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Bill Jennings, Harlem Aria

The desire to be an opera singer is a career path that the broad majority of Americans would probably treat with some skepticism. If you come from Harlem, that skepticism is probably more palpable than most places. Yet the protagonist of Bill Jennings’ winning first feature Harlem Aria finds himself in just such a predicament.

Anton (Gabriel Casseus), a dim-witted, twentysomething Harlemite who launders clothes for a living and resides with his overbearing grandmother, is determined to do just that. Despite the bullying of local teens and the entreaties from a local drug dealer (Malik Yoba) to work for him, Anton pursues his dream with aplomb and in the process gains a pair of unlikely allies: Wes (a terrific Damon Wayons), an unrepentant street hustler with a heart that, if you wipe enough sludge off of it, may be made of gold and Matthew (The Hurt Locker‘s Christian Camargo), a talented but jaded pianist who plays in Washington Square Park for kicks and sees Anton’s talent before anyone else does.

It’s a difficult thing, making films. Bill Jennings’ directorial debut Harlem Aria‘s incredible path from festival hit to corporate football to afterthought and back to fest sensation suggests, it’s often even more difficult getting your film seen. An unusually sweet hybrid of urban melodrama and musical fairytale, Harlem Aria has had a very difficult, nearly twelve year long road on its way to theaters (the film was shot in 1998!). Jennings, who cut his teeth as a Hollywood AD on such films as Beverly Hills Cop III and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me before plunging into the director’s chair, premiered his film at Toronto Film Festival and was immediately the darling of the agency scene. He shared his cautionary with Filmmaker the week before his film finally receives a US commercial release via Magnolia Pictures.


Filmmaker: In a way, looking at the film now, it feels like a time capsule of a lost New York.

Jennings: [laughs] That’s true!

Filmmaker: You began principal photography for Harlem Aria on September 2nd, 1998. The film opens commercially for the first time in the United States on friday. What happened?

Jennings: It’s a long tale of woe. [laughs] We premiere this film in Toronto in the fall of 1999. It was a huge hit there. We had two sold out screenings, we had standing ovations at both screenings and I think the film would have won the audience award had it been in a larger venue. It sold the next day. The Shooting Gallery had the foreign rights and it sold to twenty-one foreign countries. We had a big celebratory dinner where I met a lot of the distributors from around the globe, Australia, UK, Germany, Japan, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, it sold all over the world. We had two or three offers on the table from small domestic distributors. I can’t think of the names right now. I don’t think they exist anymore. [laughs] They were talking maybe fifty screens and a $500,000 advance or whatever. BET, which at that time was starting BET Pictures, they had pretty deep pockets, they came and said “listen, we love this film, we’re starting a new studio and we want this to be the first film to come out of the studio.” They offered a $1.5 million advance and they were going to put it out on 500 screens. That was much more money than anybody else offered and a much bigger release that they were going to give it, so we made the deal and were going to give the film domestically to BET. This was all done with six months of Toronto 1999. We had secured both foreign and domestic distribution. So we thought.

The Shooting Gallery went bankrupt. It left us holding the bag having not made delivery but having collected substantial monies on our behalf. [laughs] They then put up our film as collateral to the bank against the money they owed and so the bank said they owned it. We had to negotiate with the bank and still make delivery in order to have any sort of participation in the foreign revenues. I don’t think very much came out of it after that basically because that went to deal with The Shooting Gallery’s debts.

BET delayed, delayed, delayed. What no one realized is that [then BET CEO] Bob Johnson had basically been collected as many assets as he could because he was about to sell BET to Viacom. BET was then sold to VIacom and after the dust settled from that, which took another three or four years, we went to Viacom and said “we have a contract with BET for domestic distribution.” The way it was structured legally, Viacom didn’t have to honor it, but they said, “okay, we’re going to give it to Paramount as see what they’re going to do.” Paramount hemmed and hawed, “it’s a small film and Paramount doesn’t release small films.” Finally they agreed to give it a test screening. The film tested through the roof. In fact I still have the testing results! [laughs] The testing service which does alot of testing for Paramount told me that it tested higher than most of their releases that year. So they crunched the numbers, $20 million P&A, 2000 screens, and they decided that the film would need to do $60 million domestically in order for it to be worth their while and they didn’t think this was the type of film that could do that. It wasn’t made to do that kind of business. So they passed on distributing the film. Not because it didn’t test well, but because the numbers didn’t make sense within their business model.

So then we had to sue to get the film back! [laughs] Now we’re six years into it. After a few years of haggling we finally got the film back and now we’re looking for a distributor all over again. In addition to which I think there was a disincentive attached to the film because until the statute of limitations had passed, once we found a new distributor we’d have to pay back BET the initial $1.5 million dollar advance. Since the film was made for $1.8 million dollars, that advance was mainly our way of breaking even; we weren’t going to find anyone to step up to the plate to match or come close to that kind of advance.

Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia Pictures had worked for The Shooting Gallery and he was one of the people who was instrumental in selling it all over the world. He saw the premiere, he knew about the standing ovations. Meanwhile we kept on putting the film into festivals. We won Urbanworld audience award in 2002, we won the Pan African Film Festival, we won the Chicago International Film Festival audience award in 2002, We won a special prize at the Maryland Film Festival, we got a great reception at the Munich Film Festival, so the film kept on collecting awards around the world and domestically. Magnolia put it in the Woodstock Film Festival in September, ten years after it had initially played in Toronto, and despite having a really poor placing in the second day, it won another audience award in September. SP just five months ago it won another audience award. It got a standing ovation at that screening.

So we had to go through the process of making delivery. It was an arduous process because the producer had to locate all of the materials after so long, which we finally did. We gave the film to Magnolia. Now Magnolia has the film, but then the economy went south and the landscape for independent film changed and they had a hard time finding theatrical venues for it. Exhibitors were afraid to show the film because they were afraid the film was old. It didn’t even matter that we had went to festivals and won awards and showed that the film was still viable because a number of films that Magnolia had acquired which were festival winners and had a lot of critical appeal had still performed very poorly at the box office. So with all of these things, it took Magnolia over a year and a half to finally put the film out because it was very hard for them to find venues. We had talked about ten cities and they gave us a fairly substantial advance when they acquired the film as well, which went to the producers.

So that is the trail of tears for Harlem Aria [laughs]. I don’t feel particularly bad for myself. If you hear other independent filmmakers talk about things that have happened to them, I think there are similar stories. Christian Camargo, who stars in the film, was in The Hurt Locker. That film was basically dumped, the distributor wasn’t supporting it. Kathryn Bigelow had to go out of pocket to keep pushing that film and four walling it and now its nominated for several Academy Awards. So independent distributors are very panicky at this point as to what they think can make money. The model of the big tent picture seems to be as dominant as ever right now.

Filmmaker: What does an experience like this do to you as a filmmaker? You have a long career as an assistant director, you leave that behind to director a first independent feature which I’m sure you assume will lead to more work in that arena, and then cut to ten years later and you’re still trying to get the film seen and out into the world. How has it affected your ability to get other projects off the ground and your desire to see them through?

Jennings: It definitely hurt my career vis a vis making mainstream movies coming out of Hollywood. I think at first it also affected my artistic growth alittle bit. I did continue writing, I’ve written a bunch, I’ve gotten paid for some things. I adapted a novel for Tony Pemberton, I was commissioned to do a biopic about Pushkin, I came close to a sale of a screenplay that would have been set up at Paramount with Eddie Murphy, but he chose another project instead, but I’ve still been working, but it Hollywood its ultimately show “business”. Without a theatrical release this, this film and me as its director have a stigma on it. The story goes, “well, this film didn’t come out, he can’t make any money, people don’t want to see it, so why are we having this conversation, no one would invest in this!” So that has been a difficult path.

So recently I started coming up with a different path. I’m doing little, shorter, experimental films right now. I’m coming up with another feature film I want to shoot for about sixty grand. I want to shoot that this summer. I recently decided that I have to find another means of working, another mode. The Hollywood mode where you have to control every aspect of the mise en scene, that method can be very expensive and maybe there are other ways of working. I like to think of these things as being cyclical. I can say where I was kind of hot for a moment, interviewing with all the big agencies, from Endeavor to CAA, thinking something could happen here, to having a difficult time, fortunately I know a lot of producers in the industry so I can still get my stuff read. But yes, it definitely had a huge impact on my ability to direct other films, but it has not diminished my desire or my creative instincts in the least and I’m find ways to continue to grow and continue to develop. There are other filmmakers who are feeling simular things to me. Its not usual that someone would make a film that is so well received and then would have to struggle so mightily [laughs] to get the next one, but no one in this country has seen it. The last time I googled the film, it was the Sunday feature on Maori television. I had this sinking feeling, I said to myself, “more people have seen my film in New Zealand than in the United States.” So at least now people in this country will know that the film exists, it’ll be in theaters, it’ll be out on DVD, it’ll be on cable. So I’m hoping that will help get me another opportunity to work.

Filmmaker: How did you come to make this film in the first place? You had a long career as an assistant director on Hollywood films, which is an unusual path to directing indies.

Jennings: Ultimately it came through one of the connections I made working as an assistant director. Deepak Nayar, who is one of the producers of the film, I worked with him on two films for Lynch/Frost, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s company. I was assistant director on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Storyville. He read the script, believed in it and put together the money. My friend Daryl Prior, he worked with Damon on another film as Damon’s assistant. He dropped Damon the script. Damon read it and liked it. We reached out to Paul Sorvino and he came on board. We all did it for favored nations. They all cut their salaries to do the script because they liked it. So ultimately it was my connections as an assistant director that led to it.

I had worked on Airheads and Mark Byrd, who was at Island Pictures at the time, he was one of the first people who read the script. He wanted to make a bunch of changes to make it more commercial which I didn’t make, they were a little bit extreme. I had come back to New York and I was assistant director on a couple television series, Cosby Mysteries and New York Undercover, and I had sat next to so many directors who really didn’t know much about what they were doing. I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore, I wasn’t going to be sitting next to someone who had less creative vision than myself and work for them to bring there work to the screen, so I quit. I walked away and it was kind of scary at first because I was a first AD making, by most people’s standards, a good amount of money. I was going to buy an apartment, this double loft on 42nd Street which was a converted police station and I decided, “you know, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to take my money and make a film.”

So I set up a production company and had offices and tried to get it going. Even though it didn’t go right away, eventually that did lead to me being able to make this film. Ultimately I decided I was going to go for broke, I wasn’t going to second guess myself and I was going to live my life as a creative person. I have no regrets about that. [laughs]

Filmmaker: What initially inspired this unusual tale of a slow young man from Harlem who’s dreams and aspirations of Opera stardom don’t fit neatly into the paradigms of Harlem, Black working class life?

Jennings: There were several things that influenced it. I had been and still very much am interested in using fairly tale structures to tell stories. I think there is a way in which the characters can be iconic or iconographic that allows you to explore complicated or emotional difficult themes on top of them in a way that allows people to feel them. I had read a lot of Joseph Campbell’s work and I was very much interested in doing that kind of work. I thought it would be interesting to tell a story about someone who aspired to do something different than what people might expect. I thought, “what could be more unexpected than the story of a black guy from Harlem who wants to sing Opera?” Then I thought that there was a way I could make this character sort of a fairy tale, iconographic, Charlie Chaplinesque, simpleton. I loved Gigot with Jackie Gleason when I was a kid and I think that was somewhere in my subconscious as well.

I believe the truth is sometimes simple. The truth is sometimes emotional. The idea of speaking through a simple character I think was really interesting for me. At the same time I wanted to give voice to people’s cynicism. I knew they would think the story was too simple, or too sweat or something. That’s one of the reason I created the character of Wes. I really wanted to make him angry and ascorbic and highly articulate to kind of balance what people would feel in the Anton character. Still, at the end of the day I wanted to have Anton and not that character possess the truth. The two antagonists are basically alike. Philosophically I believe you have the have the argument exist between two people before they can become friends. You have to be able to say all the hidden things, the difficult things, before you can bridge a lot of gaps.

Then I wanted to parallel that with the music. The Opera becomes the romantic an the poetic. The hip-hop represents the hard-edgedness o the street. Anton is not at home in the Harlem where he sings opera but the environment around him is hip-hop. Wes is more hip-hop than Anton. I wanted to blend the two musical styles together. I over thought this. [laughs] That’s also my nature. [laughs] I think ultimately it did work. I think the music works quite well, people respond to it, even though now its old hip-hop [laughs], people respond to it. I think the idea of the fairy-tale people get it and respond to it. I don’t think that people come away from it thinking I’m naive, They come away from it feeling hopeful, which is kind of what I wanted to do.

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