Illuminating issues through film and television
"Once it becomes human, then there's more empathy."
Budnick's films will not merely illuminate issues, they will humanize them. America, he says, is full of good souls and their resistance will melt with authentic portrayals of criminals, refugees, members of the Muslim community and others just as films helped America understand different social issues.
“I believe in the same type of way, if you tell stories that humanize immigrants and refugees, and tell stories that humanize Muslim folks, if you tell stories that humanize how we keep people in the criminal justice system, once it becomes human, then there's more empathy,” said Budnick, 42. “I take a lot of people into prison on visits and that immediately humanizes them. I can't take the whole world into prison, but I can tell those stories through film and television.”
Budnick’s movie “Just Mercy,” based off the Bryan Stevenson best seller, will premier in January 2020 near the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. “Just Mercy” is about injustice and mass incarceration in the U.S. where notably, punishment outpaces redemption.
Budnick is irreproachable when it comes to film work on criminal justice. He will likely be the same authority when he sets his sights on immigration. He has sat without judgement with young men and juveniles who have been sentenced to life. Budnick lives with means in Los Angeles, but every Saturday for 12 years he has met with incarcerated youth for three hours to teach creative writing.
"It was pre-ordained I go to Emory."
But he does something more important than teach. He listens and builds trust. He heard enough stories that he founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and is a power broker on criminal justice at the state capitol in Sacramento. ARC, which started in 2014, has spearheaded 12 bills on criminal justice reform that were signed into law.
“I was getting disillusioned by going to nice restaurants and night clubs and talking about the movie business and nothing else,” he said. “I was invited down to a creative writing class in a juvenile hall where I sat with 12 kids facing life sentencing who were 15, 16, 17 years old.
“I asked the kid sitting next to me how his week was and he said it was a bad week: ‘I just got sentenced to 300 years to life.’”
Thus began Scott Budnick’s crusade. But his life’s work began much earlier.
When Emory had a dental school, Budnick’s father was the associate dean.
“It was pre-ordained I go to Emory,” he said.
Budnick started in pre-med in 1995, but he gave himself no restrictions when it came to curriculum. He careened off toward a marketing degree with a minor in film, which made no sense after four years… He majored in film. Clearly.
Budnick took the second semester of his freshman year to work in Savannah on two movies, one the acclaimed “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
He got class credits for writing about the experience. It was a career launch.
His stories of empathy are a stitch to our universe of stories.
Budnick was a campus disc jockey, then the Atlanta Hawks disc jockey. Along the way he made friends with kids in the housing projects. Budnick said the Emory dorm where he lived was a rainbow, stocked with kids different than himself that fueled his awareness.
One class he remembers was an entertainment industry class taught by Andrea Hershatter, now the senior associate dean of the business school’s undergraduate BBA program. “It spoke to me,” he said. “She came in with this passion every day.”
Budnick applied his own passion with film, seven days a week, he said. Emory gave him elasticity and he did the rest.
Along the way, Budnick’s empathy swelled. He said he was raised by parents that were very intentional about doing things for people who had less and he kept that part of his heart lit up as he made his way to Hollywood.
The New York City Library Walk has a plaque honoring the Jewish social activist Muriel Rukeyser, a poet. The Rukeyser inscription says, “The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.” Budnick is a social activist who also happens to be Jewish. His stories of empathy are a stitch to our universe of stories.
His time at Emory helped shape the telling of those stories.