Meaningful Business (MB:) What are the origins of hiddenlight Productions?
Johnny Webb (JW): In 2019, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton published their best selling book, Gutsy Women. We loved it and approached them to adapt the book for TV. As we got to know each other, we realised we shared many things – an ambition to use stories to do good things in the world and a similar set of values and so the conversation grew naturally into a more ambitious partnership together.
MB: What inspired you to make films about the death penalty? Why that issue, and how did you approach it?
JW: I had the privilege of spending some time with Anthony Ray Hinton, who was on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit. I cried buckets and laughed til I hurt with his stories; at times horrific but at others deeply inspiring as he explained how he survived in his imagination. I was humbled by his humanity, his grace and humour. Ray’s story gave me the fire to use stories to help people understand more about the iniquities of the system. I always approach campaign work thinking about how we change minds. Too often, we can be preaching to the converted, so we set about thinking about who we wanted to talk to and what were the angles that might make them stop and think.
In 2016, we launched Deathpenaltyfail.org series of films that included a dramatic reconstruction of a botched execution in Oklahoma, a conservative view of the issue, a simple animation to explain the facts and, of course, a film about Ray.
MB: Tell us a bit about the “It Could Happen To You” films – What are they, and what did you hope to achieve?
JW: The one area the films didn’t focus on in 2016 was the number of innocent people who have been executed or are on death row. The numbers are as shocking as the individual stories. We wanted to present our contributors as people just like you and me – away from the tropes of death row – before revealing their true story, hence the idea of the near death experience. We want our audience to stand in their shoes for a few minutes to feel the horror, hurt and injustice of it as well as the courage and dignity.
MB: How do you see the role of filmmakers when it comes to tackling justice issues? What are some of the challenges?
JW: I was so happy to work again with Bruce Goodison, who directed the films and was my original collaborator on the earlier work. One of the risks is retraumatising people in the retelling of their stories and our duty of care comes before anything else. We are careful to present their story as authentically as possible and always mindful of sensitivities. Another challenge is keeping the stories accessible and emotional. Inevitably with the criminal justice system, you can get bogged down in the twists and turns of the case itself – fascinating of course – but sometimes this can separate the viewer from the emotion of the story. It’s connecting with the heart that drives change and action.
MB: WHat’s next for HiddenLight Productions?
JW: We are in the middle of adapting Gutsy Women into a ten part series for AppleTV+. It’s an honour to be able to elevate the stories of so many incredible women and to see the world through the lens of our hosts, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. I would also love to make a longer form piece about the criminal justice system – whether that’s a Feature Doc or a documentary series. Having made many short films in this area I’d relish the chance to have real time on screen to explore characters and stories. I’m on the hunt for the right story!
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