5 Questions for Below Dreams Director Garrett Bradley
New Orleans-based multi-media artist Garrett Bradley makes her feature debut at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival with Below Dreams, a tough-minded portrait of three economically-challenged twentysomethings trying to settle a life for themselves in a city that’s seen its own share of recent adversity. Honest and sensitive, the film is informed by Bradley’s own experience living in New Orleans, and she developed the script based on interviews conducted on frequent Greyhound bus trips there. Below Dreams is an alumni of the IFP Narrative Labs.
Filmmaker: What’s been new creatively for you in terms of moving from gallery-based work to a feature film?
Bradley: The smaller experimental pieces that I have done since I was 16 years old were always hyper-focused on single elements, like a sound or feeling. By nature of space and time expanding in a feature-length film, more elements are included and there is a bigger responsibility to manage all of them in a way that feels cohesive and graceful. But a feature vs. a short, small vs. big — all of that in my mind is purely technical and something which is determined after the story is realized.
Filmmaker: How does your life and work in New Orleans reveal itself in the film?
Bradley: I think parts of myself are certainly revealed in the film — as a black person, as a woman, as a transplant…these are all aspects of my experience which are present in the narrative but maybe more importantly these things are what helped me connect and communicate effectively with Leann (a single mother), Jamaine (a black male trying to get a job in New Orleans) and Elliott (a NYC tourist). I’ve chosen to stay in New Orleans, to make my life here as an artist, because I’m interested in the history of our country and I see Louisiana as being a sort of genesis that hasn’t changed much. 70% of the jobs here are service-industry jobs, the minimum wage is less then $8/hr and one in 86 adult Louisianians are in jail, which is nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans in particular, one in 14 is behind bars. So my life and my work surrounds these realities, and I hope through the narrative of the film that some of these issues can be revealed in a beautiful and honest way.
Filmmaker: How did you select the actors for your film, and what was the key for you in terms of finding effective ways to direct them?
Bradley: The New York Times published an article back in 2010 called “What is it about these 20-Somethings,” and the entire layout was of really beautiful, super hip kids from Brooklyn. This film is sort of a direct response to the idea of that history and that the way we perceive the past once it becomes the past is defined by this very imagery. I felt a social and creative necessity to insert some new imagery into this pre-existing dialogue and to say, “Hey here’s the other half of those 20-somethings, living in America right now that are part of this generation you speak of and perhaps for the sake of the truth if nothing else at all, should be included in the discussion.”
For a year, I traveled on Greyhound buses between New York and New Orleans interviewing people my age, in their 20s and asked them what they wanted in life and how they planned to achieve their goals. I then transcribed the audio conversations I had, wrote a script and cast characters based on the people I had met using Craigslist. I sought a single mother of four who was an aspiring actress and model, a man who had gold teeth who had dealt with the parole system in New Orleans and a college graduate who all didn’t know what to do with themselves. I put flyers up near womens clinics, across the street from federal buildings and just sat at Hey Cafe uptown, from 9-6 and met with people. Elliott Ehlers is the only trained actor in the film, and it was great to be able to work with all of them at once on set. From a director’s standpoint, a lot of it was code switching, learning how to become a mirror in a certain kind of way with each of the actors, learning how to speak each others language and then working from there to build something that was cohesive and clear. Building confidence, allowing for vulnerability, having a presence as a leader on set and then pulling from each intimate side of myself in order to illicit certain performances…connecting with Leann as a woman, with Jamaine as a person of color, with Elliott mostly as a trained actor but also as person who grew up more privileged then most. I was able to connect with everyone on these different levels, and I think that had a great deal to do with how we were able to capture something which feels so honest and real in the film.
What I love about 1970’s American cinema was that you can really feel the directors hand…there is such a personal, fearless quality that wasn’t afraid to be called art. And these filmmakers like (Martin Scorsese, Billy Woodberry, Charles Brunett…) were speaking from their personal experiences, working with the communities they knew and then sharing them, through their vision with the world. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to follow my heart in every step of the way with this project and to establish a process that felt unique because it was developed through necessity — meaning I had to work with what I had and that in and of itself created scenarios which were unprecedented. And I think that is probably true for every project. That’s part of the process and that’s the nature of problem solving.
Filmmaker: How did the IFP Narrative Lab affect the film?
Bradley: I don’t know that being in the lab changed the film necessarily….it’s more that certain elements of the film were evoked and brought to light which I hadn’t fully realized beforehand. It was as if they saw something in the project, this sort of larger context which, through the labs, I was able to then see and put forth in the language and general understanding of what the project was. All of that was so essential in getting the film finished.
Filmmaker: Your film deals with characters buffeted by life’s circumstances and the economy. Is there a political or just ethical statement you hope comes through in your film?
Bradley: I see the film as an addition to a pre-existing conversation more than anything else. The political or ethical message is only that room should be made and that the dialogue concerning twenty-somethings has the potential to expand, in order to include the narratives of the rich and poor, rural and urban also in their twenties living today and with an equal need to be seen and heard.