Interview With Director Madeleine Sackler

The director of O.G. and It's a Hard Truth, Ain't It discusses filming inside a prison and working with incarcerated individuals.


HBO: Why was it important to you to make O.G. in a maximum-security prison?

Madeleine Sackler: There have been so many prison films that it has become a genre of its own. As a genre, it has many tropes and elements that occur again and again. My goal was to disregard all the prison films that had ever been made and start from scratch. I felt that the only way to do that was by collaborating with people who are going through the experience themselves, which meant finding a prison that would permit me to work there. The goal was to listen. I wanted to find out what this prison is really like, what the people inside of it think about and feel, and I wanted to share that with an audience in the most honest and authentic way possible.

HBO: What was your goal in making the two films?

Madeleine Sackler: I only take on projects where I feel I have something to say narratively, and with O.G., the goal was to tell a story entirely from one character’s point of view. I knew it would be challenging, and that was a purely creative goal. I have made films about all kinds of things in the past, ranging from basketball to a theater group in Belarus. And before that, I worked as an editor and assistant editor, working on many kinds of projects. This was my first fiction film, and the only creative goal I had was to create a unique, authentic film, with indelible performances. Making the film inside the prison gave me an opportunity to find a new way to tell a story that takes place in a prison.

With It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It, we felt so fortunate that the prison allowed the men in the class to co-direct their own film. The goal was to facilitate and support them in a way that they could use the medium of film to share their own uncensored perspectives, questions, ideas, and thoughts around each other’s stories, as well as the story of violence in our country.

Beyond that, with both films, I hoped to find unique ways for the voices and stories of people who are in prison to be shared with the outside world. In O.G., we all worked together to shape the story, the dialogue, the characters, the performances. And in Hard Truth, the men took the filmmaking reins themselves. Both were truly collaborative experiences. I hope that, as filmmakers and storytellers, we can continue to find authentic and creative ways to work together to share stories that aren’t usually told.

HBO: How did you select the men in the prison who would be cast in O.G.?

Madeleine Sackler: The men who were interested in auditioning submitted their names to the prison. The prison administration then had its own process of reviewing each applicant, and about 150 men were approved to participate in the film. We held an open casting call with everyone, as you would any other film, but within the prison’s walls. Men who were incarcerated, as well as dozens of guards and other staff, auditioned, and we cast the lion’s share of the film there. In the end, there are nine experienced actors in the film; everyone else is acting for the first time.

HBO: Were the men paid?

Madeleine Sackler: In Hard Truth, no one was paid. In O.G., everyone cast in speaking roles was paid the same rate. Indiana law requires people who are incarcerated to give a certain amount of any income to a victims’ fund, and a certain amount back to the state for room and board. All background roles were volunteer, and people were given the option to sign up on any of those days.

HBO: What were the men incarcerated for?

Madeleine Sackler: From our perspective, we were working together to write and make these films together as a collaboration, and we did not discriminate with respect to who could or could not collaborate with us based on their crime.

HBO: Did you contact the harmed parties of the men that you worked with?

Madeleine Sackler: The Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) has very specific regulations for working inside their prisons, and they managed all outreach around both projects. From very early in the process, we coordinated with their Victims Services Division to ensure that every measure possible was taken to enable them to comply fully with those regulations. We provided the IDOC with information about the films and their release, including our contact information to share with any individuals who wished to be contacted with news about the responsible parties. According to the IDOC, many people prefer not to be contacted, and we wanted to be very sensitive to that.

HBO: Why is worthwhile to tell the story of people who have committed violent crimes?

Madeleine Sackler: The response that our country has had to violence – locking people up for an arbitrary amount of time and continuing to punish them once they are locked up – is not working. Our incarceration rate leads the world: 25% of the world’s prison population are in the U.S., while we have less than 5% of the world’s overall population. And about two-thirds of people who are released will be arrested again.

Listening to people’s stories and portraying their experience does not in any way mean agreeing with or condoning their crimes or disregarding the harmed parties’ experience. The model of restorative justice is a theme explored in O.G., and it was important to include the perspective of a harmed party in the film.

Many victims’ rights groups are now themselves advocates for criminal justice reform. More and more people are recognizing that a punitive system does not lead to justice or healing for the harmed parties and that there is a better way to address harm. Without a greater effort to understand, we will not get better at preventing these crimes from happening in the future. Both O.G. and It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It were approached with that goal of understanding.

“Having made documentaries before, I knew that I would only make this film as a collaboration with people in prison, and began looking for a prison that would provide access.”
— Madeleine Sackler

HBO: Why do you think you were the best person to make this film?

Madeleine Sackler: When I made my first film, which was a documentary, the father of one of the young boys was incarcerated. I got to know the family well, and I visited the prison with him and his mother while we were making the film. He was so excited to see his dad, and I spent time with the family, who could only see each other in the visiting room, as long as the boy could remember. The absence of his father and the difficulty of traveling many hours to see him every other month was deeply felt. I saw the impact that this one man’s incarceration had, not only on him, but also on his family and community, and I had never seen his experience portrayed in a film before. Having previously made documentaries, I knew that I would only make this film as a collaboration with people in prison, and began looking for a prison that would provide access.

HBO: How did you obtain such extensive access to film inside the prison?

Madeleine Sackler: I called many states’ departments of correction, and eventually Douglas Garrison at the Indiana DOC called me back. We started what would become a long conversation about the possibility of making a fiction film inside a prison’s walls, with the men there. I explained that I did not have an agenda and did not want to make an expose. I was only interested in listening and trying to tell a story as real and human as possible. Fortunately, Doug agreed with that concept, and helped introduce me to people at Pendleton. At first, we did not know if we would be able to film there; we only agreed to do research for a screenplay. But over time, and after many trips to the prison and working with the men there and the staff, we found a way to do it together.

HBO: Did you feel safe in the prison?

Madeleine Sackler: I did. We had no incidents during the making of the film, and everyone working on the film showed up incredibly well-prepared, professional, focused, and committed to the work we were doing together.