Get to know ‘The Seminarian’ filmmaker Lawrence ‘Law’ Watford
Black history buffs will be very pleased to know that Lawrence “Law” Watford has not been resting on his laurels since releasing his sparkling Catharsis short film. Law, who hails from Brooklyn, New York, has gained attention for telling stories that center on complex social narratives. He has now acquired the film, television, and digital rights to Patrick Parr’s book, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.
The biography, which was published by Chicago Review Press in 2018, explores the life of young Martin Luther King Jr. during his formative years as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
The book made waves when it was released, particularly because of its examination of King’s romance with Betty Moitz, a white woman who was the daughter of the school dietitian and sometimes worked in the kitchen.
However, Watford insists that his intentions for this project go far beyond the sensationalism of the title. Luckily, we got a chance to speak with him leading up to the film’s release.
Tell us about how you first fell in love with film and decided to become a filmmaker.
You know those romantic comedies where the main character goes through hell trying to find Mrs. Right, only to realize that the perfect girl was that best friend who’s been with them the whole time? That’s what falling in love with this craft was like. I grew up on movies and cartoons, but there was nothing back then to inform a black kid in the 80’s that they could actually have a hand in making them. So I spent my undergrad years thinking that I wanted to be something respectable, like a lawyer and then one day I saw The Matrix and realized that I really wanted to do that!
You’re not currently repped. How difficult has it been to reach this point without an agent or manager?
It’s a blessing and a curse. No one wants to hear from the talent about how talented they are. On the other hand, it’s given me a freedom that I almost certainly wouldn’t have.
What advantages come along with that freedom?
Well, for one, I’m able to take risks (for better or worse) and buck industry etiquette. I also have to hustle that much more and create opportunities for myself, but I think that that kind of “sweat equity” makes me industrious and resilient in ways that I might not have been had I had a rep guiding me.
Having said that, this industry has a formula and a key part of that formula is having an agent and/or manager with relationships advocating on your behalf, and that’s something that can’t be denied or overstated.
You’ve just optioned the TV and film rights to a Martin Luther King Jr. biography. What about MLK’s story are you most intrigued by as a filmmaker?
I’m actually intrigued by all of it and, over the years I’ve been thinking about various inflection points of his story to tell. But it wasn’t until Patrick Parr’s biography, The Seminarian, that it actually occurred to me that Dr. King’s first words at birth weren’t “I have a dream.” He had to grow into that man that we celebrate today and as I think about how my college years greatly influenced who I am today, it is very easy for me to want to explore that time in his life.
What about The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age specifically drew you in?
Like most people familiar with the book, I was intrigued by the revelation that ML (as he was commonly known by friends) had a white girlfriend during that time that he was apparently very serious about (pre Coretta). But in reality it was just the hook that reels you into a larger narrative about the various people and experiences that would play an important role in shaping him into the hero we know today.
What about MLK’s story do you think most people don’t properly understand?
I think we don’t understand his humanity, which is ironic for a human being whose life’s goal was to champion our common humanity. We read about his hardship, but take for granted what it really meant to carry his cross. We see him being celebrated, but fail to grasp the magnitude of what it means to have that level of celebrity. He’s not the monument(s) or national holiday that we seem to boil him down to. He was a human being who heeded an extraordinary calling. Once we appreciate that, I think we’ll appreciate his legacy that much more.
Can you give us a brief description of your vision for the project?
My hope is that we’ll be able to place the view in the heart of that time period from 1946 to 1951 and into the mind of a 18, 19, 20 year old that’s ventured far from home to a new place, with a new way of life, a new way of thinking and new people that had enduring impacts on his life. I want us all to look at MLK and remember the new-found freedom and reckless abandon we felt at that age.
Do you have any dream casting for the roles in the project?
Not yet. We have some ideas and names we’ve put into the pitch deck to create a sense of what the cast could look like, but haven’t come up with a dream cast yet.
What do you think it will take to fully realize that vision?
The goal is to develop the project as a limited series, so in that sense we’d ideally be looking for a network or streamer to pick up the project and shepherd it. However, I love making movies, so as we work the television angle, I’ll keep thinking about how to tell this story as a feature film. In that case we’d likely look for private equity to move the project in that direction.
We reviewed your film Catharsis back in March. In addition to optioning the biography, do you have any projects on the horizon?
Actually, yes. There are a number of projects in waiting, but I’m really excited about a HBCU (Historically Black College University) series based on my Tyler Street Films partner, Jack Manning III’s singing group during the 90’s. And we believe we’ve found a really fantastic partner (whom I can’t say until the ink has dried) to bring this project to life.
What role do you think film plays in political and social issues?
I think film plays a critical role in highlighting those issues because of its ability to direct our attention and empathy. As we become more settled into our bubbles and echo chambers, we also become increasingly more resistant to narratives and points of view that challenge our biases. Through “the hero’s journey” Film has the ability to force the viewer to empathize with perspectives outside of our own and reconsider the way we see the world in the process.
What’s your mission as a filmmaker?
My mission is to entertain, but also to create engaging narratives that cause us to do just that; consider and reconsider the ways in which we view the world and one another.
Do you have any advice for people who are new to the film world and are trying to find their path?
The only advice that I think I’m qualified to give is the old cliché “The race is not given to the swift or to the strong but to the one who endures to the end”. I’m only here now because I haven’t given up; haven’t stopped; haven’t accepted that it’s not in the cards for me.
Who are some of your current influences?
To be honest, they’re so numerous that I struggle to name them. I can say, though, that they tend to be actual films and television productions rather than people.
What music inspires you to create?
All music that crosses my path, and I mean that sincerely. Some genres of music I seek out and others happen to grasp my attention when they’re in rotation while I’m at the gym or in a store. But every story has a soundtrack and sometimes you can switch one song with another and completely change the feel of that story.
Are there any other indie filmmakers that should be on our radar?
I’m a fan of a filmmaker here in Brooklyn named R.H. Bless, who manages an insane level of output through his Block Exchange Films company; at least two films a year which lights a fire under filmmakers like me.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Oooohhhh. That’s tough. I can watch The Dark Knight over and over again, but I can say the same thing for Braveheart, Lord of the Rings and Blade II. So I got to give that one some critical thought… Might actually be something really old school like Robocop.