Rashaad Ernesto Green says his new love story Premature was a tough sell for some potential backers, because it isn’t about Black pain.
“Black pain is profitable. Not only by this industry, but the media agencies and such. If you come about two Black people in love and nobody is dying on the street, then they go how are we going to make money? It’s just a love story,” says the director, whose Harlem-based film premiered at Sundance last year.
“But if somebody was shot — if it was police brutality or something like that — they would say, ‘Oh, that is exciting. That is sexy.’ Unfortunately with just a love story they don’t see the same value in it.”
Someone did see the value, fortunately: Premature, which opens today, was financed mainly by Cinereach, a not-for-profit film foundation and production company.
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“I think Cinereach is a wonderful organization that supports artists that are trying to tell stories that are sometimes outside of the mainstream,” Green explained. “Thank God for organizations like them that are able to support artists and their voices. They were a wonderful partner.”
Green’s first feature, Gun Hill Road, told the story of a transgender teen, and starred Esai Morales and Judy Reyes. Green has also directed episodes of Being Mary Jane, Supernatural and Luke Cage.
Green co-wrote Premature with Zora Howard, who stars in the coming-of-age film. His cinematographer Laura Valladao shot the film run-and-gun-style in New York City over 18 days, using an ARRI 416 on 16mm Kodak 500 T film. She utilized Ultra 16 primes and relied heavily on natural light, a technique that she said “allowed us to capture skin tones in a variety of lit and available light locations that feel true to life.”
I worked with Green years ago on his short Showtime, which aired on BET. He just earned the 2020 Someone To Watch Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for a John Cassavetes Award. His brother, filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green, was tapped by Warner Bros. to helm the Will Smith film King Richard, about Richard Dove Williams, Jr., father of Venus and Serena Williams.
Rashaad Ernesto Green and I talked about the origins of Premature, why moviemaking is a family business for him, and how his own acting has made him a better director.
Shani Harris, MovieMaker: Can you talk about the genesis of the film? You wrote it with Zora Howard. How did you both come up with the concept of the film and the approach that you took with the movie?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: I guess the concept wasn’t that complicated. We’re talking about a simple love story between two young people, which is something that we’ve all experienced. More importantly it was the genesis of Zora and I. I made a short film about ten years ago, called Premature. I cast my friend Zora who I had met a couple of years before that. I met Zora when she was 11 years old. I was still acting in theater and she was one of the girls who hung up the costumes after the show. We became fast friends. Fast forward a couple of years after I had seen her on stage performing poetry. When I was looking for someone who had the wisdom to play a young woman who had gone through pregnancy, I thought of Zora. She did really well in the role. She was 14 years-old at the time. … Fast forward ten years, we had been talking about writing something together for years. We didn’t know what it was going to be. We just kept on talking shit really.
We decided during her winter break in her last semester of grad school for acting, that we would finally write something together. We didn’t know what it was going to be. But we were like you are home, what is it that we know well? We both knew relationships well. We both knew love. We have both been in love and broken up. She had been through a recent relationship where she had broken up with somebody she loved very much. We culled from our life experience. I had been divorced before. We decided that love is what we wanted to see in the theater, because so many films that deal with Black life now. They have to do with exploring race or Black victimization, Black fear, Black pain and Black death. We felt that we wanted to go against the grain and present something that was about Black life and Black love. Told through this young woman’s perspective in present day Harlem.
MM: You feature a lot of locations that Ayanna and Isaiah are traveling through in their love story. Can you talk about the importance that Harlem was to the story?
Green: It was absolutely a critical element in how we crafted the story. Why we told the story and where we told the story. This could not have been anywhere. It was our community around us that influenced us the most. Those girls on the train. I see those girls on the train everyday. And no one really tells their story. I’ve lived in Harlem for almost the past twenty years. Zora was born and raised in Harlem. We lived around the corner from each other for the past fifteen years. We are friends and we wanted to utilize our community, our homes, our network of people and places that we knew, so we kept it a real homegrown story. Especially now that Harlem is gentrifying so much. We felt like capturing young Black love in a vanishing Harlem was important in order to immortalize these young lovers in what might be the last hurrah so to speak of the Harlem that we all know.
MM: Did you have an open call to find Joshua Boone, who portrays Isaiah, and the other actors?
Green: We did wind up hiring a casting director by the name of Harrison Nesbit. Who was really great in bringing out some faces that we had not seen. … We used a blend of actors and non-actors from the people that we knew. But Joshua Boone in particular, we had a reading of the script for feedback some months before we went into production. We cast out of the people that we knew. Except for that role. That role in particular we were looking for somebody and no one we knew was available to play the role. We kept on asking around and we got suggestions. Neither one of us knew him and he walked in cold. He had not even completed the script. But his reading of the role that night was so wonderful and so spot on. He left a lasting impression in both of our minds. He just really understood the character very well. … Harrison Nesbit supplied wonderful options but Joshua ultimately won out over all of them.
MM: Was there any type of direction you gave the actors on the set for them to be comfortable with one another to help establish a rapport?
Green: I have to give a lot of credit to them. They were professional from the very start. But I did say they had to become very intimate with each other very quickly. So I gave them the power to stop the scene if they felt uncomfortable, to halt. To just basically dictate what it was that they wanted to be vocal. To even give them the power to cut even during a take if they felt uncomfortable. I gave them that leeway, even though we were shooting on film. I hope that made them feel comfortable. Although they had a lot of questions beforehand. Once we got into shooting , they seemed to warm up to the process and everything went pretty smoothly. I was actually the one that was most uncomfortable.
MM: How has your background as an actor influenced your ability to communicate with fellow actors on set as a director? Do you feel as though you have honed your skill set as a director by your experience as an actor?
Green: My experience as an actor has definitely influenced my directing style and my writing style. It influences everything. I was an actor first. I hope the actors I work with can feel that I was an actor so that I speak their own language. That is certainly my hope. I know when there is still more to be had from a performance. So I continue to push and pull in the direction that I need, often they are able to turn in wonderful performances.
MM: Susan Kelechi Watson is involved in the film. Can you talk about how she became involved in the project? She is known for her role on This is Us.
Green: I went to NYU Grad acting. Susan was my classmate and often my love interest in many of the plays and scenes that we did during grad school. When it came time to doing this film, Susan had wanted to branch out and do films of her own. We just got to talking and she wanted to support me. There was an avenue in order for her to do it. So we made it happen.
MM: This is your second time having a film at Sundance. How do you feel that this influences your experience?
Green: Third. The first film was a short film at the festival in 2009. My first feature was in 2011 and then now. I guess I feel much less precious about the outcome. I know what to expect to some degree. I know the process. That alleviates some pressure off of the situation. I feel like this was a very small film done by the sweat of our brow and a lot of heart. Anything that happens after now is all gravy. We’ve already done everything that we have set out to do. I’m just happy to have eyeballs on the film now so people can actually see the film come to life.
MM: You direct film and television. Can you talk about the approach you take to making films versus making television? Do you have a preference for either? What advice do you give to people who are pursuing careers in both fields?
Green: They each have their pluses and minuses. First and foremost, I am an actor. I am a filmmaker who happens to direct television in order to pay the bills. It’s nice to work in television, because you get to exercise a muscle and also get paid for it. In film you don’t really get paid for your efforts all the time. But you do get paid as a result of being able to make something that is yours. In television, although you might put your stamp on it, it is never yours really. It is always someone else’s voice that you are supporting and not your own.
MM: Your brother is also a director. His film Monsters and Men won in 2018 at Sundance.
Green: I guess it’s our upbringing. [Laughs] I guess that really has to do with our parents. We grew up mainly with our dad. He was a larger-than-life character who always stressed the importance of education and following dreams. Those lessons that you learn when you are young really stay with you for a lifetime. We lost our dad about five years ago, but the lessons do stay with us. I was very happy that my brother joined me in the industry.
MM: What advice do you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in the arts? Especially a person of color like yourself or your brother, people who want to work in an industry where people are calling for more diverse artists?
Green: I would say most importantly, you should learn your craft in order to stand out from the crowd. There are a lot of people who can buy a camera now and shoot and make films. What is it about that storytelling that is going to help you sustain a career and a life within the industry? That means different things for different people. There are some people that think school is the way. I certainly think education is a great way. But you can learn in a myriad of ways. It’s not necessarily always school that you need to attend, but films that you need to watch, sets that you need to work on and so forth. To really just learn your craft in any way that you can.
Learn all of the time and never feel like there isn’t someone that you can’t learn from. It is the right time for new voices of color to step up and speak out loud. I think if they have the courage to tell their own unique stories, to cull from their own life experiences, and don’t always listen to what might be expected of them. But instead, listen to what it is that they want to say about the world — then their voice will be unique and therefore needed.
MM: What is your opinion about the success of a director like Ryan Coogler, who was able to make a film like Black Pantherand showcase an action-oriented love story with a political statement? How do you feel about the fact he was able to achieve success in Hollywood by putting a new spin on a Marvel franchise that is already established?
Green: I think that just goes to show you the talent of Mr. Coogler. He is a fantastically talented director. He has a very unique and authentic voice. And he is able to bring that authenticity and that intimacy into characters that are larger than life. With Black Panther, there was a reason why it was one of the highest-grossing films in the Marvel franchise. Because he really understood how to bring his own voice through these characters.
MM: Would you be open, if the opportunity presented itself to you, to direct a Marvel project or a larger-budget project that would allow you to showcase your artistic ability through an established franchise?
Green: I am open to everything. I have already done so in television. I just haven’t done so in features yet.
IFC Films’Premature, directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, is in theaters now.