The premiere screening of Tom Brandau’s final film, Sadie Breaks the Silents, will be held at 1 p.m. at the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, September 11, 2021. The program is free and open to the public. Refreshments and conversation will follow at Drekker Brewing Company.
Janet Brandau recently talked to Greg Carlson about the project and Tom’s legacy.
Greg Carlson: I know you appreciate silent films, as did Tom. Had he made anything like Sadie Breaks the Silents before?
Janet Brandau: Tom had not explored a time period as far back as the 1920s in his directorial work. His interest in history and the past showed up in collaborations related to Edgar Allan Poe, but Sadie Breaks the Silents was a departure for him.
GC: A lot of Tom’s fiction and nonfiction work drew from the 1960s.
JB: Yes, his films — mostly but not exclusively — tended toward autobiography. Events that took place during his childhood played large in his storytelling and his imagination. Especially social justice issues, race relations and the space race. As a kid, NASA heading to the moon had a huge impact on him.
GC: The earthly and the cosmic.
JB: The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The American civil rights movement. As a Baltimore boy, he was surrounded by a city associated with all its joys and all its problems. He kept that foremost in his mind when he was writing.
GC: Knowing Tom, I am guessing that Sadie Breaks the Silents retained themes that were important to him.
JB: The movie maintains his focus on social justice. This one is set during the Roaring Twenties and expresses Tom’s passion for the history of motion pictures. The silent era saw so much evolution, so much technological and artistic development. Until the advent of synchronous sound, women worked in greater capacities behind the camera. A lot of that went away once talkies were cemented by the 1930s.
GC: In the silent era, it seemed like anything could happen, anything was possible.
JB: Things changed so much and so rapidly. We had a great deal of fun working with the time frame and the art direction and the locations. We have a basement full of props and furniture for all the 60s and 70s-era productions, but not so much for the 20s.
Sadie navigates her way with a crew on a low-budget, B-level movie. She encounters sexism and doubt. Some of his films featured all-male casts, but Tom wrote good parts for women. His mom was a character in a number of his films. During our journey as a couple, he wanted to create parts for me.
GC: Would you describe Sadie Breaks the Silents as a comedy or a drama?
JB: We’ve been talking about this during post-production. It is a comedy and there are dramatic moments. There are different sides to Sadie’s world. She has to handle a dominant producer, even at a distance. He is not on the set, so they communicate on the telephone. He provides plenty of conflict, along with the director, who is played by Tom.
GC: Do we get to see any of the movie-within-the-movie?
JB: There is a section in the beginning presented as silent to establish the era and initiate the story and reveal the conflict. And then later, you see the filmmakers starting to shoot. Parts of the silent film were shot using a Bolex so we could achieve that specific look.
GC: I am just floored by Tom’s determination.
JB: His illness definitely influenced the journey of this movie. For a long time, Tom would make a film every year. Then he settled into shooting a movie every other summer and submitting to film festivals in between, all the while beginning pre-production for the next cycle.
We met about a dozen years ago and started working together. My background is in theatre, so I came aboard with skill sets that complemented his. We had worked on a number of films before we were married. His diagnosis came six months after our wedding — Christmas, 2014.
GC: He never really stopped working on his films.
JB: Ordinarily, we would have been shooting something in 2015, but he spent part of spring at the Mayo Clinic for his original treatment. Even though he was weak and ill, he kept writing scripts. One of those scripts was Sadie Breaks the Silents.
We went back to work in the fall, and shot in the summer of 2016. Post-production was interrupted when Tom did not have the energy to keep working. His treatments increased in complexity. We had to temporarily shelve the project. He took early retirement in 2019, and I took early retirement to take care of him.
It was weird, in a good way, because we had nothing but time to spend together. We discussed many projects, including Sadie Breaks the Silents. You mentioned how Tom would not let up when dealing with people and there was a kind of superhuman component to him.
Seeing behind-the-scenes the degree to which his illness affected him, and then how he would go out and do things… he called on wells of strength. So even having conversations about a project that he knew he would never be able to see is a testament to Tom. That takes guts.
GC: Many people are grateful to have the opportunity to see Tom’s last movie project. And to you for completing it.
JB: So Sadie Breaks the Silents is very much as he planned and shot it. The movie is also an evolution, because I have made final choices to get it finished. And our collaborators are indispensable. Amber Johnson shot it and is also the editor and post-production supervisor. We have a composer. We have support in audio and color correction. And we have a hard deadline, with the screening coming up!
It has been a joyful process. Every time I see him on the screen, it makes me really happy and I think other people who love Tom will get a kick out of it. The character he plays is nothing like him.
GC: So many people in Tom’s orbit still think about him every day. To know he will be appearing in the movie is a special treat.
JB: Tom was a good filmmaker. The completion of this project comes from a place of joy. The loss of Tom is immense. I know I am not the only one who, like you said, thinks about him every day. Now that we can be together in person, which was not possible in March, this is a way we can share more of Tom with each other.
GC: What can we expect at the premiere?
JB: The screening will include two additional Tom Brandau films before Sadie Breaks the Silents. One he made with friends during high school that will serve as the cartoon. The other is his undergrad documentary Whales, Ltd. There are a lot of local people who have not seen that one before. And Tom provides the narration, so we get to listen to his voice together. The whole program runs about an hour.
Following the movies, those who would like to celebrate Tom are invited to Drekker for some additional fellowship. I want to hear all the Tom stories, so people should come prepared!
This article was originally published by Vague Visages’ Greg Carlson at the High Plains Reader on August 12, 2021.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.