Aug 20, 2007

Interview - Jen Sharpe, Lia & Phyllis Johnson of "I'm Through With White Girls"

"I'm Through With White Girls" has cleaned up on the black film fest circuit this summer, taking home prizes at the Hollywood, Roxbury and Martha's Vineyard black fests. I've wrriten about it extensively in earlier posts. Still without distribution, the romantic comedy stars Anthony Montgomery as a comic drawing, cigarette holder sporting Black nerd who serial dates and denies caucasian woman, until he meets his match - a multi-colored dreadlocked, yellow skinned, indie rock loving novelist, played by the film's co-producer Lia Johnson. Both are graduates of "Star Trek" and they have a positively otherworldly quality in the film - next to never do you see African-American characters like these on the big screen. This charming comedy, which pokes fun at just about everyone while taking a gentle and amusing look at LA blipsters, was executive produced by Lia's twin sister Phyllis. The trio corresponded with me last week about the film.

BH: How did each of you become involved in the project?

LJ: I had produced a number of short films and was looking for a feature script that I could make on a small budget. Courtney and I went to Columbia together and he’d been working in television, writing on FOX’s Arrested Development. He had me read the script and I fell in love with the uniqueness of the characters.

JS: I heard through a friend about a fundraiser that Lia was having to raise money for the film. I went to support a fellow artist making her film, and Lia and I became aquaintances. We kept in touch, and when she started interviewing directors, I asked her to put me in the mix. I showed her my previous short film, "Boxed" which she loved, and gave her the confidence to hire me on my first feature.

BH: What drew each of you to Courtney Lilly's script?

LJ: My favorite kind of art is the kind that is at once completely engaging and entertaining, and yet also achieves the purpose of social and cultural examination. Sometimes just the sheer existence of a story, rarely told, is enough. Characters like Jay and Catherine are people that everyone knows in our daily lives, but we almost never see them in media. I was extremely interested in making a script that illustrated these wonderfully diverse people and also so effortlessly dealt with class, race and cultural issues with in our American fabric. There was just all this great stuff woven into an extremely funny script.

PJ: Specifically, the characters drew me to the script. They were multi-faceted and interesting in the sense that they were, as many folks of my generation are,fluent in many different social codes. They were able to survive in multicultural environments effortlessly. The challenge for these characters to address race and society was less and yet the human challenges were still there, ie. the challenge of maturity and self-evolution.

JS: The first thing I was attracted to was having black characters who were not typically black. I loved that Jay couldn’t dance and couldn’t play basketball, and that Catherine loved the beach. The number one thing was just showing black people in a different light.

BH: What are some of the challenges in making a genre film and specifically a genre film within an African-American milieu?

JS: The biggest challenge in African American romantic comedy is not over stereotyping. Finding the humor and keeping it funny, but also keeping it intelligent and subtle. Romantic comedies are very formulaic, and it's a challenge to play the formula, but also to keep it fresh and interesting.

LJ: Every film borrows elements of genre in an effort to capture story. My favorite films are more squirrelly ones that refuse to bend to the rules of “genre,” and their resistance redefines the term. The challenging thing is more for marketing departments. Good films with “crossover audiences” require marketing teams to be versatile in their ability to proactively cultivate the areas of audience that the film overlaps. The most savvy marketing teams are able to do it effectively. Clearly audiences want good films, it is evidenced by the proliferation of indie film festivals in every corner of our country and abroad.

PJ: I don't think we set out to make a genre film. It was about telling the story. The genre came along with the humor and emotion that came out of the story's situations.

BH: What is the core audience for a project like this and do you think the film's provocative title will help or hinder its commercial prospects?

LJ: This film was an effort to demonstrate the diverse world I live in here in America. A world I rarely see on screen. The film is made for Americans in particular, who recognize the same world I live in and want to see it represented. Because of the standard methods of marketing films, many people will take the faces of the lead characters to signal that it is a film for the “black” community. ITWWG is a film for our American community. I think the film’s title is provocative and draws attention, and that is positive. The film itself stands on its own for people’s critique. ITWWG is really about being through with the idea of “white” and “black” and the limited boxes those words represent.

JS: This film reaches out to all different audiences. I prefer to think of it as an indie film. But it also has strong urban appeal. The title will help it commercially and in the urban market, but it may also turn away the more indie film audience who will enjoy it equally. That's hard. The previous title was, "The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks". I liked that better and felt it represented the film and the audience better. But we quickly found that for marketing purposes, something more provocative and shorter was better.

PJ: The core audience for a project like "I'm Through With White Girls (The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks)" is an audience that is looking to address the social constructs and/or "boxes" that are White and Black. They are seeking an opening to the discussion of what else there is... outside of these boxes. They are looking to break the boundaries of these stereotypes. I think the title will help it's commercial prospects with respect to this core audience. I think the title may hinder the film's success if those seeing the title don't want to think farther than the film's exterior and are more comfortable dismissing it at first glance.

BH: How did you settle on Anthony Montgomery for Jay?

LJ: Anthony and I worked on a show together for the WB called Popular. When I read ITWWG and began brainstorming potential actors, he was the first person that came to my mind. I felt he had the passion and ability to carry a film like ITWWG. The role of Jay is a deceptively difficult one. At the same time that Jay does all these unlike able things, he must be someone that the audience connects with in spite of his flaws. We’ve got to believe he is a commitment-phobic guy, and yet the audience must be rooting for him to turn the corner that lets him commit to this woman he’s fallen in love with. Anthony worked so hard to achieve that balance for Jay.

PJ: No one else could do the role.

BH: How did you go about raising the private equity financing?

LJ: I began with a fundraiser and I sent out a donation letter. That raised a lot of awareness as well as in-kind donations of equipment and locations. My previous short films helped to demonstrate that I could go the distance to make a film. Panavision and Kodak were incredibly helpful and gave me grants for the camera and film stock based on the strength of the script and my presentation. Once the core team was assembled, we all pounded the pavement to get the things we needed.

PJ: We had a strong script. That is the first, and most important thing to start with. And then using the strengths of the individual. Rollerskating parties are a great way to get friends involved.

BH: Uh huh. Um, we're you consciously attempting to reverse or subvert the popular myths about black masculine sexuality and/or modes of representation of black men in American cinema?

LJ: I definitely wanted to subvert stereotypes and, in doing so, broaden the spectrum of media representation of black men. One of my pet peeves in American cinema today is the constant stereotyping of black men. As much as I love hip-hop, it has been such a domineering force in shaping stereotypes of black men. Jay represents a broader representation of the varied interests, pursuits and sensitivities of American men today.

JS: Definitely! We are not stereotypes!!! Black people are different and black men don't have to act certain ways. That is one of the keys, I think, to our success as a race. Stop pigeon holing ourselves and allowing ourselves to be pigeon holed.

PJ: Although, as Jay alludes, even myths have some truth. We wanted to add to the representations of people of color in American cinema.