In 2017, while doing press for Mudbound, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virgil Williams received a book from producer and friend Todd Black; Todd wanted to know if Virgil would be interested in penning an adaptation. It was A Journal for Jordan, journalist Dana Canedy’s memoir about her relationship with First Sgt. Charles Monroe King and his journal of advice for their infant son, whom he’d seen only once before dying in the Iraq War.
At the time, Virgil was battling depression. As he read the book, “the sadness was unbearable,” he says. “I was like, ‘In my present state, there’s no way that I could grapple with these themes of love and loss. I’m dealing with shadows of my own right now that I don’t understand.’” Virgil was also battling a crisis of confidence. “That shadow of depression can also play tricks with you and your confidence. And I was convinced that I was not the right one for this job. This was above my station.”
But when his wife read the book, she offered up a new perspective. “She said, ‘Hold on, dude. There’s a ton of love in here. There’s a ton of funny in here. And there’s a lot of joy in here that you’re just missing.’ She went, ‘Here you go. Use these female glasses. And read them with that in mind because you’re perfect for this.’ And then I read it again and I saw it.”
“The deeper I got into the story, the more I started to heal. Some of these jobs, they find you, and this one found me. I was in a difficult time and this story really changed stuff around for me. It was such a gift.” –Virgil Williams
Shortly after accepting the project, Virgil met Dana herself. The two became family instantly. “I call her big sis. She calls me little bro,” he says. He also became close with her now-teenage son, Jordan, and speaks of him fondly. “That’s just my guy. I love that kid.”
“Jordan is light-skinned, like me,” Virgil says. “Look, there are as many Black experiences as there are Black people. But when you are lighter-skinned and lighter-eyed, that’s its own particular kind of experience. And when Dana met me, she knew that I would understand wholly what his life was like, what he was going through … I knew I got him on that level.”
With this kind of closeness, Virgil felt a huge responsibility for holding Dana and Jordan’s story in his hands. Throughout his writing process, reverence and vigilance became his two touchstones. “If I could stick to those two ideals in some sort of way, we were good,” he says.
“Dana’s tough. She’s an extraordinary woman. I went to hang out with her in New York the day after she’d announced the Pulitzers [Canedy was the Pulitzer Prize administrator until July 2020]. I went through the entire outline with her, beat by beat. She kept getting phone calls because it was the day after the Pulitzers, but it was good because I think that she needed those pauses to take a breath because it was difficult. She trusted me, and I trusted her, and we listened to each other, and she knew she was being heard.”—Virgil Williams
A Journal for Jordan may be debuting in theaters Dec. 25, but Virgil feels that his screenplays are never really finished. “It’s like an organism. It’s endlessly growing. It should never stop moving,” he says. “At some point, [stories] do start to animate on their own, and it’s always amazing to watch. And then there’s a crew, and it’s really animating.”
He began the process of adapting A Journal for Jordan with several intense reads. After combing the book for character and voice, and filling the margins with notes, he created as detailed an outline as possible, one that he could sit and read to Dana in its entirety. Outlining gives Virgil momentum for when he starts fleshing out the actual scenes. By then, he says, “it feels like the backside of the mountain, ideally. And hopefully I have more answers than questions.”
Working closely with Todd on the script, Virgil leaned into the ways Dana’s story could be brought to life by making it as sensory as possible. “It’s exciting when you’re falling in love, that anticipation and those things that your body feels, the things that you smell and the things that you taste,” he says.
“There’s always that first pleasure read. And there’s a second deeper read where I’ll make notes in the margins. I tend to highlight so that I can really try to capture the essence and nuance of each character. And then, there’s a third and fourth read. I’ll leave notes for myself so that when I do go back, I’ll know to look in this section.”—Virgil Williams
After Virgil and Todd finished polishing the first draft, they gave it to Denzel Washington to read. (The three had collaborated before on a television show that never aired.) Todd went to meet with Denzel at the Beverly Hills Hotel and, at 7 p.m. that evening, Virgil got a call from Todd’s number. It was Denzel. “I have to direct this,” Virgil recalls Denzel telling him. “And then, of course, I’m like, ‘Thank you,’ trying to hold it in.” It was the summer of 2020. “That quarantine, George Floyd summer, Denzel was the only other person outside my family I saw,” Virgil says. “I would go up to the house in the afternoon, we’d work outside, and that was a master class.”
Over the course of the summer, Virgil and Denzel found their characters and their voices. “First Sgt. Charles King and Dana Canedy were very, very different people,” Virgil says. “And this is an opportunity that Black characters aren’t given often in Hollywood. These are people who are not defined by their trauma. They’re defined more by their beauty and their ability to fall in love.” They homed in on the long-distance love story of these two polar opposites, finding nuance in the little details and moments. It helped that Denzel, a two-time Oscar-winning actor, would read the characters during their sessions.
“Look, that dude [Denzel Washington] could read the phone book and it would be compelling. So for him to be able to read each of these characters ... He’s an American master.”—Virgil Williams
“I’ve had a ton of people give me advice, give me guidance, give me tips, give me jobs, see my talent, all these things. But I’ve never had somebody lift me,” Virgil says. “I’ve never had somebody affect my craft in the way that he did. And I certainly never had a Black man do it. It was powerful for me. And that particular Black male … It’s like I had to go to the top of the mountain to find a mentor.”
The ways in which Denzel pushed him made Virgil understand the importance of mentorship. “It is now incumbent upon me to provide this service at a slightly lower altitude, for people that are on the come-up at an earlier stage, because that was a blessing. It made me better.” Virgil has saved messages on his phone of Denzel’s notes to him, sometimes left at 4 a.m., other times at 11 p.m. “He would talk until the recording would run out. He’s ruthless in his pursuit of excellence,” Virgil says. “I’ll look back on that time with an astounding amount of fondness, and will carry it with me for the rest of my career.”