“FILLY BROWN” | directors, Michael Olmos & Youssef Delara
[PREMIERE SCREENING: Friday, January 20, 5:30 pm –Library Center Theatre, Park City]
For me, being a filmmaker – an explorer of stories – is about discovery and finding connections. Of recreating that magical life altering feeling you get when something that you where never aware of, suddenly enters your conscious mind, and completely rewires you – it is an all encompassing experience. It can happen on an emotional level or intellectual level, and it often causes a physical response – you cry, laugh, bend over in pain, whatever. Sometimes these discoveries where right in front of you, but you weren’t open to seeing them. As a filmmaker you operate on so many levels simultaneously. There’s the creative process, there’s the marathon of physical production and post production, but the overarching journey is to navigate the bottomless ocean of human emotion and weave it into a tight ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes of well crafted storytelling. It’s a challenge and a privilege. For me, telling stories started when I was young.
As a kid I was absorbed with three things, reading, drawing and dismantling everything I could get my hands on to see how it worked (which means I destroyed any toy I received) – but especially drawing, creating images with pen, pencils, crayons — whatever. It probably stems from the fact that I was extremely asthmatic as I child and would often have bouts of crippling asthma – and I was allergic to everything. That means I couldn’t play outside as much as the other kids. I lived with my aunt at the time, a teacher who was from the school of “TV rots your mind.” The only alternatives were the books lying around the house. I spent much of my time with my nose buried in books, or drawing — I could spend hours doodling. But I guess as children we all do this – the thing is, the fascination never left me. It became an obsession, especially after I discovered comic books — the perfect mix of image and words (my only forms of entertainment at the time). My skills started to take shape by first tracing – then drawing Marvel and DC characters, then panels and landscapes. I eventually started writing and drawing my own little stories (mostly to see my favorite superheroes in adventures together). I think I learned a lot about composition, framing, coverage, pacing and story arcs from that experience. I would eventually move on to more adult things – like television…
We eventually got a TV and it did rot my mind – in a good way. I’ve had a few creative eureka moments in my life and they all seem to revolve around the audio-visual experience – TV was responsible for one. It was a total mind meltdown when I watched my first TV show – a Bugs Bunny cartoon – later I would recognize it as The Rabbit of Seville where Elmer Fudd chases Bugs into an opera house and in typical fashion Bugs uses the environment to wreck havoc on his nemesis. If you study it now, you’ll also see a genius integration of music, drama, suspense and humor to build an incredible, ten-minute, operatic adventure – the tool is animation but the process of storytelling is the same – using the cutaway, coverage, juxtaposing images, simultaneous converging story lines, music to build emotional responses, etc.
A world of TV and movies opened up to me as a kid, and this became my new obsession. It really was magical. The thought of how someone constructed these “things” would be a constant puzzle for me. This is where that third fascination I had as a kid came into play – taking apart complex structures to see what makes them tick. It wouldn’t be until years later when I had that chance – my first experience on set with my father – where the magic of sitting in front of the screen transformed into the magic of sitting behind the camera. Of seeing the complex crafting of an episode of television or greater yet, that of a feature film.
It’s obvious that mainstream US films influence all filmmakers, and global culture as a whole, they’ve certainly been responsible for my own aesthetic. But again a new discovery came in high school when a friend turned me on to Swept Away– the original directed by Lina Wertmuller, and starring Ginacarlo Giannini – and it blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it – especially among the steady diet of R-rated mainstream 80’s films I was sneaking into theaters to see at the time. While a simple story on the surface, it was an emotional roller coaster. It opened up a world of foreign language films, from filmmakers across the globe – Sajit Ray, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman. The scope and power of film, and the idea of the director and her role in the process of the images on the screen took shape.
I could keep talking forever, but long story short, my process is as unique and different as all filmmakers, and I’ve taken a route that my father suggested, which is: if you want to be a filmmaker, learn everything about filmmaking, from craft service to producing. Over the years I dabbled in each aspect of filmmaking with the end goal of being a filmmaker. I personally think that one of the most important skills for the filmmaker is writing. In college, I came to realize that maybe on an intuitive level, my focus has always been to find my own unique “voice” and to use that to create my own stories, or to shape and position any story into my own vision – to add my “fingerprint” to it. To do that I turn to the tools I’ve developed from childhood; reading, dismantling, looking for emotional connections, and obsessively creating and re-creating.
The audio-visual medium is the most powerful artistic platform in the world. Nothing is more emotionally and physically all encompassing than sitting in a crowded theater, and slipping into the recesses of your mind, in a communal experience, as images and sounds blast at you from a giant screen. Even in today’s world with multiple platforms like smartphones or iPads to watch short clips of content – there still is nothing more powerful than film. And there is no better medium for telling our story, Filly Brown, than film. The story, by design, is a dramatic, music-driven world.
I’ll try to talk about the process, and leave as much of the plot out of it, because as I said before it’s about discovery and I want the reader to discover the world of Filly Brown when they see the film. The process started when Youssef sent me the original script to Filly Brown around three years ago, it was a different story all together – the main thing being that it was a male lead, and it was in the world of beat poetry. It wasn’t until after we did Bedrooms together that the project came up again. He suggested we revisit it, because Victor had suggested changing the lead to a female MC in the world of Hip Hop, but that the crux of the story was family. On reading that first draft, what inspired me was that they had created a great story not only about the struggle of an artist, but also about family and unconditional love. Youssef really channeled something special onto the page – it was raw and fresh. It was something that I could sink my teeth into. Over the next three months, while continuing to develop the story and the script (we had to do this before we showed it to Edward – he’s a staunch critic, and only responds to well developed scripts), two problems came up: one, who would direct the movie; and two, casting had to be spot on because we needed both an actor and rapper.
The directing we decided to attack as a team, which made sense because of the scope of the film, and the limited amount of shoot days – twenty four, with two pick up days. We are both opinionated directors but luckily we have a similar aesthetic – when we do disagree it’s fine because it’s usually a creative difference, and because the end result is always to take the story deeper – we usually end up in the same place. It was our process from the beginning. Since neither of us wanted to give up any component of directing (working with the actors, production design, blocking, shooting, editing, etc. ) we sat in a room for two weeks, performing, re-writing, and blocking out every scene of the film. We did it again later when we had our locked locations. Prep was everything — by the time we got to set on the actual shoot, we were of one mind. But, we always reserved the right for either of us to jump in and make adjustments whenever a take wasn’t to our liking. That way when we went to post we had our choices logged in the edit bay. We spent another six months together in the edit bay, crafting the film — we’ve been working on the film for eleven months.
We had to weave together a great dramatic performance, with a great musical performer – which we eventually found in the wonderful and talented Gina Rodriguez. I can’t say enough about her amazing performance. The entire cast is phenomenal – Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos, and a breakout performance by Jenni Rivera. You can feel the onscreen synergy between them – it’s one of those situations you hope for when the cast becomes a family, and there is that depth and nuance between them and you see life unfolding on screen. When you see the film you’ll see what I mean.
The success of the film itself rode on the balancing of film and music – it started with our central character and resonated through the world of the story. From a dramatic standpoint, every character, every subplot had to continually turn “inwards” onto the struggle of the central character. As my mentor, Robert M Young says, (I’m paraphrasing) “Everything in a story has to gravitate to the center. You have to continually position the audience into this negative space – this is where the emotion of the story resides. If you create this negative space by using situation to position the audience there – then the audience will fill in the negative space with their own emotional response. It becomes a primal experience.”
We had to create this same structure with the music. It had to play into this design – it had to also create dramatic situations for the audience to position themselves in the story. The music had to continually push the story to the emotional center of the characters. It had to serve the story. It’s not an easy thing to do, because it can’t be on the nose unless it becomes melodramatic. It has to be counterpoint, it has to take you into the emotional center from a different direction than the dramatic thrust. This way the audience makes an emotional discovery when you find the connection.
We were able to create this by always starting with a big dramatic idea with the music, then distilling it down, minimizing it into simple dramatic lyrics and sounds. We had a great music team between “Edward E-Dub” Rios and Reza Sefinia, the two of them allowed us to continually push the music into different directions as the film demanded. In the editing room, the story dictates how it wants to be told, and you have to allow that process in, you can’t fight it. As we continuously tried to steer the story into the center, and adjust for this, so too did the music have to adjust. We made so many changes I think we drove them crazy at one point, but to their credit they adjusted their own creative process to serve the film. As you’ll see in the credits, we were all ingrained in the music creation process – and our music guys were secure enough in to allow us into the process.
Something quite interesting happened during the process of making the film between the music, the re-writing, the filming, the actors, the editing, and re-editing, and re-editing… – it’s something that I have never personally experienced. The film took on what I can only describe as an operatic design. It feels like a movement that builds to the last dramatic scene that is so emotionally overpowering, that it drains you and revitalizes you in the same breath. We designed it so that there are no close-ended scenes in the film. Each scene leads into the next – building on the one before it, all the way to the final scene that ends in a crescendo. It’s still a traditional three-act story, with turning points and a climax because of the dramatic through line – but because of the musical structure to compliment it, it builds and builds all the way to the end. Filly Brown is a one hundred percent cinematic experience, and only the medium of film could provide the tools we needed to tell the story the way we envisioned it.