Every so often, when I need to remind myself how close I am (physically, at least) to the A-list crowd in Los Angeles, I treat myself to lunch at an expensive restaurant often frequented by celebrities. It was a breezy Wednesday, in the low 70s, and the Beverly Hills hotspot was buzzing. As I was being led to my seat, I passed a table with an Academy-Award winning actor, and another with a blond, bubbly reality TV star. Still, I was there with them, in the middle of a weekday, so my presence was given the benefit of the doubt. Seated alone, far from the choice tables, I opened the menu, to decide whether I wanted the overpriced butternut ravioli or the overpriced skirt steak. Off to my left, I saw a familiar face, sitting next to the most gorgeous redhead I’d seen this side of Christina Hendricks. To my surprise, he recognized me too. Sort of.
“James!” he said.
“That’s what I said! How the hell are you, man?”
His name was Tommy, I think, and we met almost a decade ago as temps at a major Hollywood talent agency. Though I only worked there for a week, we became close enough that he slipped me Oscar screeners of Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, at the risk of losing his job. His assignment there was way longer than mine, and aside from a few chats on MySpace and a random run in at some screening, we had basically fallen out of touch. But he looked different now: buffed and polished and comfortable in this environment. All the things I wasn’t.
He invited me to sit at his table and we exchanged pleasantries. The redhead, Michelle, upgraded her level of acknowledgment from ignoring me all the way up to a pleasant disinterest. I went with the skirt steak.
“So what have you been up to all this time, man?” he said. I had forgotten that annoying habit of his, punctuating far too many sentences with “man.”
“A lot,” I said. “I’ve been married for eight years, I have an infant daughter. Still writing and actually have a feature in pre-production right now.”
“You’re still writing, that’s good, man. I’m an executive assistant now, to [Vice-President of Production at major movie studio]. But you’re still pursuing the dream, man. What’s the film about?”
“It’s called All the Children Are Insane.”
“Isn’t that from a Doors song, man?”
“Would you believe you’re only the second person to catch that?”
He smiled and shrugged. Michelle shot me a fake smirk and began texting someone on her Android.
“So what’s it about?”
I’d pitched it so much lately, he might as well have asked me my home address. “A trio of adult siblings come back to their childhood home to visit their dying, wealthy father. Once they get back there, old childhood ghosts and family secrets are resurrected and triggers a survival of the fittest to battle for their father’s estate and his love.”
“Sounds interesting. What’s the budget, man?”
“Rather not say, but it’s low," I said. "Especially for what we’re bringing to the table in terms of combining drama and horror, getting very prominent black actors to work for far less than they normally do because of the strength of the material and our post-production hook up, which is going to make it look like it cost ten times more than it will.”
“Wait a minute,” Tommy said. “Don’t take this the wrong way but there’s a ceiling if you make this a black project, man.”
“There’s a ceiling no matter what I do,” I said. “So I might as well make the film I want to make.”
“Look Jared, I’m trying to make this easy for you because I like you,” he said. “You might as well shoot for the moon. Don’t get emotional, this is purely economics. I work with these guys and it’s like black films and black filmmakers don’t exist, man. Tyler Perry has his own studio and he’s still considered a novelty.”
“My name is Jason and I’m not Tyler Perry,” I said. “That’s not even the goal. If anything, I’m trying to be the next Mike Nichols.”
“Mike who?” he said. Michelle looked at me like I’d just farted in her face, then went back to texting. “I’ll give you an example, so that you don’t just think I’m a jerk. What’s the last black film to get a wide release?”
“Jumping the Broom,” I said. “It just came out and finished third.”
“Ok. Before that.”
“Probably one of Tyler Perry’s movies, I don’t know.”
“My point is, they are far and few between. You don’t want to limit yourself from the very beginning. Unless there’s something in your script that the characters specifically have to be black, it might scare investors away.”
I laughed. “The only thing that’s scaring investors away is that I don’t know many people who have a lot of money. But I'm working on that.”
“You sound angry, man.”
“I’m not angry," I said. "Even though Hollywood has always set up black filmmakers to fail by giving us few distribution looks, fewer screens when they do show our films -- regardless of the per screen gross -- less publicity, smaller budgets etc., I still think it’s worth the battle. This isn’t 1961. People who get it are the ones I want to be in business with.”
“It’s just economics, man. There’s no international market for black films. They either want big Hollywood blockbusters or film with their homegrown stars.”
“Self-fulfilling prophecy,” I said. “If Wu-Tang can sell out shows in Japan where people know the words to their songs but can’t speak English, I think we can find a way to market Talk to Me or Medicine for Melancholy to the UK or France or Brazil."
“Are those movies, man? I’ve never heard of them.”
“Too bad,” I said. “You’re missing out. Man.”
The food came and we ate. Tommy was all right. Even though we were kind of strangers, he had the balls to tell me what he really thought, sidestepping the passive-aggressive fear (that they might be wrong) that has the entertainment industry by the throat. The polite silences. The silent nos. I’m from Toledo. Not down with that crap.
We wished each other luck and went our separate ways. But as I took Wilshire back to Sepulveda, I felt even more motivated to make this film happen as soon as possible. People still respond to good films, made for adults, with strong acting, convincing plot turns, and thought provoking finales. Having black protagonists should be no more a liability than having Italian protagonists was in The Godfather. We just have to find a way to make them and get them seen. That is what I’m here for. And despite any evidence to the contrary, that is what I am going to do.
All the Children Are Insane will begin filming in Los Angeles this summer. One way or the other. Follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/allthechildrenareinsane and on Twitter at @all_thechildren.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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5.16.11 @ 7:55a
"People still respond to good films, made for adults, with strong acting, convincing plot turns, and thought provoking finales. "
Yes. Yes they do. And examining the human condition is a universal connection. Too bad the power brokers don't get that.
Very proud of you, by the way. This summer is going to be fantastic!
5.16.11 @ 10:22a
Thank you Tracey!!