As I suspect you all know by now (at least most of you) that Rod Gailes OBC’s Soft Focus – the winner of the second Shadow And Act Black Filmmaker Challenge winning script – will make its world premiere this Wednesday, June 13, at NYU Cantor Film Center, 7pm (tickets HERE), as part of a retrospective of Rod’s work.
The 25-minute film, which stars Damion Omar Lee, Angela Lewis, Madeleine Dauzart, and Aaron Clifton Moten (currently appearing in the hit Broadway play, A Streetcar Named Desire), is a portrait of Marcus, “… a repressed college student pursuing a deeper carnal knowledge to escape his religiously strident home life.“
The NYC event will be hosted by Rod himself, along with a few special guests. I’ll also be in attendance.
And in anticipation of that event, I interviewed Rod over the weekend, not only about Soft Focus, but we also discussed his body of work, his motivations/inspirations as a filmmaker, carrying the so-called *burden of representation*, the state of black cinema today, what’s next for him, and more.
The full Q&A session follows below, and you’re encouraged to read it, and get to know the mind behind the work.
And also don’t forget that you can either listen to of download all 14 tracks from the Soft Focus soundtrack (if you haven’t already), which includes music from Lynette Williams and Dynasty Electric. Click HERE to listen/download.
The completed film will eventually make its online debut here on S&A, but stay tuned for details on when that will happen.
Again, next week’s premiere/retrospective will be held Wednesday, June 13, at NYU Cantor Film Center, 36 East 8th Street, beginning at 7pm.
For you NYC folks, click HERE to pre-purchase tickets to the event; they are $10 each (details are on the image above).
And without further ado, here’s the interview:
1 – “Controversial” seems to be a popular adjective used to describe your work; where do you think that came from? Was it something you embraced, and maybe even promoted, or it was something that happened outside of you? And what do you think makes your work “controversial” in the eyes of others? Is it the seemingly taboo subjects your tackle, or more than that.
OBC: My first festival hit film out of NYU was “Twin Cousins” about the coming of age of two pre-teen girls and the changing nature of friendship. It won a lot of awards, impressed a lot of people, and got me noticed. Then I started doing more provocative subject matter. Anytime you go from family oriented to anything even remotely sexual or honestly adult, there are whispers of “Controversy”. That all started with “pharaoh jones”. People were not ready for that film or feature script following my “Family flick” hit. I think they are ready now. America is a paradoxical place. Underwear ads everywhere, but no candid, healthy open discussion about the obvious things in our everyday lives. Honesty, for better or worse, sometimes equals Controversy so I guess our fates are tied. As Christopher Tracey said, “I want to be an honest man.”
2 – Is there ar common thread that runs through your work? With this retrospective happening this week, after audiences see your body of work, will they be able to readily identify any themes, patterns, ideas, etc?
OBC: At the core of my work, I am almost always dealing with the notion of “Life” and “Choice”. I believe life is God’s greatest gift to us, Choice being the second. Examining those gifts and how people manage the consequences of their actions is a recurring theme in my work on stage, screen, and in lyrics. But as I previewed the retrospective films last week during the projection tests, I was struck by how recurring the sexual themes were over time. I think it was a rebellion to the success of “Twin Cousins”. It was never my deliberate intention to create a “sexy” body of work. But as Britney sang, “Oops, I did it again.” I looked up and here was “Soft Focus” bringing sexuality and spirituality into a cinematic butting of heads.
3 – Your motivations on deciding to pursue cinema as an art/commerce form.
OBC: My dad worked at the Chrysler plant outside Detroit and my mom slaved in the insurance industry for many years. A “punching the clock” mentality is woven into my DNA. I knew early on that I wanted to unravel that somehow. I always knew I wanted to “be” something as opposed to just “do” something. I never wanted a “job” as much as I wanted to have an identity that just “was” me. Being educated in a Jesuit school and raised in line with several generations of practicing Catholics, I thought I’d become a priest at one point. LOL. The Jesuits were some really cool & honorable dudes, but there were things about religious life and obedience that conflicted with my fiber. Being a motivator of people, a craftsman, and an artist all come together in my identity as a director. I feel it’s a spiritual calling. It is the thing that most directly brings into alignment my connection to God, the community around me, and by extension, the rest of the world. Being a director is the most vertically integrated expression of all of my skills, talents, and passions. I feel I was born and led to be a storyteller.
4 – If you could identify your target audience, what would that group look like?
OBC: I grew up in Detroit, an overwhelmingly Black run and Black populated city. “Black” was our normal. The cultural domination and influence Black people have maintained in popular culture is the backdrop to my thoughts about “target audience”. My audience is Michael Jackson’s audience. It is Prince and Shonda Rhimes’ audience. It’s Count Bassie and Josephine Baker’s audience. It is Terence Trent D’Arby and Lenny Kravitz’ audience. It’s Oprah, Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Julie Taymor, and George C. Wolfe’s audience. I am a Black American artist with a set of specific cultural experiences, and I claim all of America and the rest of the human family as my audience, just as my predecessors did.
5 – Talk a little bit about the NYU-based “Leagues,” and how that communal experience helped shape you as a filmmaker, and continues to do so.
OBC: I tweeted the other day, “I worked my whole life to make my childhood dream of being on a team of Super Heroes come true & now it has! #Leagues Forever! #ART”. NYU was hard to get into and hard to get out of! It would have been impossible without a community of people conspiring to help you do it. It is the same way on the outside. I had no idea of the lasting effect of what I was starting when I decided to band together with my classmate George Stubbs in our 1st year of film school. James Richards joined us the following year and the core of “the Leagues” was born, though not yet officially named. The name wouldn’t come until a couple years later when Seith Mann suggested we actually call ourselves something. Film is the most collaborative art form and closest thing to impossible that happens on a regular basis. You MUST have a community of people to fight the “Loki” that is the entertainment business. The Leagues are my backbone, moral support, and the reason I am still making films in the absence of “having made it”. I feel wealthy when I pick up the phone and call the most talented DP or Editor or Writer or Producer that I know and can get assistance, answers, referrals. To know they have your back and cheer at your successes like a sibling, that is true wealth. My brother Cinque Northern likes to call the Leagues, the Wu-Tang of film. LOL
6 – General thoughts on what everyone refers to as “The State Of Black Cinema,” as broad as that is to tackle. But I’m sure you’re aware of the usual complaints and expectations.
OBC: I have deliberately gone “ostrich” on this issue in the five years since I left MTV networks. I am choosing to deal with the “mirror man” by working to uplift, inspire, and expand my community of artists and entertain and move audiences. That is where each of our power lies. I’ve watched the “state of Black Cinema” shift and morph even as it stays somewhat the same decade to decade. Everyone must play their position and use all their personal currency to make a change if one is to come. If Michael Jackson or Spike or Oprah or Obama had taken stock in the “usual complaints & expectations”, we would not know who they are today. Encouraging the joy of living and a greater appreciation of personal responsibility is probably the mission of my work if I have one at all. I’m concentrating on that for now.
7 – The debates we often have about this thing we call “black cinema” center on representation, or rather the lack of variety of it. Is this a conversation that you feel very much a part of? Do you carry any *burdens* of representation? If so, what are they, and how are you working through them, if at all?
OBC: I stopped having those debates after my 1st year in film school when one of my teachers, who shall remain nameless, told me, quite casually, that the characters I was writing weren’t “BLACK” (neither was he, by the way). He bolstered his argument with the tired “Cosby Show- isn’t- real” denouncement and did it all in public mind you. He was quite shameless and confident in his opinion. As my final project that year, I made a very angry, revenge fantasy film about a clean cut tutor who is sexually pursued by his pupil only to be hunted and attacked later by her jealous brother and his friend. I’m thinking of showing it as part of the Retrospective on Wednesday. It’s the only film of mine that has mostly White people in it…. with one Black guy as the lead, played by Jackie Alexander, who is now a playwright, director, and novelist. Needless to say, I did not get rewarded for making that film. The faculty was gunning for me after that, but it emboldened me to defiantly make whatever I want. I am not currently beholden to anyone other than my muse so I will enjoy this period for as long as it lasts.
8 – On Soft Focus… your inspiration/motivation for making it; how it fits into your oeuvre (how it compares to past works; if it’s part of a larger work/purpose; where it fits in with all the others, etc); is it a personal tale (or, more broadly, are your films what we’d call personal, or based on some real-life experience?); what can audiences expect from “Soft Focus”? What do you hope audiences to feel, think, after they’ve seen it? Is there an intentional message.
OBC: “Soft Focus” is probably my most disturbing, insidiously funny, yet haunting film. I’m experimenting with mood and expectation in ways I have not done before. Even though this is not a “horror” film, per se, I was very inspired by visual tropes from horror classics. It’ll be interesting to see if film buffs can pick up the references in the film. I hesitate to lay out my specific inspirations before the film’s premiere because I want the audience to have a very naked experience. Last week I watched the completed film with my editor, Sewra Kidane, and we sat shocked and giggling in the control as if we’d never seen it before. After all this time we still get sucked into the scenes and the storytelling. Either we are complete narcissists or we’ve got a pretty entertaining movie on our hands. LOL. But it’s definitely gonna be something people will want to talk about. Adepero Oduye and Pernell Walker of last year’s indie darling, “PARIAH” (written & directed by Leagues member Dee Rees) came to a private screening I had a few months ago. They watched both “Soft Focus” and “Reverse Cowgirl” and we’re sworn to secrecy. Pernell said, “You’ve created your own genre of film”. I was extremely flattered by the response.
9 – What’s next for you? Projects you’re working on that we should be looking out for/be aware of.
OBC: This is really a time of bounty. I recently finished working with Disney on a workshop production of “The Lion King Jr.”. It was fun to be in a development partnership with such a respected family brand even as I explore more adult material in my auteur life. This summer I am preparing for an out of town tryout of “UNSPEAKABLE”, our play inspired by the life of Richard Pryor. We’re solidifying a major Chicago venue in the next couple of weeks and plan to open at the top of October. I expect to make that official announcement soon. I am also attaching talent for the feature versions of “pharaoh jones”, my fraternity pledge film and “private joy”, my “Purple Rain” meets “Carmen Jones” meets “NOISE/FUNK” tap flick. The right mix of unknowns and experienced screen actors is going to make both those movies really pop! I’m finishing post on “Reverse Cowgirl” and completing the feature script for it. Even though some bigger things are on the horizon, shorts are a love of mine and both “Knuckles” and “Reverse Cowgirl” will make their entrance this Fall. It’s a very exciting year, and I am open to more. Want something done, ask someone busy. LOL.
10 – Long term goals? As you build your body of work, where does the particular path you’re on lead, assuming you plan to stay on it? What does your life look like in 10 years? Has Hollywood come calling yet, and is that even a road you’d consider, or is it out of the question?
OBC: I spent years working to become what I consider the “genuine article”, a true writer, producer, director for stage and screen. A photographer and storyteller capable of moving audiences with music, sound, and image. And to what end? I’m happy with my work, but I crave another level, a level I am working hard to attain. And it’s not just from a career standpoint. I want to be the absolute best I can be on all fronts. Everything that I see myself doing 10 years from now, I am doing now. But I want it at another level with more resources, farther reach, and deeper impact. One of my fondest childhood memories is of singing “The Quest” from Man of Lamancha in Second grade. I was selected to sing with all the big kids that were in the sixth grade chorus. “And I know, if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest that my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest.” Some people think we as artists are just chasing windmills, but I am on a journey that brings me joy, unites people, and entertains and provokes people to thought. I am blessed to be a vessel for that. I want audiences to leave an OBC experience with a “feeling”. When you can make audiences “feel” something, you actually create a chemical change in their bodies. They take you with them when that happens. That is a special kind of immortality, to live in the cellular memory of the audiences you affect. I’m working for that connection in all that I do, and I’m faithful that all the rest will follow.
Some press write-ups and media of Rod’s work follow below, as well as the poster and trailer for Soft Focus:
Unspeakable – http://www.nytheatre.com/Show/Review/2005370
Unspeakable – http://articles.chicagotribune.com/keyword/richard-pryor
pharaoh jones trailer – https://vimeo.com/39747732
Director/Writer/Producer Rod Gailes OBC discusses his original play based on the life of Richard Pryor (Unspeakable), his experiences working with Spike Lee’s 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks + more. –
Actor Angela Lewis discussing work with Director Rod Gailes OBC on the set of the OBC DreamTheatre/Shadow And ACT film “Soft Focus”. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw5jhnkHL5Y
Actor, Damion Omar Lee, discusses his role as “Marcus” in the OBC DreamTheatre/Shadow And Act film, “Soft Focus”. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6_ZUkWMzWI&feature=relmfu
Actor Damion Omar Lee discussing work with Director Rod Gailes OBC on the set of the OBC DreamTheatre/Shadow And Act Film “Soft Focus”. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hOAHPvkI-M&feature=relmfu
OBC Photography work – http://www.vogue.it/en/vogue-black/the-black-blog/2011/11/black-americana