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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Gun Hill Road” Director Rashaad Ernesto Green

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Gun Hill Road" Director Rashaad Ernesto Green

After three years in prison, macho Enrique (Esai Morales) returns home to the Bronx and finds things changed. His wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), is distant, and his teenage son, Michael, has a newfound independence and identity that is beyond Enrique’s comprehension. Unable to accept his child for who he is now, Enrique clings to his masculine ideals while Angela attempts to hold the family together by fiercely protecting Michael. Still under the watchful eye of his parole officer, Enrique must become the father he needs to be or, once again, risk losing his family and freedom.

The heart of “Gun Hill Road” lies in two places: a father’s inability to escape the vicious cycle of his life, and the richly drawn character of Michael (newcomer Harmony Santana is unforgettable). Writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s first feature film is a complex family drama, told with gentle humor, sensitivity, and a deep understanding of the environment that defines its inhabitants.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“Gun Hill Road”
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Screenwriter: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Cast: Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Harmony Santana, Vincent Laresca, Robin de Jesus, Miriam Colon
Executive Producer: Ron Simons, Esai Morales
Producer: Michelle-anne Small, Ron Simons
Cinematographer: Daniel Patterson
Editor: Sara Corrigan
Production Designer: Maya Sigel
Sound Design: Steve Slanec, Skywalker Sound

Responses courtesy of “Gun Hill Road” director Rashaad Ernesto Green.

From dispirited actor to inspired filmmaker…

I started out as an actor, attended grad school at NYU, and then stepped into the real world.  It didn’t take me too long to realize that there was a severe lack of roles for actors of color.  As an African American and Latino artist, I wanted to be a part of stories and films that explored our cultures with more depth, complexity of characters and understanding of the world that creates them.  I remember sitting in a black box theater in St. Louis reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”  It said to view your life from the prospective of your funeral. I let it inspire me. When I imagined myself in the casket, listening to what others would say about me, I heard them speaking about someone who did not wait for others people to write the stories, but rather took the bull by the horns and created the stories I wished to see.

Director’s own family crisis lead to film…

Inspiration for the film actually came from my family in the Bronx. “Gun Hill Road” is the story of a Latino father (Esai Morales) who returns home after three years in prison to discover his wife (Judy Reyes) estranged, and his teenage child exploring sexual identity and an alternative lifestyle in ways he can’t possibly comprehend.  I have a close family member who went through something similar, where the Bronx has shaped his sense of machismo pride and defined what it means to be a man; failing to provide him the tools necessary to understand his child’s sexual revelation.  I watched my family deteriorate over a period of three years due the conflict that arose between the love he has for his child and his inability to accept their differences.

Tackling a ‘realistic’ approach…

“Gun Hill Road” director Rashaad Ernesto Green. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The most important factor in my work is to present a sense of truth and authenticity on the screen.  In order to achieve this, I attempted to draw characters that were complex and multifaceted, as opposed to the usual stereotypes you might expect to see when representing economically disadvantaged Latinos in the Bronx.  I cast a blend of actors and non-actors from New York, employed docu-style camerawork, and shot in densely populated areas that clearly reflected the world I wished to portray.

Finding Harmony and Sugar…

The greatest challenge was casting the role of Michael, the teenager in the film whose sexual transformation tears at the core of the father’s belief system.  I knew from the start I wanted to cast the role non-traditionally, i.e. outside of the normal means of finding talent through an agent or casting director.  In order for the film to be successful, I needed to find the genuine article.  The search was absolutely grueling.  I pulled my hair out for weeks and kicked myself for writing myself into a hole.  We stumbled in and out of 18 and over nightclubs at 3am, attended every youth organization and function you can think of.  And eventually, we found Harmony.  Newcomer Harmony Santana was working at a parade booth in Queens.  She was the right age and type, showed up on time to the audition, had that special something I had been looking for, and was dedicated to learning the craft of acting.

One day I approached a man, Robert Salzman, who was sitting on a NYC subway car on a hunch that he had been through the prison system.  He did, in fact, spend seventeen years of his life incarcerated, but had since been rehabilitated and employed as a bouncer for the last ten years.  I wound up casting him for the role of Sugar opposite Esai Morales.  On the day we shot the jail scene, which was actually filmed in an active NY State prison, Rob took a nap in one of the cells during a break.  He woke up with tears in his eyes, because for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to stay there.  He could get up, walk out, and that was okay.

A movie for a Sundance viewer…

I believe Sundance audiences, especially, will embrace this film.  I think audiences are starving for this type of story that presents characters we often see and wonder about in everyday life, but rarely learn of their humanity and common human experience.  The film explores universal themes that I hope will affect audiences on a deeper level.

New York City based films that inspired Green…

I turned to films such as “Kids” and “Raising Victor Vargas” for inspiration while making “Gun Hill Road.”  Both films are New York City based stories that deal with inner city teens in a very authentic way.  They are about real people in real situations, which for me, makes the film watching experience all the more rewarding.

And plans for the future?

I’m in the process of developing a project that centers on New York City teenagers and the underground poetry scene.

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