Celebrity Interview: A Conversation with Belle Writer Misan Sagay

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Misan Sagay, recently participating in press interviews, brings an exceptionally engaging story of an interracial love affair, scandal, passion and courage to the screen as author of the screenplay for the box office beauty "Belle" from Fox Searchlight Films.

Sagay, a tall, slender, British African, fills the room with a warm smile. She is charismatic and charming.  Her speech is flavored with British flair and style.

We spoke on the making of the film, her writing process, and pitfalls, roadblocks and stumbles along the way. 

"Belle" is a wonderful film, eloquently written and brilliantly brought to the screen. Produced by Damian Jones, "Belle" stars Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Sara Gadon, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, and Sam Reid. 

Below is, in part, our interview.

Janet Walker: I do want to talk a little more about the process of the film. You said you were initially captured by the painting and you went back and it had been modified, the plate, so it captured your attention again.

Misan Sagay: Yes.

JW: And as a historian, there's obviously history attached to this, so as a historian you filled in the blanks.

MS: Yes.

JW: So describe that to me.

MS: Well, to tell the story, in many ways, Dido herself did. Her inner life, we know some things about her: Where she was baptized, when she was married. We have a few hard facts. We also have the records of the household. She appears in those records. Her name will appear and then we just have to read into those things.

When we're writing about Black people, in fact when we're writing about women, certainly, you have to hunt for the story in between the stories of men. Because that's actually what history is.  It is written by men, most of the time and they address very few  issues, if you read about Lord Mansfield's life and all the things he did it takes a woman to say 'what about the women in his life?'

Let's not talk about him at work. So that's what my aim was from the beginning to tell the woman's story. And once you start doing that it is difficult. Because when there are just to many people to involved to early you have a situation where you've have to respond to script reads many of which are skewed a certain way but they read any scene that you've written.

The ability for me to write the spec script to begin with, to spec the story, set the characters, set the intention very early on was very important and having done that the script evolved from that research and then evolved from the characters. Then I decided we needed to tell the story. From those characters scenes emerged and it was a very organic process. Which means it was a very robust screenplay by the time it all came about.

JW:  You had said that Damien Jones was the producer? What was your relationship and how did you become involved with him? And how did he get attached to the project?

MS: Damian was also trying to do a . . I believe he had seen the painting and had wanted to do something with it. And then we met and I think he became committed to my vision and so I don't know what he did before with his idea but we decided the Jane Austin story would became the film we were going to make.

Damian was a great champion for the project. He acquired it 2009 when it went to BFI (British Film Institute). He championed the project there. And with this kind of project you need people who are passionate because there would be so many setbacks.

What was fantastic about Damian as a producer and I think we always need this especially for a Black project is that as fast as he was knocked back with a "no" he would stand up again. I don't know how many times we were knocked back with a 'no' and I would turn back and he would stand up again and said we're going to keep going. And he was very instrumental in that and he never ever gave me script notes from the point of a man. (Laughter)

JW:  As a writer what's your writing process? In this project what was your writing schedule? Did you write every day?

MS: I just wrote every single day. Once I went into research I knocked myself out with research and started writing and wrote and wrote and wrote until the story was set, the characters were set, the scenes were set everything was there. I was very, very protective of it. I didn't put myself in a position that there was any extraneous influence on me.

It is passion for me that this is about us, as Black people finding our voices, telling our stories, the stories we want to tell and the way we want to tell them. And therefore when I sit in front of someone who says  I don't want to hear this story and actually you say 'well this story I do and you're not the boss of me.' (Laughter). You feel the same way.

So I feel that therefore when you're telling these slightly different stories it is important to have this space and I was able to create that space for myself. I wrote regularly everyday and it was a grueling process and it has been a grueling process. Whenever you have so many people feel so passionately. It was never going to be easy. Nobody falls in love lightly. If you really want an easy process don't fall in love.

As our interviewed progressed it turned unexpectedly to what she thought was a well known fact.

Explaining that while she believed it was common knowledge that during the process of financing the film she became ill which is when Amma Assante became attached to the project.

Formerly a physician, Sagay understood her illness could have resulted in her death.  Her personal struggles, which she felt went before her were unknown and from that time she created this wonderful, successful work.

While the two have never met, Sagay was very appreciative of the final project and explained "I left the project and Amma took over and became attached as director and she did a fantastic job. She picked up the baton and ran with it and brought the project home."

"Belle" is in theaters everywhere.

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