Big Hoops, Humble Beginnings
With the convenience of technology and many platforms like Youtube, many young entrepreneurs have well gotten over waiting on big productions. They have instead taken on an “I can do it myself” attitude. Perhaps it depends on whom you ask, but when most of us think of producing or shooting a movie, we immediately get weighed down with the “W’s.” What, where when, why! It just seems like a lot of hoops to jump through, right?
1st Amendment Media sat down with director and filmmaker, Mark Harris, who gave us his answer. “In today’s world, you don’t have to wait on a production company to call you back to make a movie. If you have the script, make the movie,” he remarked. Harris is native to Chicago’s Englewood area. He was born and raised there where he forged relationships that would aid him in achieving his vision of premiering on the big screen. Who said there’s no hope in the hood? If there’s one thing one should hopefully glean from this article, it is that you don’t have to be anywhere but where you are to use what you have.
Extended Family in the Hood Defies Stereotypes
Mark Harris exemplifies the truth of this. The Englewood native has gone on to direct and produce Netflix’s “Black Butterfly,” the 2014 theater release “Black Coffee,” and the web series “I Used to Love Her” to be released September 2016. With so many accomplishments already under his belt, he still recalls key moments that have not only humbled him, but also helped to lift him to his current level of success. Recalling his grammar school, Altgeld, in West Englewood not far from his home, Marks says, “My family was more than my blood relatives. They were the brothers and sisters that lived in my neighborhood. That was just as much of a family. We looked out for each other; we supported one another”.
Mark Shares the Spotlight
He spoke assuredly. He described growing up in Englewood in a way that makes you question every article and news feed you’ve ever seen about what it’s like to grow up in there. It made me think, but also brought my attention to Mark’s guests, Tiffany Addison and Mel Roberson. These two actors, co-leads in Mark’s web series “I Used to Love Her,” accompanied him to the interview.
It certainly seems as if Mark is paying it forward. He uses his own interview time to shine the light on other talents in the Chicago area. Mel Roberson has worked with Mark on prior projects in the role of executive producer. Tiffany mentions meeting Mark at a film premiere. From that meeting, she later connected with him to assist in scene analysis on his then projects.
“I Used to Love Her” a Labor of Love
We asked Tiffany and Mel about their experience working with Mark on “I Used to Love Her.” Tiffany says, “Mark is absolutely amazing!” As she spoke, her eyes widened, bright and proud. “Sometimes when you’re on the set of big budget productions you kind of forget you have a brain. You’re expected to do exactly as you’re told, but Mark encourages you to think outside the box, to use and bring a lot of your own ideas to the character.”
Being able to stretch your gift of creating in the arts is a tool that some people pay good money to acquire. Mel followed up on Tiffany’s remarks. He shared that Mark Harris had given him a great deal of control on this project. “About ninety percent creative control” he recalls when it came to the development of his ‘I Used to Love Her’ character’ Ramadan.
Mel’s Artistic Freedom in Creating “Ramadan”
In case you’ve seen the original full feature and are now anticipating the web series you will notice the name of this character changed from Jabar to Ramadan. It turns out Ramadan’s character name is derived from that of a friend and Muslim Kappa fraternity brother of Mel Roberson. Ramadan died in a car crash in the early 2000’s. Mel felt that being exposed to Ramadan, witnessing the culture and faith of the Muslim community first hand, would deepen his understanding of this character. “Whatever you think makes him come to life on screen, use that,” said Mel, quoting Mark.
“This was not my 1st lead role with Mark, but the first one I had so much input on. When Mark called me up about holding auditions, I was just like yo, listen I think I got somebody that would be perfect for the role.” Mel spoke to the very tight production schedule planned for the series, “There was not a lot of time for me to get familiar with the woman who was to play Ramadan’s wife. I needed someone I was comfortable with that could pull off the relationship, the goofy parts and loving parts without it being forced”.
Playing and Loving the Character “Simee”
“I Used to Love Her” follows a couple that started an independent recording and distribution company for socially conscious artists. The story shows how the pressures of business, faith and family start to intertwine. Tiffany spoke of her character “Simee”, giving a great deal of reference to the strength she displays throughout the series. Appreciating the depth of Simee, she said: “I love that she could still be a woman of faith without losing the essence of who she is as a person.” The passion both Mel and Tiffany displayed for their characters as people as well as a couple was intoxicating. “When you see the series, you won’t see Tiffany and Mel. You’ll see a married couple who are in love with each other and facing the world together,” says Mel. The release of the highly anticipated series is September 28th, 2016.
Lessons Learned and More Still to Learn
For most people, where to begin can be the toughest part of the journey. We posed this question to Mark. He replied that once you have the script, the next viable move is to make sure you’re exercising good business strategies. What does this mean? Establish your own production. “Most people think you need big budgets for movies, and you don’t. Not today–you can use an iPhone.” He was referencing Matthew Cherry who shot his film “9 Rides” on iPhone 6.
Incorporating your production company seems to just make good business sense in the film industry. Some might cringe at the very thought of having to go through incorporation process. However, Mark, Tiffany, and Mel shed some light on this in a way that’ll help you see it as a must-do. “Being in the seat of the producer is about maintaining creative control,” says Tiffany. The director is hired just as the actors are, and at the end of the day, money talks. Those at the top control the images they want to see, and that’s what it’s about.
Don’t Fear Making Mistakes
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as beginners. Mark shared the many mistakes he made starting off, and even makes to this day. He gave the example from his beginning days. There was a written script that was sold for $1 and the project was never made. “From that day, I said I’m go’n do this myself. I went out and hired a DP. I had no idea what a director was. So we shot everything in wide shot (interesting thing [is], it got into film festivals.)” Harris finds that to be hilarious now. He is cleverly aware that the learning never stops, and neither does being in motion or realizing your potential.
“With ‘Black Coffee’ I should have been more patient!” he exclaimed. Mark shared that two weeks after completing the screenplay he sent it out the to the leads, Christian Keyes and Darrin Henson. The moment the two agreed to the project, he then sent it to a partnering production company. Within twenty minutes of seeing it, the production company said: “let’s make this.” Mark said, “Two months later we were in production. I think that was too soon for me. I wanted a company that was going to really market the project and not just put money behind it.” Mark expressed joy regarding his first theatrical release. However, there was a tinge of dissatisfaction at the marketing aspect of the movie. It only opened in six cities.
Social Consciousness Highlighting the Positive
There’s one thread that seemed woven into each of our topics, regardless of what we discussed. That was the idea of social consciousness. Mark was always shedding light on the positive aspects of the black community as well as bringing direction on how to strengthen it. When speaking of “Black Butterfly”, Mark Harris noted that the film is about the issues of molestation and community. ‘Black Coffee’ gives prominence to blacks owning and opening businesses in their own communities. “I Used to Love Her” shed light on the effects of music on our communities. But, it covered other serious topics, including harvesting organs and police brutality. Mark Harris with his very keen sense of direction states his case in a very simplified manner. When he speaks, the essence of his message is, “It’s not that hard. This is what we should be doing”.
Meanwhile, Mel Roberson’s passion stood out as he described the ills that plague the Black Community. “The music industry ties into social conditioning,” says Mel. He asserts that “The music pushes violence and controls imaging that then leads to arrests, lack of responsibility and family disintegration. The music industry has changed a genre that was designed for the uplifting of a people to sex, drugs, murder and misogynistic music. We hear it so much we become desensitized to it.” Mark wholeheartedly agreed. Apparently, Mel so cleverly conveyed his own thoughts there was no need for him to speak on it further other than to say “That’s exactly right.”
Mark’s Power–Seeing the Good
When asked if he has run into criticism for his willingness to unveil some these issues, Harris replied no. He just said it’s all good. But, then again maybe it’s because Mark only sees good. His idea to recreate everything a person may have negative connotations about seems to be his hallmark. For example, there’s his passion for bringing businessmen back to the forefront of black communities. His work to develop images that will advance the culture of African Americans is serving him well. He mentioned having an impact on persons who have seen “Black Coffee” and have started their own business. “We’ve gotten a record of black business increase since the release of the film, [including] a lot of women,” says Mark.
Mel Roberson shed some more light on how notable these achievements are in the current environment. He says that the ideologies of rap music–popping mollies and how many women can we sleep with–has created a terrible condition in our community. He points out that we are a rhythmic people, and we naturally gravitate to music. Little boys now think it’s ok to carry guns and sell drugs to make their money. Having said that, we think what pioneers like Mark are achieving is simply incredible. They are plunging forward regardless of adversity to achieve a common goal, a common dream. For Mark, this is a dream realized with much more to come.