Filmmaker Dana Verde has left her home in Brooklyn, NY to shop her very first feature in L.A., where she has been for the past few months. The Brooklyn-set rom-com, to be titled Jump-off, follows a commitment phobic man coming to terms with his issues of emotional unavailability, which stem from witnessing his mother’s unstable relationships and his womanizing father.
Verde has had a tough time pitching the script to various producers on the west coast. She was shocked by the racial segregation and money-making formula for commercial films dealing with characters of color. Fortunately though, she’s currently in talks with one producer, ironically from Brooklyn also, who shares her vision on the film’s cultural diverse characters and unconventional style and narrative.
Verde, a Media Studies/Screenwriting grad from New School University and ‘03/’04 finalist at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, has been exploring stories from the male perspective. She was further encouraged by the positive reception of her compelling short Lock and Key, about a locksmith who unlocks an apartment door and discovers that the occupant is his long lost son. She’s currently writing a feature script based on that short.
Jamaican/Cuban Verde, who also attended the prestigious London Film school in the UK, is competing this summer at the New York International Latino Film Festival with the short script Pelo Malo (Bad Hair), an Afro-Latina’s take on the subject of hair.
Verde, who lists the likes of filmmakers Darren Aronosky, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese as inspiration for her work, spoke candidly on her experiences of pitching her feature to producers. She also gives us details on what Jump off is all about, and why you should be really be looking forward to it!
Watch Dana’s directing reel below the interview.
On Her Feature Film "Jump-Off":
It’s a guy’s rom-com, from a guy’s perspective. The quick way to describe it would be like a newer version of Love Jones. It’s about a man falling in love with a woman, and feeling like she’s the right one but not wanting to admit it. It’s all set in Brooklyn, even though I’m in L.A. now.
His character is commitment phobic and all of his friends are settling down and he creates this crazy philosophy of how he’s never going to be in a relationship; he thinks only un-evolved people get in relationships and you aren’t evolved if you need someone. And, he’s totally full of shit. I wrote it three years ago and I was inspired after listening to all of my guy friends. The lead character’s parents had a rough marriage; his mom married lots of times, and the dad was a womanizer. So, he has deep-seated issues.
That’s the point I want to make with this film. It’s not just about finding the right person; it’s about YOU getting your shit together basically. Instead of dealing with those issues, he rather not be with anyone. I’m noticing that there are a lot of books out there about how women need to behave. We can do all of those things but if the guy is damaged, how are you ever going to have a healthy relationship? So, my character realizes he has to take responsibility and not blame anyone else. It’s not even for another woman, but just for himself. When I started doing research, I realized is truly a fear of abandonment after all.
I just re-watched Love Jones; it was great inspiration for me to write this movie. The reason why that film worked was because it was real. Those are the guys I know and the way they talk. It’s told in such an original way. The dialogue in some of these other movies is funny, but it’s not real life.
So far, the response I got across the board is that it’s really funny and people really do like the characters; so hopefully, it will come to life.
On Feature’s Diverse Characters and Alternative Film Style:
It’s an alternative film and look; because right now what I find in most of the movies that are out, I feel it’s all very commercial looking wise and also their themes and stories. I prefer more underground stuff; so even when talking to producers out here [LA], I tell them I want to use underground Hip Hop artists; for example, I love Jose James; so I want to use his music. People are like “What? You have to get the pop stars!” I rather find something undiscovered.
I want my work to represent diversity because in my life and in my world, we are not segregated. And it really pisses me off the way they segregate people. Plus, there’s something I always make jokes about, especially out here in L.A.; it’s like, just because you see somebody Black, you can’t automatically assume they’re African American. You have to be conscious of that because I’m actually ½ Jamaican and ½ Cuban; my partner/producer, she’s Panamanian; we bust out with the Salsa all the time; that’s our soul music. So, I hate when people look at your skin color and put you in a box.
I also went to school in London, and I was the only Black American; there were two of us, and I was the only one in my graduating class. I got to meet people from all over the world; we grew up on the same music and TV shows, and I’m like, wow; it’s really just one world.
When I was in London, my race, my nationality, none of that mattered because we are all filmmakers; you’re either good or bad. People didn’t judge me on all of that other stuff. In L.A. it’s like, “You’re a Black woman filmmaker, don’t you want to make these kinds of films?” And I’m like, no, that’s no me.
In New York, not everyone is African American. There are Guyanese, Jamaicans, Panamanians, and our soul food is beef patties and rice and beans [laughs]. A lot of us are also first and second generation Americans; so that gives us a different perspective.
On Her Feature’s Dream Cast:
Who I want for the lead is Jesse Williams. That’s who I’m thinking I want to cast. This would be a good challenge for him; his character is kind of inspired by singer Jose James; so I sort of want to see Jesse turn into this cool, underground Hip-Hop guy.
I really would like Nicole Beharie for the lead actress; I would gotta work with this woman someday. In the feature, he gets involved in this casual relationship with a woman who is emotionally unavailable like him, but ultimately he doesn’t like it. She’s not needy or damaged like he is. So, I feel like Nicole can bring that strength and vulnerability I need for her character. And, she lives in Brooklyn, so hopefully she likes the script.
There’s this actor I like, and his name is Flaco [Navaja]; he’s Puerto Rican from Bushwick. I hope he signs on because he’d be great to play the lead’s best friend. There are other actors I’ve worked with before that I would like to give a chance to be part of this.
On Her Characters’ Racial Background and Challenges Shopping The Feature in LA:
In the feature, the lead guy is bi-racial; the lead woman is Cape Verdean because I just fell in love with the music and culture. When I say Cape Verde people are like what? Where’s that? And that’s why I wanted to include that aspect in there. I want people to discover new cultures. So it’s a mixed cast; one of my characters is Puerto Rican, and there are Black and White characters as well. I grew up in Bushwick NY, so c’mon! It’s real diverse.
I kept switching my female character back and forth initially from Cape Verdean because I thought well people are not going to understand the character. I have a lot of Dominican girlfriends; so, I kind of modeled the character after my friend and made her Dominican. One of the producers I met said, “ohh nobody likes to see a Black man with a Latino woman,” and I said, what are you talking about? [Laughs] I was upset about that, and I was thinking of Dania Ramirez. They were like, “no, you can’t do that; now it becomes interracial.” And, in my mind is not really interracial because a lot of my friends are Afro-Latino so, I’m like, I see culture, not race.
They [LA producers] also thought I should make my characters more hood, which pissed me off too. I’m like, why can’t they be college educated, not bougie but keep it real; I don’t understand why they have to be all thugged out.
These are really meetings and I’m not going to name the companies. It’s funny because these are Black producers who are telling me to play up stereotypes more. They were like, “people are not going to buy it, and nobody wants to see that.” I’ve had this fight. But it’s good coming out here and having this experience and seeing how people think. The irony is that I met a producer who’s from Brooklyn and we just clicked. She gets me, and I’m really hoping that we move forward and do this film together.
My argument is why can’t there just be an alternative so we can engage people globally? So people can connect. My short Lock and Key screened here at the Black Women in Hollywood event and it was funny because African Americans kept coming up to me, and they were like, “Are you Latina?" And I’m like, well, I’m a Black woman; I’m half Cuban, and they were blown away. I loved the response; they were open and asking me questions, and I thought wow, these are images you don’t see. In LA there is a huge Mexican community, but people don’t know much about Afro-Latinos; they don’t know Puerto Rican, Dominican and West Indian culture, which are big on the east coast.
Some producers just can’t relate to it. It’s upsetting because I feel like you’re missing out on the richness on all the different Black cultures. You’re only seeing it as an African American, which is so limiting. Don’t you want to see another culture, another voice? But out here in LA, it’s all about money; so they’re just thinking this is the formula; somehow change your film to fit in it. That’s why I’ve been butting heads because I just can’t.
Even the crew that I work with; we’re a rainbow tribe. My DP is from Spain, and we vibe and have the same visual sense. He brought his friends on: one is from China and the other is from Bolivia; my producer for Lock and Key is African American. We have an eclectic group of people that all love cinema and art, and we create together. That’s really what I’m about and try to do, but it is really a challenge.
I love people; I love culture. I feel like I learn so much about the world and myself. That’s what I love about being a filmmaker.
You can follow her on Twitter (@DanaVerde) and on Facebook. She can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.