An Interview With Mauli J Bonner ("Green Flake")
Mauli Junior Bonner is a First time Writer, Director, and Producer. His background is in music as a songwriter. After learning about the story of Green Flake, he wrote a song... a 200 page one. Mauli was determined to have his story told through film.
In Green Flake, a young slave is sent to trek 1500 miles across country to prepare a path for his slave master's church. We witness the heroic journey of "Green Flake" who goes from southern slave to western hero.
The film won LAFA Best Picture in September 2020. We invited Mauli to join us for an interview. Here's his story.
Mauli, tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you get into vocal directing, song-writing, and ultimately film directing?
I grew up in Las Vegas. My mom was a vocal coach. I spent most of my childhood listening to her transform people who were tone deaf into beautiful singers. After I graduated high school I moved to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles I was surrounded by many singers and performers and found that all that my mom was teaching had been ingrained in me. I knew how to fix the voice and turn non-singers into singers. It wasn’t long before managers and record labels began reaching out to me to do just that for their recording artists. I spent the next 20 years teaching, recording, writing for, and developing pop artists. Artists like Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Prince Royce, and others. I worked for many singing competition shows and also transformed actors into singers for TV networks like Nickelodeon. Two years ago was the first time I had ever thought about making a movie. I quickly found that creating music and developing singers was much like creating a story and directing actors.
What are some of the inspirations that you feel influenced your cinematic style?
My inspiration comes from music... melodies, harmonies, tones, and emotions. Creating the music was the centerpiece of this film. Working with composers Jonathan Keith, Norbert Farkas, and Coleman Ellis was one of the highlights to making Green Flake. I wanted this film to connect to the spirit. I wanted there to be an emotional association with our experiences today and the emotional journey of someone 150 years ago. No matter what race you are.
Greenflake is a unique film, that sheds light on a heroic story of a young salve that changed the course of history. When did you first become interested in bringing these kinds of stories to light, and why did you decide to make this movie?
It wasn’t until July 2018 while doing research on Black history in the early Mormon church that I came across a man named Green Flake. I was instantly connected to him. I met with historians and read many books and journals. My reading quickly turned into writing. After a couple of months I realized that I had unintentionally written a script. I decided that I needed to make this into a movie. I knew that Green Flake’s story, and many others like him needed to be told. To be honest I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do it, but I had my younger sister Clotile motivating and directing me along the way. She was so instrumental in the creative process.
Is this your first collaboration with lead actor Yahosh Bonner? When did you bring him on board, and can you talk a little bit about the process of working together?
Yahosh is my little brother. He also happens to be one of the greatest human beings that I know. While writing the script I found that much of Green Flake’s character was my brother. Yahosh is a talented actor and motivational speaker. He empowers people for a living. What better person to play Green Flake. Plus, he’s my brother, so I can ask him to fall down the side of a mountain for a shot. There is a very intense fight scene in the film. We did not have the budget to spend more than two takes on the shot. I decided that I would be the one to fight Green Flake, my brother. We rehearsed a couple of punches then decided we would just go at it. Whoever wins, wins... he won. But we got the shot in one take! It was an awesome experience. It was like we were kids again. Fighting, telling jokes, and playing make-believe to pass the time.
What kind of research did you do before approaching the production and how did you prepare for such a challenging shoot?
Amy Thiriot was instrumental in my research. She answered countless questions and sent me valuable information to read. I don’t know how I could have completed the script so quickly without her. I also found that there is so little written on behalf of slaves. Thankfully I met with dozens of Green Flakes decendents and gathered as many stories as I could to piece together his life. I quickly found the value in stories passed down the family tree. I learned that for slaves, this can be more accurate than the written text given by their slave owners.
To answer your question on how I prepared... I didn’t. I was running full speed from day one. I believe that God chose me to tell this story. With God on my side I knew that whatever needed to be done would be done so long as I kept running. So that’s exactly what happened. I finished the first draft in September 2018 and was shooting three months later. It was so amazing to witness the small miracles along the way. Every obstacle I faced there was someone placed in my life to navigate me through, so long as I kept running.
The ensemble did a wonderful job throughout, and the performances feel very authentic. How did you achieve such excellent chemistry between the actors?
It is my strong belief that I was the most insignificant person on set. The movie didn’t need me, Green Flake needed that cast and crew. Every person on set carried so much value. From the lead actor to the person designated to provide hand warmers to the crew. If I could leave set with everyone feeling valued after a hard day, then I’ve done my job.
Thanks to casting director and coproducer Robin Carus we were blessed with great actors and actresses in this film. She has a knack for finding undiscovered talent from all over the country.
The chemistry between actors started with Laurie Harrop-Purser. An amazing acting coach. I leaned on her heavily throughout the whole process. She met with actors prior to shooting to cultivate that chemistry. When it came time to shoot, they would only have a couple of takes, but they were ready. If you came to set you would think Laurie was the director. She was magnificent. Also, many of the actors shared the same faith as Green Flake. I think that connected them. Everyone had a strong desire for this story to be told.
Can you share a bit about the technical aspects- how did you secure the locations, how many days did you have for the shoot, which camera/s did you use, and what was the size of the crew?
October 2018 I met a man named Paul Diamond on a flight. He told me about a Mountain Man group that would meet regularly on historical land that had been preserved since the mid-1800s. He connected me with the amazing Weber County team, then finally leading me to Thor. Not the Marvel comic hero, but equally as legendary. Charles Willis (Thor) made it his personal mission to make this film beautiful and authentic. He and his Mountain Man crew provided so many beautiful antiques and treasures from the 1800s. Thor built sets and props that perfectly matched our time period. So now that I have secured where we’re going to shoot and what it’s going to look like I need a crew. Yes, it’s November. We shoot in December and we have no crew. I made a call to Jesse Ranney. A film producer based in Utah. I told him about Green Flake’s story, and what needed to be done in 30 days. Before meeting with Jesse I had been told that it was impossible to pull this together in so little time. Other producers told me I would need a year, most likely two before I could begin production. I met with Jesse and he made the impossible, possible. He made a call to Producer and Cinematographer Sohrab Mirmont. Together they put together an incredible crew, Mirmont’s Red equipment, and we were shooting 3 weeks later. We shot most of the film in just 10 days.
Were there any unexpected challenges you had to deal with?
Oh my goodness. Absolutely. Almost daily. My computer frying 60 pages while writing my script and having to start over. My investor pulling out last minute then being saved by new investors (friends and family). Having to replace a main actor same day. Our only drone crashing in the first scene of day one. The lake freezing over the night before we’re supposed to canoe across it. Being denied support from the Utah Film Commission leaving us without enough money to finish the film, thus having to run a successful Kickstarter led by Michael Bahnmiller. The list goes on and on and on. It’s those unexpected challenges that make me dig deeper and push even harder.
At one point I hit a wall. I knew my script wasn’t where it needed to be but I didn’t know how to fix it. I was creatively stifled and emotionally drained. I felt like my feet were stuck in cement blocks. So I reached out to a friend, my mentor, Eric Thompson. He’s the greatest writer, and educator that I know. He has a gift with words and a universal key that seems to unlock every door. He read the script. After filling me with confidence he then proceeded to break down the areas that I felt needed improvement. We had many conversations. He would use self reflection (only in a way that Eric Thompson knows how) to show me the hidden doors that were hiding in my scenes. After weeks of lengthy conversations and too many tears, I had a movie. I hope that all new filmmakers have an Eric Thompson. If not, find him or her. Hopefully they’re smarter than you, more creative than you, and most importantly, love you as much as you love them.
With Greenflake, you also won Best Director, an outstanding achievement, especially since it’s your directorial debut. What is the most important lesson you've learned from this production, and do you have any tips for filmmakers who wish to follow your footsteps?
I learned that anything is possible. You do not have to fit the norm. You do not have to do it the way others say you should do it, so long as you get it done! Finish the job. That’s what I would keep whispering to myself during those exhausting nights. Finish the job. There’s always time if you make time. Most people that I talked to along this journey of making Green Flake tried to convince me of what I was not capable of, or what I had no business doing and could not accomplish. My advice to all filmmakers is to use those naysayers as fuel to your daily grind. See your project through to the end! On a personal level, seeing Green Flake completed just strengthens my testimony that there is a Divine Being greater than I who keeps His promises if I do my part.
What are some of the reactions you received from audiences so far? Do they match your expectations so far?
You guys are the first audience. I have not released the film yet. So far it’s only been me and my editor Katec Ruiz who have seen it. I hope everyone likes it as much as LAFA. Thankfully, my editor Katec Ruiz was able to maneuver around the mistakes that I made as a first time director.
What are your short term and long term career goals? Do you intend to continue musical directing, as well as film directing?
I sure better keep doing music until I can make some money in film. Green Flake tapped me out! Haha. I will continue doing both for as long as I can. I love that I found this new way to express creatively.
What’s next for Greenflake, and what’s next for you? Tell us about the new projects you’re developing.
The next step is to find the best way to release Green Flake. I still need to solidify distribution and either get into theaters, or gain support of a streaming platform. I’ve written three more screen plays since last year. I think I caught the bug. My next two films could not be any more different. One is a Horror film and the other is a period Drama.
Is there anything you wish to add or anyone you wish to thank?
I want to thank LA Film Awards for recognizing our movie. I know that Green Flake is different than most of the films you’ve received. We are such a low budget indie film that I just assumed that we would fly under the radar. I’m so grateful that this story has the opportunity to be recognized.