Dec 5, 2008

Interview: Dennis Dortch, A Good Day to be Black and Sexy

The first weekend in December this year is one of those exceedingly rare ones in which two films by young African-American directors will hit screens, but they couldn't be getting more starkly differen treatment from their distributor's While Darnell Williams' generally well received, Sony backed Cadillac Records, full of big, ego driven movie stars playing big, ego driven music stars, opens nationwide today, Magnolia Pictures is giving Dennis Dortch's A Good Day to be Black and Sexy, perhaps the most underrated and overlooked film at this year's Sundance film festival, what amounts to a token, one screen release at The Bridge in Los Angeles today. Here's hoping that the film does gangbusters business in its one Los Angeles location and forces the fine if confused people at Magnolia to actually market it, especially in African-American communities, where the film could be quite a hit if handled properly, but I digress.

I caught up with the film's director, hot off a nomination at this year's Gotham Awards, to discuss the film, his unusual method and some of the specific challenges of making so a provocative film on a shoestring.

CEC: What sparked your interest in filmmaking?

Dortch: Background wise, filmmaking wasn’t really on my mind initially. I came to LA to study recording arts. Recording engineering was my major in college. I wanted to produce music and so I wanted to be able to handle the technical side so I could do it myself. In school you would share film classes with recording arts. So I took a film class and in it we shot on Super 8 and it was sort of an epiphany for me. I could make music to film and it would still apply and I could do what I wanted to do so I changed my major for recording arts to film. I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always written short stories, I had just never really thought about making films, I never went to film school, I never had a video camera, I didn’t have that type of family, cultivating the arts and all that so, it really took me getting to college to figure out, wow I can do this. Creative people can have their hands in many things and music is my first love, but film is a sense and rhythm so the things kind of go hand in hand.

CEC: When did you realize you were ready to make this film and how did it come together initially?

Dortch: As far as making this film, I was ready to make the film because I had spent so much time not making it. I’m married, I have kids, that takes over your life and I got tired of not making the film so I decided to make the film, but I wasn’t exactly ready because I had only made one short film, or two shorts in college and that was it. What I ended up doing was sort of cheating and doing the six short in one. We shot this in a year and every two or three months we’d shoot another one and I was really not ready. I’m glad I didn’t shoot a full one story feature because I really was not ready. Each time I shoot a new vignette throughout this year it was like film school all over, I got stronger and stronger, So really I just did film school all over again and got ready in the middle of the film.

CEC: How did you find the funding?

Dortch: I knew I was going to make a film and we bought our house at the right time and I talked to my wife and prices were going up and we got it low enough and so I took equity out of that to make this film.

CEC: Wow.

Dortch: When people said “your crazy, why would you do that?”, I was like, what am I going to spend the money on anyways? I mean, if I don’t believe in myself, then what am I going to believe in? So I pretty much took my own money and made this film.

CEC: How did you go about designing the film? It has a tangible looseness? Did you plan and storyboard ahead of time or were you reacting to the dynamics on set and designing the movie as you went?

Dortch: It was really on the set. We did some preparations during rehearsals. My DP and I, we found each other during film school. His style is very Cassavetes, very handheld, natural and loose, so he brought that to the table. In working together we very much influenced each other. We didn’t use exclusively natural light on every vignette, but that’s what we were going for, that an natural camera movements. I wanted the naturalism to extend to the acting to so we would light the space so he wouldn’t have to relight for each shot and they were able to move wherever they wanted to move. So we said, how do you feel comfortable, how does it look like, your sitting in this room, what would you do, where would you be? We would look at them, adjust the lights, then we would place the camera.

There is a lot of improvisation in my film too. So when they would do something that was unexpected, my cinematographer would react to it, in terms of getting in closer or moving from one actor to another. A lot of it was very loose, we just set the environment to get the spontaneity of it, to retain some of the freshness and realism of the situations. We just sort of went with it and got some things we didn’t intend.

CEC: How much of the performances, which are incredibly authentic while still working in comedic terms, improvised? There is nothing in the film that feels particularly written.

Dortch: About a third was improvised. The way I write, I write very naturally, very conversational. I try to be anti-climatic and anti-dramatic, that’s already inherent in the script. I didn’t know any of the actors until they were cast. Some of them are union, some of them are non-union, we found them all and went with the people who had the naturalness I wanted. “Her Man”, which is the second vignette, was completely improved. That was the last one we shot and I just got tired of the script by then. They read the script, knew the script and then we threw it away. We had certain beats we wanted to hit, certain highlights and we just attacked each scene in that manner.

“Tonight, part II” is half improvised, but the rest is pretty much scripted. Especially American Boyfriend, which probably feels the most scripted, so I’d say a third of the film is improvised is fair to say. We were loose with them, I’d let the actors go off script. If we got the main point, we’re good. I didn’t want to hold them to my dialogue. Even if I felt it was very natural, if it didn’t come out of there mouth right, I didn’t want to hold them to it. I want them to do it in a way where we’ll actually believe it.

CEC: Are you someone who likes to rehearse scenes until they are very tight or are you more concern with retaining a freshness of the material for the actors?

Dortch: Definitely the latter. I don’t like to get them too ready, because when they’re too ready, it becomes predictable and you already know it and I’d rather they not know everything and I not know everything and have all the surprises happen on the set and them climax on the set. I rehearsed maybe one, one and a half times before we shot for each vignette. I didn’t really want to go there with that – I just wanted to get to the layers, the blocking, to discover are their any problems with the blocking, are their any problems with the dialogue, any problems with beats. That’s really what the rehearsals were for me. Just to understand we’re all on the same page, the actors bring their ideas to set, then we talk about it. That’s what rehearsing was for me. I wanted to be on balance, on the same foot, by the time we got to the set, you could be uneasy, I didn’t want to be that confident, I wanted to have that tension there.

I believe it’s the same with recording artists. When you’re recording music, I see this all the time. I’m really into independent artists. Its one of those things that I do, I’m always there. Writing a song and rehearsing at home, when they hit exactly what they wanted to hit, they can’t replicate that in a studio. It doesn’t happen the next day or two days later or a week later, because they’ve already done it. So I think it’s the same with acting, your best stuff should be saved for when the cameras on, so I keep them at 30, 40 percent before we shoot, and I trust their instincts and I trust the process, weather, your making music, or film or theater, or any type of art, you may not know what exactly you want to see at the end, I guess some people do, I don’t, I have no idea what I want to see at the end. I just get a general feeling and I know I want to go towards that. I fall back on the script if we get into trouble, but I don’t let the script constrict us. So I think its kind of a combination, but I am more on the side of playing it loose, being flexible and rolling the dice.

CEC: The music selection is really striking and unusual, both in the plays you use it and the indie neo-soul that finds its way into the film.

Dortch: Music is my first love and in the back of my head I feel like I made the movie for the music. I really wanted to get out some things. I didn’t want to have a score composed for the film. Most of the music in the film is by independent artists except for one song. Its more incidental music to me. Sometimes I would make one composition fit a vignette when it made sense or I would make the incidental music becomes actual soundtrack where the characters are actually hearing it. The way I would approach it was, if I want the film to be realistic, I didn’t think we needed to have a score per say.

I think the music that’s playing, and I think most of us are listening to music at some time or another, that’s what I wanted, I wanted it to be like my world, if I have music on, its part of my atmosphere. Its not like it’s a club or a party or all that. Like in the first vignette, its on the radio, in the second its actually on the soundtrack, but I have no music after that in the scene. I come back to that time and time again, I just wanted to build a world where people are listening to music nine times out of ten in the film. The little scoring that we did, I felt the whole movie to me was a mix tape.

Each vignette is like a new song on the mix tape and their’s an intro that helps you really dig in so I like the rhythm of that. The music is their to support that. I did a similar tone for a lot of the vignettes, but I think each has its own style and that’s what I kind of wanted, each is like a new cut and the music is their to support that.

For me, finding independent artists and having them creating new music for this is really part of my plan. We’re definitely releasing a soundtrack. In terms of business and commerce, this may not be all art, but I think mot of my stuff is going to be music driven because that’s who I am.

CEC: How did the structure of the piece as a whole and the individual vignettes change as the editing process evolved?
Dortch: I had something in mind from the script. It changed. I had what I thought would be a final screening and it ended up being a test screening, where I had the vignettes switched around a bit differently. I just saw the rhythms and how people were responding to them, because we’re asking people to start with a new story every ten, fifteen minutes and like I said its a mix tape, its got to have the right rhythm, the right highs and lows and its got to end on kind of a bang, just for the right business sense.

I struggled with what my vision was creatively. I had “Tonight, part II” last, it was a real somber ending and I thought it was great but it didn’t really support the A Good Day to be Black and Sexy concept so much, at least most people’s interpretation of it, so I ended up switching it around after that screening. One hundred and twenty-five people in a room will definitely tell you what’s working and what’s not working for the majority of the people, so I did switch it around after that test screening.

“Reciprocity” was always first to me, that was always an intro, but that was the only thing I really stuck to. “Reprise” is the girl going down the hill with the afro, I was place that like a hidden track on a CD. It plays after some silence. So it was going to play after the credits, but I ended up putting it in the middle of the film, sort of as an interlude. The cinematography on that one is really beautiful and I wanted to make sure people saw that. So I made so changes to my original vision, but I think that’s the process.

CEC: I think this film is the most authentic portrayal of the sexual lives of middle and working class young black people I’ve ever seen. It’s really quite groundbreaking. Was that what you were setting out to achieve, that you were conscious of when writing and making the film, this attempt to upend the normal representations of the sexuality of people of color? Did you have any precursors you could work from or use as a model?

Dortch: In a loose way Nothing But a Man, but going a bit broader, Claudine. I think Nothing But a Man is a little bit closer. My intentions weren’t always conscious, but they were to show that we’re regular human beings like everybody else, we have sex, we have relationships. Nine times out of ten in cinematic history black characters are super beings, mystical negroes like The Green Mile…

CEC: Toms, coons, mammies, and bucks…

Dortch: Or we’re not getting any sex at all because were just so pure. We don’t have any relationships whatsoever. Or we’re raping. So I know I had that particular goal, to just show us as regular people, in the middle, who have flaws. As far as the tone is concerned, that really just comes from me, all the stories come from me or people around me. You can really only write what you know. So it’s sort of a reflection of my life too and not necessarily my intentions as I reallyhad that one goal and the rest is just natural from me.

CEC: Do see this as a career long project for you, making films that show an underrepresented side of African-American life or do plan to explore many types of subject matter?

Dortch: I don’t want to get stuck in that. I think that’s where I’m at right now. I half conscious of that and its not my goal, that’s just me, but I definitely want to do different things and have different tones. It’s not even that unrepresented side per say, I don’t have that mantra. I just want to do things and show things that have a freshness. So whatever I’m doing next, weather it be the next film or two or three films down the line, that will be the goal, to have some sort of freshness, weather it be a new perspective or an underrepresented group of people or a different angle on people we think we know, so I’m not really sure, its not my real goal, but it might happen that way, just by default.

CEC: What are some of the things you learned making this film?

Dortch: Well definitely on the back end, when considering the distribution game, I would consider a lot of options. I don’t think getting a distributor is a “be all, end all” sort of thing. There are a lot of options. For your career and for validation, getting distributed definitely has a lot of value.

I had a few options after Sundance and I would have considered them more carefully if I knew then what I know now. I think everybody, your lawyers, your sales agents, they all know the game but they don’t always share this with you, they don’t always demystify the process. I think you kind of learn it and you realize what’s important and what’s not important. The only thing I would do differently really is I would ask more questions and I would get a mentor.

I will never have another first film looking for distribution again so this is kind of in hindsight, but if anybody else can possibly benefit from this, know to get somebody in the business and really break them down and make them tell you what’s important and not important, because I think we as filmmakers stress over things that are really not that important in the end and we miss certain things that are crucial, things that you actually assume. The market is changing anyway and the rules are changing every few months, theatrical is going away and I think theatrical is a money loser and its not really viable. There are some films that go in the black but nine times out of ten you’re just promoting the DVD.

As far as making the film, some people really deter you from trying to do what you want to do. I was able to stave off a lot of the opposition, everybody wants to tell you what you can and cannot do, and its not even you can make the film, but you should make the film like this or change this script of this doesn’t work. Stick to you’re vision. Its pretty basic, most filmmakers probably come up with this, but just stick to your vision. My film, on the script level, most people did not get it at all. They were like, “what is this, a porn?” I lost a well-known actress. She liked it an really wanted to do it but her management team was like “You can’t do this. This is ridiculous. Who the hell is this guy anyway?”

So, I’m sure there’s some regrets there now, but sticking to my vision and believing and not listening to anyone else… I guess you call them haters. People want you to do something safe, what they already know, what’s already familiar, they’re afraid to do anything different. When you do something different everybody starts calling and suddenly wants to do what you do now, they want you to do it over again. So for myself, I would just not listen to anybody because I think it knocked me off my stoll a couple of times and really slowed down the process.