EXCLUSIVE: Tell Them You Love Me explores the story of a controversial affair between Anna Stubblefield, a white university professor, and Derrick Johnson, a non-verbal Black man with cerebral palsy. Stubblefield claimed she and Johnson had fallen in love, but when his family found out about their intimate relationship, she was arrested, and in 2015 stood trial facing charges of aggravated sexual assault.
Ahead of the film bowing on Sky, filmmaker Nick August-Perna sat down with Deadline, alongside Louis Theroux and Arron Fellows, who produced through their Mindhouse banner. The trio spoke about bringing such a multi-faceted story to the screen, capturing both sides authentically, and why festivals just didn’t get it.
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“It’s not often that a story comes along that has so many equal parts that are tugging at each other very forcefully, whether it be race or disability or gender,” August-Perna says about the feature documentary.
There was a personal connection to the story for the filmmaker, who grew up with a cognitively impaired uncle whose intellectual level was unknown. “I spent enough time around him to know that he had an extraordinary sense of memory, that he was a sexual person, that he appreciated tenderness, and that he wanted to be part of the conversation at the table at Thanksgiving,” he says. “He was fascinating to me as a child and that curiosity motivated me and carried me through this whole project because I had that from a very young age.”
Six years in the making, the film documents how Stubblefield claimed to have unlocked Johnson’s mind by teaching him to communicate using a contentious system called Facilitated Communication. Stubblefield and Johnson ultimately had a sexual relationship, and the academic was prosecuted for sexual assault, culminating in a divisive trial. She was 41 at the time and Johnson was 30.
Punctuated with footage of the Johnsons speaking to investigators, the film largely plays out chronologically. The filmmakers don’t offer up easy answers, eschewing quick judgements for empathy and nuance, with extensive contributions from Stubblefield and Johnson’s mother, Daisy, and brother, John.
For August-Perna — whose credits include 2011 music doc The Swell Season and food doc series No Passport Required — that meant working with Stubblefield and the Johnson family, capturing the story from both sides and being transparent with all concerned that there would be people saying things that they might not like, or that were being framed in a way they might not want to hear.
He says: “I would come from visiting Anna in prison when she was still there to going to the Johnson’s house in Newark, and I would bring with me the experience and feelings I had just come from, which was to say a pretty charged sense of empathy, and even sometimes feeling like I had clarity about what happened. And I would be bringing that to the other characters, and then I would also have the reverse experience.”
A central theme is how Derrick Johnson’s feelings are articulated. Developed in Australia in the 1980s, Facilitated Communications purports to allow non-verbal subjects to express themselves, in Derrick’s case via a keyboard called a Neo. It involves supporting an individual’s hand or arm as they select letters to spell out words, raising questions around the role of the facilitator. While FC still has advocates, much of the scientific world is skeptical.
Text yielded from the FC technique is used on-screen, but can that represent Derrick communicating? “In a way I think that is the question of the film and I don’t actually have a straightforward answer,” says August-Perna. “I think his voice is kind of at the intersection of himself, of course, of Anna, and of this third character, which is this machine — the Neo.”
Consultant producer Leroy F. Moore Jr., who has cerebral palsy, kept reminding the team to think about Derrick’s perspective and not underestimate or presume what he must have experienced.
“There is a kind of order of facts that happened in this case and from Anna’s point of view, it’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden romance, and from the Johnsons’ point of view, it’s the story of abuse,” says Mindhouse’s Fellows. “But Derek’s experience of what happened is something that we aren’t quite sure of. All we can do is be informed by people like Leroy off camera, and people like [academic and contributor] Devva Kasnitz on camera, to help us understand and think about what his experience of everything was.”
Theroux’s interest in the story was piqued by a 2015 feature in The New York Times. By the time Mindhouse reached out to the protagonists, August-Perna had already been putting in the work, spending time with the key figures and building trust and relationships. They joined forces, and Brooklyn-based August-Perna walked away from other deals to link up with London-based Mindhouse, which Theroux, Nancy Strang, Fellows and Sophie Ardern launched in 2019 after Theroux had ended his long-running production pact with BBC Studios.
The assembled team behind Tell Them You Love Me bristle when Deadline asks if this was a difficult film to finance and make because it’s not overtly commercial.
“I don’t agree with that and maybe this reflects more on my tastes and outlook on the world, but I always feel that if something is dramatic and emotional and has high stakes, why shouldn’t people engage with that?” responds Theroux. “I’ve made a career out of getting big viewing figures on subjects that are in this kind of terrain. I feel as though anyone who’s curious about life and love would find this a powerful and compelling narrative.”
Tell Them You Love Me played at The Hamptons International Film Festival, but has not had a wide festival run. For the people behind the project, that speaks to a disconnect. “There’s two different metrics here, or two different barometers that you can apply,” says Theroux. “One is, ‘How does it sit with the festival jury, or whoever sits in charge of festival submissions?’ And then there is, ‘How does it sit with a general audience?’ I think with the general audience, if they’re curious and find twisty-turny stories powerful, then they’ll love it.”
The lack of festival love hits a nerve with Theroux. He recalls how 2015’s My Scientology Movie didn’t get accepted at Sundance and many other major fests. “We couldn’t get it into Toronto, we couldn’t get it into a bunch of others, and we struggled to get a distributor… and then it went into theaters and people were queuing around the block to watch it.”
He adds: “We were all surprised having made the film that the festivals weren’t kind of throwing the doors open and saying, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing we’ve seen in years; this is so refreshing, come on in.’”
August-Perna thinks that on a human level, execs were riveted by the story and his film, but when they were back in business mode, were not always sure there was an audience. At an industry level, Sky has been taking some big swings in docs, however, and did get it. Its factual department, under the stewardship of Poppy Dixon, greenlit the film based on seeing footage shot by August-Perna.
“The reason that Nick decided that he was going to come on board with us was because our interests in it completely overlapped, and part of that was the fact that there weren’t easy heroes and villains,” says Fellows. “For some people that can be off-putting when they’re commissioning, but for us, that was the interesting thing about it. For Sky, for Poppy, and then for [commissioner] Hayley Reynolds, that was the thing they embraced. It wasn’t a binary, easy, hero-and-villain story.”
Having captured different and conflicting perspectives, August-Perna screened the film with Stubblefield and the Johnson family. “They all expressed to me that they felt the film reflected the nuance, the complexity, and, in a certain way, the tragedy of the story,” he says. “They each saw in the film things that they felt were important in terms of how they were represented. As hard as it was to see each other, that is to say the other side, they understood that’s what made the film interesting for people. I think they felt heard.”
In an era of rat-a-tat and bite-size social posts that reduce any room for nuance, August-Perna says his goal was to engage and activate empathy. “The film allows the audience the opportunity to reflect and feel each of these human beings’ experiences, the culmination of their experience and intellect, and hold space for all of that at once,” he says. “Then on a personal level, it is important to have people like Derrick on the screen. The option of just deciding not to include people like him is not okay and I think that has to be handled with the thoughtfulness and the time and the care that we were able to put into this.”
For Theroux, the film is “dark and complicated but also full of humanity.” It also, he says, is a calling card for Mindhouse: “I would say it’s been a dream project for us and is something that reflects the values that we hope to bring to all the films and the programs that we make.”
Tell Them You Love Me plays on Sky in the UK from February 3.
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