ND/NF INTERVIEW: Girls 'Hood; Realist Jim McKay Returns with "Our Song"
by Mia Mask
(indieWIRE/4.5.2000) -- Nowadays, most of the films about inner-city black and Latino youth negotiating the pitfalls of drugs, gang warfare and teen pregnancy are stylishly edited to the rhythms of hip-hop and gangster rap. As a result, these films look -- and sound -- more like music videos than carefully crafted cinema. Not true of Jim McKay's new film "Our Song," which is a subtle, realist coming-of-age picture about the close friendship between three young teens. Set in Brooklyn, the story focuses on Lanisha, Joycelyn, and Maria, three members of The Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band. In addition to long rehearsals in the hot sun, the girls are spending their summer dealing with serious issues -- not the least of which is their school's closing due to asbestos removal. Finding new schools, keeping good jobs, helping their parents and coping with the realities of the neighborhood, force these girls to make life choices which shape them as young women.
While the director describes them as very "different films," McKay's first feature, "Girls Town" (1996) and his second feature "Our Song" are similar. Both are coming-of-age stories in which the principals deal with suicide in their community. Both films study the close friendship between three women. And, in both pictures, there's a conspicuous absence -- or paucity -- of responsible father figures, a sensitive matter that has already been brought to McKay's attention. Yet the films are also quite different. Whereas "Girls Town"'s characters were mostly white, and its setting suburban, "Our Song" casts African American, Latino and Afro-Cuban girls in the leads, and takes a definitively urban landscape as its backdrop. The characters are also younger, more vulnerable and definitely on the cusp between adolescence and womanhood. Therefore, their issues and concerns are unique.
Recently, indieWIRE spoke with McKay about his realist filmmaking style -- informed as it is by the films of Frederick Wiseman. We discovered what McKay has learned about teenagers: the peer pressure, the importance of fashion, the privilege of light skin among teens of color, and the realities of life in the 'hood, which he understands better than many.
indieWIRE: How did you become a filmmaker?
Jim McKay: I studied secondary education. I was going to be an English teacher. Toward the end of school I started watching movies. Got a job in a movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was a repertory house and they showed European films. New American cinema hadn't really happened yet. It was pre-"Stranger the Paradise" (1984). I saw New German Cinema: Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder. I saw Bergman, Ackerman. These films inspired me.
After school, I moved to San Francisco. I viewed everything I could. I considered film school. But the idea of going to school again was not appealing. Nor was the idea of paying for it. So, I decided to teach myself because I had an idea for a documentary. I bought an eight-millimeter video camera and went and shot this thing. It turned out totally funky. It had bad sound but I learned through making and editing it. I was fortunate to grow up in the pre-film school generation, because I never started making film with the intent to make features.
iW: Did you want to make documentary films?
McKay: I didn't know. I was just doing it. I had no master plan. One day I had an idea for a movie. Everything came after that. I got the idea for my first feature, "Girls Town." There were many people making the transition from advertising and music videos to feature filmmaking. I thought their work showed it. There was no vocabulary for the actor. So, I moved to New York and studied acting. I workshop-ed my outline for "Girls Town," and we wrote the script together. Then I made the film. I was learning as I went along. I had to learn to read a light meter and to properly expose film. I had never written a script before. I needed help. I hired a DP. I wanted to cut on an Avid, so I hired an editor. It was a process of learning how to let go and work with other people.
iW: What about the genesis of "Our Song?" What inspired you to make this film? Did it evolve out of "Girls Town?"
McKay: I feel they are extremely different movies. Having shown "Girls Town" to many young women, and getting a deeper exposure to that segment of society, I had a lot of leftover stories. Many of these enabled me to develop greater insight. I also knew this was uncharted territory in terms of what's been shown on film. Initially, "Our Song" started out as an idea for a film about friendship. It was about kids outside of the mainstream of American society.
iW: In what sense are they outside? Are they outside because they're not popular? Or, are they outside because of race and socio-economics?
McKay: Both. Initially, it was about kids at the bottom rung of the social ladder, due to their looks and their class background. But they're also outsiders in terms of their peer group. Watching kids, it occurred to me that they're very fashion conscious. So, you know a kid is really poor if they're wearing fucked up clothes. Today, the pressure on them to dress well is intense. Kids who have no money are still figuring out a way -- somehow -- to dress nicely. So, when you see a kid with ratty jeans on, wearing sneakers that aren't clean, you know they're in a certain place economically. I was interested in that experience.
"There were people who told me: 'Don't make another movie about young women. It's a bad business move. You need to do something different.' I'm really glad I didn't listen to them. This is the story I had to tell. This is what I wanted to do."
iW: Was it difficult to cast non-professional teen actors capable of playing such subtle characters?
McKay: It was tricky. If you're a kid who's not necessarily attractive, and you don't have money, and you're not hip and cool, chances are you're not going to feel good about yourself and want to be an actor. We had open call. The kids who were the real 'outsiders' were withdrawn. Many seemed like they had been pressured by parents, teachers and friends to come tryout. . . . Most of the time when you see actors that age, they are television style actors. That's the worst! I was lucky to find leads: Kerry Washington, Ann Simpson and Melissa Martinez. All three are very beautiful young women. But I wanted them to be normal kids too.
iW: You give your actors most of the credit for these very subtle performances. What was it like to direct total novices and to elicit such understated performances?
McKay: We rehearsed a lot. But I'm really, really amazed at what the actors did. They are living every single moment. For all of them, this was their first movie. Kerry worked quite a bit. Melissa had worked a bit and was actively going on auditions. But she was ready to quit the whole thing and join the army when she got called back for the part. Anna had never done any formal acting at all. She came in on an open call. . . .What amazes me is that Melissa had never been on set. She had never seen herself on film. To come on and know nothing about call times, nothing about continuity . . . to give what they gave, I feel really blessed. I hope I created a situation in which they were free to ask for what they needed. I have to give them credit. They clicked. And when they didn't, I tried to use it to my advantage.
iW: "Girls Town" and "Our Song" share the coming-of-age theme. Any particular reason coming-of-age stories interest you?
McKay: First, I think there's universality to the coming-of-age experience. Second, I've always loved coming-of-age movies. I love "The 400 Blows" and "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?" by Yugoslav filmmaker Emir Kusturica. There's recent late nineties films like "All Over Me," "Arresting Gena," "The Slums of Beverly Hills." Separate from those films, I feel this is uncharted territory. We've seen it a million times with boys. We've seen it a dozen times with white girls. We've seen twice with girls of color in this kind of neighborhood: Allison Anders' "Mi Vida Loca" and Leslie Harris' "Just Another Girl on the IRT."
I thought there was room for exploration, for telling an untold story. If I were a writer or a teacher or a social worker, this would be my area of interest. There were people who told me: "Don't make another movie about young women. It's a bad business move. It's a bad career move. You need to do something different." I'm really glad I didn't listen to them. This is the story I had to tell. This is what I wanted to do. It's not the same story. I feel it's different.
iW: Are these characters written to defy audience expectations of them? Maria's a Latina who doesn't speak Spanish. Lanisha, we learn, is Afro-Cuban, and she does speak Spanish. Are these decisions intentional?
McKay: Yes. Those were intentional choices. Identity is a huge issue for kids. It can be a huge thing in a good way and in a bad way. How you define yourself is a major issue for young people and adults alike. On one level, I enjoyed the irony of the situation: a girl who's from a Cuban or Puerto Rican household who's been discouraged from speaking Spanish. This is common. It's also a reflection of parenting. There's another character that's got a Cuban-American mother and an African-American father and is encouraged -- by both parents -- to speak Spanish. Then there's Joy who doesn't speak Spanish and doesn't care to learn. She is alienated by the whole idea.
The identity issues got interesting when the girls started rehearsing with the marching band. The girls joined the band a month before we rehearsed to learn their instruments and steps. Right away, I would hear some kids in the band referring to Melissa as "the Puerto Rican girl." They were not intending any racism. They were just identifying her. They often referred to complexion when talking about their peers saying: "he's the dark-skinned one," or "she's the one with the light skin." Kids -- in a really good way -- can talk about their differences without the baggage that adults have.
iW: Maybe they haven't gotten there yet, to the place where they're concerned about the implications?
McKay: Yeah, they haven't gotten there yet. I'm sure it comes out in bad ways too. I know that darker-skinned kids are not. . . Well, lighter kids get more benefits. . . .
"The shoots are always the hardest. I still haven't figured out how to have fun on a shoot. I'm not going to complain. It is what it is. And, what it is is difficult."
iW: They enjoy more privilege, even among their peers. . . .
McKay: Definitely. Exactly. So, there's negativity involved in the way they deal with skin color, and with difference. However, there's also an openness that's refreshing. That's what I was trying to capture on film. Many scenes in the movie are things I saw played out in real life.
iW: Is it fair to say this film intentionally goes against the dominant representation of "life in the hood" as violent, as nihilistic? Is the focus on the Jackie Robinson Marching Band a way of addressing the stereotype of inner city life as violent?
McKay: Yeah. It's fair to say. There's a constant struggle for me. Stylistically, my work is realist-oriented. There's also a side of me -- the writer-thinker side -- that is political and trying to inject idealism in as well. Those elements are often competing. For instance, while shooting, people would approach us asking what the movie's about? We'd say: "It's about three friends." Invariably, they'd ask: "Do a lot of people get shot?" I would say: "It's about real life." And, they'd always be like, "Well, that's not real life." I found that hard to hear.
iW: So, your ideological predilections come before your stylistic sensibility?
McKay: On one hand, as a filmmaker, I don't want to make a movie with guns everywhere. It's true that violence is undeniably a part of everyday life in this neighborhood. Yet on another level, there's more to life. When I first started writing, one of the ideas was completely political and social-minded. The idea was, one of these characters gets pregnant, goes though a long decision-making process, and has an abortion. The idea was to dispel the myth held by mainstream American society that young women of color don't have abortions. But upon writing and developing this character, I realized this girl is going to have her baby. To write it differently, to appease my political sensibility, is wrong. So, it changed. Instead, I put in a parallel element with another character that had had an abortion the previous year. Representationally, I've said what I want to say and can be truer to the story. When you ask kids in the neighborhood: "If you got pregnant, what would you do?" Everyone says: "I don't believe in abortion, I would have my baby." But when you go to the clinic in the neighborhood, you find out differently.
iW: Was there ever a moment when you thought you could make the entire film revolve around the marching band?
McKay: I'll be shooting a documentary about the band in the fall. There's an incredibly full story there. If I have one regret about "Our Song," it's that I wish the scenes with the band showed more interaction between the main characters and the band members. As it stands, the band is more of a backdrop. The plan was for their lives to be more integrated with the band. The reality was a 20-day shoot, sixty kids, ninety-five degrees. . . trying to block it, trying to rehearse it -- all with non-professional actors. The reasons were primarily technical.
iW: The influence of Frederick Wiseman's documentary "Public Housing" is prominent. Were there aspects other than the cinematography, which influenced "Our Song?"
McKay: I like the way Wiseman builds a story in an unconventional way. There are a few characters that reoccur. You could passively watch his work and think, the scenes aren't connected, there's no dramatic arch, editing seems inconsequential. Yet that's not true at all. So, when I first set out to make "Our Song," I wanted to make something as similarly loose in structure. I was trying to be unpredictable and defy expectations. "Public Housing" is beautifully shot. There's so much light, even inside the housing projects. Watching that film and making my own I realized how much of life is lived inside, especially for these kids.
iW: What was the most challenging part of the production?
McKay: The shoots are always the hardest. I still haven't figured out how to have fun on a shoot. Both films I've made have been made under adverse conditions. I'm not going to complain. It is what it is. And, what it is is difficult. We couldn't have had a better group more willing to undergo the circumstances. I'm really proud to have made something on this small scale with complete control and no one over my shoulder telling me who to put in it or how to cut it or anything.
iW: What's ahead for Jim McKay?
McKay: We're going to play the movie in several festivals. We're going to Taos, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Atlanta and Seattle. I hoping the movie will be released theatrically in fall. I'll be spending most of my time with the film. I don't want four years to pass before I make another movie. I'm writing two other projects. And I plan to make a short documentary this summer.
[Mia Mask is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. She is a freelance film reviewer and editor at Cineaste magazine.]