A director and DP meet at a café. Three days later, they were shooting a feature.
No joke here. Just the story of how passion and urgency, despite lack of resources, can make a great film.
As part of a homecoming to his DC neighborhood from Los Angeles, filmmaker Merawi Gerima wanted to make an authentic, somewhat autobiographical film set on his street. Residue is about a prodigal filmmaker returned home, trying to find his childhood best friend in a rapidly gentrifying area of DC that he doesn't recognize. Using heightened aesthetics and a dreamy, surrealist doco style, the film speaks to race, personal demons, friendship, and loss.
The film, which premiered at Slamdance, went on to catch the attention of none other than Ava Duvernay, and after being picked up by her film company Array this summer, can now be found streaming on Netflix.
The filmmakers first sat down with NFS on the eve of their festival premiere. Check out the film and read this excerpt from that intriguing, honest interview about making films with whatever means you have, finding DP Mark Jeevaratnam in a coffee shop, and making a film where where the community is your budget.
NFS: So this production set in the DC neighborhood where you grew up was also a homecoming for you. How much did you go into the community to make this film?
Merawi Gerima: When I landed in DC, I didn't have much crew, and didn't have any cast. There were about over 40 characters to cast. We only had about a month or maybe a little over a month of pre-production.
I felt a great urgency to do the film. The summer of 2016, I started writing it. The summer of 2017, we were filming. We were basically shooting the first draft, but the urgency of that whole kind of momentum, our need to just get it done, I think, it shows this up in the film.
We were literally grabbing family, friends, and people off the street, sometimes the day of shooting. Other than Obi and the mother, we were dealing with primarily non-actors. That was important to me as well because I'd rather go with authentic DC people than trained actors.
So, it all came out of this wholesale effort of the community. As people were finding out that we're doing this story, their first question wasn’t like, "How much? What's your budget?" It was like, "Yes, how can I help? I got three kids. Do you need kid actors? I got a house. What can I give you? What can I contribute?"
We shot it in a neighborhood I grew up in, and a lot of actors were people I grew up with. The kid actors are the kids of my friends who I grew up with, playing their parents' younger selves.
It was mind blowing. My whole explosive anger of what was going on just kind of melted away into this powerful production, or experience of just being completely held up by my community. Capped with our recent screening back in DC, two weeks ago, which was the most amazing kind of homecoming one could ever asked for.
"For me, Delonte's character is my worst enemy. Coming back to the 'hood with a camera thinking, I'm about to do something big."
NFS: What was the conversation between you and Mark, your DP, about the unique style you would use to shoot this film? Was this kind of your strategy?
Gerima:. Mark, literally, we don't know each other, he just happened to come to town. I had a cinematographer and the scheduling, it didn't work out. Take it from there, Mark.
Mark Jeevaratnam: I came to town to visit my cousin and was looking for a coffee shop that I could sit in and figure out how to be a cinematographer, write emails and convince people that I could shoot—
Gerima: —Because you had just graduated.
Jeevaratnam: —I just had finished school. My friend told me about Sankofa and I did a little research and come to find out that a filmmaker that I admire highly...that was his coffee shop. So, I joke that I sort of went there for a cup of coffee, and I came out with an opportunity to shoot this movie. It was really just pure universe. I don't know how else to describe it.
Gerima: My family, we have this bookstore and café in DC. My parents are filmmakers. That's kind of like this thing that we come out of. And my dad knows I'm shooting a film. He walked in.
NFS: Now, normally if you have a father saying, "Oh, you're a DP. My son is a filmmaker." You'd be like eye roll, and "Daaaad."
Gerima: Any filmmakers who come by, my father’s like, "This is an opportunity for you to learn, or to do, or get on how you can."
Jeevaratnam: I didn't expect him to actually even be there. In my mind, here's a giant of a filmmaker who has this bookstore. He's probably not actually there. You know what I mean? He probably has people that run it for him. He came upstairs from his editing bay. I just sort of approached him and was like, "You're Haile Gerima." He was like, "Yeah, and who are you?" I just explained my backstory...I just finished AFI, am a cinematographer. I'm in town. So he said, "Come back tomorrow. Let's drink coffee.” We drank coffee, and at the end of the conversation, he said, "I want you to meet my son. He's doing a film." It just kind of took off from there in a very organic way that has ultimately led to this moment here sitting with you.
NFS: So, at that moment, when you guys met and decided to collaborate, how close were you from production?
Gerima: Like two or three days. I called him literally, I think, two days before production and was like, "Yo, if you come back to do it, I can push it back a day." So, we had basically two or three days of pre-production. It was crazy. And he still had to drive up to Jersey to get his camera.
NFS: So, what camera did you have to drive to Jersey to get? How big was your production?
Jeevaratnam: I had a relationship with ARRI Rental in New York, and I basically rode up there to see what they had lying around. I think by that time, the Mini was out, the Classic wasn't working as much. So, we took the Alexa Classic. They had the Arri ZEISS Ultra Speeds. We grabbed a few focal lengths, and then I just asked them to make it kind of as minimal as possible, because I knew that the reality of our production was that we're underpowered and inexperienced, and we'd have to move quickly. This film, it almost blurs the line with documentary. There's so many non-actors, and we were shooting in a real, live, breathing neighborhood.
Gerima: With so much going on.
Jeevaratnam: It wasn't like a large film crew coming in, buying the whole block, and having cinematic immunity, all up and down the block. We were really just part of the entire fabric of that community. It was important for me to stay small and minimal, because the camera has great power. We had to be careful with how we use that and how we move through space.
Gerima: Also, on top of that, we had no choice but to be small. On our biggest days, we'd have about 10 people, including the actors, on normal days, half that. And all we had to move around was just a pickup truck that actually started the film. My pickup.
The cross country footage was me and my friends shooting as we're traveling, with having no idea how it will find itself into the finished product.
We didn't have a camera at first. The discussion was we're going to shoot this on my dad's Nikon—
Jeevaratnam: —DSLR, Anything.
Gerima: —But then Mark came to me, he's like, "Yo, I think we might have an opportunity to use Alexa." I think, for me, I was nervous because I felt that it would bring a lot more drama than we were ready to handle. I felt like I wanted to stay small, and to be as fast as we possibly could. But at the same time, it's hard to say no to that kind of injection of production value.
So, we went for it, but I will tell you straight up, it did slow us down in many ways. It's a big package. A lot of boxes come with set camera and set lenses, you know what I mean? It did limit us creatively in terms of camera angles and stuff. You can't compare something as small as a cell phone or DSLR, to something that big. But still, as he said, those limitations gave us more opportunities for really pushing creative solutions, creative and elegant solutions.
"...a few days into shooting, we realized, 'You know what? Let's lean into this stuff. Let's lean into all of our limitations.'"
NFS: How would you describe the style of the film and how you shot it?
Jeevaratnam: My admiration for Merawi and for the story was how deeply authentic it is and how close it is to his own experience. I think it takes a lot of courage for filmmakers to approach that level of vulnerability. But ultimately, I strongly believe that makes for the best stories. I definitely admire how fearless Merawi was in trying to unpack and distill and reckon with his own history. To come be a part of that is amazing honor.
I think a lot of the aesthetic, or the style of the film was really defined by our limitations, and, many ways a lack of experience and extreme lack of experience but it was trial by fire. A lot of it was limitation. I don't want to take credit for it. For example, it was raining outside, I didn't have rain protection for the camera. I could only put the camera on the porch. And now that's become, in my opinion, one of the most bold choices of the film. But really, I just didn't have anywhere to put the camera but there. Quickly, a few days into shooting, we realized, “You know what? Let's lean into this stuff. Let's lean into all of our limitations.” And let that really informed the ultimate aesthetic of this film.
"My favorite thing about our film is the imperfection."
NFS: There's many different layers in this film that speak to race, gentrification, over-policing, friendship and change. In the middle of these layers, the main character is a filmmaker who keeps saying he wants to make his movie. By the end, the people in the film are like, "Yeah, you and your movie…" So there's a question in there about what is the value of filmmaking? How you feel about that question now?
Gerima: For me, that part of the film was important, because I know in myself, and in so many people who come to film, they come because they want to create social change. That's one of the biggest driving factors. But a lot of times, that drive becomes bigger than actually being effective. Like, what the film was actually doing. I feel like film is such a long game anyway, that it feels almost like you're not doing much, especially in the face of self-destruction. You know what I mean. Sometimes, you feel helpless.
I look at my sister. She's a teacher, and she teaches at a public high school in DC. To me, there are people who are actually on the front lines. They're mentally and physically into the line of the most intense work. So, it's hard for me to come in as a filmmaker and overstate my work and my impact, because it's hard to imagine. You don't know. But I also come from this tradition of filmmakers, my parents and their cohort and the people who came before them, who see film as something that they're doing to enact the media change. And they do believe in the power of it. To them, film is a weapon. I think that these are the two sides of this internal conflict, and I'm trying to figure out my place here.
For me, Delonte's character is my worst enemy. Coming back to the hood with a camera and a film tape thinking, I'm about to do something big. Then somebody from there just being like, "Actually, we don't need you." Actually, you're not saving us. That was something that was important for me to acknowledge. Largely, this film is for me to work on my own demons. If you ask me what the biggest power of film is, I feel that it was an opportunity for me to work out my own film as guilt, inadequacy, anger and frustration. If people kind of can relate to that, then these are all pluses.
We always say film is a mirror. We felt like in the production process, every time we were on target, it showed us. Every time we were lazy or weak, or whatever, it shows you immediately your shortcomings and your strengths.
"I never want to find myself waiting to be given permission to do anything."
NFS: What's your advice to filmmakers?
Gerima: I think that it's always awkward about giving advice. But I will say that, for me, one of my most central guiding principles is that I never want to find myself waiting to be given permission to do anything. I want to be able to say that I will green light myself at all times, and stick with that regardless of the resources at hand. That is a methodology that comes out of my parents. My dad is probably right now editing a five-hour documentary that he's been making for the past several years.
My mother as well, she's a filmmaker. Both of them having also raised six kids, and having been blockaded by a racist industry when they were at their prime. They never stopped. They always have projects that they're working on, always writing scripts, always editing, always just releasing, always screening and teaching. My father was a professor for 40 years at Howard Film School and now he's doing his own film workshops. That's the best nugget I can give anybody is just like, do it now. Greenlight yourself according to your own knowledge of where you are.
[Film school] will put restrictions on you that are really on the basis of scaring you. That it's hard to embark on a feature. “You can't do a feature film.”
Jeevaratnam: The mystification for sure.
Gerima: Yeah. “You can't do a feature film for less than $20,000. or $100,000, or a million dollars.” There's people who shoot $200,000 short films. At the school I went to, $40,000 for a 12-minute film. There's no way. Just do it on your own with whoever you have around you, with whatever you have on hand. No matter how it turns out, allow the imperfections. My favorite thing about our film is the imperfection. For real. It's like what we didn't have caused us to shoot it in that way. That's my favorite thing about it, those serendipitous mistakes that we edited into the film.
Thank you Merawi and Mark!
Want to watch Residue? It's now streaming on Netflix here.