Writers are often told to write what you know. Miles Doleac takes it a couple of steps further. He writes, directs, and acts what he knows in The Historian.
Miles is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. His specialty is in the Classics Department. I recently had a conversation with Miles and Tamarah Murley about the movie and here is what I found. The story was influenced by his witnessing of the dumbing down of education because of administrative constraints and the Common Core Standards Initiative that has been in the news so much lately.
This is his directorial debut but being an accomplished theatre and film actor he knew what he was getting into. He had help with his long time friend and theatre director Mackenzie Westmoreland who helped him produce the movie but also had never worked in film before.
"This script is a gift to actors."- Glynnis O'Connor, on The Historian
To make the movie the best it could be he brought on board some of the finest actors he could get.
Casting William Sadler as the university history department head Valerian Hadley, along with Tamarah Murley as his secretary Jill who wants to keep the office running smoothly and without turmoil. John Cullum plays Valerian's aging father in the movie. You may remember John from the TV series Northern Exposure. A theatre veteran as well as film, he has won 2 Tony Awards for his acting performances.
In this movie Miles plays history professor Ben Rhodes, who has just moved to a university where he doesn't exactly get along with his boss, Valerian Hadley, the head of the department. Valerian does not make it easy for Ben, though I think he see's something of himself in the young professor. They are also at odds over Anna (Jillian Taylor), who is one of Valerian's favorite grad students and a love interest of Ben.
Also appearing is an actor I've admired for many years ever since I saw her in a TV production of the play Our Town is Glynnis O'Connor. I'm glad to find her in this movie. As Dean Jan Messer she must weigh the arguments of all involved. To do what's best for the school in spite of Ben's conflict with Valerian, and his ideas about teaching and how the school should be run.
As I mentioned earlier Miles is an actor in the theatre. He just finished a very successful run of Les Misérables at the Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The musical got held over an extra day for an encore performance. That's what you like to hear.
This movie has everything you might expect to encounter in a college setting: drama, relationships, happy, sad, and funny. Sure to be a hit you'll not want to miss.
Miles, you are a professor yourself as well as an actor.
Miles I am. I'm an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Tell me about The Historian and what the inspiration was to write it.
Miles The Historian began as my attempt to explore, to understand and to lay bare the debilitating malaise I had been witnessing in university education for several years. I wanted to do this through the eyes of a brilliant, but ego-maniacal and jaded history professor, who was part of both the problem and the solution.
The script started with a monologue wherein this professor, whom I called "Valerian Hadley", describes, gleefully and graphically, to an unwitting--and ultimately petrified--student the process by which the Romans perfected crucifixion. Three weeks later, I had a first draft. It was a long way from the shooting script, of course, but even very early on, I felt the birth pangs of a project that demanded to live, to be seen.
I had never directed a feature film, but I had always had this nagging, terrifying, fascinated desire to do so. The Historian compelled me to jump into the deep end. The film represents the culmination of two deeply meaningful paths that I have traveled in my life, paths that have now, fortuitously in my view, converged. I have, from childhood, been a lover of movies and theatre and an actor and, from early adulthood, I have been a student of history.
Although The Historian contains loosely autobiographical elements, it's not about me really at all. It's about the things that matter most to me: love, education, family, redemption. Perhaps most of all, though, it's about connections, the connections that we human beings desire and forge and sever and, with difficulty, rebuild between ourselves and humanity's undeniable connection to generations past, to the successes, failures, sublimities and cruelties of tens of thousands of years of history that now lay largely untaught and forgotten.
What is this malaise that you've witnessed?
Miles I'm talking about the constant lowering of the bar, the dumbing down of higher education, primarily based on the misguided business-based principle that large enrollments are more important than actually educating students. That's certainly seems to be the situation at the university level. And secondary education has been consumed with common core and standardized testing to the extent that students no longer get the very basics of English grammar.
I'm trying to teach Latin to students who don't know the difference between an adjective and an adverb and that's very, very sad. If I'm too tough on them, though, they might drop my class and that's bad for business.
My own academic department is very supportive of my old-school, Classical way of thinking about teaching, but at the administrative level of most every university nowadays, or at least the ones I've been around, class size and athletics are the number one priority. It's all about money and teachers are often expected to baby students through, whether that means actually teaching them something or not.
Do you find your incoming freshmen to be open minded and ready to learn about the world around them?
Miles Many, yes. But many also have already been conditioned to the fact that everything should be spoon-fed them. That they don't have to earn their grade. They are somehow owed it. They don't understand the consequences of failure, because oftentimes there are none or they are very minimal indeed.
But I do have eager, impassioned, intellectually-inquisitive and motivated students. Those are the students I'm most here for. Before I can begin to help them, they have to be willing to do the work to learn, to open their minds to seeing things in a new way.
Regarding the malaise. What do you think the solution is and does the movie address that?
Miles The solution is teachers who refuse to lower their standards and who continue to fight the good fight, who understand that the Classical model of education has been around a hell of a lot longer than the pencil-pushing accountants and administrators for whom the business of education has become more important than the process of educating.
And, yes, there is some of this in our film, for sure. Glynnis O'Connor's character articulates and encapsulates the very tricky dance in which modern university administrators must engage. She's a realist, but she also admires the idealism of our two main characters, despite the fact that she's beholden to the budget committee.
Tamarah, how did you get involved in the movie?
Tamarah The process started for me when I learned of the open call for The Historian which was being held in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I attended it and read for the role of Jill, The University's Classics Department Secretary. That's where I met Miles.
What happened next?
Tamarah A couple of days later, the casting director Matthew Morgan (Morgan Casting) emailed me to attend callbacks in New Orleans where I met and auditioned for the other producers. And a couple of days later, I got a call from Miles with the good news that I had booked the role! I remember it very well because I was on location shooting an emotional dramatic role on a short film. When I got Miles' call, I was so elated and doing the happy dance. It was a challenge to contain my excitement and joy.
For my role as Jill, I worked 5 days covering 8 scenes, I believe it was. Not only did I have the privilege to have Miles as my director, but I also got to act in some scenes with him as well as William Sadler, Collin Cunningham, Glynnis O'Connor, Jillian Taylor, and Lindsay Williams. Being cast in The Historian was such a great reward and thrill for me. It was definitely a highlight of my career thus far.
What was your character, Jill like?
Tamarah I enjoyed playing Jill because she felt very real to me. She was good at her job, very detail-oriented and kept the office running. She also was compassionate and cared about Valerian Hadley (played by William Sadler) who was a bit of a crotchety character. I felt like Jill was a peacemaker of sorts; one who wanted to keep everyone happy.
Miles, how did you get Glynnis on board with the movie?
Miles We just asked. That was one of the more difficult roles to cast. But we were on a roll with New York based actors like Bill and John Cullum and dealing with a lot of New York agents. Our casting director, Jodi Collins, was also based there.
When Glynnis' name came up, it just made a lot of sense. She was an absolute dream to work with in a very difficult role. She brought both grace and power. She was just what we needed as the voice of the "administration."
Tamarah I concur with Miles regarding Glynnis O'Connor. I had the privilege to work with her in 2 scenes. She was so kind and gracious and real. She made her performances seem so natural. I really enjoyed working with her.
Tamarah, did you work with John Cullum as well?
Tamarah I did not have the pleasure of working with Mr. Cullum. However, I've seen him in the film and wow!!! His talent and presence on screen is undeniable. Miles will have to share with you what it's like to work with him.
We know that you, as Jill , are the secretary of the classics department and Glynnis is the Dean at the university.. What are some of the other main roles of characters in the movie and the actors that play them?
Tamarah Besides the incomparable and 2 time Tony award winning John Cullum, there's award winning veteran actor, William Sadler who plays Cullum's son (as well as my boss) in the film. There's also Colin Cunningham who provided much comedic relief. And the lead actress role was played by the brilliant and talented Jillian Taylor, who hails from Yale School of Drama.
How did Colin get involved?
Miles I wrote the role of "Fletcher" for Colin Cunningham. Didn't know him at all. I had seen 3 episodes of Falling Skies and I knew he was the guy. I wrote it for him. Reached out to his agent blind. He signed on within 48 hours. The first cast member to do so.
Was funding a challenge for you since this was your directorial debut?
Miles Sure. It was. Everybody's got a movie, you know. So few actually materialize. Investors are rightfully suspicious, certainly with a first time director. But I refused to take "no" for an answer and I had a few good folks that rewarded my relentlessness.
I would also say that The Historian was born out of a partnership, that is with my producing partner, Mackenzie Westmoreland, a fellow director (of theatre) based in New York. I have known Mack for over twenty years and, although we had collaborated many times on the stage, we had never worked on a film project together.
Once I had completed the script, I called him and said, "You want to make this movie with me?" He said, "But I've never made a movie before." I said, "I don't care. I know you're the guy to help me make this happen."
That was less than a year before we rolled cameras. We set a date to start production on the phone that day and we kept it. Mackenzie's artistic journey is made all the more incredible in that he went blind about four years ago, yet he continues to be an active presence in theatre and film. He's a truly remarkable individual.
Where and when is the Premiere?
Tamarah The official premier screening of The Historian was granted to us by the defiantly independent Dances With Films in Los Angeles on June 5th.
Miles, will we see you directing again in the future?
Miles Absolutely. Both in film and the theatre. I'm working on my next script now. It's quite different from The Historian.
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