The Truth Shall Make You Odd: An Interview about Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor, American novelist, wrote in a style that reflected her Roman Catholic faith yet challenged morality and ethics surrounded by her Southern roots. Her short stories, novels and posthumous works have created conversations on topics that are still important today: religion, racism, illness and more. It was her experiences that spoke to filmmakers Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, S.J. and gave them the inspiration to create Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia.

The documentary uses her childhood home as a backdrop, which was converted into a museum in the late 1980s, and brings the viewer through her life and pursuit of becoming a writer. In addition to footage of her home, her single televised interview, and conversations with those who knew her and were inspired by her, the illustrations and music composition of this film really bring the story to life.

O’Connor started out as a visual storyteller. She created picture books and was a cartoonist and painter all her life, so hiring illustrators to help tell her story felt like the best way to celebrate her work.

“Also, because her fiction represents moments of grotesque or gothic horror, as well as racial stereotypes, motion graphics allowed the film to critically represent (and deconstruct) those moments and stereotypes – with similar strategies to O’Connor’s fiction,” Coffman said.

Coffman also shared an O’Connor quote: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

The filmmakers hired four different animators and motion graphics artists: Natalie Barahona, Kathleen Judge, Heidi Kumao and Mat Rappaport. Rappaport created animated quotes from O’Connor while Judge interwove O’Connor’s words with her drawings.

“I had her include an O’Connor ‘avatar’ in many of the story adaptations to play with the idea that O’Connor drew from her own experiences – and then transformed them – in her fiction,” Coffman said.

Kumao was behind the white animated outline that walks towards the audience at the beginning of the film and away from the audience at the end. It is a simple but powerful animation created by rotoscoping, a technique that traces over motion picture footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic movement. Kumao achieved this by rotoscoping her own figure dressed as O’Connor.

The score behind the film was composed by Miriam Cutler, who was inspired by all the elements that created the final cut. She got to witness it evolve over time and while it was challenging to create and then recreate an entire score, it was worth it to tell the story of this important writer.

“Flannery’s strong and colorful personality evokes a kind of irony that’s fun to express musically,” Cutler said. “Her spiritual depth, perhaps partly influenced by her illness, provides an emotional range that fosters musical exploration. Then of course, there are the musical styles of the South – from blues, church music, country, gothic – and these are all terrific playgrounds for a composer.”

Coffman said that because there are hardly any photographs of O’Connor and just the one interview featured in the film, telling her story through illustrations and music was essential. It was also essential because there is one part of O’Connor’s work and life that is often misconstrued: her thoughts and experiences with racism.

“I think O’Connor’s life and work are extremely important today, especially in light of the reawakening, yet again, to America’s systemic racism sparked by the brutality and death of George Floyd and so many others,” Bosco said. “O’Connor exposes the racist assumptions built of whiteness and the privilege that goes with it. Her white characters are often violently given insight into their flawed (sometimes evil) presumptions. I would say there is no better American white writer to read from in the 20th century if you want to talk about the complicated reality of racism in our nation.”

Critics have shown their misunderstanding of how O’Connor’s fiction “explicitly confronts her own experiences of and participation in systemic racism”, according to Coffman, and she believes that O’Connor’s story is more relevant now than ever before. If anything, it sparks a conversation that can lead to a better world.

Flannery is meant to explore this important writer, Flannery O’Connor, and understand who she was and what she brought to American literature.

“Flannery O’Connor was a very complex and unusual person with a unique POV and a massive talent that informed all of her writing,” Cutler said. “Religious and fearlessly truthful, she never held back when creating complex and sometimes hard-to-like characters to bring her narratives/morality plays to life. They were inspired by her entrenchment in the Southern way of life, her strong religious convictions and her intense scrutiny of and curiosity about people – sometimes at odds with each other. It’s no surprise that she is revered by the artistic community – artists, writers, actors, musicians – and her work is still highly relevant today.”

Watch Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia in virtual theaters here.