Director Rodney Evans on Brother to Brother
Getting a film in theaters is a blessing for any filmmaker who works hard to get a story told. If the story doesn’t have the commercial prospects that most producers look for, but if it has substance with good performances, than the work to get it out is much harder. For Director Rodney Evans, taking a film from festival to festival and finally making the big screen, the work to get it there was worth the wait. Rodney Evans is the recipient of the Independent Feature Project's Gordon Parks Award for Screenwriting for his screenplay of Brother to Brother, which is hitting theaters this week and stars Anthony Mackie and Aunjanue Ellis. He also recently received funding from the Jerome Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and ITVS for writing and producing his new project. His autobiographical film, Close to Home, has been shown at more than 30 film festivals worldwide. In speaking with Latino Review, Evans went over the reasons he chose to make this film and how he went about in selecting the cast.
What led you to get into films?
Rodney Evans: I had tried out a lot of different artistic fields as a teenager. I did a semester at Alvin Ailey Dance Program when I was in high school and also performed in alot of theatre. I did some singing in a band in college and eventually took a photography class in my freshman year which evolved into an interest in film. I took the introductory filmmaking class and was immediately hooked. It was great that there was this one medium that could encompass all of my artistic interests (music, acting, photography, dance, etc). I then moved onto graduate school at CalArts and a full on immersion in making films for three years, mostly documentaries.
How were you able to get this film started?
RE: Making BROTHER TO BROTHER was a six year process that I broke down into different phases to make it more manageable and seemingly doable. My earlier documentary work led me to wanting to write about personal experiences that I had gone through and putting them in a larger narrative context. After I started doing that I began to think about how my life would be different if I lived in a different era. This led me to research into the Harlem Renaissance and specifically to a video interview that I found of the elderly Bruce Nugent in the Schomburg library. He was openly gay during the Renaissance. I found him able to synthesize different types of knowledge from many disparate areas and also able to articulate the connections that existed between these areas. He was very scholarly and well-read but also spent a lot of time engaging with teenagers and young people so he also had an incredible street savvy. I later visited Tom Wirth who was very close to Bruce towards the end of his life and was generous enough to share stories, unpublished writing, artwork and 30 hours of audio interviews he had conducted with him. The research and writing of the film took two years and included reading biographies about Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman, listening to and transcribing the 30 hours of audio interviews with Bruce and also reading fiction by each of the authors which usually had useful autobiographical elements. The research and writing process went hand in hand and really supported each other. After I finished the script I then began to send it out to different producers, companies, etc. in order to raise the financing to begin production.
As a director, what challenges did you face to get the film produced?
RE: Raising the financing was a huge obstacle and part of the reason why it took so long to complete. We shot about 25% of the film in a week in the fall of 2001 and then ran out of money and used that footage to raise more funds. This was a year-long process and then in the fall of 2002 we called all of the actors back and shot for 3 more weeks. Many industry people and financiers questioned why the film needed to take place in two time periods, why the main character had to be gay, etc but I felt that these things were essential in telling this story. So as a result I had to create alternative means of financing the film. This meant applying for grants from places like NYSCA, The Jerome Foundation and other places and also holding several work-in-progress screening benefits for people within the black community that had a stake in seeing the film reach completion. They were able to make tax-deductible donations to the project through our 501C-3 fiscal sponsor. Other production challenges included filling 70 speaking parts with quality actors, finding 50 locations and recreating the Harlem Renaissance all on a very limited budget.
Can you talk about the casting and specifically Anthony Mackie? Why him?
RE: The casting process began with my seeing almost every off-Broadway and Broadway play with any black actors in it for a year. I compiled a huge list of about 100 actors that I thought were great. I then brought on two casting directors from the off-Broadway theater world, Vince Liebhart and Tom Alberg, and we spent three months in the summer of 2001 seeing about 500 actors from all different walks of life. Because I had done so much research into the renaissance and the specific historical figures depicted in the film it was pretty clear when the actors that embodied those people came into the room. Aunjanue Ellis who plays Zora, is someone I went to college with and was the one actor who I was thinking of as I was writing the script. I knew she would be great in that part. Anthony Mackie who plays the young fictional lead, Perry, was in his final semester at Julliard when we met. He had done an off-Broadway play called "Up Against the Wind" at the NY Theatre Workshop where he played Tupac Shakur and received rave reviews in the trades. I unfortunately missed that play but was able to catch him a few weeks later at his graduating showcase at Julliard. I was very impressed with his work and gave him the script and told him I was thinking of him for the part of Marcus, Perry's best friend (played by Larry Gilliard, Jr in the movie). He then called back a few weeks later and said he loved the script but he wanted to come in and read for Perry and only Perry. This immediately caught my attention and set him apart from most other young black actors. I would say that about 90% of the straight, black actors that we sent the script to for Perry wouldn't even read it because it was a gay role. So Anthony came in and after we chatted a little he started asking very smart and thorough questions. "How queeny is this guy"? There are other people that react to him being gay that don't know him. How does that come across? Is it in the way he dresses, small gestures, mannerisms? It was obvious from his questions that he had already begun this journey of really deeply investigating the character and making choices to commit to bringing him fully to life. He was very daring in terms of putting himself into situations that made him uncomfortable and really embracing risk as an actor and also setting his ego aside to do his job to create a rich, complex and layered portrayal. The type of commitment and skill I saw in terms of his mastery of his craft and the ways he could make adjustments when you gave him direction really made it clear that he was the one.
Did you face any resistance from any of Bruce's family or estate?
RE: No in fact Tom Wirth, the executor of Bruce's estate, was one of the main historical advisers and provided a great deal of the historical materials that went into the writing of the script. He was nothing but supportive and read successive drafts of the script and gave constructive feedback throughout the writing process. He was even generous enough to lend us some of Bruce's clothing and artwork to use in the film.
Can a magazine like Fire magazine exist today?
RE: I think the topics such as homosexuality, prostitution, etc. that FIRE!! was dealing with back then are not as taboo and shocking today. So it would be hard for a magazine to have that kind of impact in terms of shaking up the expectations around what young, black writers are supposed to address in their work.
What's the underlying message of the film?
RE: I am not really into films having one simple message. I think there is alot in the film to grapple with. I hope it serves to illuminate the lives and experiences of these great artists from the Harlem Renaissance like Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman. I think this is a rich and vibrant time period in African-American cultural history and it's shocking that it has never been dealt with before in a narrative feature. Many people have read work by these authors but few know the types of experiences they had in their formative years. I also hope the audience is moved on an emotional level by the friendship that evolves between the elderly Bruce and the young character, Perry. I see this friendship and the way these characters transform each other as the heart of the film. Through these relationships depicted on screen I think the film can serve to open up a much needed dialogue about homophobia in the black community and racism in the gay community while also looking at the role of black art during the renaissance and now. These are all reasons why the film is specifically important for the black community.
Is this film more than just a gay film as some may perceive it to be?
RE: I think the answer above covers different aspects of the film that appeal to a non-gay audience. What has been interesting in screening the film at festivals since January is the ways that so much in the film seems universal to audiences. People from such different backgrounds seem to be able to relate to it and be moved by it. I don't think you have to be black and/or gay to understand and appreciate the film at all.
Now that you have this off the ground, what's next?
RE: My main project right now is overseeing the distribution of BROTHER TO BROTHER and making sure it is seen as widely as possible. I am also in the process of optioning an off-Broadway play I saw a couple years ago and developing another historical film but my main focus right now is getting BTB out to audiences -- traveling with it, doing press to support it, etc so that all the hard work that went into making it will not have been in vain.
Dont't forget to also check out: Brother to Brother