Writer/Director/Producer Rodney Evans talks about shooting a historical film on a budget, working with actors for the first time and who holds the power in the film industry.
What led you to make BROTHER TO BROTHER?
The origins of it really were the short films I was making earlier, mainly a documentary film called Close To Home that dealt with personal experiences such as coming out to my family and the repercussions of that. It also documented the disintegration of a relationship I was in as it was happening. There’s one scene in that film where I break up with the person that I’m seeing on camera. I started to think about how that scene would work in a larger narrative context, and about how my life would be different if I had lived in a different time period. That led to my researching the Harlem Renaissance, specifically the gay underground within the Renaissance. I found a video interview of Bruce Nugent in his elderly years at the Schomburg Library in Harlem and I was fascinated by him and struck by the similarities between his experiences and mine. That was the real inspiration between BROTHER TO BROTHER’s central relationship, between Bruce and Perry—a relationship between two black artists from different generations.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Financing was the biggest struggle: we were forced to make the film in a very unorthodox way. We raised as much money as we could and then just started shooting. We shot for six days and then used those scenes to raise more money over the course of a year. Then I called all the actors back a year later and we picked up where we left off. One of the lead actors, playing the part of Older Bruce, got frustrated with the waiting and decided he didn’t want to be part of the project anymore. So then I had to reopen the casting process and find another actor for that part and re-shoot the initial scenes that were done with the original actor. So that was a big challenge, and also having the rest of the actors create their characters and give strong, believable performances while having to deal with this yearlong hiatus in shooting.
Doing a film where 40 percent of the scenes were taking place during the Harlem Renaissance and trying to recreate that whole world on a very low budget was definitely also a huge challenge. It was a wildly ambitious thing to shoot for that amount of money in less than 30 days.
What impact do you hope this film will have? What was the audience response been so far?
I think ultimately I want the film to really move the audience on an emotional level. I want them to follow the relationship of the main characters, Bruce and Perry, and see how they affect and transform each other.
I also wanted to illuminate the rich period known as the Harlem Renaissance and shed light on the back-stories of people like Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. I wanted to pay homage to their bravery in saying things in the black community that had never been said before, addressing topics like homosexuality, class issues, intraracial skin color prejudice… all that was very groundbreaking during the time. I wanted to bring the experiences of these writers to the screen for people who didn’t really know about them.
What was it like working with the actors in BROTHER TO BROTHER?
It was amazing. I feel incredibly blessed that I found such a gifted cast to work with. This was my first narrative film, so it was my first time working with actors. I had fallen in love with all the individual writers portrayed in the film, so it was great to find these actors who really embodied their spirits and brought them to life on film.
The film also served to fill a void in terms of the roles that black actors are allowed to play in mainstream Hollywood cinema. I was fortunate to find even more well-known actors who were interested in the film because of the depth of the characters and because of their own passion for the story. It was a real collective passion that got the film made.
From your experience, what do you think are some barriers that face filmmakers who create material about gay African American characters?
Ultimately, the people in positions of power in the film industry didn’t really understand the value of the history being dealt with in my film. So then it became a process of educating people about a culture they knew very little about. Until enough black people are in power to green light films, that lack of understanding of the complexity of black life will continue to be reflected in what we see on screen.
The realities of the film industry forced us to go out into the black gay community and do fundraising and benefits and get the people who were reflected on screen to realize that we needed their help to get this film done.
It really is about who has the power in the film industry and what stories they value. That has the largest impact on the kinds of films that are financed.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I become motivated by stories I’m burning to tell, whether they’re based on people I find a connection with in history or whether it’s being a witness to real-life experiences. This passion to tell very specific kinds of stories keeps me working and willing to fight the fight to get this work done.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I was interested in reaching as broad an audience as possible, with people from varying classes. I liked the fact that public television has such a far-reaching audience and people don’t have to subscribe to a cable channel or pay to see the movie.
What are your three favorite films?
Here are three that influenced BROTHER TO BROTHER:
My Own Private Idaho
The subject matter and styles of these films and the ways the stories unfolded were all really inspirational for BROTHER TO BROTHER and these were films that I kept going back to over and over again.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
This film was so all-encompassing that I really had to want it so badly that I allowed it to take up 99.9 percent of my life. And it was a six-year process of making the film. It was the be all and end all of my life and everything else had to take a secondary position, be it family, love, eating well…
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I definitely feel like I’d be an artist on some level. Before I “settled” on film I was dabbling in a lot of different art forms. I’d be a musician or a writer, something related to storytelling.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Definitely Marlon Riggs.
Todd Haynes, I’m constantly inspired by his abilities to reinvent himself and his work.
Fassbinder, especially In A Year of 13 Moons.
And a lot of more experimental documentary filmmakers, such as Robert Frank and Greta Snider.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
My main advice would be to have a story that you’re burning to tell that you’re passionate about. That will get you through all the obstacles and closed doors and rejections and financing nightmares… It has to be the story that ultimately gets you through those dark days.