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DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Jim McKay Explores Gentrification, Stereotypes, and “Everyday People”

DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Jim McKay Explores Gentrification, Stereotypes, and "Everyday People"

DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Jim McKay Explores Gentrification, Stereotypes, and “Everyday People”

by Eugene Hernandez

Reg E. Cathey (Akbar) stands in front of Raskin’s Diner in “Everyday People.” Photo credit: HBO/Jojo Whilden

[indieWIRE spoke with Jim McKay shortly before the TV debut of “Everyday People” back in June. The film will be available on DVD this week, January 10th.]

Filmmaker Jim McKay‘s latest movie, “Everyday People,” is not coming to a theater near you. In fact, it will be even closer than that for more than 35 million cable subscribers when it premieres tomorrow night (Saturday) on HBO. The HBO Films project, a look at a day in the life of a Brooklyn restaurant and the people who work there, debuted at Sundance this year and also opened the prestigious New Directors/New Films series here in Manhattan.

“This Saturday, hopefully everyone who doesn’t go see ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ will see ‘Everyday People,” McKay told indieWIRE earlier this week, “In one night more people will see this film than have seen both of my films to date.”

Noted author Nelson George, executive producer of the film, collected a number of true stories a few years ago and enlisted McKay (“Our Song,” “Girls Town”) to tackle a movie based on the tales. McKay created a fictitious story, assigning characters to actors and through a workshop with some 50 performers shaped the piece into a script. It’s a process that McKay has used regularly on his previous movies.

“We were trying to create a mosaic of characters,” explained McKay, adding that he initially envisioned a story in which the different people were riding on a packed NYC subway train and we followed them into their own stories. “Everyday People” begins in a subway station, with a lone man singing an operatic tune, followed by early morning shots of a Brooklyn neighborhood waking up to another day. Quickly we arrive at Raskin’s, an aging local restaurant that is set to close to make way for a new corporate development that will bring a Banana Republic, a Hard Rock Cafe and a name brand ‘Brooklyn Diner’ to the site. It’s a storyline that strikes even closer to home for McKay, a recent Brooklyn transplant from Manhattan who is grappling with the impact of a local development that will build a new basketball arena in the borough.

With a cast comprised almost entirely of people of color, many unfamiliar faces, “Everyday People” explores issues of gentrification, challenges notions of race and stereotypes, and considers how money affects the lives of a group of people who work together.

“Everyday People” executive producer Nelson George with writer/director Jim McKay, earlier this month at the Atlanta Film Festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez.

“Working on the film really made me confront my opinions about change and gentrification,” McKay said, “I started out with a very knee jerk, punk rock, left wing, ‘yuppies go home’ attitude.” Continuing he added, “I then realized, I am a yuppie — every time I get the $8 tuna sandwich, or the good coffee… a lot of us are complicit in this in ways we don’t want to realize, and that was good to realize.”

“I think there are some very evil things about gentrification,” McKay added, “The issues are things that need to be explored in documentaries and journalism, what the film does in the end is hopefully for me put a human face on the changes, as globalization becomes more localized — the only way to beat that back is to show the human side of the dollar bill (and) in some ways the film explores that.”

With a gentle, serious tone, McKay’s film toys with the stereotypes that shape our own expectations and imagines the lives of people we might very well encounter on a daily basis: a tough girl cashier, an uptight urban professional, a preaching activist pavement-pounder, an emerging female poet, an eager-to-please restaurant host, a surly dishwasher, and a teenager heading to college.

“I create characters based on people that I am interested in exploring and based on images that are already out there,” noted McKay. “I am constantly trying to turn around expectations, not always just for the sake of turning them around — (I want) to challenge the audience.” Continuing he added, “I am playing with the assumptions that we have in our everyday life when we are tripped up or fooled and we learn something, that makes things exciting — I am having fun with that stuff, but you have to manage it so it doesn’t get too cute, that’s what I trying to work toward.”

Getting to the point where he can tell such stories and get paid for it has taken McKay the better part of the past decade, but in that time he has played a key role in bringing many films, other than his own, to the screen, including “Brother to Brother,” “Spring Forward,” “La Boda,” “The Sleepy Time Gal,” and “American Movie.”

Joleen (Bridget Barkan) stands at the register at Raskin’s Diner in a scene from “Everyday People.” Photo credit: HBO/Jojo Whilden

“Right now the thing that I have learned the most is to be grateful that I have finally gotten to a point where I am being paid to make films, after eight years,” McKay said, “Both ‘Girls Town’ and ‘Our Song’ were real struggles for me and I didn’t make a cent on either of them.” Continuing he said, “To actually get paid to write a film or to direct a film is a real privilege, I am just trying to be really grateful for that.”

The terrain is fertile ground that is increasingly being explored in independent films, but white men often direct the movies that gain attention and secure distribution. This is the third narrative feature that McKay has made with people of color at the core, and through C-Hundred Film Corp (his production company with Michael Stipe), he has produced many films with people of color in front of and behind the camera.

“Its definitely a point of dismay to look at the world of independent film to see all these white guys making non-white guy films, its definitely very troubling, I am definitely very conflicted about it,” McKay said during the conversation with indieWIRE. “I think its more about, why are these guys interested in telling these stories and are there younger makers of color who are, and if there are why isn’t there a support system for them or are they not being schooled to build that support themselves.”

“It’s a big, big discussion that I hope the film community starts to deal with,” McKay said, “There are some answers, it has to do with education.” Citing such projects as HBO’s young filmmaker program, or Scenarios USA, and the work being done at DCTV in New York, McKay noted, “Hopefully those people will grow into makers but there is going to have to be a support system for them, I certainly want to see their stories.”

McKay’s next movie will be about a young African-American or Latino male. But, having made movies with young women and people of color as central characters, McKay explained that he has also pondered stories that would focus on a white male protagonist.

“That’s going to be my ultimate challenge,” McKay said, “Its really tough to write yourself.”

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