It's Grits (1980)

Woodward on "It's Grits"

Stan Woodward talks about find the subject, making the film, and its reception.

 From an interview with Stan Woodward recorded by Saddler Taylor and Tom Davenport on September 9, 2015. Edited by Daniel Patterson.

 Finding the Film Subject

One day in 1975, three years into my time at the South Carolina Arts Commission, I was called into the director’s office, and he said, “Stan, this will be hard for you but you’re gonna have to stop what you’re doing and turn your work in running the Media arts Center over to your staff. It’s time for you to make the film that we contracted with you to do. We have $3,000 and we want you to start on it tomorrow.” And I said, “Well, I can’t cry on cue. I’m gonna need some time to get out of an arts administrator mindset and switch over to a filmmaker mindset. There’s a lot of distance between the two.” So, he said, “Do whatever you need to do, but you need to get to work on the film.”

 Well, I did leave the work to the other people to continue but I couldn’t come up with an idea overnight that met the requirements given to me. I turned to my friend and fellow Arts Commission staffer, Jay Williams, a film maven who had become my best friend. I told him that the time had come for me to make a film for the Arts Commission, but I had no idea what kind of film I would make. Jay said, “Well, Stan, you’re always talking about your favorite breakfast nooks that you like, the ones that serve grits and red eye gravy and cathead biscuits. And since your wife has moved back to New York, and there’s no one to eat breakfast with, why not hang out for breakfast each morning at these spots?” My wife Anda had had enough of hanging around South Carolina for three years while so much of my energy was being poured into setting up and running the film program at the Arts Commission. She suffered the filmmaker-obsession-and-neglect syndrome I’m sad to say many wives of filmmakers suffer. We talked about getting her out of South Carolina and back to New York and took steps to do so. Fortunately, Anda was highly valued by Met Life, which hired her back to take a higher position with the company than when she left her job three years earlier.

 Jay had another piece of helpful advice: “The Sinking Creek Film Celebration is a couple of weeks away. Why not see if Mary Jane Coleman” (founder and director for this huge festival in Nashville, Tenn., celebrating the works of American independent and student filmmakers) “can find someone to replace you in directing her hands-on filmmaking workshops so you can fully concentrate on viewing films for those seven days. They don’t serve grits in Nashville, so no breakfast hangouts for you there, but there will be loads of filmmakers you can hang out with for a week.”

 I did as Jay suggested and immersed myself in the high-energy celebration of America’s newest art form, viewing films all week at Sinking Creek and rubbing shoulders with filmmakers from morning to night. When I came back I told Jay, “You know, I can make better films than most of those films I saw at the Creek. But I left there without getting idea-one for my film.” So, he said, “Well, stick to your breakfast nooks.” Two weeks later I found myself eating breakfast at my favorite place on Main Street in downtown Columbia, the 1900 Block Diner. I liked the eatery because it had a cook named Annie who lit up the place with her personality and smile. Annie also made absolutely the best, fluffiest melt-in-your-mouth cathead biscuits I ever put in my mouth. And Annie cooked locally ground grits and locally cured country ham that produced the best red-eye gravy known to man. So I ended up spending most of my mornings at that restaurant.

 On this eventful morning I walked in and sat down, and after I ordered I began looking around and became conscious of a peculiar phenomenon. Everybody in this restaurant was eating grits. To be sure, I got up to go to the men's room and strolled around the tables, and sure enough, not a plate in this packed restaurant was without that signature serving. Then I set up my table as an observation stand, thinking, “I’m gonna stay here until somebody doesn’t get served grits.” Well, it never happened. So, after two hours and too much coffee I noticed this guy sitting at the lunch counter who had the worst-looking oversized plate of grits I’d ever seen. It was a muddy yellow-grey color brimming over the edge of the plate and filled with what looked like a pile of debris poking up out of the surface. Crumbled sausage and broken up bacon, country ham chunks, and sliced tomatoes and crumbled up cathead biscuits were in it for sure. The man who was eating the concoction was doing so intently, using a cathead biscuit half in his left hand as a pusher and with a fork in his right busily shoveling and making fork-lifts to his mouth in a steady cycle.

One of the black leather/chrome lunch-counter seats became available next to him, so I decided I’d go sit next to this guy and ask him a few questions. I set my coffee cup down next to him and after a moment said, “Sir, what’s the best way you like your grits?” He continues eating and hunches down a little more over his plate, probably a sign of seeking grits privacy while he seemed more intense as he kept shoving forkfuls into his mouth. I said this time, “Sir, I’m a filmmaker with the South Carolina Arts Commission and I’m thinking about making a film about grits.” Nothing. I then said, “Sir, what do you like about grits?” So, the guy suddenly pauses, turns to me and looks me square in the eyes and says, “Where are you from?” I said, “Spartanburg, South Carolina.” He said, “Do they eat grits in Spartanburg?” and I said, “Yes, sir.” “Well, why you got to keep asking me about grits?” As I started to reply, “Well, I’ve never seen a plate of grits like you’re eating,” he reaches up to the chrome napkin holder and jerks out the napkin, takes one of the five ballpoint pens in his work pocket and writes down the name of this guy and a phone number and slides it over to me. And he says, “If you wanna find out about grits, this man will talk you ‘til you’re blue in the face about grits. Now, give him a call him and leave me alone to finish my grits and get to work.”

Now this guy I had engaged was sitting on a lunch counter stool built-in so close together with the other stools that it put us at a distance of bumping elbows. So when he turned to look into my face I’d say we were eye-to-eye about one foot apart. That became a riveting moment. My memory of it is loaded with facial expression, eyebrow language, eye language and the totality of personality let loose and coming at me. The experience of that special moment told me that had I had the Éclair ACL on my shoulder with a 9.5 to 57 mm zoom lens in that exchange, I could have perfectly captured that visually loaded moment. With this in mind, I jumped up from there and literally ran the two blocks back to the Arts Commission, where I leaped up the stairs and into Jay’s office and, breathless, joyfully declared, “Jay, I think I found my film.” “What is it? he said. “It’s grits,” I answered.

Filming It’s Grits

I need you to come with me and grab the Nagra and boom mic,” I said as I opened up the refrigerator where we kept the film stock. I realized I that had an immediate decision to make. Would the grits film be shot in color or black and white. I knew that color film was gonna require camera lights, which meant lugging a light kit around everywhere we went. Color film had a color index that required light when shooting interiors, or the results would be grainy and the color unnatural looking. The Plus-X black and white film stock could be shot using interior natural light without requiring the use of artificial lighting. As I thought more through this I was urged on by a memory of when I was a kid and my dad would take me fishing on the family farm pond in Williston, South Carolina—a memory of black water and Low-country sand gnats biting me and my impatiently wanting to get out of the boat until dad put me on the dam saying, “I’m not through fishing yet. Go stand inside the old grist mill building where the gnats won’t bite you and wait till I’m through. My memory of this and the interior of the old dilapidated grist mill in ruin and my sitting on the old grind stone to wait for my father was in black and white. It was with this black and white image in mind that I chose the Plus X film stock. Meaning that my entire film would be in black and white.

I grabbed and loaded the Éclair camera and with Jay in tow headed back down to the 1900 Block diner. But by the time we arrived, so had the lunch crowd. The whole scene had changed. But I remembered a key lesson from my days with Julien Bryan when I told him of my idea about “The Licorice Train.” He said, “If you think you have a great idea for a film you must commit to shooting the first reel of footage right away, or it will remain an unacted-upon idea.” I committed to shoot something. Anything. I left Jay standing against the white washed wall outside the diner while I went inside to ask Annie if she would take a moment and step outside for a quick interview to help me get started on my film about grits. She sort of smiled, and she said, “Well, I’m fixing lunch, and you’ll have to wait for me to finish up some things in here.”

So, I walked back out and by that time Jay was already standing in a puddle of sweat. This put me in mind of one of the first things the director of the Arts Commission said to me about living in Columbia: “There’s no place hotter on the planet than Columbia in the summer. It’s a city built over hell.”

Annie finally came out and walked over to that white wall as she wiped her hands off on her apron. I lined up the shot and said, “Let’s do this, Jay.” “Tape rolling,” he said. “Annie, what time do you get here in the morning?” “4:00 am,” she answered. “What time do you start cooking grits?” “I put them on right away.” “And what time do you stop cooking grits?” She paused, and with her classic grin replied, “Well, we don’t. People like to eat their grits any time, day or night". I said, Thank you so much, Annie." I dropped the camera off my shoulder, turned to Jay and said, “Jay, this is the first shot in the Grits film.” And that was how the Grits film got underway.

I thought maybe the film would be a short ten-minute ditty. Little did I know that I had hit one of the tap roots of Southern Culture, and that it would take five years until the premier of what would prove to become a Southern film classic. By the time I had managed to work the shooting of the Grits film into my work schedule as director of the South Carolina Media Arts Center and Regional Film Editing Studio, I realized that making the film had taken me on a magic carpet ride through South Carolina and had shown me how much I love the people there, with their innate sense of humor and love of storytelling, their agrarian humility and unpretentiousness from having roots grown in toiling on the soil, and how much I loved the ways they answered a simple question asked by an erstwhile Southern cameraman, “Do you like to eat grits?”

A new tool—the Fujix Hi8 camera—opened a new, more effective way for me to make this film. I found that its wide-angled lens would let me get persons framed up easily as I approach them. Then I could keep eye contact with them and only have to glance to check the framing for a second and maintain my eye contact. I could shift my weight and take a glance at the same time to make sure my shot is still composed well. And I might use the zoom lens to get a closer shot. But I could do this very unobtrusively and in a way that would not call attention to itself. But it would never be something that distracted anyone from the concentrating on the subject on the conversation. The conversation would rule. And the extreme wide-angle lens would give me the safety to see that it does, while maintaining a decent shot. The Canon XL1 lens came with the camera. It had the right wide-angle lens for my use. It would work beautifully for me.

Editing It’s Grits

But as I moved into the days, weeks, and months of shooting and attempting to find the thread of story in editing the enormous amount of material gathered, I hit an editorial wall. One day I turned to Jay again and said, “This film is not going anywhere. Nobody is gonna sit and watch these beautiful people whose spontaneous interviews I’ve edited into a two-hour rough cut. He replied, “Well, maybe you need to take a break from it.” I thought about this, and realized that I was using a lot of time in the editing studio that other filmmakers waiting in reserve needed to use. So I stopped work, covered the shelves holding all my footage with black plastic bags, and returned to my work in running the Media Arts Center.

During these months, a number of filmmakers came through the studio from all over the South. I had a great opportunity to take advantage of the community of filmmakers we were building, talking with them about their work and my problem in editing the Grits film. These artists kind of kept me stimulated and anxious to get back to editing the Grits film. One day one of them came up to me in empathy and said, “Have you ever thought about music with this film?” My reply at first was, “No. What in the world kind of music would a grits film have?” But it did start me thinking. Then one of the local filmmakers from University of South Carolina was editing in the studio and in talking about my search for music for my film said, “I have a black guy working with me who’s from Columbia and he’s kind of a music prodigy. His name is Nat Irvin [ http://business.louisville.edu/profile/cvs/Irvinvita.pdf ], and he’s studying music at the University of South Carolina.” I got his contact information and wound up meeting with him at SCETV, where he worked part-time. When I met up with Nat I said, “My name is Stan Woodward, and I’m a filmmaker at the Arts Commission over across the street, and I’m making a film about grits.” Well, Nat’s face lit up, and he said, “Grits, what a great idea. What’s in it?” I told him I had a sensuous grits sequence, and I had these guys from a reenactment of the revolutionary battle in Camden, South Carolina, and this and that.” And he said, “Wow, that sounds great. When do we start?” I said, “Well, I’d like you to start by listening to the soundtrack of this old mill that we shot in the film that I think probably is gonna be at the end of the film. That would be an interior shot of the mill’s workings, and there’s a strap that runs the millstones, and it’s got this beat to it and it’s a beat that I would like to have in the film.” And he said, “Well, bring me that track. I’m gonna listen to it, and then I’ll call you and we’ll get together.” So I took the music track of the sound of the old grits mill over to him, and four days later he called me to meet with him. “Come over. My wife is gonna play the piano, and I’m gonna sing some songs for you.” So he had taken the beat of that old mill which went something like this, it went flackery clack, clackers clack, clackers clack in a steady beat. That night his wife played the piano, and he sang the grits music, and he had every one of the lyrics down. I thought, “My god, there it is. There is the sound that I need underneath my footage.” So I said, “When can you record this?” and he says, “Well, I’ve already arranged to bring my choir members to the recording studio across from South Carolina ETV next week, and I’ve got a band together that have agreed to contribute their time and lay down the instrumentals for the cause of a film about grits.”

The night the recording took place was the most amazing night in all of my years of filmmaking. As I sat behind the glass separating the mixing board from the recording studio and experienced all these folks contributing all their creative gifts as they flowed onto the music tracks, it was otherworldly. It lives so vividly in my mind today, but like some oft-recurring dream. When the work was done, Nat Irvin and Sandra were beaming. “I think this music was very blessed tonight. It is very, very special,” Nat concluded. And special it turned out to be. As soon as it was handed to me, I took that the quarter-inch over to the editing studio and transferred the track to 16mm magnetic film so it could be synched up, and immediately threaded the music track onto the Steenbeck to run in synch with my film work-print footage. That very night I edited the first segment. I cut a montage of clips full of matched action movement to the theme song starting out, “When I was a little baby, my Mama fed me grits.” Lo and behold, the film began to move and find its life. For the next week I edited day and night, sleeping on the roll-out bed built into the couch. And inside of two weeks I had a rough-cut completed that seemed to race along. The only thing I could compare with the sensation of watching the many disparate pieces fall into place with exponential speed is getting enough words filled in on a tough crossword puzzle so that the letters make it easy to fill in other words, and this accelerates to completion. It took little time to move to a fine cut, and I was able to set up a date with the Director of the Arts Commission for a premiere for the film.

Premiering It’s Grits

For the premiere we invited all the people that I had shot in the film—especially making sure that the peanut butter, chow-chow, and bacon grits cook was coming—and asked the Arts Commission staff to bring their favorite grits dishes which would serve as the food for the event. The Governor and his staff were invited along with members of the state legislature. The premiere was to be an amazing night of film in South Carolina. But the lead-up in the last days before the premiere was almost cause for a heart attack. I had sent my completed A, B, and C rolls of edited original and my soundtrack to the film lab that Julien Bryan used in New York well in advance of the premiere date. I was promised an answer print the week before the show-date. But two days before the premiere, the answer print had not arrived. I spoke with the president of the lab, invoked Mr. Bryan’s name, reminded them that I had been his official quality control man, and that I fully expected my film to be in my hands the next day. That day came and went, and no film. I called again late in the day, this time threatening to call Julien Bryan and put him on their case. I was told that the lab had suffered a bad batch of developer earlier that week, but he assured me that he had personally seen to it that my film went out by UPS overnight to arrive first thing in the morning. I couldn’t sleep that night after I informed the Arts Commission director about the last minute delivery of the film. Invitations with RSVP’s had been sent out, and it was made clear that my head would be on a plate the next night at the premiere if the film did not show up.

 By noon on the day of the premiere, no film. By two p.m., no film. I began to sweat, swear, and finally sit on my porch steps until finally at 4 p.m. here came the UPS truck. I signed for the package, took it inside where I had the Kodak Pageant projector set up that I would be using for the premier., and shook as I ripped into the package. The phone rang and Jay said that he had been waiting for me to arrive for half an hour at the premier site so we could test the quality of the image projection and the sound system. I was reminded that people would start arriving by 5:30 and I was cutting it really close. I told him I had threaded the film up at home and was going to make sure the print had no major flaws before I could bring it over. “You’re going to screen the whole film?” he exclaimed. “Absolutely!” I replied, and hung up.

 One thing that I had been rigidly taught by Julien Bryan was the golden rule for a film showing: Arrive and set-up your projector early; check to see that the screening room is fully darkened; and run a projection and sound test before you show your film. It was already 4:30, and my film ran 46 minutes. I was fifteen minutes from the premiere location. That was going to put me on site at 6 p.m. As I cranked up the projector I sat on the floor of my living room, arms folded, fists clutched tight, and a prayer uttered that went something like this: “Dear God, you have blessed me with the gifts of a filmmaker and led me throughout the making of this film. Please bless this film with projection mercies and let it be technically flawless for tonight’s premier.” Then I sat motionless as the film unfolded. I did not let myself laugh where the footage called for laughter, nor did I breathe, as I recall! By the time the titles had run I breathed a sigh of relief. The film was technically without a flaw. I put the film and projector in my car, drove up to the building where It’s Grits would premiere, and an ashened-faced Jay and a nervous staff helped set up the projector, glad to hear that the film was fully presentable.

I introduced the film after the director welcomed the invitees, saying, “Before we show the film for the first time, we want to ask that you all grab a plate and sample the favorite grits dishes prepared by the Arts Commission staff along with Mr. Lucas’s chow-chow pickle, bacon, peanut butter and grits dish that is featured in the film. Eating grits while screening the film might make it a lot easier on your tummy, not to mention on your sensibilities.” The film was very well received. People laughed at precisely the right place that let them know to expect humor that would follow throughout. And the moment of truth came at the end when the Director, who moderated the Q-and-A session that followed, recognized my mother and asked her, “Mrs. Woodward, what is your reaction to your son’s documentary?” A poised and refined Southern woman, she paused a moment then said, “Well, I think it might be a little more than anybody would want to know about grits.” This brought a roar from the audience, but, I have often thought, an edge of truth that cuts to the quick as far as a truthful mother’s remarks are concerned.

The Reception of It’s Grits

So, there it was—the film about grits that launched my filmmaking career. But I must say that on the drive from my house to the theatre where It’s Grits premiered I did not know whether my film was any good. For you see, you make these films, and you don’t know if they’re any good until they play the first time in front of an audience and you are able to see what happens in the space between the audience and the screen. Fortunately for me It’s Grits took off like a rocket. It started winning awards at film festivals, received excellent reviews, and appeared nationally over the New York PBS affiliate, WNET in a program featuring works by American Independent Filmmakers called The Experimental Television Workshop.

It happened that on the day my film was screened over PBS I was in New York to attend the American Film Festival. Out of nostalgia I visited the Brooklyn neighborhood I had lived in after attending Pratt Institute and went to get a haircut at the barber shop I frequented when I had lived there. The barber shop was on Montague Street, the street where I had shot the Brooklyn street fair for the Grits film. In the barber shop as I was seated getting a haircut I heard a man seated down from me say, “Did you see that film about grits last night on PBS? I loved the scene that was shot right here on Montague Street Fair right in front of this barber shop.” And another guy said, “Yeah, I saw that. What a crazy film. Who would have ever thought that there could be a film made about grits that you’d be able to sit through.” As they continued I sat there smiling, thinking that I wouldn’t say anything. But when one customer asked, “Who made that film?” I said, “I made that film.” All of a sudden everyone looked over at me in disbelief. “Oh, come on, you’re pulling my leg,” said my barber. “No, I did. I shot that film, I shot it right out here and I went into Manhattan and shot man-on-the-street interviews with Santa Claus, the Salvation Army, and Craig Claiborne.” “Aw, come on,” said another. Then, “Wait a minute, he has that Southern drawl. I remember hearing his voice. What’s your name?” I told him my name, and he said, “That’s it! I remember the name at the end.” My barber ended the conversation with, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. I never did think I’d ever be cutting the hair of a famous filmmaker!”

When I got back home I got a phone call from a professor of anthropology named Karl Heider [ http://www.der.org/films/filmmakers/karl-heider.html ] from the University of South Carolina. He asked me if I would be willing to let him show my film as the keynote for the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York which was coming up and I said, “I’ll be delighted for you to do it.” He said, “Well, I want you to come with the film,” and I said, “I’ll be glad to come with the film,” and he continued, “I want you to be on stage with me when I introduce it and present it and you’ll need to talk with the people there at the festival about the film afterwards. There will be a gathering of the world’s leading anthropologists and ethnographers, and I’m sure they’ll have questions for you about the film.” Well, I didn’t know what I was getting into and went back to New York with Karl Heider. He informed me that the emphasis at that year’s Margaret Mead a Film Festival was to be on the formation of the relatively new discipline of visual anthropology. Heider was to be the keynote speaker. His talk remarked on the need for scholars to begin making use of films by independent filmmakers who unconsciously have shot films naively capturing very useful ethnographic, cultural, and social content. It’s Grits as a keynote film would present a perfect example.

Heider introduced the film after framing the reason he chose to use it as the keynote for discussing his premises. When it was done, he didn’t say anything. I turned to him and he said, simply with a wry smile, “Your turn.” So I had to stand up in front of this huge crowd of scholars, later called by Heider the “lions” of anthropology, and try to think of what to say about the film. The only thing that came to mind was, “Do you guys have any questions about this film?” And then they started. It seemed that they were loaded for bear. When I was running short of answers, Heider recognized that this film had threatened the kinds of formal films produced by institutional anthropology and came to my rescue. Seeing how It’s Grits was used for applied anthropology and ethnography made me realize that once a film is produced and released—even a simple, down-home film like It’s Grits—it is defined by each audience that comes to view it. Meaning, then, is determined by the audience, not the filmmaker.

Survival of the Film It’s Grits as Artifact

It’s Grits has enjoyed an unusually long life. I get orders every month for the film. We have moved from the analogue era of 16mm release prints, and then VHS cassettes, into the digital age, where sales are on DVDs. At the time of its release, I had no inkling that twenty years after moving away from filmmaking and concentrating on teaching media literacy, then returning to filmmaking in the 1990s, I would be faced with a discovery about the original film stock on which It’s Grits had been shot. Resting in my lab, it was slowly deteriorating. I received a letter from Marvin Soloway, president of Cinelab in New York, where my Grits original was stored. The letter announced that the lab was going out of business because of the dramatic drop-off in 35- and 16-millimeter filmmaking. The arrival of the digital age in the 90s accelerated the video revolution, leaving the medium of film all but dead for independent filmmaking. In turn the lab was no longer profitable.

But it was the final paragraph that was riveting. In it Soloway said, “We’ve discovered from a number of our clients that black and white films that were made during a certain time in the 70s are suffering image deterioration from the reduction of silver halide content in the makeup of the film emulsion—an economizing decision by Kodak intended to create savings in the cost of the chemistry in making their film stock. . . . We recommend that you transfer the film to a more stable medium, probably a digital video format. . . . The deterioration is particularly noticeable in any places where footage is in any way overexposed.”

With all I had going on with the move back to South Carolina, this did not take priority, so I had the original material shipped back to me and I stored it away and concentrated on my new relationship with the McKissick Museum, the Southern Stews project, and, in the next years, a number of documentaries made in partnership with the Folklife Resource Center at the Museum. Only when I began talking with Jay about where I should donate my Woodward Studio documentary archives did he learn of the deteriorating state of the Grits film. Jay, who was so committed in the making of It’s Grits, said, “Stan, you can't let that happen.” So he led me to apply through the Museum for a film restoration grant through the NEA. That grant enabled me to work with Myron Leninsky, a lover of film, who established and runs one of the world’s top film restoration labs at CINE-POST in Atlanta, Ga. I had described my film to Myron and told him that I had received a small emergency grant to help me get It’s Grits restored. “Well,” he said, “I’ll screen it with you and I’ll tell you whether or not we can do anything for you.” When he started screening it he stopped after the first three minutes, left the room and was gone for five minutes. I couldn’t figure out what was happening and worried he thought the film was crap. He came back with seven technicians and he said, “This is an absolutely great little film, and I wanted you guys to screen it with the filmmaker, Stan Woodward, so you can ask questions about the visuals, because we are going to take on this project and restore his film.” Myron went on: “It’s a film about grits, and it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.”

When he started the film from the beginning, his staff of digital magicians were all laughing and enjoying the film. What was great about this is that they sort of adopted the film and took it on as something special. And when they finished it, the film was appreciably better than it was in its original form. I left with a Digital Betacam copy of the new film and a DVD master that would be used for making sales copies. As I left, Myron suggested that I cut an audio track with commentary about the making of the film. By this time it was 2004, and Jay Williams realized that 2005 was the twenty fifth anniversary of the year I started working on the film. He agreed to return to CINEPOST and lay down an audio recording with me recalling the making of the film while it was being projected. This became the bonus audio we made available upon release of the remastered film as part of the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of It’s Grits. For the special edition of the anniversary that played over South Carolina ETV in 2005, I produced a version of the film in which I invited some people who were instrumental in support of the Grits film to make commentaries at the end, and included these among the bonus footage I placed after the film ended. The Grits film was hugely successful and very important in shaping my career as a Southern culture and folklife documentary filmmaker.