When The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance this year, its director/writer/star Nate Parker received a lengthy ovation – before the screening. The film, about the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, received another prolonged ovation afterward; some people in the audience were in tears. In the hours afterward, distributors lined up and a $17.5-million (U.S.) deal was secured with Fox Searchlight (there were other offers, even more lucrative) – the largest acquisition in Sundance's history. Everybody was talking about this film.
Now they're talking about it for a different reason. With the film's prerelease buzz building, a 1999 rape allegation against Parker has resurfaced. He was charged and acquitted, but as a Variety story published in August revealed, his accuser (who, Variety reported, said she been harassed after making the allegation against Parker and his friend Jean Celestin) killed herself in 2012.
Despite the controversy surrounding Parker's past, Fox Searchlight is still mounting a strong marketing campaign for The Birth of a Nation, bringing it, along with Parker, to the Toronto International Film Festival next week, where the issue will be presumably addressed at the film's news conference.
The film itself is a quintessential American story – it's about slavery, a rebellion, and its release comes as African-Americans, continuing to fight racial discrimination, have formed their own liberation movement, Black Lives Matter. The movie is called The Birth of a Nation, for heaven's sake – a reclaiming of the title from the 1915 D.W. Griffith film, a notoriously racist KKK-glorifying epic, also considered a cinematic masterpiece, about the Civil War.
But the 2016 film also has a crucial Canadian component: It is made by a Canadian studio. Bron Studios, based in Metro Vancouver, produced the film and, along with its Toronto-based financing partner Creative Wealth Media Finance, brought in about 45 per cent of the funding. Bron's president and chief executive officer Aaron L. Gilbert is a producer on the film. (His wife, Brenda Gilbert, is a co-executive producer and Creative Wealth founder Jason Cloth is an executive producer.)
The Birth of a Nation, which is scheduled to open in theatres Oct. 7, has its international premiere at TIFF next week, down the highway from Gilbert's hometown. "For me as a producer to now be in the position to make these kinds of movies – that's exciting as heck," says Gilbert, who turns 44 on Sept. 9, the day of the TIFF gala screening. "It's a movie that we couldn't be more proud of."
Aaron Gilbert was born in London, Ont., the youngest of three children to medical professional parents. He went to McMaster University, but dropped out. He started managing bands, living in Los Angeles and then Vancouver. In Vancouver, he started doing some work for the company that is now Rainmaker Entertainment and became acquainted with that side of the business. He was involved with launching several IPOs during the dot-com era; he started getting into the financing end of things.
"I was always a guy who wanted to make money," he said during an interview from the Tribeca Film Festival. "I had a job from 14 years old." (Bar-back and dishwasher at Kelsey's.) He also established a partnership, a company called MediaMen that was involved with global licensing of content – in particular, licensing music content in Southeast Asia. That company sold in 2006.
Back in Vancouver, Gilbert was trying to figure out his next move. Then in 2008, the financial crisis was on, and the makers of the film Daydream Nation needed funding; an investor had pulled out but commitments had been made.
"They called me and asked for help and I said 'I don't know; I have no idea; I've never done this before,' " says Gilbert. "And somehow I was able to make a bunch of phone calls and put together the money they needed to get that film financed and made."
That led to more financing requests. "So all of a sudden I'm now helping people put money together," he says. "And I'm like, 'Whoa, how does this work exactly? I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'm doing.' And essentially I just kind of created a business out of that."
Bron Studios was officially launched in 2010. ("Bron" is an amalgamation of Brenda and Aaron; when I say "Like Brangelina?" he responds "I like Bron better," and laughs.)
One of the films Gilbert financed was a sci-fi thriller called Paradox. This turned into a real-life horror show – but a seminal one: it changed his career path.
The film was going sideways, he explains, and he had to step in and actually produce it. "So all of a sudden I'm plopped on a film set, literally something I had never been on other than visiting once before, and I had to figure out how to make a movie. I will tell you it was probably the scariest part of my professional life at the time," he says. "But it was probably also the most important situation I have had to go through in business because it was the very first time that I realized this is really what I should be doing."
Now Bron, which employs more than 150 people, most of them in B.C., is hitting its stride. In addition to The Birth of a Nation, Bron has partnered with Paramount for Denzel Washington's Fences (which will be released in December) and produced Ricky Gervais's Netflix film Special Correspondents. In August, production began on another Bron project, Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow and Chloe Sevigny. And they're in prep for Jason Reitman's latest, Tully. There are too many high-profile projects to list.
Bron does no service work (U.S. films that are shot in Canada) and has made only two "Canadian" films. Bron Animation's first feature, Henchmen, is to be released in 2017. Its second, The Willoughbys, is scheduled for a 2019 release.
"Bron spent the first four and a half years of its professional career in the minor leagues and I feel like we've just stepped up into the major leagues in the last year and a half," says Gilbert, who prefers hockey (he played, he coaches) to baseball.
"My dad tells me it took me 20 years to be an overnight success."
Bron's headquarters are located in a Burnaby, B.C., neighbourhood that nobody has ever called glamorous. The place is a stone's throw from the SkyTrain tracks, stashed in one of the many warehouses in this industrial neighbourhood. A townhouse development under construction on the short block suggests changes may be coming to the area.
It's a sizzling summer day and Gilbert is looking after one of his three children in his cool, dark office (the eldest, 15, has a part-time job at Bron; he's around, too).
Nate Parker's 1999 rape charge has not yet made it to the news cycle as Gilbert, sitting on a comfortable couch, talks about his passion project.
When Gilbert took a meeting with Parker in January, 2015, he did it essentially as a favour. They shared an agency at the time and Parker had been having trouble finding support for the film. There were many rejections, but such commitment – he had decided not to take any more roles until this film got made. Gilbert agreed to what he believed would be a courtesy meeting at the Sofitel in Beverly Hills – 20, 30 minutes. Four-and-a-half hours later, Gilbert was on board. "Literally when I walked away from that meeting, I was changed. And there was no way I wasn't going to make that movie. I just had to figure out how."
During that meeting, Gilbert had cried; he had talked about things he hadn't thought about or discussed "in maybe forever." He felt like he had met someone who was put on the earth for bigger reasons. "Earlier in our conversation I talked about moments that changed my career path," he said to me. "Meeting Nate Parker clearly changed my life path." Four months later – it was that fast – they were on a sweltering set in Savannah, Ga. It was a tough shoot – tight budgets ($10-million), 28 days, difficult conditions.
Last December, after completing the sound mix, about a half-dozen members of the production team, including Parker and Gilbert, watched the film in the theatre there. "We all wept, truly," says Gilbert. "And that's after we'd seen it 900 times."
When it had its world premiere at Sundance in January, there was none of the usual what-will-the-world-think anxiety. Gilbert had no doubt that audiences would also be blown away. And he was right.
So was the timing. From #OscarsSoWhite to Black Lives Matter, the U.S. mainstream was newly, acutely aware of severe racial tensions – inequality, police shootings, protests. The film, an early critical hit, could also play an important societal role, Gilbert felt.
"There's a call to action here as part of this movie," he says. "I hope people listen to that call."
When the story resurfaced about Parker's past – and then the fate of his accuser – the glowing focus on the film morphed into a critical glare. Parker and Celestin (who shares a story credit on the film) were charged with raping a Penn State freshman in 1999. The accused said it was consensual sex. Parker was acquitted; Celestin convicted of sexual assault – which was later overturned.
Gilbert, who had spoken of Parker in such glowing terms during two lengthy interviews prior to the case making fresh headlines, told The Globe and Mail he stands by Parker – and what he has said about him. He says he did not know about the allegations before they resurfaced this summer.
"This came out of such left field for me. It's such a hard one because I'm so supportive of this filmmaker and so supportive of this film," Gilbert said by phone. "Ultimately for me I just have to focus on this film and the filmmaker and where I am now, I don't know anything about the past; I don't want to start weighing in with opinions on any of that; I have to focus on the movie that I produced."
He was grateful that Fox was continuing to support the film. He said he has talked to Parker, of course, about the situation, but did not want to say anything more about that. "I stand by him and I stand by this film." He acknowledges some concern about possible negative impact on the film's box office and its reception – the American Film Institute recently cancelled its planned screening, for example – but he hopes people judge The Birth of a Nation on its own merits.
"This film is such an important movie," he says. "And the hope is that as more and more audiences see it, they will focus on the movie." Someone shouts "rolling!" – Gilbert is on set in Malibu, the first day of production on Beatriz at Dinner.
"Once people see it, I think they'll see what an incredible picture it is."
Later that night, he followed up by e-mail. "I can't speak to what happened 17 years ago, because I did not know Nate then. The man I know now is the man who made this incredibly important movie, which he single-handedly willed into being. It's an incredible feat."
The Birth of a Nation plays TIFF on Sept. 9, 9 p.m., Visa Screening Room; Sept. 11, noon, Roy Thomson Hall; and Sept. 17, 3 p.m., Princess of Wales Theatre.