Just a week before his graduation project deadline, Ian MacDougall knew he had to do something drastic.
His hard drive had crashed, taking seven months of work on his short film with it. It would be impossible to do over that work in seven days.
MacDougall remembered an idea that Mackenzie Warner, his classmate at Simon Fraser University, had told him about last year: Wouldn’t it be great to make a documentary about getting Morgan Freeman to narrate a documentary?
“I called him and I said, 'Mack, my hard drive crashed, I need a new film. You remember that idea you came up with? I’m willing to max out my Visa to pay for this trip. I think it’s a crazy idea, but I think we can do it.'"
Freeman’s narrative skills are, of course, legendary. His voice has guided everything from "The Shawshank Redemption" to "March of the Penguins," from CBS News to Visa commercials. Freeman’s distinctive ability to sound both authoritative and humble, both stirring and soothing, has made him perhaps the most famous narrator in the world.
The students had a week to track him down.
Internet research told them that Freeman splits his time between New York City and Charleston, Mississippi.
They debated whether it would be better to go to Los Angeles to find Freeman’s agent.
But then MacDougall received an excited phone call from his sister. She had just discovered that in two days, Freeman would be the MC at a blues concert in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
MacDougall and Warner purchased $150 VIP tickets to the concert, booked flights to Memphis and packed their camera equipment to document the journey.
Things got off to a good start. A man on their flight was going to the same concert, and offered them a ride to Clarksdale. A hotel owner in town heard their story and gave them a steep discount.
As the evening of Saturday, April 28 arrived, MacDougall and Warner prepared themselves for the big pitch. They weren't allowed to film in the concert venue, so they duct-taped microphone equipment under their clothes to capture audio.
But the event was jam-packed, everyone was lined up to speak to Freeman.
By the time the students made it to the front, they were barely able to get five words in before getting shuffled away.
Not only had they failed to get Freeman’s participation, MacDougall and Warner were also aware they had let down the thousands of people who had started following the project on Facebook and Twitter. Radio stations were calling for interviews.
“It was extremely disheartening,” said Warner. They were tired and broke, and were questioning what their film would even be about if Freeman didn’t participate.
Over the next two days they interviewed Clarksdale residents and heard stories about Freeman, who co-owned a blues bar in the town called the Ground Zero Blues Club. They met people who had moved to Clarksdale from around the world just to be in the heart of blues country.
“The film became more about the people we’ve met and the experience we’ve had,” said MacDougall.
Then they met a couple from Hong Kong who said they had just eaten with Freeman an hour ago at Ground Zero. MacDougall and Warner looked at each other, shocked. Freeman was still in town!
They grabbed their camera equipment and took off running. But Freeman was gone, and this time for good: he had left for Louisiana, to another blues festival.
The students received one final stroke of luck. Bill Luckett, who co-owns the bar with Freeman, heard their story and agreed to call Freeman on his cell phone and make the pitch.
MacDougall and Warner watched, holding their breath.
The answer? Freeman chuckled, and said they’d have to talk to his agent before he could commit to anything.
MacDougall and Warner returned home Wednesday night to a crowd of friends and supporters at the Vancouver International Airport. They have 24 hours to edit their short film for the student film festival, which plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
They still hope to get Freeman’s participation in narrating the documentary about finding him.
In the end, the two students racked up about $5000 in bills during their pursuit of Freeman.
But they may not have to worry about paying it off: their Facebook group is 7000 strong and growing, and they have already raised over $2000 in donations.
So why has their project attracted so much attention and support?
“This is just two people with very limited resources realizing that once they united with a larger group of people, anything can happen,” said Warner. “And with social media...everyone’s living this as we’re living this.”
For MacDougall, who had put in 7 months of work on a fictional short film that will never be seen, he now has a graduation project with a very large audience.
“You know, it’s almost like that hard drive crash was a bit of blessing.”