Kevin Maxwell, director of "Cora"
When filmmaking became the overpowering passion in his life, Kevin Maxwell knew he wanted to make a film about his grandmother Cora's riveting life.
"It was an idea that happened when I worked as a logistics specialist at the Department of Homeland Security," said Maxwell. "One of my bosses, who was a mentor to me, told me I should be interested in my family history and know where I came from."
Two sudden incidents would be catalysts for a journey Maxwell was unaware he would take.
"One of my friends was killed in the line of duty on a motorcycle, he left work at 5 o'clock said bye to everybody and died at 5:15 p.m.," recalled Maxwell. "Right after that my grandmother slipped and fell on some steps and as a result nearly died."
Maxwell would resign from his job and go care for his grandmother while slipping into a terrible depression. But amid this time of personal hardship he grew closer to Cora and began to learn her story.
She would reveal to him her dangerous experiences as an African American woman living in the Jim Crow south of the 1960s while being trapped in an abusive marriage.
"The same sheriff's officers who were responsible for the notorious murder of Emmit Till, they used to just break into her restaurant that she owned and smash up the entire restaurant. They would come into her business and tear her pots and pans, they would dig into the food with their hands and terrorize the customers," said Maxwell. "And when she would go home, her husband would beat her right in front of my dad. He was cheating on her with a woman in the restaurant. So she was dealing with racial prejudice and with infidelity and abuse, all this simultaneously."
An urgency was born in Maxwell to tell his grandmother's story on film, first in a documentary for which he shot some initial footage. But some words of advice would guide Maxwell towards Santa Monica College's growing film production course.
"I had a screenwriter friend who I worked with at Staples Center before I had worked for the government. We were talking and he told me about Santa Monica College's great film program," said Maxwell.
He would go on to enroll in Film 31 and advance into Film 32 and 33, the set of courses taught by film professor Salvador Carrasco which place students in an authentic, film production environment.
During this time, the documentary project about Cora fell through due to funding problems.
"I wasn't going to do it," said Maxwell. "Then, it was like a ray of light smacked me in the forehead. I realized I had gone too far to give up now."
Maxwell went home and began writing the script he would title "Cora."
"It was the first script I would allow anyone to see. I don't allow many people to see my writing, it's too vulnerable for me. I use a lot of my life stories," he said.
The script Maxwell fashioned was an intense powder keg full of historical memories, unchained passions and raw characters. The dialogue is fierce and the drama unflinching.
"When I turned it in I got an email from Professor Carrasco, he took interest in it and asked me into his office and talked about the class producing my script."
The film focuses on Cora's years at a diner in the rural south. While she struggles with the harshness of an unhappy marriage, she must also deal with the local, racist sheriff's department which violently harasses the local black community.
"This is my dream, to get my grandmother's story out there before she dies," he said.
After the script was accepted, what followed was a period of revising the script under the instructor's guidance. Group readings took place with the rest of the class.
First Maxwell had to decide who in the class he could trust as a producer.
"Carrasco told me to basically choose someone I was prepared to be attached to everyday, because it's a lot of lot work. I didn't understand how much work." said Maxwell.
Maxwell would settle on classmates Cristiano Cardoso and David Field to serve as producers. When discussions began over how much the project would cost early estimates were of $12,000.
"I'm a big thinker so I said no, $30,000," said Maxwell. "That's what I felt would make it more authentic."
A campaign was soon launched on Indiegogo, an international crowd-funding site, with the help of the organization Operation Street Kidz led by Josof Sanchez and Julie Masumoto.
One major shift in the film's prospects came when Annie Spielberg, Steven Spielberg's sister, became involved with the project.
"My grandmother used to work for her," recounted Maxwell. "She used to have a home cleaning business. Annie Spielberg was one of her best clients."
A proposal package was put together and sent to Spielberg.
"One day I was driving and getting off the freeway, I was real stressed and I get a private phone call. I answered and I hear 'hey this is Annie Spielberg, is this Kevin? I couldn't breath." recalled Maxwell.
Spielberg committed to be the film's executive producer and Maxwell immediately relayed the news to Carrasco.
Inspired by films such as Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning," Maxwell and his classmates became one big film crew. Under the guidance of Carrasco, they set out to find locations and props for a grueling eight-day shoot that would sometimes last late into the night.
With "Cora" now in the can and undergoing the equally laborious process of post-production which includes editing and sound mixing, Maxwell and the crew hope to have the film ready to premiere at SMC soon.
Until then he hopes Cora's story carries a universal appeal.
"Everyone goes through things, no matter what race or where you come from," said Maxwell. "What I want people to get out of the story is that you can pull through and make it."