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Interview: ‘Brother to Brother’ Director Rodney Evans Talks ‘The Happy Sad’ (on VOD 1/14)

Interview: 'Brother to Brother' Director Rodney Evans Talks 'The Happy Sad' (on VOD 1/14)

In one of the first scenes in Rodney Evan’s film The Happy
Sad
, lovers Aaron and Marcus wake up the morning after their first threesome, refreshed. After six years together, they are considering an open relationship, a subject that the film explores deeply.

A follow-up to his critically-acclaimed film, Brother to Brother (2004), The Happy Sad is based on Ken Urban’s play of the same name, and
centers on the lives two interconnected couples in Brooklyn- one black and gay and one white and straight- as they redefine sexual identity and norms of monogamy. Marcus and
Aaron, played by LeRoy McClain and Charlie Barnett provide complex portrayals free of tortured identity politics or finger-snapping caricature. Their
relationship takes the focus, and that’s refreshing.

I caught up with director Rodney Evans to discuss the film,
it’s modest production model, the complications of open relationships, and the
state of black LGBT representations in cinema. The Happy Sad, which had it’s theatrical run this August, will be
released January 14th on
major digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon VOD, Hulu, SundanceNOW and
Xbox through Sundance Artist Services and Cinedigm.

Shadow & Act:
What brought you to this particular story, and how did you work with adding
your own directorial voice to the material?

Rodney Evans: The
film really evolved out of my relationship with Ken. I saw the play and I was
really blown away by it, and Ken and I started talking about how it would work
as a film and he mentioned that he had already started to adapt it into a
screenplay but had never written a screenplay before, so he asked if he could
send me a draft of it. So, it literally started as me giving feedback to my
friend on his script and then by the third draft, I was really in love with it
and we started to talk about the possibility of my directing it.

So, it’s a pretty quick turnaround in that we started
talking about it in 2010 and we started brainstorming about how it could be
transformed for the screen.  In terms of my
directorial perspective, the play was much more of an ensemble piece- there
were seven main characters and I was much more focused on these two central
couples, so I ended up pulling the couples to the foreground. The play was much
more of a musical as well, and Ken and I decided that we didn’t want to have
any “burst out in song” moments in the film, and we were just going to keep it
to a much more realistic tone. Those were the major changes that we made and
originally, the characters of Marcus and Aaron were not African American in the
original theater production.

S&A: Oh ok.

RE: So, that was a change that came up very organically just
through the casting process and through actors I was interested in working
with.  

S&A: That’s
really interesting.
What impact, if any, do you think this racial
shift in casting, had on the overall film? 

RE: The casting of black actors in
the roles of Marcus and Aaron made it a more diverse and
complex film while also doing justice to the multicultural aspects of
Brooklyn that I know and love. So much of the movie is
about characters stepping outside of their comfort zone and engaging with
people who are different, and looking at how these
experiences make them re-examine their own identities. So having a multiracial cast is part of that.

I also know so many
gifted black actors who rarely get to play complex and nuanced
characters so if I have the ability to do something about that then I
will. For me, it’s a real joy to see actors of the caliber of LeRoy McClain
and Charlie Barnett put their skills to work to fully embody these
characters. The power and the intimacy of their relationship
is one aspect of the film that I am really proud
of especially, because it still feels so rare in
terms of the portrayals that are out there.

S&A: The film
also takes a very honest look at open relationships as alternatives to monogamy.  What did you want to convey about open
relationships, and the obstacles that they present to the characters?
 

RE: I wanted to do justice to the complexity of open
relationships and especially as they were depicted in the character’s lives and
for me, it’s always interesting to me how open relationships seem quite easy in
the abstract, then when you’re really dealing with it in a concrete, emotional
way, and things that you think are going to be not so emotionally complex or
fraught with complication, end up being so. I’ve had some experience with that in my own life and I
definitely had very close friends that had similar experiences to the
characters in the film, and for me, it was really refreshing to see that the
story that I saw playing out in the lives of my friends, and all around me, that I
very rarely saw depicted in film.

S&A: Just going
back to Marcus and Aaron’s relationship, I notice the film is very much a kind
of a multicultural project without overtly commenting on race, while your film Brother to Brother was kind of greatly
informed by this examination of black, gay characters. How would you compare
and contrast the films in terms of race, or their treatment of race?

RE: That’s a great question. I think that Brother to Brother was very much
informed by this historical research into the gay underground of the Harlem
Renaissance and doing this kind of dual narrative between the past and the
present. Those kinds of questions of identity were really kind of integral to
that piece, and to a lot of the ideas that went into the writing and the
research process. 

With this piece, race was much less the kind of central
element, and it was really much more about issues of intimacy, trust, monogamy,
and infidelity, and how people define those things within these
sexual relationships, and how these things can be fluid. I think especially
with a younger generation that’s more open to that idea in terms of the
fluidity of sexuality, that was much more at the foreground of what I thought
the characters were dealing with.

S&A: Can you talk
about working with the actors on this project because the performances are
really strong.

RE: The actors were really amazing. I worked with a couple
of fantastic casting directors in NYC- Susan Shopmaker who had done casting on Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and Lois
Drabkin
who did casting on Night Catches
Us
, and a lot of it was them casting a really wide net, and I tend to see a
lot of theater in New York so I have a rolling list of actors that I’m really
blown away by, and interested in working with. In terms of these specific
actors, I think this was a much more collaborative process in terms of
utilizing things like improvisation.

It was a two camera shoot so a lot of times we would
improvise the pre-scene beats and then kind of naturally drift into the scene
as scripted, and sometimes I would not call cut and let them just continue on
with the scene, sometimes I’d give them a kind of outline of the specific scene
and they would fill it in, in terms of specifics of dialogue, and those were all
very new ways of working and I have to say it was really inspiring to me as the
director to have that kind of open, collaborative process with the cast.

S&A: I also
noticed this running theme of the fluidity of sexuality between the characters
and how that became disrupted when titles and categories of sexual identity got
in the way. I wanted to get your thoughts on that because that reflects a large
part of society in terms of defining one’s self, and it’s really explored in
your film.

RE: I think that, in some ways, some characters have more
internal conflict in terms of needing an identity or a label and I think that
the character of Stan is obviously exploring gay relationships but also being a
little bit unwilling to define himself as Bi and with a character like Mandy,
we see her evolve into a lesbian relationship. I think that the characters
grapple with ideas of self-identity in different ways and if anything, I think
that the film does a good job of depicting that kind of fluidity in a much more
realistic way, and really is true to the experiences of younger generation and
people in their 20’s.  

It’s been interesting to see the responses in
different generations. You know, the film seems to have a stronger impact with
younger people and people in their 20’s who I think are less apt to need those
types of definitions that seem so integral and important, even just like a
decade ago.

S&A: You wrote
and directed Brother to Brother in
2004 and since then, there’s been several films addressing LGBT people of color
and themes. Do you think there’s been progress made, or more work to be done,
or both?

RE: In terms of specifically, LGBT characters of color, I do
think there’s been a rise in representations in LGBT communities of color, but
then I also think there’s a long way to go, and that my evolution as a
filmmaker was very much informed by that lack, or that void, of specific kinds
of experiences and I still think there could be more where you feel less like
you’re one of a handful of people responsible for depicting this huge diverse,
community.

I think there
could be more representations but I think in terms of the cultural environment
now, versus when Brother to Brother
came out, there are more portrayals of LGBT characters of color on television
than in film. Because television is such a form that so many people have an
intimate relationship with, I think those changes have really impacted people
who may not be close in terms of their actual relationships or their lives,
maybe have a certain window into that experience based on television
portrayals.

So while I do think there have been changes made, there
could be more and part of my reasons for making films is to add to both the
quantity of those types of portrayals and the complexity of the portrayals. That
has really been a real, galvanizing force in terms of filmmaking and feeling
like there is a community out there that appreciates those characters, and
honestly meeting those audiences and having them show such a strong
appreciation for films, makes it that much more important to continue making
work.

S&A: Can you talk
about the production model for the film. I read the directors statement and you
hinted to the way you were able to make the film with in-kind resources from
New York-

RE: The film was made with a skeleton crew and I was really
glad to have it be intimate where the focus was on the acting and the
performances. It was an extension of the process I had with making
a short film called Billy and Aaron
and I shot that film in the summer of 2009 in Amsterdam with a three-person
crew and that was entirely shot in eight hours total. I was really inspired by that
process of not having a huge apparatus attached to filmmaking and having the
technology serve the actors, honestly.

So, it was really a very fast production and was shot in 16
days in Brooklyn, and some of it was shot in my apartment and in the apartments
of close friends of mine, in different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, so it
definitely had this kind of homegrown feel to it. It was the right production
model for this story. A lot of the resources and crew came from the film department at
Temple where I teach. All of that helped keep the budget low and when you keep
the budget low, you have more creative control and can take more risks.

S&A: What other
projects do you have in the works, or what’s next for you?

RE: Billy and Aaron,
the short that I mentioned is about the jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, so that film is actually an excerpt from a
feature-length script called Day Dream
and that’s a script I wrote and that I am hoping to be able to shoot this year.
I’m also reading scripts that I’ve been sent and staying open to other projects
as well. But that film Day Dream has
been the main focus in terms of what I’m doing next, and putting the pieces
together on that.

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