An Interview with Director Jerry LaMothe
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October 19, 2006
For independent directors such as Jerry LaMothe, getting the next project off the ground always comes with challenges. It’s one thing when you have had earlier success, as in the case of his first film, “Amour Infinity”, which received many accolades and rave reviews when it toured the festival circuit in 2001, but when the second film doesn’t do as well, the well-known term, “sophomore slump” is attached to his name. That was the case with “Nora’s Hair Salon”, which had some marketable names in the film (Jenifer Lewis, Tatyana Ali, Bobby Brown), but had gone straight to DVD with little fanfare and mixed reviews. LaMothe was the director for hire on the project with little control. For his next film, he hopes the third time could be the charm as he’s assembled quite a cast for a film dealing with a major event that shook New York a few years ago. The film is called “Blackout” and the cast includes Jeffrey Wright and Zoe Saldana amongst a bevy of veteran actors. In speaking with blackfilm.com, LaMothe talks about how special this film is to him, working with such amazing talent and the challenges on his previous film.
What is “Blackout”?
Jerry LaMothe: “Blackout” is an ensemble piece and it’s about the chain of events that unfolds in a Brooklyn neighborhood, a forgotten Brooklyn neighborhood, during the blackout of 2003 and how it affects people differently. It deals with people and characters that step in and out of each other’s lives and see each other on a day to day basis on that block, but basically this film displays how everyone is affected differently by it and what chain of events can happen in a limited period of time.
Who did cast in the film?
JL: The cast consists of the talented Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Saldana, LaTanya Richardson, Melvin Van Peebles, Anthony Chisolm, Saul Rubinek, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Michael B. Jordan, who was on “All My Children” and “The Wire”. It’s just phenomenal ensemble cast of screen and stage legends as well as up and coming. I’ve had the good fortune of bringing out a lot of young talent in the movie as well.
Is anyone playing a major role or is this film comprised of vignettes?
JL: There’s really no lead role in the film. When I look back at it, and I don’t mean in the script, but when I look at the dailies and I look at the footage and what we shot, no one really is put on the platform or in the forefront. They’re all sort of equivalent. It’s really your take on who you gravitate to the most, but it’s also a little slice on their individuality.
As the writer of the film, how did this story come about for you?
JL: Here’s the interesting thing about it. I was living in the neighborhood where we shot this film when the blackout actually occurred in 2003 and I was just getting over my devastation of not getting “From the Outside Looking In” made, which was supposed to be my follow-up to “Amour Infinity”. That also had a great cast. That had Terrence Howard, Mos Def, Isaiah Washington, Billy Crudup, Allen Payne, Monica Calhoun, and it was a phenomenal cast and I was ready to go and the funding didn’t come through on that, so I had to go back to the lab and come back really strong with something else and then the blackout occurred. I tried to make a phone call and call my daughter and check up on her and see if she was okay and I just looked around me and I just studied the atmosphere and sort of had this post apocalyptic end-of-days vibe to it and I said to myself, “Wow, this is a movie”. I just started writing it. I wrote the script within three weeks, within six after the actual blackout. I had the first draft of the script ready to go and I just started pushing it, and I was like, “I gotta put it out there”. For me, to be able to come back and shoot in the actual neighborhood, it was an inspiration. That’s a whole story itself, shooting on Flatbush Avenue, the effect it had on the community and the neighborhood. They have never been exposed to anything like that before and I don’t when or if they ever will again; so that was a great experience for me.
Were there challenges to getting funding for the film?
JL: I think getting funding for any film present challenges and I don’t it was so much as getting this film funded as it was people in the game period are just really funny. I got a lot of attention from people in the past and I literally walked away from at least one or two deals. There was another deal that I was really exited about with a real high figure in Hollywood, in the music business in LA, and it just never materialized; and the thing about this film is that it’s very time sensitive. I could only shoot this film in the summer time. Every time the film was supposed to be made and it doesn’t, I lose an entire year and then I can’t go back and shoot the film until May, June, and July. I basically had a three month span to shoot the movie every year and I had the blessing of shooting it this year with Judith Aidoo, who was the executive producer and funded it. She saw it, she read it, she bought it, and she stuck with my vision. She read it on a weekend and called me on Monday and said, “Let’s negotiate. Let’s call our lawyers and let’s put this thing together.”
How did you get Jeffrey Wright involved in the film?
JL: My executive producer knew Jeffrey and while we were brainstorming and putting the cast list together, she mentioned his name, and after I thought about it, I was like, “Are you kidding? That would be an honor to get Jeffrey.” She set up a meeting between us and Jeffrey, as you probably know, is very in particular and picky about his choices and the project he chooses, but out of courtesy for Judith, he did look at the script and he made a point to let me know that he was seriously contemplating retirement and not to hold on to him too much. At the time he was doing a lot of press for “Syriana” and he was overseas and stuff and it took a couple of weeks but when he finally read the script, he initially called Judith and told her that he was interested and that he was going to call me personally and let me know. I was on the train when he called me from Germany and he told me he loved the script and it’s basically what he looks for any script and any project that he chooses, the interchanges of different characters and the lives and dialogues and he said, “I’m down. Let’s do it.” That was the difference.
How about casting Zoe Saldana?
JL: Interesting enough, Zoe wasn’t eveninvolved when I initially started shopping the project a year and a half, almost two years ago. She had expressed interest and I always envisioned Zoe as “Claudine”, which funny enough and although I say there aren’t any particular leads, she’s sort of the narrative of the movie and I always envisioned Zoe playing the part. She was my first pick. I had sent it out to other people, but she loved the script and was down to do it and then the film didn’t get made. A year and a half later I came back to her and she had a lot going on. She had some other commitments but we were able to work it out and she came on board. Zoe was one of the first people involved with the project as was Barbara Montgomery and Melvin Van Peebles, when I was trying to get the project off the ground. There were other people who waiting about two years for this to get going like Anthony Chisolm.
How was working with Melvin Van Peebles considering his a legendary director, who paved a way for others to get in the game of directing?
JL: That’s a good question. Well, I was actually a bit nervous on the first day of shooting. Anyone who knows Melvin knows that he’s very strong and he speaks his mind and he doesn’t bite his tongue. I didn’t know what I was in for when we started working together, but Melvin was cool. He’s so humble and passionate and very supportive of the project. I was really in awe watching him watching me and letting me do what I do and he gave me a pat on the shoulder and a sign of approval and believe in me and trusted me. He let me fly the plane and let me do what I needed to do. That was a great experience in itself to me.
Was there any resistance from the city as far as shooting?
JL: Not from the city. We didn’t have any problems. We got our permits and our insurance and all of that, so it was all good. We didn’t get as much as special attention as we would have liked because we were considered low budget. We were under the radar. They didn’t watch over us as they would a multi-million project, but we made it through on our own.
Your last film, Nora’s Hair Salon, had got straight to DVD. How disappointed were you with its outcome?
JL: I would have to say for the most part I was a bit disappointed with it. I don’t want to go back and put down work that I’ve done or try to put down anyone who offered me the job, but for me, that was a new learning experience; probably something I wouldn’t do again given the circumstances. One of which I was given a measly 12 days to shoot that film, which is really, really short, even for an independent film to make a movie. It was a huge learning experience for me being in a situation where not being the writer or the producer is extremely different from making a film like “Amour Infinity” or in this case, “Blackout”, where you have written it, produced it, and you’re directing it. That’s not saying that I’m a control freak, but my vision isn’t compromised, and I have creative control. I know what I feel and I’m passionate about it and that resonates on the screen. People who associate me with “Amour Infinity”, they don’t associate me with “Nora’s Hair Salon”. They are always asking me what’s next, and that they loved my first movie. “Blackout” to me, is my follow-up to “Amour Infinity”. In the case with “Nora’s Hair Salon”, there were a lot of chefs in the kitchen. Basically, I felt I had to do the movie. I felt I was in a situation because it had been two years since I did “Amour Infinity” and if I do this movie, they will let me do another movie tomorrow. I would have developed relationships and I would have proven that I can direct caliber actors and they would let make the movie that I want to make and that’s not necessarily the case. That was a huge sacrifice and compromise that I will never make again. Hollywood doesn’t work that way. God bless me but if I’m given the opportunity to make 5-6 films that I really want to make that will become classics and touch people over the course of my whole career in 20 years, I can live with that. I know where my strengths and my genre is and even if it takes every five years to do one, I rather do that and be happy with myself and the product and be able to my fans say that there are happy with Jerry Lamothe films because he didn’t sell out. I’m at peace with that.
Does “Blackout” have a distributor?
JL: We don’t have a distributor as of yet. Word is out and there is some buzz about it. People were aware of it before the film got made, so a lot times the studios would hear about it, but they stay away until the film has actually been made. We are in post now and putting it together. All of the cast members are extremely excited about it. We will start shopping it and hoping to hit the main festivals and have a cut ready for Sundance, and hopefully the Cannes, and the Tribeca Film Festival and take it from there. I feel very confident that the film will do very, very well.
What do you expect people to get out of from seeing “Blackout”?
JL: I want to follow along the lines of my first body of work and in doing that, to take it to a higher level. My quote that I love to recite is that of Jack Lemmon. He once said that as an artist if you have the good fortune to making a person laugh or cry at the end of a movie, then you have accomplish something that is a rarity. If you get to accomplish that once in the span of your career, you’re very fortunate, and I have no reservations that “Blackout” is going to do that. The best movies are the ones where you can’t shake it off or you can’t get it out of your mind, and that you have to see more than once to catch everything. Every time you see it, you’ll pick up on something new. It’s going to leave you something to think about.
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