Inside Track, an upcoming film written and directed by American Film Institute’s (AFI) graduate Jevon Whetter, aims to inspire and unite deaf and hearing audiences around the true story of a coach and team of eight boys from the Oregon School for the Deaf, who overcome tremendous odds to win the 1986 Oregon State Track and Field Championship. Based on Whetter’s real life experience as an athlete on the winning team, the film explores the significant economic, and ableist, hurdles they had to defeat in order to surpass the world’s and their own expectations for themselves.
Exodus Film Group, a production company helmed by Jevon’s brother, Delbert Whetter, which produces family-friendly content that speaks to a diverse audience, will produce the film. Prior to Inside Track, Exodus Film Group produced the popular animated film Igor, as well as The Hero of Color City and Bunyan & Babe. With Inside Track they hope to break into the world of live action storytelling and present a compelling narrative that can unite audiences of all abilities and make them fall in love with these diversely-abled heroes.
Roxie Perkins: As a filmmaker what inspires you?
Jevon Whetter: As a deaf child of three generations of deafness in our family in Oregon, our maternal deaf grandmother told us stories about her childhood when she attended silent films at theatres in her hometown in Oregon. At the time, silent films had no sound, and they were completely accessible for hearing and deaf audiences. My deaf grandmother was able to enjoy watching films with her deaf classmates from the Oregon School for the Deaf. When the “talkies” came out with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the deaf audiences were suddenly excluded from the film experience at theatres. After the silent film era ended, the Deaf community was denied the opportunity to experience the “golden era” of film. Because of sound in films, the deaf community lived in the “dark ages” of film experience for several decades because there were no captions or subtitles for several decades. The irony of it all, there were deaf actors performing in silent films for many years during the early days of film, and a few of them appeared on the screen with Charlie Chaplin as well as many other notable silent film stars.
Why didn’t a lot of people know about stories like these? Unfortunately, the Deaf community didn’t have the opportunity to present stories from our culture to the mainstream public. To the non-disabled world, deafness may be another type of disability. This may be true, however, the Deaf community also has a language and culture when compared to ethnic groups. We have our stories from our culture, presented and framed in our unique deaf worldview.
To use a metaphor, a rainbow has a spectrum of all types of colors. One extreme end of the spectrum is the Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL). Very few stories have been told from this side of the spectrum. Most films seem to portray people who are deaf as helpless victims or people who need to be fixed, cured, or rescued. All of that was presented from a hearing person’s point of view. Unfortunately, most stories where people who are deaf have been misrepresented have been written by hearing filmmakers who have an objective point of view of deafness. It is often rare that we see people who are deaf in stories as heroes or shown in a position of power or influence on the screen.
For instance, when the studios wanted to purchase the rights to the film, Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton insisted he needed to be the one to direct the film because of his African-American roots [and hometown of South Central where the film takes place] to bring authenticity to the film. Just like John Singleton, I am also protective of my ASL and Deaf culture because I know that life, and I’ve lived it all my life. The only way for people to understand is for me to ensure the information is accurately communicated to the audience. As a filmmaker who is deaf and a leader, I feel it’s important that I represent my community accurately.
Back in 2009 I had the opportunity to present my Producer’s Portfolio, along with my screenplay, at the AFI Conservatory right before my graduation. After completing my Producer’s Portfolio review, a review committee member admitted to me that nobody, not even a non-deaf person, could tell the story the way I did. It was largely due to my life experience as a person who is deaf since birth. The review committee agreed I’d shown them that my story is presented from a unique perspective that will resonate with audiences in a way none others can, because it represents an authentic vision of a filmmaker who is deaf that has experienced the rich lives being portrayed on screen.
Roxie: What drew you to film as the medium you wanted to tell stories in?
Jevon: In Oliver Sack’s book, Seeing Voices, he describes his revelation that deafness was more than just a disability of a degenerative hearing loss and observes that the Deaf community has a culture that parallels cultural patterns found in ethnic groups, including the use of a distinct language. ASL has a remarkably unique characteristic in that there is a distinct cinematic value in its use.
Sacks goes on to explain that sign language is distinguished by its unique ability to communicate visual imagery in various mediums in dynamic ways such as, for instance, close-up shots, medium shots and long shots.
Filmmaking has always come naturally to me because it speaks to me in the same language as ASL. As a deaf person, my language of ASL and film are interchangeable when it comes to bringing my thoughts and visual imagery to the screen. Film is the best way to preserve ASL, especially because it’s not a written language. To us, the camera is our “pen” and the silver screen is our “paper”. I immediately had a connection to filmmaking because I could transfer my vision to the screen with ease.
Roxie: Did you and your brother always know you wanted to make films together?
Delbert Whetter: We always had a shared interest. We didn’t set out to make a movie together, but we had always talked about it. When this opportunity came up, we couldn’t resist. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Roxie: Tell us about Exodus Film Group. What’s the mission of your company?
Delbert: We are really interested in diverse stories that are told by diverse storytellers. We like telling stories that are meaningful and that highlight the exceptional stories told by people who are not easily found anywhere else—people who feel different—people who are having trouble feeling accepted or feeling like they belong. We like to tell stories about those people in an uplifting way, to show all the positive aspects. A lot of our animated films have to do with people who feel like they’re different than other people, yet they’re still special. They still can bring a lot of beauty to the world in their own way. One does not have to conform in order to make that happen.
At Exodus Film Group, we released three animated feature films in the past 10 years: Igor, through MGM Studios, The Hero of Color City, through Magnolia Pictures, and Bunyan & Babe, through Cinedigm, which was released just this year. We had always wanted to do a live-action feature film, so we’d been looking for a project. My brother wrote a screenplay based on his real-life experience as a student at the Oregon School for the Deaf. So I brought his script to my company, and we all fell in love with it. We decided to make that our first live-action feature film.
Roxie: As a director working with people of different abilities on a film set, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned, and what would you like other directors to know about conducting a diversely-abled set?
Jevon: I was asked once during film school how a director who is deaf is able to direct a full-length feature film. In response, I explained that if American studios are willing to hire foreign-speaking directors from other countries, where their first language is other than English, they should not have any problem hiring a director who is deaf. If they’re willing to be patient with foreign directors’ lack of fluency with the English language, they should consider extending the same amount of patience and leeway to directors who are deaf.
We feel strongly that we should embrace diversity because it creates an environment where everyone will share their perspectives from all types of backgrounds and experiences. One thing people often overlook about people who are disabled is they don’t really understand that we’ve been fighters all of our lives. We are often the underdogs, and we have to resist the temptation to surrender on a daily basis. Our resiliency is probably much stronger than other people who have it easy, and people of our character should be welcomed on the film set.
I believe diversity is a huge selling point for the film industry because it’s still largely an untapped resource, and we want to lead by example. It is a huge plus to celebrate diversity as it sells well, instead of perceiving diversity as a burdensome task. Our desire to create art is driven by our passion and our determination to succeed. All of these traits far outweigh another person who may have no passion at all.
My mother, who is deaf, once shared with me what her mother (my maternal grandmother), who is also deaf, told her: “Deaf people must work twice as hard than hearing people to be equal, and work three times as hard to get ahead.” This has been my mantra for a lifetime, prompting me to earn my Master of Arts degree in Theatre Arts from San Diego State University as well as my Master in Fine Arts degree in producing from the AFI Conservatory. I wanted to learn everything about the craft, leaving no room for doubt whether I’m qualified or not.
Roxie: When you look around at other media, other movies and TV and the representation of diversity of ability on-camera and off, do you feel like it’s moving in a positive direction?
Delbert: I feel like we’re just starting to make that issue known. A lot of times when diversity is discussed, disability does not even show up in the conversation, and we’re working very hard to change that. And the best way to do that is to show how it’s done, and we’re hoping to do that with this movie. We also believe it’s important to work within the independent film genre, because most of the positive changes we’re seeking to make will be very slow with the major studios, with the big-budget, high-stakes films. They’re not interested in taking risks, whereas independent film is where a lot of people in this industry start out. I really believe we can make the most amount of change more quickly in independent film.
Diverse characters, diverse stories are so hard to do right. In order to get it right, we have to involve people of diverse backgrounds in the creative process. We believe diversity in front of the camera is a reflection of what’s going on behind the camera. It’s interrelated. In order to get it right, we have to have a symbiotic relationship in diversity between the two. It’s so important to include diverse storytellers in the creative process, especially when it comes to characters who are deaf in deaf storylines. There are a lot of people who often forget that when you’re dealing with characters, it’s not merely a case of can an actor hear. There’s a language involved, and when you have language, you have culture. It’s really important to get that right. To cast somebody who is not deaf in a role for a character who is deaf, for example, you run the risk of cultural misappropriation. In dealing with those issues, a lot of people don’t realize that. It’s important to get it right.
Roxie: As a drama teacher for 10 years, what would you like other directors to know about the similarities or differences when working with actors who are deaf and hearing actors?
Jevon: I taught high school drama for 10 years to teenagers who are deaf, and I’ve also been teaching theatre at the college level to students in Deaf Studies at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) for over six years. At CSUN, the majority of my students are hearing.
After teaching theatre and ASL for over 16 years, I’ve noticed that acting seems to come naturally for most people who are deaf because when we go out into the hearing world, we need to find other ways to communicate with hearing people who don’t know ASL. Culturally, people who are deaf have to find other ways to make them understand by acting things out or using gestures. For people who have been deaf since birth, they have been actors all of their lives. It’s not because of the sake of art, but it’s essentially a tool of survival. Actors who are deaf seem to be more at ease with the use of their facial expressions as well as using body language, and it shows in their performance. As a deaf director, I want to celebrate and showcase the talent of actors who are deaf and present this in a new light. There are so many talented actors who are deaf across the globe, waiting to get their chance. As a filmmaker, I’m hoping to become their bridge to success and bring as many people who are deaf into the entertainment business.
Roxie: Did you always know you wanted to tell this story? How closely does the film mirror your high school experience?
Jevon: The story of Inside Track is largely based on my own experience as well as true-life incidents and situations. Teenagers who are deaf were often bullied by hearing students during the time when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) didn’t exist, leaving us with the feeling that we were second-class citizens. We had to endure a lot of discrimination or oppression for many generations. During the ‘80’s, ASL classes were non-existent. Today, ASL is the third most popular language in college, according to the Modern Language Association’s most recent report. Because of increased awareness, people are more accepting of people who are deaf and ASL than we did back in the 80’s. In Inside Track, we want to capture the spirit of the time and show the viewers what people who are deaf had to endure during the pre-ADA years.
Delbert: Much of the disability education rights came about in the ‘70s, so the students on that track and field team would have spent the early part of their education without the benefit of those rights. It was before Marlee Matlin won her Oscar, before the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement at Gallaudet University took place, and the sign language interpreting industry was in its infancy. A lot of the students on that team had faced discrimination at their public, mainstream schools, which is part of the reason why they came to the deaf school, because the education and accommodation to accessibility they were receiving at their schools was not what it should be.
Jevon: When I pitched the true story of Inside Track, people kept telling me they got goosebumps from hearing the story. I eventually realized I had to make this film myself. We had over 40 plus teams in the State Track and Field Championship back in 1986. Most teams usually have large teams who qualified to compete in the state meet. For Oregon School for the Deaf, we only had eight boys who qualified to compete. We fought and won the team championship title by only one point. We were probably the smallest high school in the whole tournament, with only 64 high school students at Oregon School for the Deaf. It was like a dream team back then, everything came together at the right time and right place.
Because of my personal journey as a state champion, it was instilled in me at a young age that I could do anything, even if people thought it was impossible. With each challenge, I feel that I become stronger as I fed on adversary as my motivation to overcome obstacles. When I was very young, I was bullied at school because I was an easy target. I later discovered that sports were the best way I could earn respect because I was faster and more athletic than others.
Roxie: I understand that in the film you will be using a technique of having voice actors dubbed over deaf actors using ASL, signed performances. What inspired this decision?
Jevon: I have been acting professionally since 1992, and I had the distinct honor of performing with the National Theatre of the Deaf, Deaf West Theatre, as well as many other productions. We had voice actors, who voiced all of our lines, performing alongside our signed performances. When a deaf actor signs their lines, the audience can enjoy the show with ease by listening to the voice actors. If we have captions or subtitles on the bottom or the side of the stage, we run the risk of losing the hearing audience because their “untrained” eyes are not used to watching the performance and subtitles simultaneously.
I’ve studied many different types of approaches from other films or television shows with characters who are deaf and the voice-over approach is still the best option. The hearing viewers will be allowed to see the signing and match the spoken word with the signs. The subtitles will take their focus away from the beauty of ASL and performance by forcing them to read the subtitles.
That’s where my brother, Delbert, and producer, John Eraklis, come in. They have expertise with handling quality voiceover work for several of their animated feature films. The approach for Inside Track will be exactly the same, where the voice actors will voice the signed lines during post-production. We want to include the entire audience, hearing or deaf, for the film experience.
Delbert: We have a strong animation background, and a big part of that is using voiceover talent combined with the animation. We think we can use the same expertise with our film in order to make ASL accessible to mainstream general audiences. Using our expertise and voiceover talent, we think we can match professional, experienced voiceover actors with the sign language used in the ASL dialogue. This way people can watch the ASL dialogue in its full glory and feel like they’re understanding what is being said. We’re hoping this will be a new and innovative way of making ASL—which, by the way, is so popular that it’s the third most popular language in schools in the U.S., so clearly people want to enjoy and watch ASL performances. This way they can listen to it and feel like they’re involved.
Roxie: What would you say to combat the unfortunately common excuse that there aren’t more characters who are deaf or disabled in films because hearing audiences won’t be able to relate to their stories?
Delbert: That’s a myth that’s been proven to be not true by the simple fact that so many times when we have deaf characters, deaf story lines on film or television, they often get critical acclaim or win awards. That happens so often that it’s clear people are interested and want to see the material. Deaf West Theatre is another favorite example of mine. Every time they come out with a stage play, they get rave reviews and win awards. Not only is there demand, but there’s also appeal for ASL dialogue and ASL performances. We’re hoping to take that success and translate it to film and television.
We think the translation will work very well.
Roxie: What’s the next step for the film?
Delbert: We’re in development and assembling the production team for the film. That’s where we are right now. Renowned Deaf West Theatre actor Troy Kotsur is attached to play the head coach, Fred Farrior.
Nyle DiMarco is attached to play the assistant coach, Rocco. The rest of the characters will be cast further into the development process. We’re hoping to shoot in 2018 or 2019. It all depends on how quickly everything comes together.
Roxie: How can people stay up to date with your progress and support the film?
Delbert: We have a website—insidetrackfilm.com. We’re also partnering with Film Independent, a nonprofit organization that works with independent film production companies and independent filmmakers. We’re very excited about that because, as I said, independent film is one of the best places where we can make positive changes for people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera. It also gives people a way to support the film through tax-deductible donations. It’s typically the kind of opportunity that’s not there for independent films or any kind of film. We’re very happy to make that available as a way for people to support us.
Roxie: Lastly, if you had to describe how the experience of watching Inside Track should make an audience feel what would it be?
Jevon: To sum it up: “There are no barriers for champions, only hurdles…” We intend for the audience to leave the theater reminded of the timeless and universal message that the only obstacle that matters is the one you set for yourself. We hope, through its universal message that accentuates ability over disability, Inside Track will change the way the world perceives people with hearing loss and other disabilities by tearing down preconceived notions, stigma and stereotypes about persons with disabilities, affirming our reality as intelligent and passionate multi-dimensional beings that are capable of remarkable achievements on and off the field.