flannery” becoming the first winner of a brand new Library of Congress award — the Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film— in October 2019; the award recognizes “Flannery” for exceptional use of original research to narrate stories in American history.
Along with taking a deep dive into the archives, the documentary’s creators also hired artists to bring O’Connor’s stories to life with original cartoon animations.
“She was a cartoonist and a painter her whole life, so we decided that doing animation and motion graphics to represent her stories would be a nice complement,” said Coffman.