After watching the acclaimed documentary VISIONS OF LIGHT, AFI Alum James Adolphus (AFI Class of 2011) became inspired to change the trajectory of his career and pursue cinematography – which ultimately led him to the AFI Conservatory where he received the prestigious Fisher Fellow Scholarship. Now a three-time Peabody Award-winning cinematographer and an Emmy Award®-winning director and producer, James has spent the last three years working with powerhouse producers Lena Waithe and Debra Martin Chase on the documentary BEING MARY TYLER MOORE, which he directed, produced and served as a cinematographer on. The film, which recently premiered at SXSW, delves into the life and legacy of television icon Mary Tyler Moore and how she revolutionized women’s roles onscreen and off. James’ other credits include ABC’s SOUL OF A NATION, Netflix’s RAPTURE, the Independent Lens documentary LITTLE WHITE LIE, Amazon Studios’ upcoming BLACK & GIFTED and more.
We spoke to him about what drew him to direct his first documentary feature on Mary Tyler Moore, what it was like collaborating with Lena Waithe and Mary’s husband Dr. Robert Levine, and what it means to be a disruptor in the documentary space.
AFI: As a Cinematography Alum who is now a director, had you always harbored aspirations to direct or was that a more recent development?
James: Originally, I had no desire to be a director, but the truth is AFI made me want to become one. That first week where they sit all the incoming Fellows in the theater and screen all of your submission material, I got scared that I might not ever meet a director who was interested in telling the stories that I wanted to be a part of. After graduating, I directed a short with Guy Godfree (AFI Class of 2011) in the Palestinian Territories, smuggling in Israeli actors and negotiating with Palestinian security forces and Hamas. From that amazing experience, our film went on to premiere at TIFF and I realized that I enjoyed being in control of the point of view, or at least having a larger voice in that point of view as a director.
AFI: How were you first approached to work on BEING MARY TYLER MOORE and what resonated with you about working on the film?
James: Lena Waithe and I started a working relationship on the Quibi show YOU AINT GOT THESE. We were only a couple months into the project when she got the keys to the Mary Tyler Moore estate. Lena doesn’t come from non-fiction, and she approached me and said, “look, I know you don’t know anything about this woman, but I know where your heart is and I want you to consider the project.” I got a copy of Mary’s autobiography and, after reading it, I felt an immediate kinship. Mary reminds me not just of women of her generation, but a lot of individuals who are swimming upstream against the patriarchy and that allowed me a way into her story. There’s a lot about Mary that I will never have access to. I’m a cis man, but I’m Black and Puerto Rican and I understand quite well what it means to go up against the patriarchy.
I fell in love with Mary in her book, and I felt a real responsibility to make sure her pain and her traumas, as well as the story everyone knows about Mary, was faithfully told. Mary opens her book with a number of traumatic experiences including alcoholism and sexual assault. For me, she was basically saying to her audience, “you’re going to get a version of the Mary that you know so well. But before you go on this journey with me, you need to understand who I really am and where it all started.” I thought that was a pretty brave act, and I wanted to protect that in the film.
AFI: What was it like to comb through Mary’s personal archives and whittle down all of that historical material and interviews with her friends and family?
James: Combing through an archive is the joy of making docs, but it’s also a nightmare. [laughs] We spent a tremendous amount of time watching interviews, so we could log soundbites that we thought would be useful in the film. Then about three years into the process and eight months into post-production our editor Mariah Rehmet said to Mary’s widower Robert, “we found this ABC video online where they’re at your estate and it looks like they cut in home movie footage.” So Robert walked me down to the basement and revealed a wall full of tapes, which was an additional 150 hours’ worth of content. The truth is without stumbling upon that treasure trove the film wouldn’t be what it is today. In that footage, there’s Mary’s bridal shower with Betty White, which is one of my favorite scenes in the entire film. Making docs when they’re archive-based can be scary. There’s a blind trust you have to have, but we also had great partners with Fifth Season, HBO and Lena’s Hillman Grad Productions. We were allowed to spend weeks chasing a path that could be a dead end and then double back and do that multiple times until we found our way – and I feel very fortunate for that.
AFI: You have described your production company Good Trouble Studios as a “Disruptive Creative Collective.” Can you talk about its mission and what projects you hope to put out in the world?
James: Ben Selkow and I have been working together off and on since the beginning of my career. I think being in the docs space in itself is like a disruption – both onscreen and off. We are looking at Good Trouble as a way to reinvent the documentary space. I love BEING MARY TYLER MOORE and I don’t think the film needs to reinvent the wheel, but I do think that two Black women and a Black man being at the head of the film is itself a form of disruption. It is a great way to communicate to the world who gets to tell what stories and why. Mary’s life is universally accessible, and I think that Robert coming in and allowing Lena, Debra and me to tell this story is part of that disruption.
At the same time, we hope that Good Trouble isn’t purely locked into the doc space. There are so many stories that aren’t being told right now because we’re stuck in this idea that action, sci-fi or true crime films are the only genres that are ever going to make money. For Good Trouble to survive, we cannot just make docs. If we want to make docs, we have to be a volume business because the industry doesn’t pay and finance documentaries the way commercial or scripted are financed. We’re receiving a tenth of the budgets per hour as anyone else. It’s a dream to work in this space, but it’s difficult sometimes too.
AFI: Can you talk about your collaboration with Lena and why that working relationship is so special as you are reteaming for the documentary GIFTED & BLACK?
James: I think it’s just having a shorthand with each other. I’m also ethnically ambiguous and suddenly when I’m around Lena and her team, I can just exist as a Black guy from Long Island and all of the artifice and code switching go away. Lena is super smart, and the agreement is, “I’ve looked at your background, I think you’re a dope filmmaker and I know that you need the credit and the opportunity, and I’m going to give it to you.” Then the expectation is you’re going to bring your A-game. Lena is a pure creative. I think because it was so difficult for her starting out as a queer Black woman from Chicago to sell a project, she understands that pain of being rejected. I feel blessed that she takes in filmmakers and just wants to see them blossom. She puts folks in the right space to make things happen.
Our next documentary GIFTED & BLACK will be something entirely different than MARY. It’s not just looking at 300 years of Black music tradition as a form of protest and resistance to America’s unique form of racism. It’s leaving the traditional doc space and entering a landscape like Beyonce’s visual album. It’s a searing indictment of American racism as much as it is a cathartic experience for Black folk.
AFI: Are there any lessons you learned from training at AFI that you still use on set, and what advice would you give to emerging filmmakers from the Conservatory?
James: I think if there are AFI Fellows who want to take a similar path, sneak into Bill Dill’s class and listen to his critiques. What I took away from AFI most was the insistence across all of my classes that you have to love your characters, even the ones you hate. As a director and cinematographer, I bring that attitude toward every single subject. Loving your characters is where you start the creative process. There’s also work ethic, remembering to persevere and I think loving collaboration is just as important. I love living in a world where best ideas win. I love being wrong as much as I love being right. There’s nothing wrong with the critique. I think you should trust the folks you decide to work with, otherwise you should not be working with them. Everyone’s critique is part of the blueprint to success. It’s part of the roadmap to a brilliant film. It’s in the critique. And the critique is probably one of the things I love the most about AFI. Love your characters, trust the process and trust your collaborators. Believe them as much as you believe yourself.
The HBO Los Angeles Premiere of BEING MARY TYLER MOORE will be held on May 23, 2023 at the Pickford Center for Performing Arts ahead of the documentary premiering on HBO MAX on May 26.