Damon Russell & Curtis Snow on Snow on Tha Bluff
After debuting at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2011, Damon Russell’s Snow on Tha Bluff had a small theatrical release earlier this year. Writing about it then, Filmmaker’s own Brandon Harris described the film as “An incredible combination of found footage, no-budget narrative ingenuity and pulled-from-the-streets doc immediacy, [which] discovers in its incredibly charismatic and troubled protagonist, Curtis Snow, an American life many of us would probably rather forget about.”
Since becoming available through such platforms as iTunes and Netflix Watch Instantly, Snow on Tha Bluff has found a new and highly engaged audience which has discovered and been electrified by the film. Filmmaker asked one of those viewers, 2012 “25 New Faces” alum Hannah Fidell, to interview both Snow on Tha Bluff‘s co-writer/director Russell (himself a “25 New Face” from 2011) and co-writer/star Curtis Snow about the film, its making, and the reason it has received such a strong response from viewers.
[N.B. During the call, Snow — who is currently incarcerated — was disconnected and was unable to rejoin the call.]
Fidell: Within the first five minutes, I was blown away. Was that how you guys always figured you were going to go into your [Curtis’s] world?
Snow: Oh yeah. From the start we just wanted to make it look real, real, real. We wanted to put you right in the middle of the action.
Fidell: Yeah, it worked. It was so unique, I was just smiling. [laughs] I stopped the movie and immediately sent Nick [Dawson, Managing Editor at Filmmaker] an e-mail saying “This movie is awesome.” And then I actually invited friends of mine in the neighborhood to come over and watch it with me because it was clear that this was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It’s a really great film.
How did Damon prove himself to be worthy of being the guy who could make your story into a film?
Snow: I had seen some of his work before, but I didn’t even know it was his work, you know? Then he told me he had already done shit like Black on Black. And I liked it but I wasn’t satisfied with it and I told him like, “It could’ve been more. It could’ve been better.” And once we hooked up we knew we was on the same page. He looked at my ideas and I looked at his ideas and we just sat down and thought up a masterpiece.
Fidell: I feel like that’s such a rare thing to meet someone and just get along with them so well and work together in such a great way.
Russell: I mean, truth be told we did argue a lot but it was always on creative stuff.
Snow: I guess that’s what made it so perfect.
Russell: There’s a lot going on in that movie behind the camera and even outside of what’s being filmed. For Curtis because he lives that life and all those people live that life, it’s normal for them. But it’s funny because a lot of people are like, “Ah, this film…” and they’re kind of offended or whatever. And we didn’t even put the worst stuff in, you know?
Snow: Exactly. We really spared the crowd.
Fidell: Why would people be offended by the movie?
Russell: I don’t know. I think people look at the film and think it is glorifying violence and glorifying drug dealing and all that stuff. There are people who just don’t get it.
Snow: It’s just a lot of stuff that they just try to sweep up under the rug and they don’t want you to see what goes on in neighborhoods for real. This stuff goes on, you know, this is a true story. But there’s one in every neighborhood—there’s a guy like me in every neighborhood. There’s drugs and violence and gangs and all that goin’ on but they don’t want you to see that. The public doesn’t want to see that but they have to see that for shit like that to be dealt with. If they don’t see it, out of sight, out of mind. It’s like when people got no water. If we don’t see that they got no water, we never believe it.
Fidell: Yeah, I don’t know if you guys have seen it but there’s a video online on a website called, strangely enough, Funny or Die and it’s two old white folks saying that—like they’re giving their critique of the film and they just found it to be…I think in most cases they say just funny stuff but in your case they say that this is a film that needs to be shown to everyone. And I agree with that.
Snow: And the whole point of our film is that it’s made to get you emotional. It’s made to make you laugh, it’s made to make you cry. Our whole outlook was we were trying to get something stirred up. It’s theatricality but it’s happening for real. Every day someone’s getting robbed. Every day somebody’ll kill you. They see it but they only show the bad of it. We show it for real. It’s like a re-enactment but we re-enact it so good they can’t respect you.
Fidell: Which is terrible; it should be respected.
Russell: I think some people respect him and some people are, you know, when you put anything online you start hearing nasty comments and stuff like that. But really whenever stuff like that happens, I feel like, “Good, that’s what we wanted to happen. We wanted to get a reaction.”
Fidell: You’re starting a dialogue.
Russell: Exactly. Here’s the thing: every time we would show this movie it would have a really long Q&A. We always had a lot of questions and we would sometimes get really deep on social issues and stuff like that. And when it came to the Q&A, they would mostly be positive and whatever but the point is that they reacted and wanted to talk about it. And that was always the point.
Fidell: The film has sparked a lot of conversation since being on Netflix and iTunes. What do you think about that and having a dialogue on these issues across the country, in every city? Is that what the point of the film was—to create that dialogue?
Snow: It was made to connect with your emotions. If you’re an emotional type of person, it was made to make you cry. If you love to laugh, it was made to make you laugh. It was designed for that and that’s the reason it is the way it is. And I wouldn’t want to change it for Netflix or the media.
Russell: Well, I’m surprised because when we were making it, I thought that only people in the streets were going to like the movie. But what happened was that Curtis kept bugging me about halfway through and just getting real antsy. So I was like, “Look, here’s the first half of the movie. Just get them off our back.” I went away for a couple months and then when I came back, he had spread that movie all around the city. Like every drug dealer and robbery boy in the city had a copy of that movie and they were loving it. So we were like, “Cool,” and obviously we kept going, but whenever people outside of that world like the movie, I’m still shocked. I like it, but I mean I never in a million years would’ve thought that we’d get this response out of it. I don’t know.
Snow: Yeah and I’ve had a few police that I know from the neighborhood come and say that the robbery rate has gone up in the neighborhood since the movie. And think about all the movies they killing in, where everybody dies. This is the real thing, but think about all of those movies and where they’re saying that I’m influencing little kids to do all of this stuff. But it’s just a movie.
Fidell: Curtis, I just wanted to know: what movies do you like watching?
Snow: Oh, if nothing gets blown up, if nobody’s shot, or nobody’s crying, and getting emotion—I don’t want to watch it. Drama, but there’s some kind of action in every movie. Because nobody wants to watch and get bored. It’s like The Beverly Hillbillies, that shit never happened.
Fidell: Do you have a favorite movie?
Snow: Oh let me see…my favorite movie probably is Snow on Tha Bluff.
Fidell: [laughs] It’s a good one.
Snow: I don’t really have a favorite movie.
Russell: But what’s similar to one? Because you actually have a good knowledge of movies. What are some of the ones you like?
Snow: Okay, one of my favorites is Shottas. It has Bob Marley’s son, Damien Marley, [in it]. It’s similar and they are running around doing some crazy stuff. And probably other ones like that, like Boyz n the Hood. Some old school stuff.
Fidell: That movie’s amazing.
Snow: Yeah, but they sugar-coat it too much.
Russell: The good thing about Curtis is that he and I always talked about the movies that, I don’t know, I was always surprised at, like A Night at the Roxbury.
Snow: Oh, oh, oh you were talking about my real favorite movies? Man, I love Will Ferrell as an actor in anything, And Ben Stiller. But I love Will Ferrell. A Night at the Roxbury, Dodgeball…I got some movies that I can watch over and over again but they’re funny movies. Coming to America. Richard Pryor. 48 Hrs with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Let’s Do it Again, Harlem Nights. Three The Hard Way. I got an old-school book with nothing but old-school movies that I could watch over and over again. Like Sanford and Sons sitcom, I could watch that all day and all night on reruns.
Fidell: So, I read in a previous interview Damon that you tended to look a lot at La Haine and the Pusher trilogy.
Russell: Yeah, when it comes to making movies La Haine and the Pusher trilogy, and a couple of the other European gangster movies…I don’t know what it is but something about the way that they’re done resonated with me. And definitely in La Haine, when I saw that movie as a kid it changed my life. And so I like the way that they approach violence somehow. I like a lot of Japanese movies too. But I think that sometimes Hollywood movies don’t come off as good. Sometimes violence is just too pretty, you know?
And violence is actually really ugly and nasty; and sometimes the gun jams and you don’t shoot the right person. It’s a mess, it’s chaos and sometimes I feel like they don’t say that well enough. They’re doing their own thing, which is fine, but I like when I’m doing violence—I want it to be really chaotic and emotional with people screaming and crying. You don’t get that in a lot of these movies. It’s just like someone dies and, “Okay, let’s move to the next piece,” where really there’s all this stuff that’s happening after the violence that should be way more interesting.
Fidell: In your film, Curtis, when you’re with your son and he’s crying and you’re trying to explain to him, I lost it. How was it working with your son?
Snow: Oh, it was perfect because he’s a natural. He’s just like me as a baby. He’s just me all over again as a baby. All I gotta do is just look at him, and he’ll get it right. When I was talking to him, he’s like a 10 year old in a baby’s body. He’s that smart.
Fidell: He was amazing. He was really captivating.
Snow: He loves the camera.
Russell: When we were first shooting, he couldn’t talk. He really was a baby. And now I remember one of the last times I’ve seen him, I went over there and he was like making fun of me. I was like, “Wow…” and he was totally making fun of me to my face and I was like, “Wow, this is definitely Curtis’s son, no doubt. That’s him. This kid doesn’t care.” I mean, the kid can talk too, right Curt?
Snow: Yeah. He talks like a grown person.
Russell: He’s definitely got the gift of gab, no doubt.
[Snow is disconnected from the call]
Fidell: Is it OK if we continue? I wanted to know about what people’s initial reactions to the film were.
Russell: Because the movie was shot on a camera from Best Buy and with whatever they had at the time we were shooting, I think it is easy to not take the film seriously. And until we got in Filmmaker magazine some people were still like, “Ahhh, I don’t know…” but once we got that it helped people step back and say, “Okay, this is actually a piece of art.” So they really helped legitimize us so whatever they want.
Fidell: I read that you guys didn’t do many retakes of scenes. It was really on the fly, since you were running from the cops a lot. How did that affect the narrative that you told?
Russell: Some things really were pure documentary, I was just there filming. Or stuff that I would just use a little bit that they had shot before it was going on. And then some things we would kind of—Curt and I would conspire and not tell anyone else and make things happen, you know what I’m saying? But Curtis was very…when we first worked together he was like, “Okay, we will never do more than one take and if anybody doesn’t get it…” And I always wanted to film a scene where Curt was yelling at people like, “If you don’t get this we aren’t stopping now!” and everybody is dying to do it because they’d be scared of him. He did not want to do anything again. But it was good because it added a certain level of intensity to the one take that we had. I had to make sure to get that shot.
It’s funny because people sometimes are like, “Oh, I know you set up this scene…” and actually it just happened. And some people are like, “This scene is real,” and that one we actually did multiple takes of. It’s funny what people perceive, but it definitely adds certain intensity to keep going. And also, when people are firing pistols and stuff—and even though you can fire pistols in that neighborhood and sometimes the cops won’t even come, they won’t respond to shots fired. But we would have to boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and then just book it. Yeah, it was like we don’t want to be around if they do show up. Eventually they knew that we were there but it was still like trying to stay ahead of them. You never know what they’re gonna do.
Fidell: How big was your crew?
Russell: One person. Me. Because it’s very sensitive and it’s something with documentary that the smaller footprints you have the people get more actual. Otherwise you got people getting up on a ladder, adjusting lights and stuff and people just change you know? Sometimes if you want a real authentic thing, you just gotta go in there.
Fidell: Were you miking Curtis? How did that work?
Russell: I had a Lavallier on him most of the time because we could hide it and he didn’t feel wired. So he could go into a situation. Like there’s a guy we blurred out because we were at this party and he comes up to Curt and is like, “Hey man, I got this thing with these guys in Pennsylvania…” and he and Curtis go off and have this conversation. And that guy actually did that robbery and got shot! Actually I guess the person he was with got shot and then he was on the run and people wanted to kill him. I actually didn’t like that guy anyways so I just blurred him because I was like, “I don’t need to deal with this shit,” but people sometimes didn’t know that we were filming; or we were recording audio and they didn’t know.
Fidell: What are you working on now?
Russell: Well, I’ve just been kind of writing something that I want to do. And I kind of want to take on—in this film it was for me, and people might not see it that way, but I feel like I was making a film about the war on drugs and about violence in the inner city and police brutality. I feel like I was kind of trying to take on those subjects whether I actually did or not—
Fidell: You absolutely did.
Russell: Yeah, well it was in my mind. But what I’ve been trying to do now is I want to do a film with a returning vet from Iraq or Afghanistan. So I’ve been kind of casting, looking for someone right—someone who really pops on camera and is a natural but really served in one of those wars. I can tell their story of coming back and a lot of those guys are from really poor areas and kind of come from that. So it may get into a little bit of the drug world or it may…I don’t know where it’ll go. I’ll have to see when I meet that person and set up this story around their life. But I think that’s what I want to do. Something with a veteran sort of transitioning back to their life in the real world or whatever you want to call it—just the struggles and losing his mind, or her mind. What they’ve been and want to be. So that’s kind of the producer on Snow who came to me with that idea and I looked at it and said, “Yeah, we actually should do that.” So that’s probably what I’ll do next.
Then, I really do want to do a sequel, a follow-up with Curtis. But if you look at the Pusher trilogy, I think it’s like seven years between the first and the second one so I don’t feel like there’s a rush. I don’t feel like I need to tackle that subject matter just yet. But people who do what he does when I met him don’t really live past 25, and if they do they’re in jail. So he was kind of at a certain point in his life and it was cool and we managed to capture it but I feel like he’s gotten a little bit older, his kid’s gotten a little bit older—and once he makes that transition to whatever he’ll be next, then it’ll be the time. But hopefully he and I can work together again if we don’t kill each other first.