NEW YORK Jeffrey Morgan, a producer and editor at Deutsch in New York, is also director and co-producer of Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence, which screened at the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival.
The film set out to document the lynching of a black man who allegedly raped and murdered a white woman in the early 1900s, and turned into a criminal investigation as it was discovered that the woman's family enacted a long and bloody revenge. Morgan, 30, a Native American in the Fallon Paiute tribe, graduated from NYU's film school in 1999. His first spot, created for Westin, aired on the 2006 Super Bowl.
Q: What inspired you to get into advertising?
A: I got into it right out of NYU film school [Kanbar Institute of Film and Television]. I was looking in the NYU job search and saw this company, Deutsch, was looking for an editor and dubber. I might have just said, "I'm going to go right into directing films," but advertising has been a growing experience for me. Working here in the editing department and then the production department as well, I've learned so many skills. It's just fantastic.
The first spot you produced, "Breathe," was on the Super Bowl. How did that happen?
Everyone joked about that; it was crazy, my first produced spot out of the gate. It was an animated project for Westin and we basically got a call a couple of weeks before the Super Bowl from the head of Westin who loved it so much, he wanted to revise it slightly and put it on the Super Bowl.
What are you working on now?
I'll be doing a lot more branded entertainment content. Peter Nicholson [partner and CCO at Deutsch New York will be] using me to direct some of that stuff. I'm excited to sink my teeth into it. Day to day, I'm picking up the slack on different producing jobs.
So, why make a documentary?
I think, first, you need to know the history so you never repeat it and, second, it's such a shame. One of the things we discovered when interviewing people down south [the lynching was in Pensacola, Fla.] is that these stories are so ingrained in the culture that it affects how these two groups of people [black and white] deal with one another. A lot of the African-American families didn't know the specifics of these violent acts, but they did know that they didn't want to go to that town. Or their parents said, "Don't go there, you'll be killed." I wanted to get the story out. Communicating with one another can only be a good thing.
How long did it take to make?
I first became involved in 2002 as an editor, just kind of by the hour, through Alice [Hurwitz, whose great-great-aunt was the woman who had been murdered, and who recently retired as coordinator of academic support services at NYU film school]. She had shot some home videos and footage. ... I saw a piece of tape with her great-uncle that kind of made this revelation about the family murdering blacks for decades.
And they knew about it?
They knew about it. Well, Alice never knew about it. That was what became most compelling to me-this woman doing something [despite family loyalty]. You can't make up for what happened, but you can try to bring it to life. She was looking for a director. I stepped up and said I'd love to do it. We produced it together, formed a company [Sandy Hollow Productions], whipped out our credit cards and went to Florida. The story scared the hell out of me when I first contemplated directing it. I definitely slept on it for a night. Somebody told me once if something scares you, you should do it. And I did it.
In the film's trailer, Hurwitz's great-uncle doesn't look that repentant.
No. Although in the film I think you do see a different side of him. In the original interview he does kind of get that gleam in his eye. He almost looks excited. It's pretty disturbing. In the film, I think as he sees the investigation progress and he sees how people are reacting to it, he has a different response and comes off a little more, I guess, as sympathetic as he could.
Who's had the greatest influence on your career so far?
In advertising, I'd say Jim Frame [evp, director of broadcast production at Deutsch in New York]. He's been very supportive of me professionally and encouraged my outside projects. He always felt that to do these creative projects in the off-hours will only make me a better producer.
Who has influenced you the most creatively?
Alfred Hitchcock. I've always admired his work. His films are art yet they all connect with an audience on a universal level.
Give me three words to describe yourself.
Persistent. Patient. Workaholic.
How about three words that describe how others would perceive you?
Mild mannered. Quiet. Serious.
What's your biggest fear?
I want to make a lot of films, so I guess my biggest fear is that I'd run out of time.
What's the last book you read?
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
What's the last thing you did for fun?
I went to the Spider-Man 3 premiere. As a director, they invited me to go, so it was awesome. Three thousand people were put into the Astoria, Queens
Where did you grow up?
My dad worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so I grew up mostly in Alaska, in Juno. I actually spent very little time on [the Fallon Paiute] reservation, which is in Nevada. In Juno, it stayed light in the summers until 11 [p.m.], so it was like, "Be home by 11," or, "Be home by midnight." For a kid it was the greatest thing. ... There was a short period where we moved to a reservation in Arizona [that was] Apache because [of my dad's job]. That was a very poor area, poverty stricken. He would travel to all those little villages and help facilitate loans from the government for small businesses and things like that. That's actually a subject of another screenplay that I wrote a few years back that I've been trying to develop as well.
Yes, but based on a true story.
Did you ever encounter prejudice as a Native American?
Not that I can think of, no. Well, I actually remember being on the Apache reservation and because I wasn't an Apache, my sister and I had a hard time fitting in there.
Name one person with whom you're dying to work.
Steven Spielberg. I really respect his films, his ability to make his own art and connect to an audience on a universal level. I think his films are a lot of fun. I think anything he's involved in is really, really good.
What's the smartest business decision you've ever made?
Well, hopefully it's investing in this movie.
What advice would you give to anyone just starting out in the ad business?
Be open and be flexible to learning everything. Don't just focus in on what your job is or what your job title entails. Learn the other jobs. Learn other people's jobs. It only makes you stronger in your position and [able to] understand the people that you work with.
What's your dream assignment?
To direct a Hollywood feature film and to direct a large-scale commercial.
What was your most recent creative success?
Winning the Deutsch talent show three years in a row. They were all for short films I produced. "Eclipsed" was the first and was about a guy who worked at Deutsch who [was caught in a] time warp in the edit room. He went back 10 years and having known all the creative that went through here, he basically came in and pitched every idea that was going to be the biggest hit of the next 10 years all in one session. Then he came back and the agency had changed its name to his name rather than Deutsch. Donny had moved into his position. That was a big hit. The second film was "Windex" and was about a struggling creative who had to come up with an idea overnight. He was having a hard time until the cleaning woman came by and kind of invited him into this world of song and dance and Windex. When he woke up the next day he immediately had the great idea for the spot, which was related to dancing and all that good stuff that she helped him with. [The films can be found on ftrainproductions.com.]
What do you get for winning the talent show?
The prize was $1,000 for first place, so that was nice. The third film was "Paper Jam" and that was a little dark. That was about a guy who worked at a big corporation who tries to get out of the corporate machine, but he can't. Basically, one paper jam leads to another paper jam until paper is raining down from the sky over New York City.
To get back to your film for a minute, how did you convince Hurwitz that you should be the director?
She informed me that the police investigation [about the case] was going forward and I knew that she was talking with some other documentary directors. I approached her and said, "We work really well together." We'd already been in the edit room and it just seemed like we had a good [rapport]. Also, some of the other directors didn't want her involved at all in the production. They didn't want her to call any shots, they just wanted her to be the subject. I felt she absolutely had to be involved and I wanted her to produce it with me. I thought that was the key because it is her family. I felt the more involved she was, the better.
What were some of the more moving experiences you had while making it?
There was one interview in particular that comes late in the film where an [African-American] woman tells us about the murder of her father-in-law. It was very interesting because when we first approached this woman she didn't want to speak with us. She talked with us a little, but then there was a point where she said, "You know what? I just want to leave my life the way it is," and she hung up the phone and we didn't hear from her for a year. We tried to get in contact with her again and we went to her house and she invited us in. We threw out a name of somebody that we heard went missing and it just happened to be her father-in-law. In that moment, I guess because it was so personal, she just really stood up and told the details of this murder. I was stunned [at her strength]. I know she knew what it meant to [tell this] after so long. She had it in her mind that some people [in the white community] might be upset with her. There was one point in the interview where she says, "If any of them come in here after me, I'll shoot my shotgun and pistol until they kill me." To stand up and tell this story, I was just blown away by the strength of character and the bravery. It was unbelievable.
Where does the film run next?
We've been invited to open the Pensacola [International] Film Festival in the fall. They want to show it in the plaza where Leander [Shaw, the alleged black assailant] was lynched. We do want to show it in Pensacola; we just want to make sure that we have a panel of academics and people to help present the film in a non-confrontational way. I know there are people that probably wouldn't want this story out there.