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“That Kid Running from the Fire”: Director Reinaldo Marcus Green on Destiny, Devotion and Bob Marley: One Love

Bob Marley: One Love (courtesy Paramount Pictures)

On your way up. Take me up.

On your way down. I won’t let you down. — Robert Nesta Marley

As a form, the biopic and even more specifically the musical biopic, is an often fraught endeavor, one whose pursuit brings its makers along well-worn paths of pitfalls and dead ends. With his fourth feature, Bob Marley: One Love, Reinaldo Marcus Green meets this challenge head on, capturing a vision of Marley in a time of great upheaval.

In the 1970s, Jamaica was embroiled in turmoil — a result of staggering levels of poverty and political rivalries. In ‘76, through gang proxies, the campaigns of populist, socialist-oriented Prime Minister Michael Manley and the CIA-backed rightist upstart Edward Seaga waged a war in the buildup to that year’s electoral contest. Caught in the actual crossfire were Marley and those around him. On the eve of the Smile Jamaica concert, a failed assassination attempt wounded Marley, nearly killing his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor. Marley fled Jamaica for a self-imposed period of exile in England. It would be over two years before he returned home, playing the titular One Love concert and inviting Manley and Seaga onstage with him to join hands in a show of unity for the Jamaican people.

Staging his film between these two pivotal points in time, and following his Best Picture-nominated King Richard, Green again delivers an at times soaring, at times devastating level of insight to the life of an icon.

Filmmaker spoke to Reinaldo Marcus Green, the morning after Bob Marley: One Love’s premiere. The film opened theatrically on February 14th.

Filmmaker: This project poses a lot of interesting questions. What’s the film’s genesis ? You’ve said elsewhere how you were in the middle of post on King Richard when you first came into possession of the Terence Winter/Frank E. Flowers draft of the script.

Green: Yeah, I was coming out of editing King Richard, and I received a script. At the time, I felt like, “I don’t know if I should even open this.” Like, “Is this real?”

Filmmaker: Meaning, you didn’t know the status of the life rights?

Green: I mean, I wanted it to be legit.

Filmmaker: How did you go about vetting the material?

Green: I did some backchanneling with my agents, and we set up a call with the producers. Ziggy [Marley] was on that call, so then at that point it was clear that the family was involved. That it was real.

Filmmaker: So you didn’t explore the concept or even read the draft you were first sent before establishing that starting point.

Green: Exactly. Mainly, I wanted to know if they had the rights to the music. That was number one. We needed the rights. I didn’t want to be in a situation where…

Filmmaker: Where you would have to create a movie without naming its subject.

Green: Yeah. I wanted to see the contract. I wanted to see the fine print. At first, it seemed like there was a sense of confidence that it could happen. But I wanted to ensure the rights were secured.

Filmmaker: Were screenwriters Winter and Flowers still on the project at this time?

Green: No. And I never met with them about it. There was a good foundation there, but we needed to figure out what the actual movie would be. The family and the producers felt compelled to go out to a director at that point because they felt that the director would help solve that.

Filmmaker: A question of the vision, or the scope of the film?

Green: Both.

Filmmaker: How did the project start to change once you and screenwriter Zach Baylin started to shape it? Was the framing in place in those early incarnations?

Green: There was a lot more early life, and just a lot more story in [the previous] draft. It was rich, and there was some awesome stuff with the young Wailers, and a lot of stuff that if we had been doing the limited [series] and just had more time… It needed to be centralized and focused and, honestly, simplified. It’s just the nature of these biopics: How do you boil it down without it being a four-hour movie and find the window into the life, the specific moment in time that encapsulates the man? And that’s the important work that I brought Zach on for, which he did an amazing job with on King Richard — just choosing the window. It’s so important, you know? When is our “in,” when is our “out.” If you start it two days before, the day after, it’s a different movie. It changes everything.

Filmmaker: So you stage it between the Smile and One Love concerts, using the assassination attempt as the jump-off, bookended with Marley’s repatriation to Jamaica.

Green: Right. With King Richard, we had a longer first act, and I thought it was really helpful. It wasn’t typical. I think we spent 30, 40 minutes in Compton, and I knew we had to do that same thing in Jamaica. So the first third of our film is two days in Bob’s life.

Filmmaker: You drop the viewer into this bloody power struggle right away.

Green: Well, the early draft spent a chunk of time setting up Jamaican politics, the context, which we knew that for a lot of people, unless they’re a historian, myself included, was going to be very complicated to understand. So it was about how we make it clear that this is two warring factions with Bob caught in the middle.

Filmmaker: It’s such a dense, complicated secret history. You could make a whole movie just about that one election. [Manley and his People’s National Party ended up winning]

Green: Definitely.

Filmmaker: So how did you write your way out of that corner?

Green: We knew we had to establish Jamaica and understand the political situation and then get to London. We had to nail those points in order to get things moving. How we were going to get there, we weren’t sure. But we found something that worked for us. It took at least a year of drafting and redrafting before we had a baseline from which we could go into production.

Filmmaker: With the film being a studio project in wide release, it seems like a pretty bold choice to have such a large percentage of the spoken dialogue in Jamaican English and Jamaican Patois, without subtitles.

Green: It is a foreign-language film. Literally. So it was impossible to make this movie without including linguists, dialect coaches, family members… That process, it’s not a one-to-one translation. You say something [in Jamaican English], and it completely changes the language or then the meaning of the scene. So we’re writing in English and then that work needs to be beat up and spit out and chewed in an entirely different way. The language was just everything. I knew if we got that wrong, we’d be done. And don’t get me wrong — I love Cool Runnings… But I told everyone, if we do that here, we’re screwed. Ship failed, abort mission. There’s just no way.

Filmmaker: It’s gratifying to not have it subtitled. It’s just total immersion during those passages.

Green: I remember having these early conversations with the studio, and just telling them, “Yup. The language is gonna be interesting…” And in my mind, it was like, “I hope they understand how deep we’re going into this experience.” From the beginning my mental math was like, “Okay. If I can get you to understand every third word, you’re gonna get it. And if I can only get you to understand every fourth word, you’re gonna be confused.” I knew that going in, so it was hard. For a good long while, we were between three and four. But we were aiming for three and four to be our line, not two and three… Cause there’s a big difference in how it sounds.

Filmmaker: Marley’s an adult for more than three quarters of the movie. It’s timed so the audience goes on that pivotal two-year aging process with him.

Green: There was no way around it. He’s an icon. Every moment he touched on this earth was important. But this was a unique window for him. Man, the assassination, this attempt on his life, it changed him forever, changed his family’s lives forever. And this outpouring of music that came next… My man went in. Heavy. And not just Exodus, he made Kaya during that time too. So I just knew that we had to show the musical genius of [that period]. That was really the best stuff for me. You look at movies like Love & Mercy, or Get Back, where you’re in the room with them creating —

Filmmaker: — showing how he worked. I’m thinking of the scenes where Marley in his London house with Family Man, Carly Barrett, Tyrone Downie and Seeko, and then in Island Studio with Junior Murvin and the I-Threes — it has a fly-on-the-wall quality to it. It doesn’t feel forced or directed. It feels like a real band.

Green: And part of that was an opportunity to fill in the blanks. You know, there is no footage of Bob writing or producing that stuff. We would hear the stories from Neville Garick [longtime LA-based art director for The Wailers and Tuff Gong who passed away last year], who was our artistic director on this, and yeah, on one level it was a 76-year-old recollection of that time, but also, Neville is the one who remembered the lighting of the studios, of the house they lived in, of the shows. He created the album art for Exodus. He had a hand in all of it, and he was there at 5:00 AM every day of the shoot in his Wailers t-shirt, just making sure. I mean, he was in the room with Bob [when all this happened], so to have him there with us, to have that kind of access to someone who could say what it was actually like, to hear those stories, it was beyond fantastic. And it was a way into those spaces, that time, that felt unique.

Filmmaker: That’s a great scene, where Garick comes up with the cover of Exodus, how the A&R man and [Island head Chris] Blackwell don’t really get the design, the lack of a band photo on the jacket, or the title being a reference to the Otto Preminger movie. It shows what they were up against… In general, it seems like you had fairly unprecedented access. Did you shoot in the Tuff Gong house or was that a build?

Green: Well, with 56 Hope Road [the Kingston home where Marley spent most of his adult life in Jamaica, and the site of his attempted murder], that house we had to recreate. The real address is a museum now. Actually our build was closer to the real thing, because once it became a museum, the architecture changed and the house’s interior was expanded. That choice, to rebuild the original, that was an opportunity as well — to control that space and not have to be in a practical location. And people come from all over the world year-round to visit the museum, so it was important for us to keep that open. But we did shoot at 42 Oakley Street [the London townhouse where the Wailers spent most of their time writing the Exodus Record] and Battersea Park, where Bob played football, and all the Trenchtown street exteriors — those are all the locations in the story, mostly unchanged. The waterfall where he’s swimming [in the film], that’s the actual spot where Bob would go. And that was important to us all, for us to be there — the cast, the crew, for me. To go there and feel: “Bob actually ran here. He was running right here.” You know what I mean? It added a layer of authenticity that I don’t feel you can make up.

Filmmaker: Was there a rehearsal period?

Green: I mean… Yeah. Lots. I don’t remember a Saturday or Sunday off for the better part of a year. It was tricky. Because of the nature of the film, how spread out we were, shooting Jamaica, London. It was a US production, but we never shot in the US. So how we prepped, where and when we prepped, it was different throughout. It evolved constantly. I got to London as early as I could, to be on the ground. Kingsley [Ben-Adri, who plays Bob Marley] already had his own camp set up in an art studio on the East End, while we were location scouting all over town, trying to track down these real places, then we’d be popping in for a choreography session, for music and sound and dialect, Kingsley learning how to play guitar, learning his steps, losing weight throughout. Then we’d be back and forth to Jamaica, five or six times, finding the locations, planning and organizing the build, knowing we’d have to shoot that at the end, not at the beginning…

Filmmaker: It sounds intense.

Green: It was. It was nonstop. It was like a Superbowl — every down was important. Working with crews in different languages — if I had been a native speaker [of Jamaican English or Jamaican Patois], it might have been easier. If Kingsley had been a native speaker, it might have been easier. When I did Stone Cars [Green’s 2014 debut short, shot in Khayelitsha Township, the Cape Town, South Africa outskirts], all those people spoke [standard] English. So they could take their Patois, and put it into their own words. That’s a one-to-one relationship. That process didn’t take three steps to do that. With this, the process of turning the language into something we could use was a challenge for sure. Even just improvising, which is at the core of how I work, that became almost impossible. You know, we can start with the script, but then, how do we call an audible at the line if we don’t know the language as our own? You can’t just switch the play up. We got through it and I couldn’t be more proud of the film, but it was tough.

Filmmaker: You worked again with DP Robert Elswitt on this.

Green: Third time with Robert on this one. That’s my brother.

Filmmaker: You brought a lot of people with you from your last movie. [Aside from DP Robert Elswitt’s return behind the camera, One Love was also co-written by Zach Baylin, edited by Pamela Martin, and scored by Kris Bowers, all of whom worked on King Richard]

Green: I definitely feel like we built a family on King Richard, and I was really proud of the result of that process and wanted to create the same kind of environment on this one. I’m his neighbor, so we have a lot of time together.

Filmmaker: You keep the conversation going.

Green: Yeah. Our prep time — it’s not prep. It’s not eight weeks of prep versus 12 weeks of prep… It’s forever. I feel like I’m constantly prepping with that guy because all we do is talk movies, all we do is go to movies. So it’s amazing when you have that level of closeness with a collaborator, because then it doesn’t feel like you’re going to work in a traditional sense. We’re able to talk about the movie for months before we ever even officially start working on it. And having Robert come on… The way he location scouts, for instance, it’s just different. He’s operating on a different level. He’s obviously one of the greatest to ever do it.

Filmmaker:  You’ve said elsewhere that there’s a chance that young people today might not only not know who Bob Marley is.

Green: For sure. It’s interesting: I remember reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X pretty early on, but when I think of Malcolm X, I think of Denzel Washington. That’s Malcolm for me. Of course I’ve seen footage of the real Malcolm since then, but because he died before I was born, my introduction to him is really through Denzel’s image and performance, and Spike’s movie [Malcolm X]. So I know for certain there’s going to be a generation of kids who will discover Bob through this film.

Filmmaker: When we were kids, Marley’s image was ubiquitous in the culture. So it’s strange to think that’s no longer the case, even if the image that existed was devoid of its more radical political consciousness.

Green: It’s exactly like they did with Che. Bob is everywhere. He’s on buttons and bags… But because he’s everywhere, he’s also nowhere.

Filmmaker: To an extent, the film feels like a corrective in that way.

Green: Yeah and for me, a huge part of this project was also my realizing, “I thought I knew who this man was, and now I’m thinking, I don’t know anything about him.” And I’m someone who could recite the lyrics to many of the songs. In the writing process, the process of discovery, there’s so much I’m realizing I don’t know about this man. I’m asking myself ‘Do I really know this song?’ Like do I actually even know this man’s music?

Filmmaker: Something I noticed was that you subdivide the narrative into three main tracks: where Bob was in time in terms of his stardom; what music he was working on; and then this pivotal bond he had with Rita [played in the film by Lashanda Lynch]. The love story. Was that in the original framework or was that something you wanted to emphasize?

Green: The love story was definitely something we felt had to be expanded on in a big way. It was a window into Bob’s life that felt interesting and new. And Rita is something else. I read her book and felt she’s a one-woman story. So that was another discovery for me. The core relationship of our movie becoming that of him and Rita. That was a side to his story I hadn’t heard before, that I didn’t know. Of course I knew of Rita Marley. I knew she was a bandmember, but I didn’t really know what she meant to him. What do they say? They say behind every great man is a greater woman — and that’s because it’s true. Rita was there. She wasn’t just on the sideline. In the same way, in King Richard, where I realized that Aunjanue [Ellis]’s character [Brandy] was so much stronger than Richard Williams [played by Will Smith], so much stronger, that I just knew, we had to lean into this.

Filmmaker: There’s a scene in Paris, where Rita confronts Bob outside a nightclub. Up to that point, she’s been quietly confrontational, but this is the first time she’s giving him the cold, blunt truth of what she sees in his behavior. It’s a cathartic moment for them.

Green: Definitely. It’s Bob’s story we’re telling, but focusing on Rita only enhances Bob’s story. Her very presence makes his story so much richer because she’s someone who was there throughout that entire time. She witnessed it all. So to have that perspective be muted or to be sidelined would have been a disservice to the story. She was such an important character in his life, and theirs was such an unconventional love story. It wasn’t your typical relationship. It was love, love for another human being, love for music, love being a message that was bigger than the two of them. Rita had that love for this man. That became the focal point for the movie, in a lot of ways. It became the core of the film, and everything else started to move and shift and in some cases, disappear, just to make way for something that we felt would be the most meaningful. That scene in Paris was basically the kitchen scene in King Richard for us. We pulled so much from that scene to achieve what we wanted from this one. We knew it was the moment that Rita’s character needed, to express what she had withheld up to that time, and it’s such a strong moment for her character. It shows the complexity of Bob, that he’s not a perfect person, and in the same way that we did in King Richard. It explodes the narrative. We had to understand where Rita was coming from, why she stayed.

Filmmaker: Following the assassination attempt, Bob’s propensity toward seeing things, experiencing visual revelations, is suddenly everywhere in the movie.

Green: Definitely. The visions were definitely something Bob was known to have. He was said to have known the shooting was going to happen before it happened.

Filmmaker: This meaning Rita gave Bob’s life, introducing him to the Rastafari elders who mentored him, seems connected in the film to the visions.

Green: Rita introducing him to Rastafari is probably the most consequential moment in his life and career. So being able to depict that singular revelation, that moment, that’s mindblowing. It changed him forever. And yeah, connecting that with the visions — I just felt like in some way we had to show what Bob was running from his whole life. He was that kid running from the fire. Be it his absentee father who denied him or whatever, I just wanted to know: What is it? What’s he running from? And I think oftentimes when you’re born into a situation like that you blame yourself. You feel like it’s your fault. It becomes, “My father left me, it’s me, I did something wrong…” And I think Bob carried that burden. So I wanted to show how he had that weight on his shoulders, his whole life, and then at some point, he would have to love himself enough to let it go. He had to allow himself to be loved, to stop running away. And what was that? What was the visual representation of love? We’re searching for that thing, and in Bob’s life, just like with so many young men, your father is your spirit. Once that became clear, I knew that I had found the way I could show what that spirituality was, what it meant. At the time I didn’t know how it would be tethered within the film. After a while I figured out that it had to be tethered to the music, which is why I have the visions connected to musical scenes.

Filmmaker: Right, he’s performing or working whenever he starts to see.

Green: And that became so much more clear over time. That revealed itself slowly to us. Where the visions are in the film. What they were, what the visions would be, we always knew. But their placement evolved.

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