Doubting Thomas’ Ending Might Piss You Off

My film, Doubting Thomas, has an ending that pisses some people off. 

Other people say the ending is the best thing about Doubting Thomas. I know this because as the film’s co-writer and director, I spent ten years discovering the ending, and spent the last year attending screenings of it for crowds across the country.

After one screening, a group of women drove away in their car and argued so much over the ending that they turned around and came back to the theater to find me and demand to know “what really happens.”

The ending of a film can make or break the experience. We have all sat through something we’re not enthralled by, just to “see how it ends,” because we know a good ending can redeem an entire story by making meaning out of what has come before. It can also ruin a film to the point that you suddenly feel like you’ve wasted every minute it took to get there.

I was fortunate enough to have an unorthodox journey in finding the ending to my screenplay. I’m credited as the writer, but the script and the film itself represent many years of passionate, thoughtful collaboration from many people.

The pivotal confrontation in Doubting Thomas’s ending evolved from a 10-page scene with fight choreography and multiple locations to a two-page scene between two men speaking in an office. We honed every word of dialogue to its sharpest point, but still improvised on the day we shot. And only later did we realize how one word changed everything.

The ending of the film was not always open to interpretation. Doubting Thomas is based on a true event, and centers on a white couple who inexplicably give birth to a black baby. When we first wrote the story, my writing partner Joseph Campbell and I created a group of likable characters who dealt with a challenging situation quite gracefully. Strengthening the script became a function of creating more conflict. Still, in our first drafts, the fractures created between the characters were healed, and a happy ending seemed to be in order. But we wound up feeling very strongly that the most truthful outcome was not a Hollywood one.

Doubting Thomas
Jen (Sarah Butler) enjoys her baby shower in Doubting Thomas. Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

As we explored the sides of our characters that contrasted with their charming, capable nature, they became more interesting and distinct, and the conflicts began to get ratcheted up. All of the lead characters were forced to make decisions about one another. Once we realized that one could advocate for each of them and credibly defend their point of view, we embraced that aspect. The tragedy for these people that love each was no longer about something someone does wrong. It’s the fact that everyone’s right, and they can still lose each other.

I’ve been told I could have reached a wider audience had I put some kind of bow on the ending and made it more conventional. I didn’t avoid doing that just to be different. In fact, that’s what I originally did, because that’s what I’ve been conditioned to do. But what ultimately guided me was the fact that we made this movie because we were tired of seeing movies that make it very clear exactly who the racists are, so we can condemn them as we’re told, while we sympathize with the oppressed victims. We never had any intention of making it that easy for the audience, as we’re more interested in less-overt racism that can hide in plain sight. So it made sense to leave the audience with more questions than answers.

We believed that people could not only handle a challenging film dealing with racism, but that they wanted to, and that this film could provide an on-ramp for difficult but vital discussions.

To trim the budget, we cut over twenty pages of our original script. We did this because we were determined to get the movie made. What we didn’t realize was how much it helped us. It made us trim the fat, and only the most essential story elements made the cut. One thing that changed drastically was the final scene between Tom and Ron.

We cut the crowd, action, and locations that were an integral part of the original scene. By stripping all that away, and making it just two men in an office, we had no choice but to convert what was a meandering, physical, and lengthy argument into an incisive and active confrontation. What helped here was getting very clear on what each character wanted from the other one. Once that was established, it became about finding different ways in which our characters try to get what they want. In the course of a couple of pages, the character I play tries many different tactics, ranging from shaming to begging.

For many years and for many different reasons, we couldn’t make this movie happen. Just as the starting line would begin to emerge, things would fall apart. But during that time, Jamie Hector, (who plays one of the other leads) and I worked as if we already had a call time. We got to delve deeper than we might normally have had the chance to do, so by the time we shot that climactic scene, we had such faith in our back story that we could put all our focus on just being in the moment.

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James Morrison as Bill in Doubting Thomas. Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

We also had to edit on borrowed time, relying on favors, in between other projects. As a result, it took forever. But this gave me and editor Mark Sayre the kind of fresh perspective coming back to work on the film that only walking away from it, for a time, can do. It soon became an entirely different creative thrill that I got to embark upon—a process where we could reverse-engineer our way back to the original heart of our story. It was another gift disguised as a limitation, provided by the reality of our budget.

In the shooting script, Tom reveals to Ron that there is now an explanation for why Tom’s newborn son has dark skin. He then apologizes to Ron for accusing him of being the actual father. In Tom’s mea culpa, he admits that his actions were “inexcusable and stupid,” but Ron provides him with another word: “racist.” This took Tom to another level of defensiveness, and it also did something else. It took the audience out of the scene. The word “racist” has become a conversation stopper. And from the beginning, our script was a conversation starter. It didn’t become clear until we were watching and hearing in the editing room that the word wasn’t just unnecessary. It allowed people to get hung up on a label and keep the argument cerebral. Was Tom’s action really racist? It became clear that it didn’t matter whether it was or wasn’t. What mattered was how it felt. Ron’s eloquence reveals a truth of heart, not mind. What mattered was what it did to the love these two characters had for each other.

Before we took that one word out, viewers talked about whether it was racist or not. As soon as we took it out, the talk became about whether or not Tom and Ron would ever be friends again.

This was not a collection of survey responses from a large sample size. This was witnessing a visceral response experienced in the moment from ourselves and a handful of a somewhat random but trusted few. All to one end: Is the story coming through clear?

I never would have tried to make an independent film if I knew how hard it was, or how long it would take. I’m glad I didn’t know. I may have never discovered the ending I wanted. MM

Doubting Thomas is out today. All images courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

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