The Supervising Producer Partnership: How CJ Hunt Found the Arc for "Neutral Ground" While Working with ITVS

By Craig Phillips
Posted on April 12, 2022

How do filmmakers and ITVS supervising producers work together in their back-and-forth partnership?

To best explain CJ Hunt's partnership with ITVS, we wanted to have him in the same room with three-time Emmy-nominated ITVS Supervising Producer Shana Swanson to explore what it meant to work together as funder and maker. 

Hunt made his feature film debut with The Neutral Ground, a satirical but pointed film that documents the dispute over the removal of four confederate monuments in New Orleans. The film embarks on a journey across the country to find out what it would take to convince America to end its long romance with the Confederacy. The Neutral Ground was an ITVS Open Call recipient in 2019, and within just two short—yet seemingly long—years, the film made its debut on POV on PBS.

During those two years spent putting the documentary together, Hunt had a great deal of input from ITVS, much of it from Swanson. In her eight years at ITVS, Swanson’s role has been geared toward guiding documentary projects through their different stages. The ultimate goal is seeing each work become the best it can be, in time for a public broadcasting premiere.

Every project is unique, and every story told is its own thing. This holds true for CJ Hunt, his background as a comedian and a field producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and his approach for The Neutral Ground. This particular funder-and-maker partnership between Swanson and Hunt was a new experience for both of them.

Learn more about what that relationship between Hunt and ITVS supervising producer Swanson entailed, and how Hunt found the expert balance between humor and pushing things darker, eventually getting the film to land where it did.

"Is This Guy Funny?"

CJ Hunt: Shana, I don't think I've said this to you, but I am so shocked at how many filmmakers I'm meeting, who are in the PBS system, who are like, "Oh no, we applied to ITVS like five times." And I wasn't aware that the acceptance rate is what it is when we got in, so it just feels great.

Shana Swanson: A lot of filmmakers don't know that first-time applications frequently don't get funded. Sometimes we do encourage filmmakers to continue to [apply] four or five times, and it's not always a reflection of the quality of the work, it's just that it's a very competitive fund. There are limited funds for so many talented people.

When we first met, CJ—I'll tell [this story] for filmmakers to know how important it is to get out in the field, to talk to people—I was aware of [you] when Independent Lens' series producer, Amy Shatsky, was reviewing your sample for a pitch session at IDA. Amy is a seat away from me and called me over, chuckling to herself. She's like, "I can't tell. Is this guy funny or not?" Then she showed the scene with you and your dad and I'm laughing, "Oh, yeah. He's funny."

That's what's really important about getting out in the field, letting people know you're out there, pitch as much as you can, talk about your film to everybody you can.

The Genesis of The Neutral Ground as a Feature

When CJ first came to ITVS with this project, it was originally conceived as a short film and not intended to be feature-length.

CJ Hunt: The decision to make it longer was both because of the heightening of the stakes of the actual story, and the lengthening of the timeline of how long it was going to take for the removal [of statues]. Being a short, satirical project, poking fun at people who cannot let go of statues or bear to see them moved, requires interviews with those people—and then requires you to see the removal actually take place.

When it became clear that contractors are leaving the job because they were threatened, and then in a court hearing, it came out that one of them reported his car had been bombed, it was like, "Okay, the stakes of this are making it higher than a little TV segment." It suggests a level of vitriol and backlash that actually has resonance in history. There's something deeper there. 

Also, it became clear those monuments were going to be held up in court for a long time.  

The notion [of it being] a full film was [from] both the depth of the violence revealing itself, and the roadblocks. "Okay, I think this is going to be a longer story." 

CJ Hunt in Union soldier outfit during Civil War reenactment

Getting Funding and Making a Good Clip

CJ Hunt: The most helpful advice I got was [from] Loira Limbal, who made Through the Night, which I think is one of the best vérité films I've ever seen—we were talking to her about the sample. At the time, my sample was trying to show my overall voice and approach, so it was a mashup of me doing man-on-the-street bits, and then just vérité footage of a protest.

Everyone who saw it was just like, "It's clear this filmmaker doesn't know what he's doing. These two things don't go together." "Random vérité [that I'm not in], and then little Daily Show-esque bits show that he does not have a vision for how this is a film." 

And Loira was like, "Look, my funding clip for Through the Night is the most emotional scene I have. That's it. You just have to show folks the core of what makes you want to make this movie and it is probably going to be the thing that makes you feel the most emotion." 

That advice plus Loira and [New Orleans-based] Chloe [Walters-Wallace, who at the time ran the Documentary Lab at Firelight], saying "You need to do more digging on your own story. You need to stop playing a character. If folks are going to be with you for 82 minutes, they want to see something real." 

Their advice was to go back and figure out why I'm so obsessed with white supremacy, and to make the funding clip the most emotional thing I have.

ITVS Supervising Producer Shana Swanson, at home

ITVS Supervising Producer Shana Swanson

The Feedback Loop and Finding the Story Arc

Shana Swanson: I remember, CJ, there was a turning point. We would have a lot of discussions about where the film is going and the relationship to you. I remember talking about this journey you had with your dad, in terms of him trying to protect you or let you know the truth about life, and you having to find out about the ugliness and the racism on your own. It was your own journey. 

Then having that discussion, you went back and rewrote the ending of the film, and it was very powerful. I would always say, "Do you have more footage of your dad?"

CJ Hunt: Yeah, the funding clip was the interview with my dad, and then a gap, and then a scene of me at Charlottesville. And as soon as you see that, it is suggestive of an arc, and that is what made funders all of sudden [go] "I get it. It is not just 'What's up with the monuments?'"

That doesn't feel like a film, but a young Black man having a convo with his dad and his dad being like, "You didn't know about white supremacy, and it was my job to tell you." Then this jump forward about me chasing white supremacy, helped folks see it.

In the convos I had with [you], I was very reluctant to understand that my dad was a star of this film and that [it] had to be about my journey.

The premise of a lot of satire, when you have a man with a microphone, involves not revealing true things about the speaker. It is pointed outward at who he is doing a piece on, not about your own story. Something always felt treacherous or self-aggrandizing: "Oh, the audience doesn't want to see me going deep in my own feelings and my relationship with my dad." Once I knew it was working, I just wanted it as a story beat. "We're done with my dad as soon as you understand I got lynching books and he embarrassed me and talked to my class about lynching when I was a kid"—that that was enough to set me off on a journey.

But both Shana and Darcy [New Orleans-based producer Darcy McKinnon] were like, "No, this is an arc. This is a journey with your dad. Can you go back and film with him again?"

Working with a Supervising Producer

Shana Swanson: So what was your expectation with ITVS and working with a supervising producer and the feedback? What are your thoughts about that experience?

CJ Hunt: I think the film was born of me and Darcy, and I knew we would be getting a "boss" from ITVS, but I did not expect the boss to be as integral to the story and helping us raise the "kid" together—a creative partnership that vastly exceeded my expectations of what it was going to be like to work with a funder.

Ursula Liang of [ITVS Diversity Development Fund and Open Call-supported] Down a Dark Stairwell told me, "Shana's amazing. You're going to love this." But I think whenever you bring a new person into your creative relationship, it's always, "Oh, are we going to get notes from corporate?" How do you have the trust? Immediately, it was clear Shana's eye is really good in [her] understanding of story and what she could pull out of me and push me towards. I really liked it, but I think that relationship is grounded in trust that doesn't always come naturally to first-time filmmakers.

When you're [a] first-timer, you're like, "What is somebody going to take away from me?" or "Is my voice going to be enough for somebody?," or "What are the notes going to be?" But I trusted Shana a lot [in] the places she would push.

It's about being able to see your own film through another set of eyes that's not on your immediate creative team, whose eyes you trust. That's more than just a couple of good notes or good instincts. Re-see[ing] my film, through Shana, ultimately made us hit on the things that seemed to resonate with audiences most.

Shana Swanson: I never saw myself as the boss, but what I get out of it is much more in terms of seeing the world through my filmmaker's eyes, that's what I love about the job. So yeah, we would talk about film, but we talked about other things, right? We talk about what was happening in terms of race, our feelings about the world, in terms of our experiences.

I remember times where I'd call you and say, "I have this scene in another film, I don't know what to think," and you set me straight. The feedback goes both ways, and in ways that are unexpected. It was just wonderful to learn more from you, and for me, that's the best part of the relationship. I learn from filmmakers, as well.

CJ Hunt with crew preparing to shoot Neutral Ground

What It Feels Like to Be Black

CJ Hunt: I also got to say, I like that we're both Black.

Shana Swanson: That is true, there's a shorthand.

CJ Hunt: There's a shorthand, and the film is a meditation on what it feels like to be Black and what it feels like to grow up Black. I cannot overstate how vital that bond of trust [is] and [that] back and forth we have, where I'm sharing thoughts, too. A big part of it [is]: How do you talk about race in this moment? How do we talk about race within our own family? Where are the places I am trying to show less of myself as a filmmaker and try to make it a film about a social issue?

This allows us to have intimacy and a shared perspective in what is important to tell about the story: What am I not courageous enough to say yet in this story, and what is the value in this moment?

Shana Swanson:  I do remember, at one point, you were pulling back on something. And I'm like, "Go for it. I want to see that." Because some other filmmakers might be less forthright in their opinion.

CJ Hunt: I think [it was] my enduring fear that the film would be criticized for not being "woke" enough. That it's just made in a time where a lot of what we do is take down other filmmakers for something that is not radical enough in their politics. For a film that spends any time with white supremacy, there's a vulnerability there. There are friends who would say to my face, "I don't know if you need to be going to a Civil War reenactment. I don't know if you need to put that person on screen," because their own set of politics and own relationship with white supremacy is like, "Don't give it any air." 

Shana was able to give me strength and echo my own instincts: 

If you're making a story about the endurance of a lie, you need to spend some time with the folks saying the lie. You need to spend some time taking apart the lie. You need to see it living and breathing, rather than saying, "Some people believe that the Civil War wasn't about slavery." It's like, "No, you need to go eat some chili with those folks and show people on-screen genuinely say, "I don't think the slaves were treated very badly."

White confederate statue defenders, from The Neutral Ground

CJ Hunt: I do think 80% of my fear with this film was just that it won't be enough. It won't be incisive enough. It won't be radical in its politics enough. And then the rest is: "Oh, you won't have funding or you won't complete it on time, or someone will take the idea first." 

You cannot make a film terrified that it's not going to be enough for this audience or that audience, because it's going to mess up what story you think you're telling.

That was big for me, the work of learning to listen to yourself and be able to hear your own voice within your work, feel your own instincts. That's a skill. 

It's like the echolocation bats have to bounce their voice off of something, and Darcy and Shana were me being able to bounce my voice off of them, so when Shana was like, "No, I think this joke is funny," [I say] "Thank you. This joke is great. I want to go there more." Or: "I don't think it's problematic that you're talking to this person, I think that's actually the film." 

The (IDA Award-Nominated) Music for The Neutral Ground

Shana Swanson: There are certain moments [as] a supervising producer where we just put the thought out there. We don't tell you what to do, we're opinionated about it, but what is always amazing to me, and why I really love the job, is filmmakers always come back with something better, and that was you. 

Continually, you'd get notes, and then think about it. Sometimes you'd do it, but it was always better.

One of the instances I want to shout out is the music. Talk to me a little bit about the composer you found in New Orleans and how that really did, in my opinion, open up your film.

CJ Hunt: I was clear from the beginning that I wanted this film to be really pop culture. The reason Gone with the Wind has replaced many people's memory of actual history is because it exists in pop culture. So from the beginning I [thought], "I am making a pop culture film about the lies of the Confederacy." Therefore, I wanted a lot of pop music. 

Now, number one, new filmmakers need to understand they're not going to be able to afford most of that, even with the ITVS budget, right? So all of our temp songs, originally, were "I Don't Know Much About History" or "At Last" or "This Magic Moment." 

We were going with a heavy soul vibe of breakup songs and love songs to underscore this nation's breakup that it has never gotten over—or this nation's toxic love, that it cannot help but be stuck in. I thought, "The one thing I am not compromising on is we need to find a way to pay for all these pop songs, because that is where the comedy lives." 

We brought it in, and Shana's consistent note was, "This music does not work, [it] sells you short. There's a scene in here where you are actually using the original composer you've hired and you need to just be going much harder at that. It's not that you have a composer for a couple of scenes, we need to really feel this score live and breathe in the film, because every time you do a score, it is better than every one of these pop music choices." 

That took me a while to hear, but it just meant that the composer we had chosen, we were then able to really let her envision the entire film as scored, rather than just certain scenes.

[Listen to clips from The Neutral Ground's score >>]

We found an incredible composer named Sultana Isham. Sultana has also composed for Ailey and so many other films now that she's pretty difficult to book. Her work is incredible, she's a Black Louisianan composer who is not only a virtuosic player of strings, but also composes broadly and studies race in music, and in particular is a scholar of the soundscape of blackness in classical traditions.

We were able to find with her incredible ways to use music as a time travel device, to be able to bring us through time via the music. We created themes around "what does an unfolding lie sound like?" When you listen to it, the sound of the UDC [United Daughters of the Confederacy] miseducating children about slavery has a sound that continues through the film. What does the sound of Black freedom and deliverance sound like?

The overall takeaway is sometimes music can be a crutch and when I wasn't wanting pop music, it was to try to borrow all the meaning and associations we have with a particular song and the lyrics. What Shana and our team pushed me to is, "No, when you are really investing in an original composer, you are able to create whole new meanings from scratch that are truer to your vision than paying thousands of dollars to borrow some meaning from a song that half of your audience will remember."

Bye bye Robert E Lee statue

On the Memorable Civil War Reenactor Scene 

Shana Swanson: I like that scene because that's where he used his humor to get to some truths, that's what a comedian does. That's why that scene works really well—CJ's reactions to it and comedic timing. That's where it all meshed really well for me.

CJ Hunt: That scene is me feeling incredibly comedically unsuccessful. If you look at the anguish on my face, it is a mixture of having white supremacists, sorry, Neo-Confederates, tell me that slavery wasn't a bad time. But it is also my anguish as a comedian: "I am not getting my jokes in." Our co-producer, Jeremy Blum said, "You need to stay long enough." [He] had a talk with me in the tent and was like, "I think all you are focused on is trying to get in these jokes, and you need to stay long enough to actually confront these men about what they believe."

There's also an assumption when you see me [to think], "Wow, he's just out there being plucky," but that is also the team. Jeremy, who ran one of the cameras, [said], "We've gone through all of this, but you have not fundamentally confronted them, that they don't understand their own documents. We need to stay, to sleep another night in this cold, for us to be able to get that." 

Being able to have folks that push you in the field, and then an editing team who's like, "Hey, you're aware that the jokes aren't the point of this, right?" 

Comedy vs. Darkness: Getting the Tone Right Was Tricky

CJ Hunt: The thing I'm proudest of in the film is its tone. Whatever we hit on with tone is to make it accessible. In the actual footage, it's me just trying everything. [In] the first clip you see of me in Charlottesville, I'm going, "Okay, I'm rolling… and this is the scariest thing I've ever seen." 

If you let that clip play, a minute later, it's just me in silence, turning to the camera and as these white supremacists are shouting, "Who, who, who, who," I just go, "These are big fans of the Baha Men." My editor Jane Geisler was the first person who really helped us find our tone, because she was able to say, "We don't need a joke there, bro. The emotion of the scene is: 'We are terrified for you.'"

And I go, "But I need to show the audience that comedy, for me, comes from a place of terror and I'm trying to make jokes to protect myself, even in the scariest moment." And she'd say, "We don't need that there." 

A similar thing with Shana was when I want to make this joke—the original voiceover was, "No one was clearer that Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy and possibly the South's first vampire…"—because he looked decrepit and he's wearing these old cloaks. To me, that's a funny joke, but Shana's like, "I don't like it," in a very Shana way, "You don't need it." 

"Why? This joke rocks. This is so funny. He looks like an old crusty vampire." 

But Shana's note was, "It bumps our sense of what is real. Your comedy can never take us to a place where we are questioning whether what you're saying is real."

My other co-writer, James [Hamilton], and editor/co-writer Jane Geisler, were able to bring me through how my jokes are structured, and then Darcy and Shana said, "Okay, forget about the how. Fundamentally, do we need humor here or are we using humor to hide from truth?" All of that creates this tone I think the audience assumes comes out of my head as some auteur—but really it is a team.

So it comes down to, how do you not hide? The humor can only be used to reveal something and to get closer to truth, and any moment we use humor to hide from something that scares us, [that] needs to be out of the film.

Craig Phillips is the digital content producer for ITVS and Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.


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