How a Director Shot His Sundance Feature on 16mm Film in Just Three Weeks
'And babe, don't you know it's a pity, that the days can't be like the nights, in the summer, in the city.'
The story begins simply enough: a young Harlem woman named Ayanna (Zora Howard) is preparing to go away to college in the fall. As she spends her final summer in Manhattan hanging out with friends and flirting with boys, she meets one gentleman in particular who captures her eye and heart, Isaiah (Joshua Boone).
The two develop a romance and experience a startling level of intimacy that grows stronger as the weeks pass. Ayanna begins to have second thoughts about going away to college and leaving Isaiah behind. Ayanna's single mother is unsure of how she will pay for college. And then, as unexpectedly as it so often happens, Ayanna gets pregnant and is presented with an even more important decision to make.
Rashaad Ernesto Green's Premature is both universal and specific, observational and lived-in. Presented in scenes that encapsulate intense rawness in its dialogue and delicate vulnerability in its acts of physicality, the film never shies away from the very real struggles a young African-American woman faces as she enters into adulthood. That woman is played by Zora Howard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Green, and gives a powerful performance as a woman with a future who gets detoured by love.
As the film premieres in the NEXT section of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Green about shooting on 16mm film, filming the more intimate moments between his two leads, and how he turned production limitations into unexpected advantages.
No Film School: How did you first meet your co-writer and lead actress Zora Howard?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: That's a long story but I was an actor first. When I first came to New York City, I started acting at a company called the Classical Theater of Harlem and I moved to Harlem, as well, after grad school. She was working for the theater as an intern, putting the costumes up after the show. During my first show in New York, she was putting the costumes away for the show and that's how we met.
Zora's parents were involved with the theater. They hosted the wrap party for us, for this particular show, and she wound up inviting me to a poetry event that she put on with some friends. She was 12 or 13 years old at that time when she hosted this poetry show, and I thought the poetry was phenomenal, certainly due to the fact that she was so wise at so young an age and with such a command of the language. I thought it was really, really impressive.
I wound up going to film school after a few years [later]. In my second year of film at NYU, I wrote about this young woman, a 14-year-old girl, who gets pregnant and has to deal with her family. The short is called Premature. When I was thinking about who could play the role, I wanted someone, you know, who would be able to portray the role without having lived through the experience. And I thought, who better to do that than Zora?
I had her audition for the role and she killed it. She just killed it. She's really, really incredible in the short and that sort of took off. It played everywhere. It wound up on HBO, in short film festivals, and it had a phenomenal ride.
"As the story progressed, we decided to make it about young love, told from this woman's perspective. It was very, very wonderful to have her perspective on young love and being Harlem-born and bred, it just brings such an authenticity to the story."
NFS: Given that you're a male director primarily telling a story about intimate details of a young woman's life, how important was it to have Zora Howard's voice collaborating with yours?
Green: We've been talking about it for years, like "Yeah, we should write something together. Yeah, we should do something together." We didn't actually know what we were going to write about when we sat down. We just said that we wanted to write something together.
And then Zora had a winter break from her acting program (she studied at UCSD) and we knew that she had the winter break to write something. We said, "We don't know what we're gonna write about. Here's the deal. You'll star in it. I'll direct it." It's because she's starring in it that it's gonna be about a young, black woman of some respect. We didn't know exactly what that story was going to be, and so we started calling from our life experiences.
As the story progressed, we decided to make it about young love, told from this woman's perspective. It was very, very wonderful to have her perspective on young love and being Harlem-born and bred, it just brings such an authenticity to the story, you know, having lived these experiences, having lived these experiences ourselves, and herself, pulling from past relationships and her poetry and all of these things.
It was wonderful to be able to argue with her and really wrestle with the idea we wanted to put out there, to also navigate away from black victimization; that was something that was really important for us. There are so many stories that delve into black lives or explore the black community as victims. What we wanted to prevent is that if we really wanted to explore black lives, we should explore black lives outside of victimization because we have complex people and stories and lives that we want to put out there. It was wonderful to have her.
NFS: There are at least two major instances in which issues of protest and police brutality are discussed and debated amongst Isaiah and his colleagues. They stand out as charged, impassioned arguments in a film that only hints at the dangers threatening African-American men and women. What went into including these riveting dialogue sequences of social struggle and what were you looking for it to bring to the narrative?
Green: The conditions touch on these people's lives. It's definitely something that's around, something that's discussed within the community. But we're not only directly affected. We don't always have family members killed. We don't only experience police brutality ourselves, but it's definitely on our minds all of the time. But we didn't necessarily want to explore an incident of police brutality, but rather wanted to have it be on the minds of our characters, something that's discussed as opposed to experienced in the film. We didn't want to create empathy by having someone suffer at the hands of the police department.
NFS: Given that the film takes place over a "romantic" summer in New York, were there other films you looked at as influences for Premature? The shot of Isaiah and Ayanna overlooking the water in the park in silhouette, for example, feels like a modern homage to Woody Allen's Manhattan...
Green: I mean, Raising Victor Vargas is something that we really watched and loved. Mostly these things are probably subconscious because I didn't necessarily mean to say "This is what we want to do," but we definitely talked about and watched some films. Raising Victor Vargas, we knew really well. I would say the Richard Linklater films, the Before trilogy of his. Annie Hall maybe...I love Woody Allen as well. I wouldn't say that that was necessarily what we were going for, but there were definitely parts of Richard Linklater that influenced the first stage and Raising Victor Vargas that influenced the style and the "summer in New York" feel.
"If we're going to explore young black love in a rapidly changing Harlem landscape, is it possible to eternalize it on film, in that way, and make it special?"
NFS: The film was shot on 16mm, a choice apparent from the very beginning when scratches and cigarette burns lovingly adorn the opening imagery. How did you arrive at the decision to shoot on film?
Green: Most of the films we watched and loved were shot on 16mm, you know, like Raising Victor Vargas, and one of the other films that we responded to was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and that was shot on 16mm too.
There were a couple of ones where we wondered, "I wonder what that was shot on? 16mm? Of course, right." While we were making ours, we just felt like, although, we almost never see a film at this budget shot on 16mm, if we were able to afford it, what higher production value would that give it? It would provide a sort of nostalgic quality. If we're going to explore young black love in a rapidly changing Harlem landscape, is it possible to eternalize it on film, in that way, and make it special? Because the Harlem of tomorrow is not the Harlem of today and it's not the Harlem of yesterday.
If you're going to go look at a film, we wanted to capture something that felt like it had lasting value. That is was neither today or yesterday. It had a bit of a timeless quality to it. We were hoping that's what 16mm would convey.
NFS: The film features several sex scenes and instances of nudity that feel raw and authentic. How did you work to create a protective level of intimacy that would keep your actors comfortable on set?
Green: You limit the amount of crew that's on the set for those particular scenes. I try to talk to my actors and let them know that they have the power to cut or stop at any time they feel uncomfortable. You just constantly check in with them, asking them how they're doing, how they're feeling, can they keep going, etc. They were both pros. There weren't too many moments of discomfort, but we kept on checking in.
"We had a major rewrite in order to make our schedule and make it all work. The limitations were severe on this budget level."
NFS: In moments such as those, does it help to have a female DP (Laura Valladao) working behind the camera?
Green: Absolutely 100 percent. And during those scenes, we also had a female sound mixer and boom operator. Most of the presence on set was female, especially for those scenes. My script advisor's female, as is my DP and sound mixer, Yeah, I definitely believe that Zora was more comfortable having a strong female presence on the crew.
NFS: The sex scenes also share a musicality about them, sometimes diegetically (i.e. when Isaiah puts on a record before making love to Ayanna) and sometimes non-diegetic (their movements unfold like a choreographed dance). How did you work to connect the erotic with the musical?
Green: Zora is in a poetry troupe that she travels with and sometimes [she would bring music] from musicians that had toured with them. One of the musicians is named Jennah Bell. Jenna Bell has a song that we would listen to for inspiration while we were writing, called John Forbid. We loved it so much that I tried to incorporate it within the story itself and within our characters.
Basically the tune that Isaiah makes is the melody for John Forbid, which we end the film with. It was very organic. So when he introduces that song as the song he's been struggling with and he's taking a crack at it on the piano for this melody, he thought, "Oooh, I'm getting there," that was the song that was playing over their second love making scene in the shower.
But for the first [sex scene], the jazz one, we didn't come to until post-production. I guess there's a strong Spike Lee influence there. We didn't want to make it contemporary. We wanted to make it sophisticated and we wanted to make it sexy. We gravitated towards this beautiful jazz because of Isaiah's musical influence, from his father. We wanted something that sounded older. We originally wrote something that had a Duke Ellington feel to it, but, knowing that we wouldn't get the rights, we pulled from other sources. What musicians have that old school feel to them? We found a couple of songs that were so gorgeous and fit very well with those scenes.
NFS: When did production take place on the film?
Green: You're not going to believe this. All of it took place in September of last year. We started on September 3rd or 4th and ended on September 27th.
NFS: Wow, so a three-and-a-half-week shoot. Were there any limitations that came into play? Or rather, limitations that you turned into advantages?
Green: We had a major rewrite in order to make our schedule and make it all work. The limitations were severe on this budget level. Like you said, we tried to turn them into advantages. And I hope you don't feel the struggle, but what you do feel is the fruits of the struggle when watching the film.
NFS: Is there anything you feel you've learned from going from your last feature to this one? You've had quite a journey in between. Did you feel more prepared to take that journey again for this project?
Green: I think so. If I were to do it again, I'd say, "Don't wait so long." I guess filmmaking is a muscle to some extent, and I had done a number of television projects in the interim. I wasn't as precious about the process. I knew what to expect from a fundraising perspective and from things on the ground in New York. I guess I had that muscle trained a bit still. I had the ability to go with the flow a little bit more this time even though it was still hard. It was, from what I knew the first time around, all going to be okay at the end of the day. It was all going to work itself out. I guess I knew that inherently the second time around.