“No One Was Willing to Sign the Check”: Rashaad Ernesto Green and Zora Howard on Premature, Shooting 16mm and Self-Financing
Included in the 2010 edition of 25 New Faces of Independent Film, director Rashaad Ernesto Green has been sitting with his intricate story of love had and love lost, Premature, for quite a while now. The original short film, made while Green was a film student at NYU Tisch, was described in his 25 New Face profile as being “classically built,” telling the story of a “teenager who, having found no support for her pregnancy from either her disaffected family and brutal community, resorts to drastic, near-tragic measures to free herself of responsibility.”
Green’s leading lady in the short, his Harlem neighbor Zora Howard, returns as said teenager for the expanded feature-length version, this time as both actress and co-screenwriter. Shot in eighteen days and on 16mm film, the core relationship at the heart of this new version is both familiar and incredibly detailed in its specificity. As Isaiah (Joshua Boone) and Ayanna (Howard) develop a summer romance in Harlem, the outside pressures of society seep in, and with their respective futures on the line, painful choices are made and reckoned with. Less a film about grief than personal ownership and fulfillment, of embracing your situation without being burdened by it, Premature is a traditional coming-of-age film in the best sense: it isn’t afraid to offer and deal with difficult consequences.
After premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and now in theatrical release courtesy of IFC Films, Premature has Green and Howard’s portrayal of black love and romance being recognized in such outlets as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times (the film was also a recent recipient of the Someone to Watch Award via the Film Independent Spirit Awards). I chatted with both Green and Howard about that, their history of working together creatively, when they knew the time was right to jump into production on the feature, and making sure their set was always safe and comforting for its cast. Premature is currently in limited theatrical release.
Filmmaker: You both have an extended background in live theater. Is that how you originally met?
Green: It was. I had been in a show in my early twenties, Melvin Van Peebles’ Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, via the Classical Theater of Harlem. After the show, Zora, who was eleven years old at the time, would be hanging up the costumes. That’s how we met. A year later, she invited me to a Spoken Word performance she was giving up on that very same stage with some friends of hers. I went to show support and I honestly found her performance to be so brilliant and wise in some of the things she was speaking about, things I had just begun thinking about at a significantly older age [than she].
A couple of years later, I hadn’t necessarily given up on acting, but I found myself in NYU film school as a way to tell stories behind the camera, to give myself an opportunity to learn the craft. In my second year, I made a short called Premature, a film about a fourteen-year-old from the Bronx who gets pregnant and has to deal with the result with her family and within the greater community. Casting the short, I was tasked with finding an actress who had most likely never been through that experience themselves and that’s when I thought of Zora. She was fourteen by this point and so she was cast in the role. She was brilliant and the film went on to win that year’s American Black Film Festival—it eventually wound up on HBO. Zora and I have been friends ever since. We’ve lived on the same block in Harlem for the last fifteen years and her family is like my second family.
Over the past few years, we’d been speaking about collaborating on something again. Zora had a month off from acting school thanks to the winter recess and so we decided to write something. We asked each other, “What do we want to write about? What is missing in present day black cinema?” We felt there was an overabundance of films that had to do with black victimization, of a black person’s fear, suffering, pain and death. We wanted to explore the other side of that equation and write a film about black life and black love.
Filmmaker: Zora, being a playwright yourself, what was the experience like collaborating on a project that you yourself would be the lead in?
Howard: When Rashaad and I came together, there was no script and there was no story, but as Rashaad mentioned, it was to be this centerpiece of black life and black love. That’s what we really wanted to hone in on. We also knew pretty early on that it was going to be about a young black woman at this particular point in her journey, at seventeen years old with one foot placed in her mother’s household and the other at the edge of the world (and each of the incredibly high stakes that are of that moment). That was the foundation and we went exploring from there. We brought a lot of music and film into our writing process, in addition to sharing our own stories and talking about our own individual backgrounds. As this was to be a love story, we talked a lot about falling in and out of love, of having our hearts broken by our first love and all of that. That was the groundwork. The themes from Rashaad’s short came into our writing process a little later on and, when they did, we embraced them and leaned into them.
While Rashaad and I have known each other for a long time, it’s entirely different to know somebody as a writer and as a creator. It’s a space in which you have to be very vulnerable and open to exposing yourself. Even though we had a long-lasting friendship, there were still parts of me that I kept for myself and for my personal writing. When you’re working with someone, you have to open that part of you up.
We had each other to bounce ideas off of, to challenge each of our good ideas and make us fight for the ones we loved and get our minds changed about the ones that didn’t make the cut. I’m really happy for that experience and we have a better film because of it. Sometimes that back-and-forth happens later in the process, maybe during the edit or when you get specific notes from producers. From the very beginning however, Rashaad and I were able to edit each other and make sure that, to the extent that it was possible, we were bringing the strongest script to the table. The script was true to the shared vision that we had set out to tell.
Green: Zora brings insight into a young woman’s life that I could never have known without her input. Having been from Harlem (and having once been seventeen and in love in Harlem), Zora was able to share insight into her own experience that elevated our script.
Filmmaker: When did you know you had the greenlight to go into production on the feature?
Green: Originally we thought that we had the ideal schedule. We wanted to premiere the film at the beginning of 2018 or 2019. We gave ourselves that deadline, and so we had that in mind while we were writing the script. We began writing the script at the tail end of 2016, through 2017, and by halfway through 2018 we felt like we had it in a place where it had a beginning, middle and end, a clear journey for this character to go on. I then started going out to financiers and took meetings with various production companies, all while knowing very early on that I’m quite impatient when it comes to asking anyone for anything. I often like to get things over with, especially when I’m ready to just go and do it.
We wrote the film in such a way that if push came to shove and we didn’t receive a signed document guaranteeing us the money and the funding for our budget, we would be able to make the film ourselves. I had spent five or six years working in television and had saved up a little bit of money for myself, so if I had to use it, it was a plausible option. After we got done with the whole “production meetings and financing dance” with various companies, it became apparent that there was a lot of interest in the project….but no one was willing to sign the check.
We looked at ourselves and said, “Well, our self-imposed deadline is coming up, so what do we want to do?” And it was getting into August of 2018 and so I said, “Fuck it, let’s see this through.” I took the little I had of personal life savings and obtained further help from an actress friend of mine, Susan Kelechi Watson (who is currently on This Is Us), who I had gone to acting school with and who is now an executive producer on our film. I had had a fellowship with the good folks at Cinereach and the organization provided us with an additional generous grant for the project, and then Kodak gave us a wonderful discount for film stock and processing. Each of these factors, along with personal resources we were able to pull from in Harlem (friends and family who threw in favors and people who worked for free), ultimately helped us make the film.
Filmmaker: Did your choice to shoot on 16mm come as a result of the Kodak discount? Or was the plan always to shoot on film one way or another?
Green: It was always going to be an investment, especially on a budget this small. There’s something aesthetically beautiful about a 16mm film, and we had watched numerous films during our writing process that were inspired by films shot on 16mm, such as She’s Gotta Have It, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Raising Victor Vargas. We also watched a few films shot on 35mm, of course, and a lot of films from the 1980s and 1990s.
Are there wonderful movies made on digital? Of course, but we wanted our film to possess a feeling of nostalgia, to be timeless and to have that expressed visually. That was our dream from the very beginning and Kodak coming through by providing that discount made the dream a reality. Knowing that I would only do this “self-investing” thing hopefully only once in my life, I figured it was worth the investment, and I’m really happy we did it.
Filmmaker: How did the inclusion of Ayanna’s poetry-as-voiceover come to fruition?
Green: It was during the writing process that we decided that Ayanna should be a writer, but her being a poet didn’t come to us right away. Zora has a background in Spoken Word art (she’s the first ever Youth Poet Laureate from New York City) and she had contributed poetry to my first feature, Gun Hill Road, as well. But in the draft that we went into production with, it was not our intention to hear any poetry in the film. It was to be something that was inferred, i.e. we would see her writing something down in the film, but we would never hear it, etc.
Fast forward to when we’re actually shooting the scene in which Isaiah discovers Ayanna’s journal entry. The scene was supposed to end when Ayanna is about to speak the words of her poem, but on that day of the shoot, we were open to exploring it a bit more. I asked Zora to say a few lines of the poem at the end of the scene, lines we might use for cutting purposes and so forth. Obviously, this was on the spot and Zora was not prepared, but there are a number of poems that she has memorized in her head and so she spoke a version of one of those. It might not have been a perfect recitation, but we shot it anyway. I told Zora, “Look, this is probably not going to make the film,” and she reiterated, “I hope you’re not going to use this…” I confessed, “I mean, look….we might use it, I’m not sure. Just finish the poem in case we do.” And as she finished reciting the poem, we rolled on it and we had it.
A few months later, we’re in the editing room looking over the first cut my editor, Justin Chan, has put together. It turns out that Justin has used the entirety of that poem in the first cut as a montage for the subsequent sonogram sequence. It really, really worked, and we decided to keep it in the film. On its own though, it’s kind of a rare unicorn, right? It felt out of place if we weren’t going to include any other moments of spoken poetry in the film. Now yes, we infer that it’s her words in the song that Isaiah listens to at the end of the film, but in no other place did we hear her actual voice reciting poetry.
Faced with this dilemma, we said, “Maybe we want to open the film with some poetry as a way to ease [us into the story]” and we called Zora and asked if she could give us a few lines about Ayanna. The film opens with Ayanna on the train as she’s observing two lovers kissing, and so we asked if she could provide a poem about that. Zora asked, “What’s the image [that the audience will be viewing in this moment]?” and a few days later, she taped a voice recording into her iPhone and sent it to us. We repeated that process several times throughout the film and that became the story’s “voiceover backdrop.” It was just these brief iPhone recordings.
One of the reasons the poetry works is because Ayanna doesn’t speak very much in the film. She’s much quieter than her male counterparts. She’s obviously different when she’s with her friends, sure, but when she’s with Isaiah, she’s quietly observing and doesn’t speak as much. We felt we needed a bit more access into her interior life, what she was thinking and feeling, and poetry would be a great way to open that up. Luckily for us, Zora was able to come up with these wonderful verses on the spot due to her talent and background in spoken word.
Filmmaker: The film features the highs and lows of a young romance in all its specificities and one aspect of that is the sexual chemistry between them. The film doesn’t shy away from those scenes of passionate lovemaking, but it embraces the awkwardness of it as well. What kind of conversations did you have about being comfortable enough to really tackle those more intimate moments?
Howard: Before we started shooting, we had conversations on what the environment was going to feel like on those days on set. That being said, it happened to be on only the second day of shooting that we got into one of those very intimate scenes. It was placed very early in the production schedule, but there was a lot of care placed in (even if we knew how little time we had overall) giving those scenes the space and time they needed for all parties involved. Each of the intimate scenes between Isaiah and Ayanna (or in the sensitive scenes of Ayanna alone) were closed sets and nobody was there that didn’t need to be. Those who were present understood the warmth it would take to get what we needed. They lifted me up, giving me anything I needed, whether that was a robe or a glass of water or anything. I was deeply grateful for that.
The energy in the room was careful, and I mean careful in the sense that it was caring. They were patient in making sure that 1) the actors who were involved and who were being asked to do this work got what they needed and were able to take the time they needed to get there and 2) not sacrificing what we needed for the storytelling of the scene. When you’re doing multiple takes and it’s already difficult to do the scene one time through, you have to be willing to do it a third and fourth time. We were down for it, of course, but there was a palpable trust that everybody who was working on the scene was working toward and for those two things. That made it easier to get the work done and it doesn’t always happen on a set or on a project with that kind of care taken.
Green: I try to make the on-set atmosphere as safe as possible. It has to be a safe environment, and sure, that means we’ll have a closed set for those scenes, but I also give them the opportunity to cut whenever they wish. It doesn’t matter what we’re filming, if you feel uncomfortable at any point, please feel free to stop it. Luckily, we didn’t really have to use that, but I gave them the freedom to stop if they felt uncomfortable in any way.
Filmmaker: Did it affect the way you shot these sequences? Many of the scenes between Isaiah and Ayanna in bed together are from a high, overhead angle, sometimes even canted and placed further back. Other times it’s edited in extreme closeups of the couple’s body parts in motion.
Green: Each moment of intimacy is a journey within their relationship and each moment is a moment of Ayanna’s progression and her burgeoning sexuality and love story. As a result, we wanted to approach each moment of intimacy differently. With the first one, we wanted it to feel like you were inside Ayanna’s head. Not only did we want you to feel it viscerally, but we also slowed it down so you could get that feeling of what she was going through and how it was more than physical for her in that moment. She’s falling for Isaiah, emotionally, so we slowed it down and had more coverage and employed numerous angles. Later, when she’s feeling more comfortable and they’re already in love, we didn’t have to slow it down as much. By the time we reach their third moment of intimacy, it’s deliberately uncomfortable. We wanted to capture that third moment in a completely different way and we did that via the canted angle and having it play out in one shot. Each of the three approaches are different and we discussed that with our director of photography, Laura Valladao, quite a bit.
Filmmaker: The film premiered at Sundance 2019 and is now opening in theaters across the country a year later. How has the past year of screening the film at various festivals changed the way you viewed it? By that I mean, given how quickly it was shot, has the added year of touring with the film provided a new perspective on your experiences? Rashaad, I remember you mentioning how, if given the chance, you wouldn’t wait as long again as you did going from your first feature to your second.
Green: Filmmaking takes time and sometimes we want to rush that process, right? However, the only thing that we’re responsible for is creating the art. How the industry responds or picks up the film and gets it out there is something that places us on various, different schedules that are out of our control. We’re very blessed to have found a distributor who gave some real thought as to how to release this film, especially with the momentum around the recent Film Independent Spirit Awards.
It feels like every filmmaker wants their stuff to get out in the world right away, but in the case of this film, there was a lot of thought as to when would be the ideal moment to release this particular work. I’m very happy that it’s come out this week, as there’s been enough time to build the various assets and get the word out. We have partners that are very experienced in this area and who know the best release strategy for this film.
Howard: I don’t know if I can speak to what I’ve learned about the film over the past year, but I can say that I’ve fallen more in love with it as a result of speaking about the film with other people and sharing it with different audiences and hearing what it is they’re seeing and what they’re leaning into and what they’re taking from it. Sometimes it’s exactly what Rashaad and I had hoped for and sometimes it’s something different, something that has been illuminating to them because of their individual experience, where they’re coming from, and where they are in their day, in their life, when they sit in that theater and watch Premature. That’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’ll always be happy to talk about the film and share it with more audiences and I can’t wait to do that with those on an even greater scale as a result of our theatrical release.