Quite by accident I happened upon a movie called "Premium" while channel surfing on cable. It was described as a film in the vein of "Hollywood Shuffle". I didn't really get that, the only thing that seemed to be a commonality was that the central character was a struggling Black actor going through numerous shenanigans. What it was however, was a well made, well directed, well written, and well acted surprise of a film.
It made me investigate further, and I found out that a dude named Pete Chatmon wrote, directed, and produced it. I posted about it and called him "kind of a hottie" (which he called me out on). The truth is, he is very much a hottie. Not just because of looks, but he has the talent, drive, and ambition that makes me exhausted just reading about his activities. He is a true case study on what to do to make it, not just in film, but in life. The fact that he is an obvious cocktail lover with amazing sartorial sensibility and a true New-York-style "keeping it real" swagger is just the icing on a very delicious 7-layer cake for me. Check out his views on things; this man is gonna be huge--East Coast stand up!
Pete Chatmon: Nota Bene-I am sipping on my 4th glass of the good stuff as I type this so the levels of "real talk" are likely to be quite high. My apologies should it be "too" real. Actually, I'm not apologizing. Read on people!
Your film "Premium" was an impressive outing; a fresh take on Black male/female relationships. I know you've been asked this ad nauseum, but how did you manage to snag such a quality cast for your first feature film?
I had to look up ad nauseum right quick to make sure I was on the right track! -- Getting cast is all about the script. Especially when there is no money or the salary doesn't drastically change the actor's lifestyle. With PREMIUM I felt that I had written something that would be unique (although "normal" experiences for black characters shouldn't be) and would entice actors interested in supporting the voice of an emerging filmmaker + the opportunity to put a spotlight on the realities of the experience that they live day in and day out. It's the same thing I've done on my non-profit or documentary work -- people get on board for a project about education or AIDS because it's the right thing to do.
Along the same lines, there are "commercial" projects, or endeavors, that strike the same chord for the right people. We all play a specific part in the machine of making art, and I've always moved with the assumption that since I'm not crazy (right?) there are folks out there who share similar sentiments and viewpoints but with different talents. The talents that will help me realize my ideas. So...I write, produce and direct this film knowing that there is an actor waiting for someone to present him or her with this opportunity to flex. It's symbiotic. The final piece is having a great casting director like Sig de Miguel who can work his magic to ensure that actors, their agents, and managers, are aware of the viability of your project.
Your film "761st" has a barely touched subject matter (Black WWII war heroes), and details the war experience in great depth with those who were actually there. What gave you the idea to make such a film? How did you bring it to fruition?
761st was born under the decision made by my Executive Producer, Steve White. There was a September 2002 NY Times article about the 761st Tank Battalion and the fact that they had 48 straight annual reunions up until that point and were facing the possibility of having to discontinue the event due to lack of money. A battalion that once numbered over 700 men had been reduced, thanks to the unavoidable passage of time, to just 31 members.
The "barely touched" portion of your question flows directly into why they met every year. Imagine telling your grandchildren, or other people you come across in your life, that you fought in the Battle of the Bulge. That you have the 2nd longest military active duty (183 straight days and no relief) in American history. Imagine that people look at you crazy because the things you are saying are not reflected in the history books, the movies of the time, or just general public knowledge. You would surely get tired (if not pissed off) of saying "I really did that" and trying to convince people of something that should be American common knowledge, let alone "Black". Meeting with your comrades once a year they didn't have to say or prove anything because they all..just...KNEW. Lived it. They were all there and that shared experience provided comfort, relief, and affirmation of one of their major life contributions.
But, back to your question -- Steve started interviewing several of the soldiers after agreeing to help to pay for their reunions so they could continue to have this yearly solace. The NY Times articles stayed with him in his heart for quite some time and he decided to go meet with the head of their Allied Veterans society in Chicago. He teamed up with the unit historian, Wayne Robinson (also a tanker, but in the Gulf War) and they compiled about 50 hours of interview footage.
I met Steve 2 years into that process as I was raising money for PREMIUM. He supported me in that project and right after I locked picture we met in a coffee shop and he presented me with the story of the 761st. I looked at all of the tapes over the weekend and said "let's make this happen". I came up with a battalion of my own, 2 producers (Christina DeHaven and Emily Konopinski) and an editor (Adam Hark) and we proceeded to handle the jobs of probably 20 people. I mapped out a storyline, including new interviews, visual approach, and the writing of the narration, that would cement an understanding of their accomplishments for the viewer but in the later portion of the film take America to task for not honoring what they had done. The military is an honor system, where it you do "a,b,c", you become a Colonel. When you do "x, y, z" you become a general, etc etc. It's a merit system and the only reason they were not acknowledged for their exploits was racism. Not a single Black soldier received a congressional medal of honor for what they did in WWII until January of 1997 and only 9 men received it at that time. One was Ruben Rivers, of the 761st. Posthumously.
Clearly, I can keep going on and on about these guys, but to bring some conclusion to your questions, I was amazed by their story and the fact that they had fought in Europe, and many died, for freedoms that they did not enjoy in America. They were a reflection of true patriotism and I can't wait for people to see the film! We are working on getting it out on DVD in the next couple months, and I think it's some of my better work -- I became a better and more economical writer as a result of writing this narration and streamlining years of history into something palatable for a general audience. Andre Braugher narrates the film ... a lot of people don't know that because the trailer was cut while we were still editing but he did the narration wonderfully and I think part of his motivation was that he had played Jackie Robinson in a cable tv movie in the early 90s and Jackie Robinson had been a member of the 761st. The history is rich...trust me. And getting a remarkable talent like Andre Braugher to narrate this independent doc falls in line with the answer I gave to your first question about casting.
Being an East Coast auteur, do you find it harder to make/keep contacts? Is there a support system for Black filmmakers in New York? I know that some Black filmmakers have stated to me that they believe it is more advantageous to stay in the non-Black film circles of LA.
It's all about your network, and then your location. Clearly, Des Moines isn't the place to get your film career popping (in most cases), but as far as other metropolitan centers, and NY vs. LA specifically, if your support group is in NY, then you stay there. Point blank. I couldn't do 90% of what I do any other place in the world. The money we raised for PREMIUM would never have been raised. We put together a Doritos commercial for their Crash the Superbowl competition for about $300 in just a few days.
That's relationships at work. If I were sitting in my LA apartment, motivated to do any of the above or the other projects we've put together, it would never have happened because I didn't have the ability to bring people together who were both talented, competent, and trustworthy in the sense of shared vision and mutual goals. I can do that in NY/NJ because we have a strong, deep rooted team that often surprises me with their willingness to join forces for no money in the interest of art. That said, if and when it's time to go to Hollywood, I'll go...my momma ain't raise no fool...but overwhelmingly the ideas that I generate and create as a writer tend to take place in NY anyway. And whatever money is to be made through the system through ideas that will make them money is to be used to facilitate more stories like PREMIUM and the 761st.
You went to a very well respected film school (Tisch at NYU). There are a lot of aspiring filmmakers who read this blog. Do you feel that film school is an imperative necessity for a Black filmmaker? Or do you feel as if talent and contacts can be enough as essential tools?
It's not about film school. It's not about talent. It's not about contacts. I have friends who's parents, in my eyes, are like kings and queens and titans of business. But the children don't necessarily achieve on the same level. Now, they may "fail upward", but the dedicated pursuit of a life's goal is not there despite the available contacts. I always say that I am far from the most talented filmmaker, yet there are people I graduated from NYU with who were more talented and still haven't made a feature film. Some may not even be on a directing track anymore.
Personally, I know that I will not allow myself to be out-hustled (from IW-i noticed!), and that doesn't just mean being up late and thinking. That doesn't impress anyone because one you hit 15 years old, staying up late ain't even hard anymore. It's about WHAT you are thinking about when you're up late. Out maneuvering the competition. Pushing yourself creatively.
Mastering your craft. I've got a long way to go, and the hard thing about directing is that you can't work that muscle as often as you can the writing muscle because you need the camera, crew, money, idea, etc to flex with rather than just a computer or a pad or diary or something. Film school is great to nurture the contacts and seek guidance of working professionals, and have a certain stamp of credibility upon graduation, but it doesn't define you. To be honest, I've learned most of what I know since I graduated film school by just doing. My final point is that talent isn't going to be earned anywhere. Y'all could drop me off at Julliard today and come back in 2 years and you're not gonna hear a concerto coming out of my dorm room. But a film -- that's another thing!
A subject that comes up here quite often is the dissatisfaction with what "The Hollywood Machine" is producing in the way of Black Cinema. What, in your opinion, can the public at large do to change things? (Everyone gets asked this question, btw)
I'm a realist. You can't blame the public. Well, you can, but then you are just continuing to make shit on the sidelines (if at all) and complaining about why "people aren't feeling me". You're the mad rapper at that point. I'm not saying you HAVE to play within the system, but don't be mad when people aren't flocking to your product. I stand behind PREMIUM with my head up and defiant eyes, happy that everyone involved with the film was able to do it. We made something that I wrote in my momma's house and got it in a few theaters and on cable and I directed actors that I watched on TV in the very same room where I wrote the script.
But I also know that the film is a break from certain expectations and the minute you do that you are going to lose a certain amount of people AND fail to reach a certain amount of people because it won't be marketed to them on the true merits that might appeal to their sensibilities. So what do you do? In a perfect world, that film would have been my "She's Gotta Have It", opening the door to industry opportunities where the suits wanted my voice to give a little flavor to their content. But since it didn't go down like that, you can keep trying to raise millions of dollars on your own (which is no joke!) or you can find a way to write something that appeals to their bottom line while never losing your integrity.
I have on my wall "You Are the Will Smith of Directing" and by that I mean I need to direct something like "iRobot", and then make "Pursuit of Happyness". I need to make "Hancock" and then make "Seven Pounds". And throw a documentary in between. Even Spielberg had to make tons of money for the system before he could make "Schindler's List". People are naturally that way. How many times have you looked at all 200 items on the chinese food menu only to get shrimp fried rice or general tso's chicken for the millionth time? It's the reality of the situation, but I personally think that Will reaches more people -- more new people -- than a small indie film that essentially ends up preaching to the choir. When I saw "Pursuit of Happyness", I looked back (I like to sit in the front) and saw that the theater was packed with mostly senior citizen white couples. Change has come, and Obama cements it in the same way. You can have black characters doing black things (so to speak ) and it can still be universal, but for mainstream America the packaging is very important. Clearly, I'm getting tangential again, so I'm going to stop here!
What projects are you working on now? What can look forward to in the future?
2009 is gonna be crazy! We have a heist film and romantic comedy in development, a 1 hour cable drama we are presenting to networks, and our team of talented filmmakers are doing the hottest music videos, commercials, and viral content you can find. I'm proud to work with these guys -- Anthony Artis, Mike Brown, Benjamin Ahr Harrison, and Dennis Liu. We've also expanded and launched Double 7 Boutique with our Resident Creative Director, Candice Sanchez McFarlane, to customize marketing campaigns for a wide variety of clients. People spend their budgets in the traditional arenas, but more and more they are leaving a few dollars for more creative media channels and platforms. Double 7 Boutique takes those few dollars and make 'em look like millions of dollars to increase market awareness and penetration for a brand.I would say keep up with Double 7 and join our communities (listed below) because while we are doing all of this, and keeping people engaged in the process, it is also our mission to provide information and motivation to other filmmakers to achieve their goals. When we have 10 "Pete Chatmon's" then the audience is no longer to blame. They'll have no choice but to see our content.
Are you married? Just kidding! Any thoughts or advice you would like to leave for the readers?
I will end it with one of my favorite quotes:
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."
- T.E. Lawrence (1888 - 1935), The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
AKA Lawrence of Arabia
Thanks for the opportunity to talk to your audience. And I can't leave without a few plugs! Peep the links and join what suits you below:
http://www.double7world.com/ -- Our global community site
From IW: Got that? Here are a few more links for this very busy man and his projects:
FUNDRAISING PART I http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tewQhzZZdrM&eurl=http://www.youtube.com/user/Double7Film
FUNDRAISING PART II http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGD9fLwq4Zw&eurl=http://www.youtube.com/user/Double7Film
FORBES.COM PREMIUM INTERVIEW http://video.forbes.com/fvn/forbesonfilm/bp_fof113006_ab
ADDITIONAL RADIO + VIDEO INTERVIEWS (NBC, Blogtalk Radio, etc)http://double7film.com/?press&interviews
ARTICLES + FILM REVIEWS http://double7film.com/index.php?press&articles