“Five Star” is a film about a kid, John (John Diaz), who’s lost his father and is trying to figure out how to become a man, and what kind of man to be. Though the character who steps in to help him, Primo (James “Prino” Grant), is a five star general in the Bloods, I didn’t want to make a sensational film about gangs, or crime, or violence.
This was especially the case since I cast people who are, for the most part, not trained actors; in some cases their lives mirror the circumstances on screen. After the performances and the reality of the film, the camera and look of the film were the main things I thought about. My goal was for the spectator to feel like a participant in the action on the screen, in a real and intimate way.
We decided to shoot a lot of the scenes using two cameras with what I think of as a probing and participant movement, mostly hand-held, and occasionally with a steadicam. Extended takes of up to 40 minutes, with a few versions of the scene done within a single take, gave us space to explore the underlying essence of the scene, ideally passing from the performed to the lived.
To get the intimacy of a moment, the camera operators had to move with a lot of subtlety because too much imposition on the actors’ space would intrude on the reality I was going for. If what we were shooting felt too much like a movie — looked more like what we’re used to seeing on a screen than what we see everyday all around us—I walked away, sometimes without calling cut. I’d let the “movie-ness” get out of everyone’s system, then came back, and we’d do the scene again, often without calling cut or action again, just going through it, letting the messiness spill in.
Shooting “Five Star” was similar in many ways to my last film “Welcome to Pine Hill,” with a few main differences: In “Five Star” I wanted the cameras’ movement to reflect that there were two central characters, and I wanted a more refined image quality without losing the visual urgency. I wanted John’s skinny, boyish movement to be felt in the camera that moved with him. Conversely, the camera is less mobile in the scenes where Primo dominates, reflecting his strength and solidity, even as I pushed for it to reveal his vulnerability. Working with two cameras and four alternating camera operators demanded constant (and often non-verbal) communication. Luckily, [cinematographer] Ed David brought his positivity, craft and insight (and a lot of gear) to set and we were able to orchestrate this gracefully. In “Five Star” and “Welcome to Pine Hill,” I chose to work with [cinematographer] Alex Mallis because he has a unique ability to find what is important to me in a scene, which is the emotional center of the moment. This often meant someone listening, the gesture of hands and slow pan and rack focus up to the speaker’s face.
These preparations opened up spaces so the actors could work. This was as true in short scenes like Primo and Tamara (Tamara Robinson) in bed as it was in the extended argument between mother and son (Wanda Colon and John Diaz), but equally so in the first scene, Primo’s prologue in the car, or even the group scenes with four to ten guys.
I make movies to express a deeply felt hope that through connection and communication, lives and worlds can be transformed. For me, the transformation can only come through a direct, face-to-face link with another. The movie screen can establish that intimate link in a number of ways. It can be between people on the screen, or the spectator’s connection with the people in the film, or even between the author and the audience.
Within each individual is a world the rest of us can only imagine. My goal for the camera is to find and work with that complexity and depth. And the only way to get that is to push for moments that express love for those in front of the camera from the people behind the camera (camera operator, writer, director), establishing a communication and a rapport. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation,” and it is that relationship that the camera can, at its best moments, share with the viewer.