Filmmaker Scott Thurman on the Texas Textbook Wars

Independent Lens recently sat down with filmmaker Scott Thurman to discuss what went on behind the scenes of his documentary, The Revisionaries, which chronicles the oft-rancorous battle over Texas textbooks. The Revisionaries premieres on Independent Lens January 28 at 10 PM (check local listings).

head shot of filmmaker Scott Thurman

Filmmaker Scott Thurman

What impact do you hope the film will have?

I hope people pay more attention to public education and participate in local elections, especially the primaries for Texans.

What led you to make this film?

I was interested in evolution education and later heard about the 2008 Texas Board of Education’s controversial process for revising the science standards. At first I was looking to profile an energetic science teacher like the one I had in the fifth grade, Jerry Keller, but as I gained better access to politicians and people involved with the board of education, I decided to shift focus to the political issue as I recognized the dramatic ingredients for a more interesting and accessible story about the politics of education.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Working with the other producers and our editor, Jawad Metni, for a year to create the most succinct representation of the educational standards review process from over a thousand hours of footage.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

I started sticking around after the board meetings to meet board members, and after I was given a few initial interviews, I put together a short piece to apply for grants. I also showed it to subjects to help convince them that I was interested in presenting all sides fairly. I think this early trailer combined with my persistence over three years greatly contributed to my access.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

I filmed extensively with Ide Trotter, among other individuals heavily involved in the board’s process. But we decided to cut many of the public and experts because of our time restraints and also because we felt a flurry of characters was overwhelming and unnecessary when we could use four or five to walk us through a majority of our story.

Watch Witness a Texas Showdown Over Teaching Standards on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

The two moments when (Don) McLeroy’s position on the board shifts are the most powerful dramatic points and both clear examples of our distinct storytelling style. They’re dramatic because it allows us to see McLeroy in a very important, transformative situation, and it feels like we’re following a man’s “life,” rather than a political issue. Both scenes reveal a distinct style by encouraging viewers to see the more compassionate and human qualities of a character some would consider to be a villain.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

Most people are both alarmed and amused to find out how this political process works. I tell them I consider the movie a tragicomedy. All major characters in the film have seen it, and Don McLeroy, Kathy Miller, and Ron Wetherington have all participated in numerous post-screening Q & A’s. Ron is very proud and plans to show SMU students the film in class, and Kathy and her group, The Texas Freedom Network, continue to publicize the film’s achievements in their newsletters.

Don is happy with the way he’s portrayed, and gives our treatment of the science standards review process an “A,” but gives the history section an incomplete because he feels it makes the far-right appear to be against the separation of church and state. I still talk with Don about this even now, and I’m sure it will come up in the “Ask Me Anything” live chat on Reddit we’re doing Monday from 8pm to 11pm CST with Don, Kathy, and Ron.

Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A—interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?

Everyone wants to know how I got access to Don and what he thinks of the film. It’s always a great pleasure when I can bring Don up to the stage and let him speak for himself. Although I’m not politically aligned with Don, I’ll work to allow his voice to be heard, but I try to make it clear that I’m not suggesting science and non-science should be considered equally for the public school science class. I do think because of his political position, we should shed light on his educational philosophy so that the voters can make informed decisions, and I especially thank him for his willingness to participate.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

I only scratched the surface with respect to developing the main characters, understanding that the bigger picture and more of our screen time should be devoted to the political issue. Although these individuals are at the forefront of the story, I would’ve liked to explore more personal qualities of each character because I think it would reveal a more rich and complex narrative.

Scott Thurman and Don McLeroy in conversation after Don’s Sunday school class.

What are your three favorite films?

I enjoy every Errol Morris documentary because of the way he unveils information to create fascinating character portraits. Robinson Devor’s Zoo persuaded me to relate to someone I never thought possible, and similar to Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, it expanded the documentary art form by demonstrating alternative ways to use reenactment. On the fiction side of the fence, I put on Bottle Rocket once a month, like an album spinning in the background. In fact, Don McLeroy reminds me a little of the main character, Dignan.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Research the topic as much as possible before approaching potential characters, but at the same time, try to be a blank slate, open to the impressions of people you encounter and the personal stories that unfold.

 What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (This question is meant literally.)

I’ve been making a mean power breakfast mix about five days a week for about two years now! It consists of fig yogurt, super nutty granola, almonds, blueberries, bananas, cinnamon and coconut flakes. OK, maybe it’s more of a dessert that I’ve convinced myself is a healthy breakfast.