Since the script was completed in early 1995, "Monster's Ball" has been a magnet for top Hollywood actors and filmmakers. The project almost "happened" at one studio or another, with this star and that director, with one producer or another, maybe half a dozen times before the film was finally financed by Lions Gate Films in the spring of 2001.
"The project was evergreen," observes producer Lee Daniels. "Like many people I became obsessed with the script like no other. It is a rare script that depicts the immediacy of life with raw, rugged and layered characters, and actors live for that. "
One of those actors is Halle Berry. "I was attracted to 'Monster's Ball' the first minute I read the script," she says. "It's a wonderful part. The characters all have lots of levels, and they present a side of human nature that has always fascinated me. "
Berry joined the cast of "Monster's Ball" relatively late in the game, and fought hard to land the part. A star of many mainstream blockbusters who recently was honored with numerous awards and critical praise for her portrayal of screen legend Dorothy Dandridge in an HBO movie of the same name, Berry epitomizes Hollywood glamour. But there was something about the role of Leticia that drove Berry to pursue it relentlessly and, like the other cast members, agree to work for a fraction of her normal salary.
"I felt a deep connection to Leticia's spirit and her heart," says Berry. "I understand what it's like to struggle and be behind the eight ball and want to achieve and be successful and make something good out of your life. And I totally understand being a black woman, especially in the industry that I've chosen to be in. I can understand the struggle of wanting something so badly but not really knowing how to get where you're trying to go, and she's filled with a lot of pain, as I am. For me, the role was being able to tap into that pain in order to bring the character to life.
"In fact, every part in the movie, no matter how big or how small, is wonderful," Berry says.
These plum roles that so many actors pursued with the same passion as Berry were, it turns out, written by two actors who were living in Los Angeles and trying to get work. Will Rokos and Milo Addica partnered to write "Monster's Ball" with the idea that they could act in the film. They holed up in a Santa Monica apartment and wrote quickly, initially envisioning a micro-budget production in which they would star. They shared experience growing up in violent households, and decided that their film would be about how the cycle of violence can be broken.
But the script became more than a personal project for Rokos and Addica when Hollywood took notice. Top actors such as Robert DeNiro and Tommy Lee Jones and such directors as Sean Penn and Oliver Stone were at various times over the last few years attached to the film, but with these stars came the need for large salaries. And large salaries made budgets balloon. And ballooning budgets made executives uneasy, causing them to demands that Rokos and Addica soften certain elements of the screenplay. These were demands that the writers were unwilling to meet, and as a result "Monster's Ball" shifted from one home to the next, stewing in its own unique circle of development purgatory.
Ultimately, "Monster's Ball" would be directed by American independent director and Swiss native Marc Forster, a graduate of NYU Film School whose previous feature, "Everything Put Together," had its world premiere at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. "Monsters Ball" was photographed in the late spring and summer of 2001 in and around New Orleans and at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (also know as "The Farm"). The film is produced by Lee Daniels, with Michael Burns, Michael Paseornek and Mark Urman serving as executive producers.
"I begged Milo and Will to give me three months to put the movie together," says producer Daniels. A previous producer's option had just expired, and Daniels, who manages the career of Wes Bentley, felt the role of Sonny would be perfect for his client. Bentley quickly became attached.
Daniels went looking for a director, and along with Rokos and Addica, screened Forster's Sundance film "Everything Put Together" in New York in August of 2000.
Says Daniels, "When I saw 'Everything Put Together' I thought, 'this guy understands tough, personal material and knows how to work with actors. ' The movie totally got under my skin. "
"Everything Put Together" stars Radha Mitchell and Justin Lewis as a young, well-off, loving, suburban couple eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. Angie's friends are also pregnant and together their worlds revolve around babies, husbands and the rituals of family life. When an unexpected tragedy befalls Angie and Russ, the community that they were once integrally involved in begins to disappear. Forster creates a terrifying yet perfectly empathetic portrait of an alienated woman adrift in a hostile, suffocating suburban environment.
Says Forster, "I am very proud of 'Everything Put Together. ' The movie, and the fact that it got into Sundance where everyone saw it, made my career. It was an unusually strong year at Sundance, with movies like 'Girlfight' and 'Chuck & Buck' and 'You Can Count on Me,' and 'Everything Put Together' went a little bit under the radar. Frankly, the film's subject matter was simply too dark. " "Everything Put Together" would ultimately earn Forster the Movado "Someone to Watch" award at the 2001 IFP Spirit Awards.
In the meantime, executive producer Mark Urman, who at the time was co-president of Lions Gate, had seen Forster's earlier work at Sundance. Forster and Urman began talking about a separate project when he heard about "Monster's Ball. " He asked to see the script and, he says, "I flipped for it. I knew that this was the kind of film that would be tough to get made, but needed to get made. "
After going through years of coming thisclose, writers Addica and Rokos at this point retained all rights to the project as well as a thoroughly skeptical attitude. The key to getting the rights to their script, explains Urman, "was that we never asked them to change any plot after every other potential financier had insisted on changes. " The writers were also able to fulfill their original goal with "Monster's Ball" when they were promised small roles in the film. Rokos plays the prison warden; Addica plays a guard.
Lions Gate committed to finance the film once Billy Bob Thornton, the only native Southerner in the cast, committed to the role of Hank for a fraction of his regular salary.
With financing secure, casting began in earnest for the key role of Leticia, and competition was fierce. "I was in an awkward position as a relatively new filmmaker," admits Forster. "It seemed like every great black actress wanted the part, and it was very, very tough to make a choice.
Because she is so beautiful and glamorous, frankly for a long time Halle was the underdog. But she kept fighting for the part, and she was relentless in her pursuit. She was also, at the end of the day, the best actor for the role. "
In an interview completed about half way through production, Forster observed this about Berry's approach to her portrayal of Leticia: "It reminds me of a child who has been hurt when she was very little and has never been able to express her pain, and I feel like somehow that in her whole portrayal of the character she brings out these wounds, and ultimately she realizes that these wounds can be healed through love. "
About a week before shooting, Sean Combs, the hip-hop artist and producer, auditioned for and won the role of the condemned man, Lawrence Musgrove. Another popular rap artist, Mos Def, was cast as Ryrus Cooper, the Grotowski's neighbor. A local New Orleans boy, Coronji Calhoun, filled the pivotal role of Leticia's son, Tyrell. Calhoun, who has never acted before, won the role in an open casting call.
"Monster's Ball" was shot over five hot, humid weeks in May and June on the outskirts and in the neighborhoods of New Orleans. The production moved two hours away, to the fields, cellblocks and death house of Louisiana's State Penitentiary at Angola for one week to shoot prison interiors and exteriors. The location was a trying experience for the cast and crew; the tremendous heat broke, but the torrential rains of a tropical storm broke it, and the crew barely got their exterior shots in a single afternoon of calm weather.
For Forster, those shots - depicting rows of chained prisoners off to work in the fields, guarded by mounted officers with shotguns - were essential to the narrative and to indicate transformation in Hank's outlook following his son's death.
"Those sequences are taken from Hank's point of view as he drives to his place of work. I made a point of never to show Hank outside his job, in an exterior establishing shot or something like that, until you see his car, because he is captured, caught in that prison and in that life, without really even knowing it. "
But it was the prison interiors were truly harrowing to shoot, since some scenes were photographed in the prison's actual death chamber. Some crewmembers dealt with their surroundings by making jokes; others were truly disturbed by their surroundings. For screenwriter Milo Addica, playing a guard on the death team, the reality of his surroundings hit him when he noticed someone's initials carved into the wood of the electric chair.
Director Forster is convinced that the location had an impact on the performances. "It is impossible for a human being to walk down death row and look into people's eyes and not be moved," he says. You feel the vibe. It's palpable. Anyone can associate with that feeling of dread. The hallways where we were shooting were tiny, and the actors and crew were often cramped. There was literally no escape. " Additionally, the cast and crew stayed at a Best Western motel during the Angola portion of the shoot. The only place to stay for miles around, it was also the place where people from out of town visiting prisoners at Angola also stayed.
Shooting at Angola was made possible by the warden, Burl Cain, who not only granted the production access, but allowed for inmates to be hired as extras. The fees paid to the inmates for this work went to the Inmate Welfare Fund, a pool of money that provides for such shared goods as new television sets in common areas.
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Recently, screenwriters Rokos and Addica were asked by the trade publication Variety, what was the worst advice or studio note on a script they ever got? Their reply: "Not enough dialog. " "Monster's Ball" is indeed a spare film when it comes to wordplay; the character of Hank, as portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton, is particularly reticent.
Director Marc Forster observes that Hank "always lived in shadow of father and never expressed his emotions. He was never able to, because he was never allowed to. Personally, I come from a culture that is traditionally very emotionally restrained: you don't cry, you don't tell people you love them. It just didn't happen. "
Forster recalls that his family continued to be stoic and reserved even after his older brother committed suicide, when Forster was young. "When as a parent you have children and your child commits suicide, you automatically feel responsible and you blame yourself. It's probably the most horrible thing that can happen to a person.
"Yet in 'Monster's Ball, we never see Hank grieve," Forster continues. "But he does open himself up and talks about his feelings with Leticia. I always wanted a low-key performance from Billy Bob, since the other characters around Hank are very animated. Hank was hating himself and blaming himself, and I felt like the only way he might open up is if he felt like he had something in common with someone. "
"There are parallel events in Hank's life and Leticia's life," says Forster, but their lives are not mirror images of one another, because they come from different backgrounds. In her world, there is a greater physicality to her emotion, and the stakes are higher because of her poverty. "
Even so, Forster found the need to tone down some of Leticia's scenes, such as the one in which she beats her son Tyrell after she discovers his stash of candy. As written, the scene originally began with the violence and moved to quiet as Leticia and her son await Musgrove's last phone call from Death Row. The scene called for Leticia to not only slap Tyrell around, but to spit on him. "It was much more physical," Forster says, "but I thought it would be more effective to have the scene open with Leticia paralyzed by what was going on with her husband, then to lash out. She goes out to buy liquor, and loses control when she comes back to find her son indulging, too. "
Similarly, Forster did not stick to the page in the scene between Leticia and Hank before they become intimate. In the scene prior, Hank has exposed his feelings about the loss of his son for the first time. Inside, after drinking together, Leticia becomes a raft of emotion. "For the scene to work," says Forster, "Halle really had to let it all hang out. To prepare, I asked her to study herself, to try to put her finger on that moment when you are drinking, that moment between being drunk and not drunk. I wanted her to play the character as straight as possible in that scene, to try to act in control as much as possible. The last thing I wanted was for Halle and Billy Bob to imitate a drunk or out of control person, but to be aware that their characters were exposing so much in such a short time, and for it somehow to be OK. "
Again, Forster is convinced that the location in which they were shooting contributed to the performances. "The house we found for Leticia's house was in a really, really poor neighborhood," Forster explains. "We got the feeling that a lot had happened there, and I think we were even told that there was some alumni of Angola who had lived there. When we shot the scene I felt like I was a ghost in the room - like I was watching two people who had no idea they were being watched. It was just me, the DP and script supervisor at that point, and I do think we managed to achieve a remarkable level of intimacy. We were careful to never interrupt what Halle and Billy Bob were doing. I wanted the audience to feel like they were a part of the lives they were watching. The fact that it was real to me, and that I was emotionally effected, made me feel like we were doing something right. "
Forster is also particularly pleased with the confrontation scene between Leticia and Hank's father, Buck. "I always saw Buck as someone who had been living in a cave. That's the only world he knows. It's a horrible moment, like in a horror movie, when you realize that a character you think you know is truly evil and much worse than you might have thought. But it is also about having Leticia become aware of Hank's dark past for the first time. "
Perhaps it is because Leticia knows that she is involved with a truly scarred man that chooses to stay with Hank at the end of the film. As Leticia and Hank sit on the back porch, they are in the presence of three graves, a legacy of death that Hank has managed to survive. Says Forster,
"When she realizes how many have died, I think Leticia makes a conscious choice to stay with Hank, and she chooses the path of forgiveness. And because she is the one who chooses, she is liberated from her dependency on him for money and shelter. If she had chosen a path of confrontation she would still be in a place of dependence, because she would have needed for him to defend his kindness to her.
"The way Halle plays Leticia, she has a chip on her shoulder, because there is so much racism in her world. Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, Leticia is surprised by Hank. She is curious to find out what kind of man he really is, and when she finds out, she chooses not to run away. He is maybe not such a monster after all. "