Set Visit Report: Four Brothers
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By Julian Roman
"Four Brothers" is the latest film from acclaimed director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, 2 Fast 2 Furious) and Hollywood studio executive turned producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura (The Matrix Trilogy). The film is produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures with a slated release for August 2005. Set in modern day Detroit, the story follows four brothers on a quest to avenge the murder of their adoptive mother. The four brothers are played by Mark Wahlberg as "Bobby", Tyrese Gibson as "Angel", Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 from Outkast) as "Jeremiah", and Garrett Hedlund as "Jack". The racial differences between the brothers are obvious, but their distinct personalities will be the focal point in this character-driven action film.
Paramount Pictures invited Blackfilm.com, along with a small group of journalists, to visit the Four Brothers production in Toronto, Canada. Toronto and Vancouver have become the Hollywood north in recent years because it's substantially cheaper to film there than in the United States. Also, Four Brothers takes place during the winter and Canada was an ideal place to shoot the exterior shots for the film. Toronto had a particularly harsh winter, but thankfully was very pleasant when I arrived. My first night in town was pretty low key. The set visit would take place the following day and it gave everyone a chance to get to know each other. Toronto is a beautiful, impossibly clean city, so it was fun to relax and soak up a bit of Canada.
The group met up in the lobby of the hotel at 9 AM. We were picked up by the production drivers and whisked off to Cinescape studios on the other side of town. We were met at Cinescape by the lovely Karen Pidgurski, the unit (or local) publicist, who would be responsible for chaperoning us throughout the day. Our first order of business was to get a tour of the set. It was huge, like a massive warehouse. They had already shot the exterior of the film in the nearby town of Hamilton. The production designers had recreated an entire block of Hamilton on the set. It was very impressive. There were row houses, the sort you would see in a lower-middle class neighborhood, with a street between them. Artificial snow and grass were everywhere, along with street signs, parked cars, and a fire hydrant to top it off. The sidewalks were hollow, made of wood and plastic resin, and looped around the entire set. Most of the homes were facades, but the primary house had an interior designed for close-up shots.
There was a lot of activity on the set and everyone looked busy. Cables were everywhere. They ran from every filming, sound, and lighting device to their respective control panels. The scene they were setting up for takes place on the roof of the porch. When we initially walked in, the doubles for Mark Wahlberg and Garrett Hedlund were sitting on the roof while the lighting was set. The overhead lighting was fixed on a giant scaffold. Powerful white lights were beaming down on the porch roof through a rigging of reflective material. It gave the set the luminous glow needed to recreate a night shot. There were two cranes to the right of the house. The far right crane had a sound guy standing on a platform at the top. He had a long boom (microphone) and would spend the day hovering over the actors while they spoke their lines. The crane to the left of the sound guy had this great pivoting camera. It could be lowered, raised, or moved in any direction. This camera was moved around constantly as they shot different angles of the scene. Situated directly in front of the porch was the director and producers hub. The camera controls, monitors, and stunt team were also there.
It was at this point we first met director John Singleton. He walked over to the group and quickly introduced himself before running off to shoot the scene. We were led to a corner where chairs were set-up in front of a table with two monitors. We were given headsets that plugged into clip-on wireless receivers. This way we could clearly hear the dialogue while watching the scene. This would be our space on the set for the next six hours. A film production requires long, thirteen to fourteen hour days, and it was fascinating to see everyone go about their business.
All quiet was sounded and we got our first glimpse of Mark Wahlberg and Garrett Hedlund. The scene is a playful one on the porch roof. The two brothers have a little argument which results in Garrett pushing Mark off the roof. While he stands there gloating, Tyrese Gibson steps through a window and pushes Garrett off the roof. He says a few lines and jumps down to join them. This is a quick summary of a scene that took the entire day to shoot. The stunt coordinator had rigged up a platform below the roof that the actors fell on. It was a minor fall that didn't require the use of stunt doubles. There was also a guy that stood on the platform holding a fan below the actors. The wind simulates the night air and we could see Mark and Garrett's hair faintly blowing in the wind. It adds to the effect, but I felt sympathetic for the guy holding the fan. Imagine having to do that, take after take, all day long. Movie stars and directors get the lion's share of credit for a film, but the unsung production members, like the fan guy, work every bit as hard to get the film made.
Sitting at our little alcove surveying the action, I looked around the set and noticed something striking that I hadn't seen before. There was a matte (background) painting, hooked into the ceiling, which surrounded the entire set. It was a painting of the town and the adjacent areas in the distance. This thing was at least five stories tall and filled in the background space between the row houses. You've got to love the attention to detail. From every angle the camera shoots from, the town could be seen behind the action. It was easily the most impressive thing I saw that day.
We passed the next hour or so watching them film various angles of the porch shot. We were given excerpts from the script to follow along. The Paramount reps gave us dire warnings about revealing any part of the film in our articles. I always write spoiler free, but I'd hate to get a visit from an irate Paramount rep late at night. John Singleton took a break from filming and sat down with us for an extensive interview. We would get to talk to all the primary stars except for Mark Wahlberg. Maybe he had to stay in character and didn't want to break his concentration... or maybe he just didn't feel like talking to us. Either way, everyone else took the time to speak with us and seemed to enjoy a little media spotlight.
Here are some excerpts of our interview with John Singleton:
You tend to have similar themes that are present in all of your films. Does this hold true for Four brothers as well?
John Singleton: I guess it depends on the movie, but one of the things I look for in my stuff is the loss of family. I've always thought of my pictures as having a non traditional family structure. A lot of filmmakers always have this straight, nuclear family kind of thing. I've always dealt with fathers and sons, mothers and sons, daughters, or in this case, four brothers who were raised by their foster mother. I've never dealt with family in a traditional manner.
You also tend to have a strong male character that kind of anchors the entire film. Is that Mark Wahlberg's character here?
John Singleton: His character more so, he comes from a real foster background. He doesn't know who his parents are. He's mad; he was in foster homes all his life until this woman took him in. She's the only person that's ever cared him.
Can you tell us about casting Mark?
John Singleton: It was cool the way it came about. I have two friends at the studio that called me up and said they had a really good script. Mark was possibly going to do it. Now Mark and I have known each other for ten years. We've partied together, hung out together; we've always dabbled around trying to do a movie. When they called me up and said Mark would do it if I was definitely in. It was cool.
Are there going to be any racial issues between the brothers?
John Singleton: No, that's no problem. They all grew up together. It's funny, because they jibe each other and bust each other's chops throughout the whole f**king movie. It's a trip. These cats, take into context that they're foster kids, have lived in the same house for a number of years. It's really cool to see the personalities of all these guys gel. It's hilarious.
Was there anything in the script that made you have to shoot the film?
John Singleton: Just the whole thing about having four foster brothers getting together to find out why their mother was killed. For me, that was what hit it. It's an adventure story. Also, I had never done a film in the snow. I want to challenge myself as a filmmaker. I want all of my films to look differently and take place in different parts of the world.
How was shooting in cold weather?
John Singleton: We've been on frozen lakes. We've been shooting in twenty below weather. It's been good though. I didn't get sick. I was probably the only person in the crew that didn't get sick. (Laughs)
John also spoke to us about producing "Hustle and Flow", the film that won the audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The buzz surrounding "Hustle and Flow" has been extremely positive. Terence Howard, the film's star, gives a tremendous performance and looks to break out if the film becomes a hit. Howard also has a minor role in Four Brothers.
John Singleton: Before Terence did "Hustle and Flow", he and I had beef. He was originally cast in "Shaft", because I'd seen him in a preview of "The Best Man". I got him a train ticket from Philadelphia to New York, put him in the movie, that's how he met Jeffrey Wright. Then "The Best Man" came out while we were rehearsing "Shaft" and everybody was on him. He left and did a Disney film about Mohammed Ali, which was a bad movie, because they offered him all this money. I hammered him, you can't leave me! Then his career meandered for a few years. I said, "See - you shouldn't have been f**king with me." (Laughs) So I said if we were going to do this [Hustle and Flow] we've gotta come right. The most memorable thing I remember about Terence is that we were in Memphis for the first time. I told him I wouldn't do the picture if you're not believable as a rapper. We took him in the studio with Juicy Jay and the 3 6 Mafia. Terence, as people know him, has a guitar, plays, likes to pick up and sing. He went in and did the lyrics that this kid Frazier Boy wrote. The first track he did, we were like "wow", I think he can do it. That was it.
I was very surprised that Craig Brewer, the film's writer and director, was white...
John Singleton: But he's from the south though, he's got a lot of soul.
How did you two link up?
John Singleton: I met him through Stephanie Allaine, who's also a producer on the picture. Stephanie also helped start my career with "Boy n the Hood". She gave me the script and I read it. Then we had to hustle to get the film made.
How does it feel to make Sundance history by getting the biggest contract ever with the deal you got with Paramount for Hustle and Flow?
John Singleton: It feels great. It feels like a vindication, like we really showed them, the business, the industry. I hate being doubted, especially about knowing what's hip and what people want to see. It's like an insult, like someone calling me the "N" word. I know what people want to see and I prove that over and over.
How did you feel when it won the audience award?
John Singleton: It was great. I was happy for Craig [Brewer] and Steph [Allaine]. I was back here shooting my movie. I was only there for two days, to make the deal, and fly back.
John was called back for another take and we had a chance to talk with Tyrese Gibson. Tyrese was an established musician before venturing into acting. He's done three films (Baby Boy, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Four Brothers) with John Singleton and credits him with shaping his career as an actor.
Tyrese Gibson: He creates a comfortable environment. I've got to be me. He understands me and my energy. He creates the environment that allows me to be me. It's a good feeling.
Is it because you're both from the same neighborhood and have a similar upbringing?
Tyrese Gibson: That has something to do with it, keeping it gangsta, keeping it hood. But he feels that I do what he wants me to do on film. That's half the battle when you're a director. You don't want to show up directing. You want to show up and have people ready to do what they do. He put me in this game and he knows how to manipulate my emotion to get me ready for a scene. In my mind it is a comfort zone. I know he won't call me for no b.s. He see more in me than I see in myself. That why I got into it, to have a man walk up to me and say I'm an actor, I see something in you. I don't know if y'all know this but he came to my house and forced me to read "Baby Boy" at my dinner table. He punked me. It's just that kind of thing. I owe him everything, because outside of his films, these other people have only seen my gift for acting because of John.
John put everyone together before filming to create camaraderie between you and the other actors who play your brothers?
Tyrese Gibson: When we hang out it's not work. We all crack jokes and wild out. That's what we do. If you all were on the set every day, we have full on bagging contests. We think of everything dirty you can think of and throw it at each other. That's what we do. I was just excited about being around four brothers. I was really anticipating being around all four brothers and anticipating what my color is. Because if they say we want all you brothers to be crazy in this one scene, then you have to figure out what your own way of being crazy is. After hanging out with everybody and getting acquainted, I was able to figure out what my color was.
Taraji Henson, who plays Andre Benjamin's wife in Four Brothers, was the next actor to be interviewed. Taraji is also a favorite of John Singleton's, starring opposite Tyrese in "Baby Boy". She also co-stars with Terence Howard in "Hustle and Flow". Taraji had nothing but praise for John as a director.
Taraji Henson: John is brilliant because he understands casting. You can have a great script, but John understands chemistry in film. It's all in the casting. That's why Tyrese and I were so believable in "Baby Boy". To this day, I still have people walking up to me asking me, "Where's Tyrese? You guys aren't really together?" (Laughs) We're just acting. That's why John is brilliant. In all of his films, the characters are so believable. He just totally gets casting.
Lunch was called after we spoke to Taraji and everyone followed the crew to the dining area, which was basically a warehouse next door. It was an interesting place because half the space was allocated for eating while the other half held various props, including some demolished cars. You can always tell you're on a film with a decent budget by the food. This was a serious spread. They had a whole buffet of cooked foods with every kind of meat you can think of. Beside that there was a stir fry table with a chef and desert table with all kinds of delectable goodness. I made a mess of the chocolate mousse cake and felt too embarrassed to go back for seconds. Lunch, like everything else that day, was all business. The crew ate and went back to work diligently. Movie sets are usually chaotic places, but everything ran like clockwork while we where there.
We went back to our designated area and were soon interviewing the smoking hot Sofia Vergara. Sofia was quite charming and looked very different from her "Soul Plane" days. She had dyed her black to look "more Latina" and it apparently has paid off. She's getting meatier roles, including her role as "Sofi", Tyrese's love interest in the film. They have a sex scene that we were shown a tantalizing piece of. Sofia's current love interest is what dominated the interview. I'm no shill for tabloid fodder, but she's supposedly Tom Cruise's new girlfriend. A reporter from Mexico peppered her with personal questions in Spanish until the publicist realized what was going on and put an end to it. Sofia didn't seem annoyed and put up a cheerful demeanor the whole time. I guess Tom has good taste in women.
Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Friday Night Lights) was next and finally we got someone who wasn't in a happy mood. He'd been shooting all day and was visibly worn out. Garrett's a rather strapping fellow and the female journalists in our group were eating up his brooding persona. He plays "Jack", the youngest of the four brothers. As in real life, the youngest brother gets the most torture and Garrett was the most frequent target of practical jokes on set. He put on a brave face, but I could tell he was thirsting for some payback.
Andre Benjamin was the last of the cast to be interviewed and the person I was most looking forward to meeting. He was true to form, wearing a straw hat and multi-colored suspenders. Dre's had a phenomenal run the last few years. Outkast has conquered the musical world. Now he's ventured into acting with roles in "Be Cool" and Four Brothers. Dre's a fan of acting and wants to take it seriously.
Andre Benjamin: The only goal I have right now is to play the character in the script as true as possible. That's it. I'm not using it to get other leads or sh*t like that. I haven't gotten to that point. Maybe one day I will. Right now I'm just trying to be the character. I just think about the situation, try to think of something in my life that's equivalent to the situation. Or someone I've seen, just try to find a connection in any way.
John Singleton can recognize talent and has been credited with growing talent. What's the most important thing he's taught you?
Andre Benjamin: (Thinks for a long time) Know your lines. Seriously, if you know your lines, then you can go anywhere. If you don't know your lines, you're not concentrating on what you're supposed to be doing. It's like when you see someone dribbling a basketball. They've been doing it for years and aren't even thinking about it. If you sit there and try to learn it while you're doing it, that's what it'll look like. Once you learn it, then you can play with it. And it's the best once you can play with it.
Dre hasn't proven himself as an actor yet, but I look forward to seeing his performance in Four Brothers and his upcoming films. A lot of musicians try to act, but don't take the time to learn the craft. Dre's focused on the craft and that's initially the most important step.
Our last interview before we left was with producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. Lorenzo was the head of production for many years at Warner Brothers studios. Along with Four Brothers, Lorenzo has the film adaptation of "Doom" forthcoming and "Derailed" with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston. He dropped a bomb on us with some juicy details on the adaptation of "Transformers" into a feature film. The story would be updated and not based on the original TV series. He also said they were ready to name a director for the joint Paramount/Dreamworks venture. He didn't give us a name, but it has been recently reported that Michael Bay would direct. This hasn't been confirmed, but Bay is certainly no stranger to huge, big-budget films. Lorenzo was responsible for the Four Brothers script since its "embryonic" beginnings. He liked the tale of brotherhood set against a murder mystery and was keen for John Singleton to direct; also praising him for his ability to establish strong characters in a film.
After Lorenzo went back to running his massive film empire, we were herded up and taken back to our respective vans. We had been on set for seven hours and occupied the entire time. We were given access to the talent, sans Mark Wahlberg, and shown all facets of the production so far. The film is still four months away from release, but it seems to me that all the pieces are in place for a good film. Visit Blackfilm.com in August to see if I was right.
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