Cassandra Hollis has directed, produced and written eight films, many of which are award-winning. The award-winning SAG film, The Altar, is airing now through 2013 on the TCT television network in the U.S. and airing on television networks in the U.K. and South Africa. Her three-part film series about the Underground Railroad, Mattie, Johnny and Smooth White Stones: Parts I, II, & III, was selected for inclusion in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program and distributed in schools, universities and libraries throughout the U.S. and Canada. In June, Mattie: Part III will screen at the 2012 Harriet Tubman Underground Conference in Cambridge, Maryland. Currently, she is co-producing a feature film with Gospel great, Helen Baylor, based on Ms. Baylor’s life story, A Praying Grandmother: The Helen Baylor Story.
(Bio updated by Her Film 4-5-12.)
Her Film: Can you talk a bit about your newest film and what drew you to this topic? How did you reach out to the film’s subject, renowned gospel singer Helen Baylor?
Cassandra Hollis: Amazingly, this project “found” me. Ms. Baylor saw me on a local television talk show discussing my previous 8 films and she said the Lord told her I was “the one.” For years, she’d wanted to tell her life story in film but never felt right about the
timing nor about who she could entrust her story with. She said she told her husband that she wanted to contact me and before I left the station, I received a note that they had called.
HF: In addition to you adapting Helen Baylor’s life story — published as No Greater Love (Vision Publishing 2007) — you are also working directly with her on the film and she appears with you in the pitch video on your website. Can you describe the type of relationship you have and the challenges that also go along with this filmmaker/film subject dynamic?
CH: Yes, she is the Co-Producer of the film and we have become like family during the process of bringing her story to life. As a filmmaker, working with her as I adapted her autobiography into the screenplay was unlike any writing experience I have ever had. Her
recall is amazing. She can describe details of some of the biggest triumphs and tragedies in her life. She even remembers details of furnishings, etc. It was rewarding to me as the screenwriter that when she read the screenplay, she said that not only did she feel like she
was reliving everything but that it seemed I was there as it happened. It was great being able to just call her or send over questions as I worked on the script.
Some of the challenges in our filmmaker/film subject relationship include just maintaining the daily grind of what it takes to bring a project like this to the screen. We live in different states and she travels a great deal with her singing career so sometimes it may take a few days to get a response back when I needed it yesterday (smile). I am just so proud of her commitment to share her story so that someone else may be delivered and helped. We’re on the same page with the same vision for the film so ultimately it all works out well.
HF: You’ve worked in television as on-air talent, as a producer and a director. To what extent do you draw off of your early experiences in this arena to inform your filmmaking, especially in the context of narrative filmmaking when much of your past work has been journalistic?
CH: What a great observation. I believe I draw a great deal from my journalistic roots and they readily inform my choices in subject matter. My films have addressed all sorts of social issues and ills, including homelessness, abortion, abstinence, centenarians,
Underground Railroad.. I have been able to address these issues within the context of narrative filmmaking and never been accused of making say a glorified documentary or glorified news story. So my films really just show the humanity behind whatever the issue may be. The issue is positioned as subtext largely because I’m not necessarily preaching about it. Nor am I necessarily taking a position. I just present it for audiences to choose whether they want to focus on it or stay focused on the characters and plot.
HF: Every experience in life changes us somehow, and as filmmakers, we spend so much time dealing with a script, story structure, etc. It is inevitable that these experiences change us as people and artists. How has your experience making A Praying Grandmother changed you as a person and as a filmmaker? What lessons have you learned in the process that you could share here?
CH: As a filmmaker, making this film has helped me to grow as a producer as well as director. My previous projects involved smaller budgets and therefore, I had not experienced all of the details along the way that must be covered when bringing a project to the big screen. I knew what the steps were but had not done them. Experience is the best teacher. Because of this experience I am well equipped to do more films on a large scale. I believe it helped me take my vision to global status.
Personally, I have even more compassion for people. To some degree, I’ve always wanted my films to help people. But, with this project I think lives will be saved. It has taken that mandate to a higher place for me. I really feel a sense of responsibility and urgency with all of the recent tragedies in the Entertainment industry. Helen was a rising R&B star plagued by her addictions to cocaine and all kinds of drugs. But she had a ‘praying grandmother’ who literally did not cease to pray for her. Someone needs to see that the power of prayer can really help pull a person from the depths. Someone needs to see that you can be delivered from drugs by the power of prayer. Prayer often becomes a cliche’ but Faith and prayer are powerful weapons. Someone needs to see that and get help. As I mentioned before, the film does not preach and is not super spiritual. It simply, elegantly and powerfully tells what happened to this amazing, annointed Gospel Great and how she lived to tell it!
To learn more about this film or to connect with the filmmaker, please visit:
Twitter: @HelenBaylorFilm and @cassandrahollis