In my first casting session, a boy told me that his mom kicked him out of the house because she suspected him of stealing her drug money in order to buy drugs. This was not Central Casting. But I was also not making a traditional movie. I was in East Harlem auditioning local teenagers to not only act in a feature film that I was going to direct, but to also help me (and my screenwriting partner) write the script, and crew my set. Most of these teenagers were underserved, living in poverty, and -- with cuts in New York City school funding -- given almost no access to arts education. So I headed up to Harlem to make a movie with the teenagers, acting in the spirit of famed cinematographer Gregg Toland, who supposedly taught Orson Welles everything about making a movie in one weekend. I wanted to turn these teenagers into filmmakers; I wanted to see what kind of difference the arts could make in their lives; and along the way, I also wanted to collaborate on a feature film that audiences would actually want to see.
At the beginning of the project, I made an agreement with the teenagers: I wouldn't quit on them if they agreed to be as creative with me as possible. The idea was that the best way to help the kids through a filmmaking experience was not through some Pollyanna tidings of goodwill, but by pushing ourselves to make the best film that we could. Nobody was allowed to just say their lines on set and then leave for the day. When our actors weren't acting in a scene, we taught them crew skills and had them hold bounce boards, or film with a second camera. It wasn't enough to just hand them a script to perform; we spent months doing writing workshops to develop the story together.
In our movie, the teenagers and I wanted to capture the realities of their lives, but said realities created overwhelming obstacles. During production, one of the main actors was forced into living in homeless shelters. Fictional feuds between some characters were rooted in reality, and fights erupted on set. We were once thrown off a location by drug dealers who didn't want us to catch their faces on camera.
I realized early on that while the arts are vital, arts alone couldn't give any easy solutions to the kids' lives. Our movie might be able to earn them some money down the road, but of course money comes with its own problems. What the movie did was give a series of practical guidelines to their lives. They needed to be at a certain place at a certain time; they needed to remember to bring particular clothes. The movie laid a simple structure upon our lives. And this alone seemed to do something important for the kids. They were as responsible for this movie as I was; the quality of the film was equally in their hands as mine. Our homeless actor was channeling his experiences into his role on camera, giving an awesome performance, while the shooting schedule gave him a constructive place to be during the day. Later, while filming a scene at Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, our lead actor Francisco started fighting with another actor. I came over, broke up the fight, feeling frustrated that no one could get along, until I realized that the argument was about the delivery of a line of dialogue, with Francisco reminding everyone that we weren't making a gangster movie - we were making an art movie. I could have hugged him. I don't think that art helps kids by handing them a piece of paper and letting them express themselves however they want; art takes structure to make, and it's the structure that was vital to these kids' well-being. They didn't need me to do anything more than need them to make this movie.
The most thrilling and frightening moments in directing Up With Me were those when I had to relinquish some creative control of the film, and learn to trust the creative instincts of these teens. As a director, this seemed irresponsible. But as the teens' creative abilities developed, their choices became ones I could trust. As filming went on, two actors, Francisco and his co-star Justin, stepped into the director's chair, and solved "blocking" problems that my crew and I could not figure out. The bottom line is this: they got very, very good at acting, at writing, at crewing a set. When I began the film I was told that half the kids would drop out in a month. A year later, all seven teenagers were still with us.
The movie we made together, Up With Me, just premiered at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival. We were thrilled to be awarded the Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Cast. But the teens' complicated lives didn't stop becoming complicated. Life moves forward unchecked and everyone get bruised along the way, and kids get bruised the worst, so you want to help them, I know I did, but I'm not sure - short of spending a year in their lives, short of having the impossible goal of making a feature film together - what we would have even had to say to each other. It was only through the indecipherable language of art that we found a way to communicate.