It’s Valentine’s Day and what better way to continue the love fest than to talk about a recent film that depicts the sometimes ugly side to romance? SAR Productions, the company that produced last year’s indie film, David is Dying, announced that David…will be released on DVD later this year. David is Dying, a multi-layered psychological study of a man and his tumultuous relationship with his fiancé, has sparked interesting debate from those who’ve seen it. Audiences are either intrigued by the film’s aesthetics and depth (mainly accentuated by the impressive performance of Lonyo Engele as David) or they find it confusing and weighed down with too many abstract layers. I was granted the opportunity to chat with the film’s director, Stephen Lloyd Jackson, during the Chicago Int’l Film Festival and again late last month. Here’s a bit of what we talked about during that in-depth and fascinating discussion:
ML: David is Dying tackles challenging subject matter in regards to love, loss and ego, what prompted you to take on these themes in your film?
SLJ: The concept of the film, came from the Oedipus Complex a 5th century play, where a young boy falls in love with his mother and tries to kill his father and so forth. What I did there was to combine that Greek tale with a modern concept that I've been working on for some time. It's basically about a narcissistic guy that is controlled by his sexual prowess and ego; I've combined those two stories to form the character of David.
ML: The issue of HIV comes up in the film, considering that the media tends to put a particular spotlight on how it affects people across the African Diaspora; did you ever have a moment where you were hesitant to include that in the storyline?
SLJ: No, not at all and there's several reasons why; this story didn't just come to me overnight, I had this in my mind for the last decade. It was always something I wanted to do, maybe not in the exact way as we see it today but remnants of it. I've always wanted to do a conversational piece about man's ego. As for feeling any remorse or being on the defense about putting the subject of HIV in the film, again, not at all because I did a lot of research on it beforehand. In London I visited a sexual clinic, St. Thomas Hospital, where I made an appointment with a health worker and we spoke very intensely about people who suffer from HIV. So, in that regard, I think I got the issue at least 98% correct. It wasn't a case where I thought will this effect black people in a negative way or would they look on it in a certain way and say, "why us?" I think they'll appreciate how the film is done. I've put a lot of attention to detail into it and although it's a 90 minute film, the scenes that relate to HIV takes up less than 10% or even 5% of the film. It was not depicting David as a black man with HIV, it was depicting David as a man with HIV.
ML: You've mentioned in our conversation before that one of your inspirations for the film was a Salvadore Dali painting called The Narcissist. I find that interesting because the aesthetics of the film and some of the themes have heavy influences in art–particularly David's love interest being an Art dealer. So was that deliberate and do you have a personal or professional background in Art [outside of film]?
SLJ: Yes, very deliberate but I'm not academically trained in the art world. I am an appreciator of art. I've spent a lot of time visiting the Tate gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery. I'm very interested in composition, light, light arrangement and architecture. I've actually got an engineering background. So, I can appreciate textures and materials, all that combined, it does give a visual richness I can embrace. To answer your question exactly, although I'm not academically trained as an artist, I think it's something I formed over the years out of passion and appreciation.
ML: Last year I was fortunate to see your film at the Chicago Int'l Film Festival and it has been feature at many other festivals and venues around the world, I'm curious to know what's been the overall reaction to the film from the people that have seen it so far and What do you find is the most fascinating view or interpretation that has come out of your film that you've heard or read about?
SLJ: Well the comments have been so varied. The compliments for the film have been so varied as well; there's been some people who like the acting, some who like Lonyo’s [Engele] performance as David…some who like Isaura’s [Barbe-Brown] dual performance of not just Carla but David's mother…others like Olympia's cinematography. We've got people who love the directing, the script, so I've got various reactions. There were also people who found the film totally confusing and baffling, yet they loved that it was thought provoking and took them to a different dimension. I remember when I brought the film to Florida for the ABFF (American Black Film Festival) there were a couple of critics that wrote they weren't too interested in watching the film at first. They read up on it and that it was about a guy that caught HIV and it was a black character-driven film. They thought it was going to be a stereotypical film demeaning for black people but when they saw it, they were blown away by it. So, it's been across the board…the one negative criticism I've received about the film, came from a critic in Chicago (which I think was more of a personal criticism) who said the film had too many dimensions to it. I love during multidimensional stories! I'm not a seasoned writer that does this three-piece story, I like to go in and out, up and down–take your emotions everywhere. I find that a compliment. [laughs] Actually in Chicago, I got to talking to a bell hop at the hotel I was staying at; I told him I was a film director and to check out my film. He came back the next day and said he saw the film. He said, "Man, I'm angry with you!", I said, Why?" He said, “I love your film but that was me when I was younger, you're telling the world about me!" [laughs]…so, not with the HIV part but with other aspects of the character, so everyone took something different away from the film. Whether the film is a so-called world-wide success or just a few more people get to see it, to me that the most complimentary thing that people could relate to the character and his journey. That's all I ask for when I make film.
ML: When certain people say that there needs to be more positivity in films depicting black characters do you think that’s doing a disservice to black people? If everything is positive all the time, can that also be seen as a negative…kind of like Mary-Sueing black people and films?
SLJ: Well, I guess that depends on whose saying it. Take my film for example, in London there were a few people that said, why do you have a black guy depicted in this way? Isn’t it not enough that Western media say this is all black men do, sleep around and blah, blah, blah…and my answer to that was basically, look at Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone when they come in their films and kill about 200 people in their movies, people don't go around saying, why are white men depicted in this way? Look at any other film where you got a white guy carrying on in a debauched way or in a way that's not befitting to society, you don't get people bringing out color. Instead, they'll say what a great film! The critics will be saying oh marvelous film! What a great explosion! Did you see that bit when that guy's head got blown off? Wow! But if a black guy does that or a black filmmaker portrays that in their film, they're going to say that we're making our own black people look bad. A lot of times, when that's said it's are own black people saying. What I say to that is, our minds aren't free. we're so use to being castrated mentally that we end up telling ourselves off. I don't know if you're aware of the Lynch letters…are you?
ML: Yes, the Willie Lynch Letters? Yes, I'm aware of those.
SJ: Well, yes it's kind of like a perpetration of that where the white media doesn't have to tell us we're being bad anymore we got our own black people telling us, don't dare do this, don't dare do that, that's wrong, that's bad! So, yeah we got our own people telling us off but hey, I'm an artist just like Christopher Nolan or Clint Eastwood. I'm expressing myself and I'm allowed that freedom, that artistic freedom. I don't need you telling me off, I'm a grown man! If you don't want to watch the film, don't watch it; however, sometimes there is a point to be made because there are some people who will direct black people in a stereotypical way and that's all you will see. So yes there are some artists and producers who are not responsible. But do have some, like me I would imagine, we're quite responsible and we take our work very seriously. If I put a character in a situation, I think…well, why is this happening? It's about doing your job in a responsible way. Color doesn't have anything to do with it.
ML:On Shadow and Act we've talked a lot about the isms—racism, colorism and ect. In our last conversation, you also touched on these issues. From your perspective as a director in the Uk, what have you witnessed in regards to casting and colorism in film, particularly for black actresses. Is there a career ceiling in the UK for women who are not of mixed race or who may not fit that "aesthetic”?
SLJ: In Britain it's a bit of a different thing than in America, it can be argued that there's not as many black people alone in the industry. We only have about 2% of black people living in the UK, and that's even less when you break it down to those working in the industry. So on that basis, yes there's argument to say that there aren't enough black women to fill those parts…if you want to take that argument. Also here in Britian, we [black people] don't own our own film companies or music companies…we solely rely on the white financiers in our projects. Usually they don't feel comfortable seeing pure black faces in their movies, in their soaps, so they always try to balance it out. The European version of a black person, even if a person is half-black and half white, they would still say that is a fully black person. They would rather work with that than work with a dark skin black person. It's all psychological. It goes back to slavery, you know, if you're the house slave you were of a more fairer skin and so you were closer to your slave master whereas if you were dark skinned that means you were outside working in the field, your diet was worst, the conditions you were kept in were worst and so again, it's all psychological. It's all about the respect you got for your identity because we got a lot of people out there that still want to please the powers that be. They want to please the people that are pulling the strings so that they can move up their career ladder. That's what it is all about in Britain, watering down stuff.
ML: During the Chicago Int’l Film Festival you talked with me about character studies in relationship dramas and how you wanted to make more films like these about people of African descent set in the city of London. Is your sole preference to make these types of films or are your interests wider than that?
SLJ: My interests are so broad it’s amazing but at this stage in my storytelling and film career, I’ve set up a company called SAR productions (which stands for sex and race, based on three books by JA Rodgers) and over the next few years we hope to put out a trilogy of films which tell stories of people from the African Diaspora living and working in London. These are intense psychologically-driven stories…some really deep stuff, at times quite ugly stuff going on but still visually beautiful stories and beautiful characters. So, that’s what I want to do with this company and with the trilogy that I’m doing at the moment. I’ve also got a few sci-fi stories I want to tell also and a few comedies that I’m tragically passionate about. So the scope is wide, there’s a lot of things I want to do but I got to be realistic in my thinking. At this present moment, I have to do things I can afford to do which are low-budget films but that I have a deep passion for.
ML:Do you feel as a indie filmmaker that it's tremendously difficult to get funding for the types of films you want to make and if so in what way do you think this internet revolution has aided in balancing the scales on that issue?
SLJ: The internet is serving as a good purpose for filmmakers like myself because we see it as another door in which we can go through with our product. The gates are open now for people like me who wasn't formally trained at film school and who doesn't have the backing of a film pioneer or those that would usually be supportive of someone in my position. Now, we can go out and shoot our movies without relying on the gatekeepers of the industry, the distributors, the film executives of the big studios and even the media in a lot of cases, because the media is in partnership with a lot of the big studios. I don't mean it in a bad way but when studios release their film they need some of the big film critics to give it the thumbs up and support their film. You know, there are a lot of film critics out there that because they work for a certain station or write for a certain magazine, they're obliged to say wow the latest Batman or the latest…this film is great! It's all about selling popcorn and merchandise. On the flipside, technology allows some people to look at the film industry and say wow! I want to be involved in that industry and it gets oversaturated with a lot of films that I don't think are artistic nor worth watching. So, it's not that easy, we've got thousands of people going through that door and so you have to stand out from the crowd but once you do, you also have to decide what kind of filmmaker you want to be, because some trade their soul and passion for an opportunity to show off their talent. It's about being wise in your decision making.
ML: I was lucky to see David Is Dying at the festival here in Chicago but many people do not live in an area where a big [film] festival is being held? Do you plan on releasing the film in theaters and/or DVD some time in the near future?
SJ: I don't want to sound too forceful about this but I believe people should support the indie film industry and one way to do that is to check out the film festivals. If you really want to see something that touches you, film festivals are some of the best places to go to but aside from that, to answer your question directly, we do have plans to release the film on DVD within the next few months and DID will be showing at two more festivals, one is the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and then in March we'll have two screenings at the Cleveland Int'l Film Festival. Oh and if anyone’s interested in doing a screening of the film at their University campus we would be happy to license the film for that. That’s one of the advantages of being in control of your artistic destiny. We’ve done a lot of mini screenings here and there.
ML: When you completed the film and watched it for the first time what were your hopes in regards to how your work would be received and what audiences would come away with after seeing David is Dying?
SLJ: I’ll answer that and be truthful to it. After we shot everything I took a trip to Spain as a way to get the film out of my head, before I left, I said to the other producer of the film…and I was deadly serious…I said, if this does not turn out the way I want it to, I’m giving up filmmaking. This is the first time I’ve said that to anyone in the media. Anyway, when I returned from Spain, I watched the first clips from the film and said I liked it but I wasn’t too blown away by it. Soon after, we put a few scenes together and I was afraid at first because I wanted people to come away from this film and be like wow! This guy is a nutter or something! I wanted them to be blown away too! Later, I watched more and watched the editor pull it together and I got really excited! And I still said, if this film is not appreciated, then I’m leaving the film business because I thought it was so good. I had been ready to give up, thinking that maybe this business is not for someone like me and that maybe I should go do something else. This experience proved to me that even if the film doesn’t go on to make millions or even hundreds of thousands or thousands even, I've been told that the game is not up yet, that I still have some juice left in me. Working with people like Lonyo [Engele] and Isaura [Barbe-Brown] and Bridgette [Milla], some great actors…and the rest of my crew, proves that it can be done. If you have a clear cut goal you can do it.
Check out David is Dying’s official website for more information and to get your copy of the DVD which will be released on July 4th, 2012.
Until next time!