Mary Jo “M.J.” Stemp may not have become a movie producer if her camera hadn’t run out battery at FedEx Field.
About a decade ago, while documenting an event as part of her cable TV production job, Stemp — a longtime Ashburn resident — approached another media professional and asked him for assistance. He not only obliged, but also paid her an unexpected compliment.
“He said, ‘You remind me of Oprah,’ because I’m very curious. I’m interested in everything,” Stemp recalled.
It was that curiosity that compelled Stemp’s new friend to invite her to a small church in Baltimore, where a visiting reverend from Laurens, South Carolina, had a story to share with her -- and hopefully the world.
Rev. David E. Kennedy, a preacher at the mostly black New Beginnings Baptist Church in Laurens, had already received attention from the press — including a 1997 Washington Post article by Donald P. Baker — for his unusual and compassionate relationship with Michael Burden Jr.
The former Grand Dragon of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan, Burden renounced his white supremacist ideologies in the late 1990s after his wife, Judy Burden, pushed him to do so. The decision left him homeless and ostracized by his peers, but Kennedy took Michael Burden under his wing.
The preacher was in Baltimore with his family and members of his congregation to conduct a revival, which Stemp attended and photographed. Afterward, Kennedy and company met with Stemp in private.
“They said, ‘We really want you to tell our story.’ So that’s how it started,” she said.
Not long after, she took a road trip to Laurens to meet Kennedy’s and Burden’s peers and families. She also visited the now-defunct Redneck Shop, a business Burden opened in 1996 that sold KKK paraphernalia and housed a Klan museum.
“I came home, reviewed everything and said, ‘OK, I’ll do this,’ because my children encouraged me to do so,” said Stemp, whose son is a musician, actor and filmmaker in Los Angeles.
Stemp spent the next decade painstakingly working to bring the story to the screen, establishing relationships with film executives in California and traveling frequently.
“I always considered myself a local cable TV producer, so this was a challenge for me,” she said.
A number of years into her efforts, she got a call: A production company in L.A. was already working on the same project. Prominent actors had even signed on, including Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Forest Whitaker as Michael Burden, Judy Burden and David Kennedy, respectively.
But rather than having to abandon her work, Stemp received a proposal from the executives involved, including Robbie Brenner, an Oscar-nominated co-producer of the 2013 Matthew McConaughey vehicle “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“They said, ‘We’d love to meet with you.’ We did, we collaborated: I worked on the Forest Whitaker character and they worked on Michael Burden and Judy Burden. We compared notes, we collaborated, they brought me on board,” she said.
The film, called “Burden,” began filming in Atlanta in the fall of 2016, Stemp’s first time on a film set. From day one, she was astounded by the commitment and enthusiasm of everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera.
“The first day on set, I’ll never forget it, [writer-director Andrew Heckler] grabbed me and stuck me behind the camera and wrapped his arms around me, because he was so proud and happy about what he created,” she said. “I was kind of in awe of the whole thing. When you’re on a set and you watch the actors, they stay in character the whole time, so you really feel like you’re watching the movie being made."
“Burden,” which is Heckler’s feature debut as both writer and director, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it received critical praise and was awarded the Dramatic Audience Award. Stemp attributes such positive reception to grand performances — particularly Hedlund’s — as well as the film’s positive messages and social commentary.
“It does have ups and downs, it is a true story. A lot of it has to do with racism and the KKK. This is the deep south, it’s different there,” Stemp said. “Since the 1997 Washington Post article, racism, in my opinion, hasn’t gotten any better. It may have gotten worse. I don’t want to say that’s what this movie is all about, though. It’s also a love story. There’s a love message in this.”
Stemp’s fellow Virginians will finally have a chance to locally view “Burden” at this weekend’s Washington West Film Festival in Reston. More information on the festival is at wwfilmfest.com.