Trinity Goodheart – Screenwriter Rhonda Baraka
An Interview with screenwriter Rhonda Baraka
By Wilson Morales
August 18, 2011
Coming up this weekend, GMC TV, America’s favorite channel for uplifting music and family entertainment, presents the World Television Premiere Original Movie ‘Trinity Goodheart,’ starring Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eric Benét in his first dramatic lead role, Erica Gluck (“The Game”) and James Hong.
Based on an original screenplay written by Rhonda Baraka (Pastor Brown), Trinity Goodheart is the inspiring and heartwarming story of a smart, independent young girl (Gluck) being raised by her single, free-spirited musician father (Benét). Finding comfort in creating decorative paper angels that provide inspiration to her and the patrons of Mr. Kwon’s Deli and Bookstore where she and her father work, Trinity begins to make peace with the fact that her unconventional father and her friend and confidant Mr. Kwon (Hong) may be the only family she ever knows. But when an angel visits and tasks her to find the missing half of a broken heart pendant that once belonged to her long lost mother, Trinity embarks on a mission to find her mom and uncover the truth about her parents’ complicated past. Discovering both sides of her estranged family are alive and accomplished, but missing a deeper sense of connection and purpose, she attempts to use her charm to encourage them to set aside their differences and come together as a family to bring her mother home.
For Baraka, as an African American female screenwriter and former Tuskegee News journalist , this represents a milestone in her career. Her previous work, Rockmond Dunbar‘s directorial debut, ‘Pastor Brown,’ has yet to be released after playing in festivals since 2009.
In speaking with Blackfilm.com, Baraka spoke about writing ‘Trinity Goodheart,’ her thoughts on Eric Benet’s casting, the issue with ‘Pastor Brown,’ and her upcoming projects, which includes writing a film involving Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker.
You’ve got ‘Trinity Goodheart’ appearing on the GMC channel this weekend. How did you come up with the story?
Rhonda Baraka: I actually wrote this script several years ago. The title of the movie popped into my head about 7-years ago. I didn’t even know what the story was going to be when the title came to me. I just sat on it for awhile, I kept it tucked away and little by little the story began to unfold as I realized what I wanted the character to be and the story surrounding her. It wasn’t like many of the other things I write. It was a totally different process. When I finally put the pieces together I then began to take ownership of it and make some decisions about what I wanted to make each character represent. One of the main things I wanted was for all of the characters to be flawed. I wanted characters who were seriously flawed but are seeking redemption. People who can be forgiven and understood despite their flaws. If you can find a person who’s severely flawed and find a way to forgive that person I think that’s a huge challenge for all of us. That’s what I wanted to challenge the audience to do with this story.
Once the story came together did you have plans to take it to the big screen and how did GMC come into it?
Rhonda Baraka: I spent a couple years shopping this project, working with different people who had taken a liking to it. I think the goal for any screenwriter is to see their project on the big screen. I shopped it for a couple years, had a couple false starts, and tucked it away knowing I would come back to it. About three years ago I tried to get the project to GMC but they were not doing any original programming at the time. So I was a little bit premature but really felt like the Gospel Music Channel was a good home for it. That didn’t materialize, and when I finally did have an opportunity to hook up with the people at GMC and heard they were ready to branch off and do some original movies and TV shows. I took this project to them along with several others. I met with Brad Siegel and Paul Butler over at GMC and Brad asked me of all the projects I pitched which I thought was the best for them. I said, “Trinity Goodheart,” and he said, “So do I.” He took the script and read it, and a few days later called me and said he liked it and he really wanted to consider doing something with it. He shared it with the rest of the team at GMC and fortunately everyone else liked the project as well and things moved quickly from there.
Rhonda Baraka: They did seek my input on the two leads, Eric Benet and Erica Gluck. They ran several people by me. I actually had a couple of recommendations for the character of Trinity, a couple of people we were not able to get. There were some other girls that came to the table who were interested in the project. I had a pretty clear picture of what Trinity and Jeremy should be like — who they were and what they should look like. When I saw Erica Gluck I thought she was perfect. We tossed around several names for Jeremy. Paul Butler suggested Eric Benet, and I hadn’t thought of him but he’s got the right vibe, the right swagger. But can he act? Is he an actor, can he pull this off? It turned out he was actually going to be in Atlanta doing a performance for Valentine’s Day. The network and the producer reached out to Eric’s management. Paul, Brad and I actually went to a show and ‘ambushed’ him after the show. He already had the script but hadn’t read it yet. I just started talking to him about who the character was, “This is your story, you will be able to identify with him because you’re a single father.” We all kind of worked him over, and I could see in his eyes that he was intrigued. That was a Saturday night; that Monday afternoon Brad called me and told me that Eric was on board.
After seeing the finished product, what was your opinion of Eric and Erica?
Rhonda Baraka: I’m very proud of the job they did. Erica, I think, really brought Trinity to life, and Eric was really courageous because he had to open up old wounds in order to play this character. He had to re-live some things he had experienced in his life, which is not easy to do even for a seasoned actor, but for someone who’s transitioning to acting the way he is, for him to make himself that vulnerable so convincingly I was really blown away. He was great to work with, had a great attitude, and worked really, really hard. He took it seriously and it shows.
Where do you go from here?
Rhonda Baraka: I’m forever moving to the next project. That’s the way I function as a writer, and that’s the way most writers are. As soon as the deal was done with GMC I was already thinking about what’s next. I’m forever looking to tell a different story in a different way. Someone asked me if everything I do is “faith-based,” and I said that the majority of the stuff I’ve written is not faith-based. It just so happens that the two projects that have been produced have been ‘faith-based.’ I do have a project in development right now that is a romantic comedy with Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker, so I’m definitely interested in spreading my wings a little bit. I’m also developing some TV shows that are getting a little buzz. I’m looking for that next thing.
It’s funny you mentioned your earlier project. There’s an article about movies that will never see the light of day in theaters or DVD. One of those films included was “Pastor Brown” which you wrote. What’s your opinion on why the film hasn’t been released yet?
Rhonda Baraka: First of all, very disappointed that the film has not been released yet. Was very pleased, worked with some very good people on that project. There have been several false starts with that film. This year alone I’ve been given several different release dates for the DVD… March, July, October. I’m not involved with the project on that level, it’s really in the hands of the executive producer. I know there were some issues with the producers that they were hoping to resolve and they haven’t, to my knowledge, resolved. We shot the film in 2008 and now it looks like it will be four years later before it’s released. I know these things happen, it’s just unfortunate when it does. As a writer who wants to move on that’s one thing that’s hanging over my head. It’s a question that is constantly asked, “Whatever happened to ‘Pastor Brown’?” If for no other reason than to be able to put that question to rest I’d love to see the film come out so we can move on from that saga.
You mentioned you’re working on a romantic comedy with Boris and Nicole called “Looking For Jimmy Lee”. How soon is that film going into production considering Nicole is about to do a Broadway play and Boris has a TV show coming up?
Rhonda Baraka: Right, they are both very busy, so we have not scheduled a shooting date but we will work it around their schedule. Boris and I have been working together on this project for awhile, and I actually wrote it with Nicole in mind. Whenever they tell me all-systems-are-go as far as their schedules are concerned that’s when we’ll get it done. They’re motivated to get it done as quickly as possible. I understand if they have other things going on, and the more high-profile they are the better it will be for the project. The project’s gonna be there when they’re ready to do it.
You seem to be in the thick of the fray in terms of being a black female screenwriter getting projects off the ground. That’s more than anyone’s got in a few years. How difficult is it to get your work across so that’s it’s in production at some point or another?
Rhonda Baraka: It’s extremely difficult. It takes a lot of effort and connections. It takes being in the right place at the right time, but it also takes being ready when that opportunity comes. When GMC said they wanted to do this I was ready. It also takes being realistic about what it takes to get a project done. I’ve talked to a lot of writers who say ‘these people aren’t offering enough money’ or they don’t like the terms of their deal. I’m very realistic about how difficult it is to get a project greenlit and funded, and with that in mind when I have an opportunity in front of me I take it because other opportunities are gonna follow. I’m not of the mindset of making it big on just one project. I’m of the mindset of doing things that will get me credit, exposure, and an opportunity to learn more about the business. I was on the set everyday on “Trinity Goodheart” and the things I learned from working with the director Joanne Hock are just incredible. I learned about writing for a director, writing for a film to go into production, those things are priceless, and I look at those opportunities that way. I know I have lots of ideas. This is going to create more opportunities and make me a smarter filmmaker.
What’s a good reason to see “Trinity Goodheart”?
Rhonda Baraka: This is the kind of movie people say they want to see more of. It takes you on an emotional rollercoaster in a good way. The actors and everybody involved with the film really cared about it and it shows, but more than anything it is entertaining and uplifting. It leaves you with a message and a feeling of hope.