: Lately there has been a number of queries about your whereabouts and happenings by readers of The Holler!, not to mention spikes in hits for the interview you did with us last year. It seems that folks are looking for you and can't find you; have you dropped out of sight?
: Aw, man. All I can say is I have been happily and quietly living my private life. I've traveled, got married, divorced, lived, laughed, loved. Next to family, my most important priorities are my health and my privacy, and I'm unwilling to compromise either. And unfortunately, when you've got your name on an American movie, even a little, near-insignificant thing like Hav Plenty
, people still take liberties with your privacy, even ten years later. People see some movie you're in, then they think they know all about you, have all-access. There're too many obstacles today taking our privacy away from all of us, and I try to combat that whenever I can, even if it’s something as simple as I can do like ignoring gossip. It’s why I love motorcycle riding, and why I've taken a solo cross-country trip on my bike every summer: there’s no car radio, you can't talk on the cell you can't examine your sexy reflection in the rearview mirror or eat fast food out of your lap. On a motorcycle trip, it’s just you, your thoughts, the bike, and God; even if you're riding alongside somebody else. And I love that privacy. It grounds me and keeps my imagination sharp.
But I've seen some of the articles you're referring to; the “Where Are They Now”-type websites, etc. All I can say to that is: I'm still here, folks, still working, still editing. Even today, I still get offers to act (in mostly bad indie movies) or direct (mostly bad straight-to-DVD movies). I think I lacked the intestinal fortitude and moxie required to be a working actor. And it surprised me when I realized how uninterested I was in the showbiz hustle of self-promotion. I valued my privacy, perhaps too much. And I made a conscious decision to walk away from the spotlight a few years ago. No one made that decision for me. It was all me.
But I'll be “back”. I've got too much love for the printed word and the framed image. I love storytelling too much. I used to hate the hustle, the game of showbiz, but now I know I hated it because I was young and I hadn't figured out how to make it work for me, to showcase my specific talents
. I literally wrestled with this scientific equation: In this new millennium, if black filmmakers create a good, lucrative name for themselves making broad, farcical comedies, and I have absolutely no interest in making broad, farcical comedies and couldn't fake it if I tried, how do I succeed in a business where that’s the only thing they will allow me do? How can I do business like (Boogie Nights
director) Paul Thomas Anderson does, successfully mixing personal and commercial? How can I do what (Jerry Maguire
director] Cameron Crowe does?” And after a few years in private, I believe I have figured out the secret. We'll see.
: Some visitors to the website
Shadow and Act,
were curious about an old film of yours, Box Marley
, which was never released. What does it deal with, and what was the hold up on it?
: Yeah, I always get asked about that little movie, and still can't really talk about it. It's with Hill Harper, Tom Arnold, Tommy Davidson, Tracy Morgan, Neil McDonough and Shemar Moore. I suppose it’s a comedy about a little guy who knows nothing about boxing but strives to succeed on his neighborhood gym’s boxing tournament, but Hill Harper thinks it’s sort of a parable about making independent movies. We're both right. And at least once a year I get a different somebody calling me up from a DVD distributor, trying to give me money to release it, but I can't do anything with it till some legal stuff is cleared up. I'm in no rush; it'll happen when it’s supposed to happen. I know one day you'll see it on the virtual shelves of Netflix
. Until then, let’s all have a drink and enjoy!
: Some of those comments by bloggers in Shadow and Act showed personal interest in you, as if they were touched by you personally, and The Holler! also received some similar comments from students in India; how do you feel about that kind of personal interest?
: An excellent question, Amir. And thank you forwarding those emails to me, they were great to read.
You know, it used to embarrass me when folks would come up to me on the street and tell me they liked my movie. I was always uncomfortable watching myself on screen, and felt as if others should be too. I liked my movie I made, loved it even, but sometimes watching myself in Hav
disconcertingly reminded me of Bugs Bunny...I had to get over that self-consciousness, that's all it was. But people seemed to "get it" and back then I never truly understood the relationship between "filmmaker" and "audience". Now I know: at best, it's an intimate relationship where the audience feels as if they've experienced exactly what your character has experienced up on that screen. When that happens, there's no better validation of your storytelling skills. On the business side, a big check is the ultimate goal, proof positive that we're succeeding and we like that. But on the creative side, I can't really describe to you how satisfying it is on the deepest level of your “creative psyche” to know the fragmented story you created on the screen touched someone else. It is the ultimate “keep going” affirmation, especially for a writer, I think.
And friends tell me all the time how they saw something of mine running on cable; Hav Plenty
runs for a solid month every year somewhere on cable. And how astonishing is it that my work is still running, ten years later, in places like India? There truly is nothing as amazing and beautiful and bizarre as show business.
Oddly enough, for me it also helps in opposite ways. Mark Twain I think said something like “If you believe them when they say you're good, you gotta believe them when they say you're bad”, and I believe that. Folks telling me they love my work forces me by default to determine what is real when folks tell me they don't as well. Thoughtful criticism always makes your future work better. It’s counterproductive to hear “You're Great!” all the time. I always listen to folks who say they didn't enjoy my work; the key is to learn how to quickly separate the "constructive" from the "haters". At this point I think I've got that down, too.
: What are your feelings about your two feature length films, Hav Plenty
, in terms of its critical success, and G
, your last film?
: Hmm, another interesting question. I think.... well, first off, these were very different movies made under very different circumstances. I was 26 when I wrote Hav Plenty
, 27 when I made it, and 28 when I sold it to Miramax. If you look at the complete journey, it was a very quick ride from my writing it to worldwide international theatrical release, about two and a half years. I know I made it look a little too easy for some aspiring filmmakers out there. But in my thinking, Hav
was not supposed to be that movie for me. I had always felt it would remain a kind of video resume for me, and I would have to make another movie afterward to further promote myself. I had such high frustration shooting Hav
, not having enough money for equipment (we couldn't afford a dolly so there is barely any camera movement), not being able to cast it correctly (I didn't want to act in it; Hill Harper was supposed to play the lead but got cast in Spike’s “Get On The Bus
” at the last minute). Even today, ten years later I still cringe when I see my puffy, red eyes during that scene where Caroline tries to kiss Lee on the couch and he pushes her away: I had a 103 degree fever when we shot that, and I felt bad for Tammi (Catherine Jones) who had to climb all over me knowing I was coughing up a gallon of phlegm after every time I yelled “cut!” It was very difficult for me producing, acting, directing, and then editing on a non-existent budget and I never felt like Hav
was as great as it could have been if I'd spent just a few more bucks, on this or that or whatever... And yet there was something there that caught the attention of audiences, and persevered after all these years. All the major trades and papers loved Hav
: Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, USA Today, great reviews from all. I know now there is magic in that movie, and even though I wasn't aware of it earlier, these past few years I think I have figured out what that allure was.
was almost the opposite: great working environment, not-so-great result. After a few interviews, I was hired by some very cool people to re-write and then direct. We all loved each other, had dinners together, spent a bunch of time during preproduction talking, laughing, bouncing ideas off one another. And we had a good budget. As a director, anything I needed was available to me. I had great rehearsal time with my actors, they were ready to kick ass on screen. And we lived in the Hamptons for an entire summer, all of us in this tiny motel near the beach, the cast and crew, like one big family. We were a family. It really was a dream gig, and aside from some horribly rainy days that had us scrambling to rearrange the schedule, production was always smooth and fun. When we wrapped, I spent about a month editing my Director’s Cut, submitted it to the producers on time, then went on with my life.
Now, the Producer usually has final cut, I know, but I was surprised when I finally saw their version of G
a few months later. Those guys were sweethearts and I would work with them again in a heartbeat, but let’s just say we all learned something from G
And that, I suppose, is the “official” answer to your question: every film is different, and we are all still students, we are all still learning and borrowing from each other, no matter how many movies we have on our resume. And no matter what may be the final critical response to my movies: I thank God for my opportunities and the lessons learned. And I will apply them to my future work.
My “unofficial” answer on criticism? As long as the critics stay talking about movies, and I stay makin’ ‘em, the world is a fair and balanced place.
: What is your kind
of film? If you could make a film without being dictated to or influenced by the commercial tampering of studios, what areas would you like to work in?
: I don't really have a set area I'd like to work in. “My kind of film”, I suppose, is wildly and enthusiastically entertaining, yet personal enough to hit you in your heart so that you carry it around with you for days after. And that can be any genre of story, really. Billy Wilder and Robert Zemeckis do that to me when I watch their movies; that’s the kind of storytelling I strive for. Even 25 years later, when I watch “Back To The Future”
, I still get excited watching George McFly knock the crap out of Biff in the parking lot like I'm seeing it for the first time. Damn, that’s great storytelling. And I also love themes about masculinity, and what it truly means to be a man, especially right now.
But look: when you're actually making a movie that is both successfully entertaining and personal, you'd never really consider studio input a “hindrance”. Everyone will want to put their best foot forward, and we'd all be on the same page, trying to make the same kind of movie: one that entertains and makes a little money too.
: What are your film goals?
: I read somewhere that Steven Spielberg said something along the lines that he never would have made Close Encounters
today, because the image of a husband abandoning his wife and children to chase spaceships was “irresponsible”. I think my goal as a filmmaker is just that: to entertain, but with “responsible” imagery.
So let’s talk about Mr. Perry for a moment. Mr. Perry’s a black man and an actor and became a millionaire with his popular, trademark character. But the character he created for the movies was seen by some to be incredibly demoralizing, a character heavily rooted in reinforcing negative stereotypes of black people. And yet Mr. Perry’s on-screen creation was so popular that he made movie after movie after movie with no financial blowback: some folks may have complained, but even more folks lined up to watch his movies. And Mr. Perry was, by all accounts, a smart and literate man who was probably very aware his comedy was “broad” and “viewed as negative”. But he kept on making those movies with that character because that’s what worked for him, and we kept on laughing with/at him all the way to the bank. And he made a good living, God bless him. Mr. Perry’s full name was Lincoln Perry, and the character we know him by was “Stepin Fetchit”. Seventy five years later we are still fighting and debating those irresponsible images that make a lot of money.
There’s a lot of negative stuff out there. More than the dialogue we hear in the movies, we carry the silent images of what we see on screen for a long time. The moving picture is a very powerful subconscious communicator. So I consider my “goal” to be able to keep my images positive, yet not fall into that boring preachiness, but to keep it highly entertaining and accessible for every audience, white, black, yellow, brown, purple, green, whatever. Admittedly, it’s a tough scale to balance, but there are folks out there who have done it: Denzel Washington and Sidney Poitier, I believe, have done this. I remember reading an article saying that Mr. Washington didn't want to play the bad cop in Training Day
if he didn't die at the end. I think understood that: to me it meant, having this violent, bad man live on at the end of the movie would not have been responsible. And it’s hard to do that, man, when the easy, irresponsible way is always out there, waving money in your face, saying “Play this pimp, man. Smile and slap that ho. Hit yourself in the face with this pie and we'll pay you big bucks.” But I'm not saying anything that (Hollywood Shuffle
director) Robert Townsend didn't say twenty years ago, and many before him. But that’s my goal.
: As a film maker, what can you provide that you think people need, or is that an important concern for you?
: “Need?” Wow, I don't know... But sure, I think about that, but I don't know if you can ever really know what an audience “needs”.
But I tell you something: some years back, right before I was going to work on Noah’s Arc
[at MTV], I was out with my friend Andre Royo, and I was telling him how I was gonna step on back from the spotlight for a bit and just be an editor on this TV show, just sit in a dark quiet room by myself and just cut film. And he just said, “Nah, man. Try again. We weren't ready for Hav Plenty
. I think we are now. I think we need it.” And he didn't speak on it again.
I never asked him what he meant by that, I just assumed I did (but I didn't). So a few years go by, and on election night 2008 I see the words PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA flash across my TV and it was surreal. Like I was seeing something I had always believed impossible, like flying cars or the Great Pumpkin or the Loch Ness monster. Everything I had previously believed about the “Bradley Effect” and whatever other foolishness was wrong. As a country, we'd rejected all the negative crap thrown at us about Senator Obama, focused on the big positive, and we elected the man we needed. And that got me thinking: if we're ready for this new black president and his beautiful black family to represent our entire country as a whole on the world stage, does that mean we the people are ready to accept this “New Black Masculine” image, and reject all the stereotypical BS from now on? Is this country ready to accept the incredible image of the responsible black father and mother in all media as not just the “exception” but the “norm”? Are we FINALLY ready to consciously reject the image of the “pimp” and the “buffoon” and accept the “literate black masculine” on the screen as the norm? And even deeper: is this positive image something that we as an audience NEED to heal our country’s collective soul?
The obvious answer is: I don't know. I know I'm just another talking head dropping my greasy card in the opinion box. But thanks to Andre Royo (and President Obama), that’s always in the back of my mind now when I work: are we ready for a New Black Masculine in our movies? And do we really need it?
: What kinds of projects are you working on these days?
: Editing stuff; directed a short for some friends who wrote a script a few months ago, and of course, prepping my secret maybe-it’s-time-to-do-it-again feature project. Just don’t call it a comeback.
(To see a short that Chris directs and acts in with actor Andre Royo (The Wire), who wrote the script, check out Andre Royo's Big Scene