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BRIAN BANKS

About The Production
In 2002, high school athlete Brian Banks was falsely accused of rape and kidnapping by a female classmate in Long Beach, California. Although he experienced a real-life nightmare that would have destroyed most other people, Banks survived five years behind bars and another five on probation. His story of perseverance gained widespread media attention in 2012 when he was exonerated with the help of the California Innocence Project.

Film producer Amy Baer (Last Vegas, Mary Shelley) of Gidden Media saw a news report about Banks' remarkable case on a Los Angeles TV station and knew instantly it was a story important enough to be shared on the big screen. "Brian's tale of survival was incredibly compelling," she says. "Here was a young man trying to reclaim a decade of his life that was stolen from him, and I felt that turning his past into a movie might be a way of transforming that negative moment into a positive one."

Three years later, "60 Minutes" aired a major report on Banks, which producer Shivani Rawat (Trumbo, Captain Fantastic) happened to see. Shortly thereafter, Baer met with Rawat and her producing partner Monica Levinson (Danny Collins, Beirut) and asked if they would be interested in developing a feature with her.

"I didn't even let Amy finish before I told her I was in," says Rawat. "Monica and I really wanted to tell this story with her."

The three producers traveled to New York to meet with Banks in person, and were each impressed with his indomitable spirit and positivity. "Brian lights up the room when he walks in," says Levinson. "He just makes you happy, and every time you look at him you think: 'How can you have gone through such a terrible experience and still be that human right now?'"

Rawat agrees. "He's a role model for everyone, because he never gave up. This ordeal changed his life, but he knew he had to continue living it somehow."

Achieving that level of persistence and optimism took practice, according to Banks. "Where I am today did not happen overnight," he explains. "It started with a choice. I try to put out into the world what I want to receive back. I want positivity, peace, and love in my world, and none of that is dictated by where you are or what you're going through. It's all dictated by how you see yourself and the world around you."

Banks says he agreed to have his life made into a feature film because he's committed to helping others who are struggling in a similar situation. "By telling my story in this movie, I hope that we can prevent, or at least minimize, wrongful convictions from continuing to happen in the future. The truth is that wrongful convictions and social injustices don't receive the recognition they should. Too often, it's out of sight, out of mind. If we don't talk about it, people won't ever get engaged enough to do something about it."

A Remarkable Life Story
To turn Banks' story into a script, Baer reached out to award-winning screenwriter Doug Atchison. "Amy was aware of a film I'd written and directed called Akeelah and the Bee," says Atchison. "Curiously enough, Brian actually saw that film while he was in prison. He had the ability to check out DVDs, so he watched it and told me later that it inspired him. Apparently when Amy and her team were talking with him about writers to tell his story, my name came up and he responded positively."

Atchison had followed Banks' exoneration in the news when it happened. "The mental toughness that allowed him to get through this ordeal deeply impressed me," the writer says. "This wasn't a case where people came in and rescued him. He very much rescued himself. Of course, he had a strong alliance with the California Innocence Project and Justin Brooks. But it was Brian's willpower that motivated the CIP to step up."

After signing on to write the script, Atchison met with Banks and discussed the events surrounding his wrongful incarceration. "Hearing this young man talk about what had happened to him in solitary confinement, and how he was able to get through it, really drew me in. He'd been waiting years to tell this story in its entirety, and that's what he did. He told me about his whole life."

Banks was working for the National Football League at the time, so the two men met at an NFL office in New York to talk things over. "It wasn't football season, so we had this big conference room all to ourselves," Atchison explains. "I brought my camera with me and recorded about 13 hours of Brian telling me his life story, from beginning to end. It was my job to ask the right questions in order to extract all the facts of what happened and how he felt about it."

Although he'd spoken with various subjects in the past while writing fact-based material, Atchison was caught off guard by Banks' enthusiastic candor. "I've never heard anybody tell their life story in such a complete and compelling way, over such a long period of time. I mean, this is something most people would take a couple weeks to do, but Brian did it over a single weekend. He just needed to get it out."

Those video interviews became a crucial element of the writing process. "I went over the footage carefully with the producers," says Atchison. "Then I asked for certain sections to be transcribed, which gave me a document I could constantly refer back to while writing. It became a sort of bible of Brian's story."

To gain additional insight, Atchison attended one of Brooks' wrongful conviction classes at the California Innocence Project's headquarters in San Diego. "I watched how they wrestled with a case, and I spoke with Alissa, one of Justin's students who we portray in the film, about how things worked. At that point I probably knew more about Brian's case than anyone except Brian and Justin, because I had the whole case file, the police reports, the court depositions, the videotaped interviews, everything. Although a lot of that information didn't end up in the movie, I felt like I had to understand it all."

Next Atchison faced the challenge of how to best convey the remarkable story he had been entrusted with in an emotionally engaging two-hour film. He decided to begin the script at the time when Banks had been released from prison but found he was still unable to build a life because of the legal restrictions put upon him. "I felt like the point where he was out trying to get work, trying to play football, and trying to move forward with this conviction hanging over him was the heart of the story," he says. From there, Atchison takes viewers on a journey back and forth through the timeline of Banks' life to reveal how he found himself in such a dire situation - and how he fought to overcome it.

The Director's Chair
Baer had a number of potential directors in mind to helm Brian Banks, but after a two-hour meeting with acclaimed filmmaker Tom Shadyac (The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty) she was convinced he was the one best suited to the material. "I was blown away after talking with him," Baer says. "I just knew this was a movie he was meant to make. I mean, this is who Tom is as an artist and as a human being. I really felt he could be true to Brian's story while also making a very commercial film." The director's deep and personal grasp of the film's themes made him a perfect fit, according to Rawat. "Tom clearly cared about Brian and the pain he had endured," she say. "In the end, he turned out a truly beautiful film that did the subject justice."

Perhaps Shadyac's biggest supporter on the film was Banks himself. "Tom is a standup guy," he says. "The first time I met him, he approached me like he was just another person on the street. He said, 'Hi, I'm Tom, and some people have asked me to join this project and I think I can do it justice.' Then he asked me about my spirits, and he wanted to know what I learned about myself throughout the whole ordeal. He asked about my mom, my family and our struggle. These questions told me that he's a person who looks beyond the surface of things. He's a really deep guy."

Shadyac had been looking for the right project to direct for some time when Baer sent him Atchison's script. "I'd wanted to get back in the director's chair, and after working in an underserved community in Memphis for years, Brian's story spoke to me," Shadyac says. "The issues he faced were emblematic of some of the students I've had the privilege of teaching and learning from, so it really hit home. These kids are not treated the same way as people from privileged communities are, and that breaks my heart."

Like Banks, Shadyac felt a film about his wrongful conviction might help bring some much-needed attention to a problem that's remained unexamined for far too long. "I really thought if we told this story effectively, it could speak to a lot of the issues that need to be addressed today about mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of people of color in our prison system," he says.

Although he is best known for directing blockbuster comedies, Brian Banks isn't Shadyac's first dramatic feature. He directed the feature Dragonfly, starring Kevin Costner, Susanna Thompson and Kathy Bates. "I learned a ton on that movie," he says. "But nothing will help you make a drama better than getting your ass kicked in real life, and I've had my share of ups and downs."

Shadyac is referring to a serious head injury he suffered during a bicycle accident in Virginia in 2007. The traumatic effects of that concussion prompted him to take a break from directing while he reevaluated his career and personal life, and started him down the path of teaching in Memphis. "It sort of helped me to recalibrate things in my life, and it gave me the opportunity to come and learn from a community that's pulsing with promise."

After signing on to direct Brian Banks, Shadyac worked with Atchison to further hone the script, for which the screenwriter has been honored with the 2019 Humanitas Prize for Best Independent Feature. "Doug is a great writer and really passionate about this material because he has personal ties to it," he explains.

Shadyac's comedy skills were invaluable when it came to making a film that will keep audiences engaged and entertained as well as enlightened, according to Atchison. "One of the things Tom counseled me on was balancing the script's dark material with the light," the writer says. "For instance, Brian's time in prison was considerably longer in earlier drafts. But Tom advised me not to dwell too much in that dark area. He felt we could lead the audience through that period without lingering on it for too long."

Indeed, notes Shadyac, a drama about someone who lost 10 years of their life for a crime they didn't commit could easily drag viewers down a dark hole. "But you can't forget to include some laughter as well, because that's how people survive the darkest circumstances," observes the director. "Brian had positive relationships with his teacher, with his mother and with Justin. They became his family, and families laugh and joke together. That's one of the keys to moving forward in life, and that's how Brian moved forward. He maintained his humanity in a dark situation, and we put that across in the movie."

Becoming Brian
In the film's title role, award-winning actor Aldis Hodge (Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton) delivers a performance of rare insight and depth, due in large part to the emotional bond he felt with Banks. "I knew instantly that this would be a special project for me because I really connected with the story and the character," says Hodge. "Something about the way Doug wrote it just sparked my attention."

Hodge admits to being nervous going into his first audition because of how badly he wanted the role. "Then about a week later, they asked me to come in again and meet with Tom Shadyac," he recalls. "It was actually more of a discussion about who I was as a person. Tom really wanted to learn about me because he was searching for an element of synergy between Brian and the actor cast to portray him."

Between that first and second audition, Hodge hit the gym and began bulking up. "I knew if I wanted this job I'd have to be prepared for it," he says. "So, when Tom finally saw me, he said, 'Man, you put on some weight!' I think he respected the fact that I was showing him I was ready to do the work."

Two months prior to shooting, Hodge met Banks for the first time. "We just sort of hung out at his apartment and talked for a couple hours, but there was a little more to it than that," he says. "I really needed to meet him and make sure I could believe in him myself. I needed to see what kind of man he was in order to carry him with me for however long it took to shoot the film."

During that initial meeting, Hodge told Banks he needed to beef up further in order to realistically approximate the 250-pound linebacker's powerful physique. "From that moment on, we started training together in the gym several times a week until it was time to shoot," says the actor. "We formed a strong bond in the gym. I tested myself every day, and Brian saw how hungry I was for the role."

At Shadyac's request, Hodge agreed to wear an actual GPS ankle monitor throughout production. "Since Brian had to register as a sex offender while on probation and wear an ankle monitor the entire time, I actually wore one for the majority of the film, right up until the scene where I was finally able to take it off." The unusual ploy had the psychological effect on the actor that Shadyac hoped it would. "Wearing a monitor puts you in a very different mindset," says Hodge. "It makes you self-conscious on a whole new level. You walk around thinking everybody's looking at you like you're a criminal."

Like everyone involved in the making of Brian Banks, Hodge remains enormously grateful to have had Shadyac behind the camera. "Tom was coming off a 10-year period of not making films because he went through a transformative experience," he says. "Instead of directing, he dedicated his life to charity. But he came back more passionate than ever and he really poured his heart into this movie."

Shadyac is equally effusive about Hodge's performance. "Aldis brought a sense of authenticity and a lifetime of experience that the role needed," he says. "Playing Brian Banks has to come from someplace deep in the soul, and when Aldis walked through that door and read a couple of the more challenging scenes, you could feel that this was a human being who had lived a full life, and he brought that experience to the role."

Kinnear Takes the Case
Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets, Little Miss Sunshine) portrays crusading attorney Justin Brooks in Brian Banks, and brings his everyman charm and signature wit to the role. Shadyac saw Kinnear as the perfect actor to play Brooks, a law professor and director and co-founder of the California Innocence Project (CIP). "Justin Brooks is one of the most intelligent and compassionate people and Greg has those same qualities," he says. "Plus he has a great sense of humor. Since there's already so much drama in the film, I felt Greg could bring a degree of lightness."

Immediately intrigued by the script, Kinnear sat down with Shadyac to discuss the project. Their meeting, scheduled for a single hour, quickly turned into four. "Tom was so passionate about the power of this story, and he had a very clear and cohesive vision for the movie," says Kinnear. "A few weeks later, I went down to San Diego and attended one of Justin Brooks' law school classes, and that's all it took. I was totally on board."

Kinnear was profoundly moved by the pro bono legal services that the nonprofit organization provides its clients. "There are lots of Innocence Projects, but CIP really stands out," the actor says. "They've exonerated dozens of wrongly convicted people with limited resources, and I'm just blown away by the work they do. To witness Justin and his law students fight to overturn these injustices is humbling. Of course, Justin never takes a dime for this work. He just feels a powerful need to act on his clients' behalf."

To prepare for the role, Kinnear read as much as he could about the current state of the American justice system. What he discovered left him disheartened. "There's no question that the system we have is broken, and Brian's story provides a great example of both how and why," he says. "By examining this case and showing what the Innocence Project could and couldn't do to help him, the film gives viewers an overview of where we're at. It offers a deep examination of how the system failed Brian and how he ultimately saved himself through determination and grit."

Beyond the pressing social and legal issues, Kinnear was also drawn to the relationships the script portrays. "I liked the onscreen friendship between Brian and Justin," he says. "There's a real trust there that had to be earned before they took on the fight together. That relationship feels honest and natural, and the fact that they were able to succeed in court, given the circumstances working against them, is incredible."

No stranger to portraying real-life figures on screen, Kinnear says he relished the chance to meet Brooks while researching the role. "He's very welcoming and open about the work he does, and he has an incredibly easygoing attitude, which is hard to imagine when you spend your days staring into the abyss of the criminal justice system. I found him to be a sensitive guy who makes real connections with people."

Sharing scenes with Hodge was another highlight of the shoot, says Kinnear. "Aldis is a total pro," he says. "His skill and technique are awesome, which is important because he has a lot of heavy lifting to do in this film. He worked incredibly hard to find the soul of who Brian is, and I expect audiences will really connect with this story because of his work."

A Serious Comedian
A number of stars were under consideration to portray Leomia Banks, Brian's devoted mother, but it was Sherri Shepherd (Beauty Shop, "30 Rock") who fought for and ultimately won the role. "Leomia's love for Brian hit me in such a profound way because I have a son who has special needs, and I have to fight for him and advocate for him on a regular basis," she explains. "So, as a mom, I know what it means to be a rock for your child. During my audition, I told Tom about the heartache and pain of raising my son, and what I go through each day, and I think my story moved him and producer Amy Baer as well."

Baer recalls Shepherd's casting session well. "Every single actor shared something deeply personal with us about their own lives and why this story resonated for them," she says. "But Sherri, in particular, really opened herself up to us. There's an emotional authenticity to her performance that's impossible to ignore."

To learn more about the woman she was portraying, Shepherd visited the real Leomia Banks at her home for several hours before filming began. "I discovered that she's a quiet warrior who doesn't consider herself any kind of hero," says the actress. "In fact, she doesn't see herself as special at all. She's not one of those mothers that come out fighting, but she has a quiet strength that truly impressed me. That's what I got from meeting with her," Shepherd says.

Acting opposite Hodge was a joy, according to the actress. "He raised my game to another level. We had such a great chemistry together. There were times when he would look at me and say, 'Momma,' and my heart would break. I remember some of the extras were sobbing during one emotional scene, and Tom had to call cut. We literally had to embrace some extras and hug them because stories like Brian's have happened to a lot of people."

Best known for her expert comedy skills, Shepherd credits Shadyac with helping her explore her dramatic side on screen. "He's a genius at being able to bring out that side of a comedian. He guided me through the process and took me where I needed to go." Shepherd's heartfelt take on the character is essential to the film's emotional power, according to Rawat. "Leomia is one of the toughest roles to play in the film, and Sherri did such a beautiful job with it. Every time she comes on screen, you forget that she isn't Brian's real mom. You forget she's acting."

Banks gives Shepherd the ultimate stamp of approval. "Sherri has a smile that resembles my mom's," he says. "They have a slight physical similarity to each other, but where they really connect is in their motherly vibe. When I first told her that Sherri had been cast, she asked me, 'Do you think she'll be able to play me correctly?' Well, after their meeting, my mom texted me with exclamation marks stretched across the entire phone, and I could tell that she was thrilled about it. We're both very happy that Sherri is part of this project. I think she captured my mother's spirit perfectly."

A Guiding Force
For the small but pivotal role of Jerome Johnson, the real-life mentor who provided Brian with the mental and spiritual tools necessary to survive his years in prison, Shadyac cast Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who had previously played God in two of the director's hit comedies, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty.

"He was the first person I thought of to play Mr. Johnson when I read the script," Shadyac says. "But I figured we couldn't get him for our small-budget movie - because he'd probably be shooting a big-budget movie somewhere - so we initially cast another actor instead."

When that actor got sick at the last minute and was unable to travel, Shadyac sent Freeman the Brian Banks script. "Morgan read it and was moved by it, so he came in," recalls the director. "Now I can't imagine anyone else playing Jerome Johnson. Perhaps no one involved in the film was more delighted with Freeman's participation than Banks himself. "If I had to pick the perfect actor to play one of the strongest men I know in this world, I would choose Morgan Freeman - and he actually played the role!" Banks exclaims. "I don't know if I have enough words to describe that."

Meeting one of his favorite actors in a functioning jail was a surreal experience, says Banks. "Just to sit next to him, and talk and laugh with him, and have some really powerful and engaging conversations about life and spirituality was incredible. What a week that was! As amazing and unique as Morgan Freeman is, that's who Mr. Johnson is. He's given his life to working with incarcerated youth who are about to be sent to adult jail."

Taking off the Mask
For the role of Karina, the empathetic personal trainer who befriends Banks after he confesses his painful history to her, the filmmakers cast British actress Melanie Liburd ("This Is Us," "Dark Matter"). "So much of her role is about the masks we wear in life, because Karina has her own difficult background," explains Shadyac. "And when her mask is finally removed and we get to see what's underneath it, and why she reacted the way she did to Brian's story, we understand and feel for her."

Born in Hertfordshire, England, Liburd wasn't in the U.S. when Banks' story was originally in the press. "But when I asked my American friends about it, they'd all heard of him," the actress says. "It was the film's message of hope that initially attracted me to the role. Brian is an incredible human being to have such faith and not be broken by what happened to him. He's a positive and giving person, and to be an actor working on stories like this that have such meaning and hope is really special."

Liburd describes her character as a smart woman who doesn't want to be defined by what happened to her in the past. Although she's experienced her own tragedy, she wants to move forward and be the best version of herself she can be. "So, when she meets Brian they inspire each other," Liburd says.

After meeting the Bankses on set and working with the talented cast and crew to bring Brian's story to life, Liburd says she's grateful for the experience. "Brian Banks tells a very important story, and I'm so proud to be part of it. This movie shines a light on how the criminal justice system really needs to change. Brian was tried as an adult when he shouldn't have been, and he was put away for so long for a crime he didn't commit. The injustice of that is staggering."

No Villains
Shadyac and the film's producers felt it was important that Kennisha Rice - the fictional character representing Banks' accuser in the film - not be portrayed as a traditional cinematic villain. "I believe you have to love all the characters in your movie, even the ones who make choices you don't agree with," Shadyac explains. "So, we wanted to avoid vilification and concentrate on authenticity instead."

Actress Xosha Roquemore (Precious, "The Mindy Project") delivers a memorable performance in the difficult role. "I often tell people that I don't cast roles; the actors come in and take them," says Shadyac. "And that's what Xosha did. She somehow connected with the energy of this character to the point where it didn't seem like she was playing Kennisha, she simply was Kennisha."

Shepherd, who had previously worked with Roquemore on the film Precious, is equally effusive about the actress' nuanced performance. "Even though her character in Brian Banks does this horrendous thing, Xosha shows us the pain and hurt inside of Kennisha, so you can't help but feel a degree of sympathy for her. She's not a black-and-white villain. She's broken."

An Invaluable Resource
Banks' presence on set throughout much of the production provided the filmmakers with an invaluable resource, says Shadyac. "It was imperative to have Brian there. He was like a walking Wikipedia on the history and the truth of the story. Whether we were in a courtroom or on a football field, we could turn to him and ask if we were getting things right or if we were missing something."

More than perhaps anyone else in the cast and crew, Hodge relied on Banks' input while filming. "Having him right there during the production was like having a living cheat sheet available," the actor says. "If there was any question about how to play something, we just talked it out. There were plenty of times when we'd have deep conversations about what was happening in the scene we were shooting, and if you happened to look over at us, you'd see two grown men just sitting there talking and crying together. But they were healing tears."

Understandably, there were moments depicted in the film that were difficult for Banks to relive. The incarceration scenes - which were shot in an active prison - were particularly challenging for Banks. "They weren't something I looked forward to, but this film gave me the opportunity to share something traumatic that happened to me, and having that platform far outweighed the fear I had of going back into a jail," he says. "When I first walked into a prison at the age of 16 after being wrongfully convicted, I was chained from the waist down, and I ended up spending five years behind those bars. So, being able to walk back in there as a free man, show the world what happened to me, and then walk out again felt like coming full circle." Keeping It Real

Since Brian Banks is based on actual events, authenticity was extremely important to everyone involved in bringing it to the screen. "The story is very truthful in terms of what happened to Brian," says Shadyac. "Of course, there is some time-collapsing here and there, and there are a few composite characters, like Karina, who represented different people in Brian's life, but it's still quite accurate."

According to Atchison, some of the conversations between Banks and Brooks in the movie - which serve as a vehicle to convey key background information to the audience - are more detailed than they probably were in real life. "But everything they discuss is absolutely real. I've written true stories before that deviate quite a bit from reality, but this film adheres to the facts."

As an example of the degree of accuracy involved, Kinnear singles out the film's final courtroom scene, in which Brooks pleads Banks' case to the judge who previously sentenced him. "Tom set that courtroom scene up exactly as it took place in real life," says the actor. "I spoke to Justin Brooks a lot about that day in court, when Brian's case was finally overturned. The monologue I deliver was written using mostly court transcripts, and everyone involved in the production wanted to get the moment right, out of respect for the story."

Faith in Dark Times
Belief in a higher power is one of the things that gave Banks and his mother strength during his period of wrongful imprisonment, and it's something Atchison and Shadyac felt needed to be included. "Brian and his mother's faith comes up in the way they both communicate," Atchison explains. "It's a part of their family that binds them and gives them strength, so we had to honor that."

That said, the film steers clear of overt references to a specific religion, because it was important to the filmmakers that it resonate with viewers of any religion - or no religion. "Faith is about how you walk in a difficult situation," says Shadyac. "It's a mother selling her house to pay for her son's defense because he's innocent. It's a mother driving three hours, twice a week, to visit him when he's incarcerated unjustly. It's a son learning to believe in himself and finding the power that's within him. Leomia and Brian express their faith through their behavior and by choosing to remain positive in dark circumstances. I hope that's reflected in the movie."

An Inspiring Message
Shadyac says he hopes viewers will see Brian Banks as a metaphor for their own lives. "Brian demonstrates the hero's journey as well as any character I've ever encountered in my career. All of us face obstacles, and I'd like people to realize that if Brian could face his situation with courage, they can face the circumstances in their lives, too."

The socially conscious director also hopes the film's timely message about wrongful convictions will help facilitate long-overdue change to the judicial system. "People need to be made aware that there are populations in this country that don't get a fair shake," he says. "Ninety-seven percent of inmates in our jail systems accepted a plea bargain, and when a lawyer threatens you with 40 years behind bars if you don't cop a plea for something that you didn't do, that's not right, and we're all responsible for it."

Kinnear says he too hopes audiences are inspired by Banks' story and will reflect upon the inherent weaknesses of our criminal justice system. "But," he adds, "I also hope they go because it's enormously entertaining!"

Banks is hopeful the film will inspire as many people as possible when it's released. "A lot of people are walking around feeling unhappy or dejected, and I want this movie to uplift them and give them courage. Because if you think differently you act differently. And if you act differently, different things happen around you. It's a domino effect, and it starts with this film."

For the time being, he has a final message for the cast and crew of Brian Banks. "I love everyone involved in this project. Knowing that filmmakers signed up to tell my story shows that people really do care about justice and equality. I'm just so thankful for that."

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