‘Mudbound’ Screenwriter Virgil Williams on Finding the Story’s Heartbeat

Photo Source: Steve Dietl

When he first read Hillary Jordan’s 2009 sprawling familial epic “Mudbound,” screenwriter Virgil Williams thought it had potential to be today’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He felt its incisive and emotional take on American history and racial politics in a post-World War II Mississippi, all told through a chorus of variant characters and voices, had the power to change minds. He tells us about adapting the piece for Netflix with writer-director Dee Rees.

He wanted the central relationship to be Ronsel Jackson and Jamie McAllan.
“The scope and the breadth of [the book] is very big. So what I had to do was locate what the heartbeat was. The relationship with those two guys is the sort of heartbeat, the spine. For me, it was the foundation of the whole story. Everything sort of grew from that. Because if you look at those two characters, they really are the connection…. These guys by choice come together and stay together. That pairing is essential to the success of the movie. So when I look at Jason and Garrett together, it’s just perfect.”

The chorus of different narrators was essential.
“I knew that you had to maintain that [narrative] mechanism in order for it to be [impactful]. There was never any consideration as to not using that; the question was always about how were we going to make that work. Once you fall into the rhythm of that, you are absolutely sucked in, which is part of what makes the ending so powerful because you’ve been with all these people and the story marches on. They just pass the baton amongst themselves.”

READ: How ‘Mudbound’ Star Jason Mitchell Took Hollywood by Storm

On casting Jason Mitchell as Ronsel.
“My involvement in the casting process was rather limited. As it goes in feature films, once the director is onboard—I mean, I am executive producer, as well, but Dee Rees really, really drove a lot of the casting decisions. But I can tell you this: When I heard Jason Mitchell was the guy, I was over the moon. Just based on what I saw him do in ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ that alone, it was one of those choices where I went, ‘Wow, that’s a really brave and interesting choice.’ Because if you’ve read the novel, physically, Jason Mitchell doesn’t really match what the novel describes. It is a, it’s a zig when you’re expecting a zag, and when those work, they’re always genius.”

The screenplay had to be unflinching, even in the end.
“It was a bit of a tightrope because I feel like if you go too far with any sort of graphic violence, it starts to become something else. It becomes sort of pure horror…. One of the things that drew me to the book and made me feel a responsibility to adapt was how honest and unflinching it is in its portrayal of America. What makes it so beautiful to me is that it’s pure America at its best and at its worst. You see two war heroes fighting for each other back at home. I think in this day and age, no matter what your politics are, that it is important for us to take a look at our own past.”

‘Mudbound’ has echoes of ‘Mockingbird.’
“When I closed this book I thought, ‘Oh my god, this could be the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for this generation,’ because it’s visceral, because the book is written in the same revolving point of view. It gives it that sort of Twitter feed feel that millennials are just used to. Kids in their 20s and younger need to be able to look at their past and see it for what it was so that in that knowledge, they can move forward and build something that they want it to be. And you can’t do that unless you see where it came from—it’s impossible. It’s impossible to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

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