McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

May 28, 2014

Telling the story of Sultana

ENID, Okla. — Local filmmakers and Hollywood producers are working together to make sure the story of a national tragedy does not completely fade away.

The team is bringing high-quality filmmaking to Enid by telling the story of the Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat that exploded at the end of the Civil War, resulting in the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Enid native Mike Marshall is one of the producers on the project, which he thinks will give some much-needed respect to the soldiers who died in the explosion.

“It’s just one of those sad chapters in our history — and there are many — that needs to have some light shed on it,” Marshall said.

The Sultana explosion occurred when greedy officers and a boat captain shoved more than six times the permitted number of people onto the steamboat SS Sultana. An ill-repaired boiler exploded, sending more than 1,600 newly released Union prisoners of war to their deaths.

Though the disaster happened right in the middle of the United States and killed more people than the sinking of the Titanic, the majority of Americans never have heard of it, Marshall said.

Marshall is working with a team of individuals to tell the Sultana’s heartbreaking story. Actor Sean Astin (“Lord of the Rings,” “The Goonies”) and producer Jim Michaels (“Supernatural”) are the executive producers for the film.

Even with some Hollywood influence, the team hopes to let Oklahoma talents bring the Sultana’s story to life.

Jeff Hoopingarner, the documentary’s director, runs his company, Raptor Media Group, from his home in Enid. He said he hopes Oklahomans will adopt the Sultana’s story as their own.

“We want to keep it local,” Hoopingarner said. “We’re making this in Enid, Okla., and I think that’s kind of cool because most of that stuff is predominately done out there in New York and Los Angeles.”

To maintain independence from big-budget producers, the Sultana team is looking to private individuals for funding. Marshall’s brother, Mark Marshall, another Enid native and producer for the film, created a Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 to make the documentary.

At rememberthesultana .com, individuals can donate any amount from $1 to more than $10,000 to the film’s budget. Contributors will receive incentives such as a digital copy of the finished documentary or signed posters based on their donation level.

“We understand times are tough, and a monetary donation is often difficult, so we’re asking people just to share what we’re doing,” Marshall said. “The primary thing is just knowing about it.”

Hoopingarner said an average documentary budget is about $300,000. The filmmakers chose to gain funding through Kickstarter to maintain freedom from producers who might want to sensationalize the story, he said.

“We wanted to produce this independently, so we could tell the story the way it’s supposed to be told and keep the historical integrity,” he said.

The filmmakers will depend on authors Jerry Potter and Gene Salecker’s books about the Sultana tragedy to create the script for the documentary. The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends also will supply family stories passed down through generations to humanize the event.

Mark Alan Ray, historian for the documentary, is Hoopingarner’s close friend and also calls Enid home. He said gathering the different accounts of what happened during the disaster has been an exciting challenge.

“We’ve been able to take these stories and tie them back together and create a larger dialogue,” Ray said. “It’s kind of the fun of the chase.”

Hoopingarner said the historical letters from the soldiers involved in the tragedy will help bring an emotional dimension to the story.

“I want to focus on bringing the emotion of what they were feeling, because to me that’s the important part,” he said. “To me it’s compelling because these guys survived the worst conditions possible, and then they were almost home, then the boiler exploded and they perished.”

The crew will use these firsthand accounts and artistic interpretations of the events to revive the narrative.

Hoopingarner also said he has been working with students at Northern Oklahoma College to create a 3D rendering of the steamboat.

With support from Enid, the talent of the film’s crew and the rally cry of “Remember the Sultana,” Marshall and Hoopingarner both said they are optimistic about reaching their goal.

“My hope is that Enid would step up and show Hollywood that our citizens support each other,” Hoopingarner said. “I would like nothing else than to have Enid make the difference in this campaign. It would certainly pave the way for us to do more documentaries and even films right here in Enid.”

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