A director and DP meet in a café. Three days later they made a feature film.
No joke here. Just the story of how passion and urgency can make a great film despite a lack of resources.
As part of a homecoming from Los Angeles to his DC neighborhood, filmmaker Merawi Gerima wanted to make an authentic, somewhat autobiographical film on his street. Residue is about a lost filmmaker who has returned home and tries to find his childhood best friend in a rapidly developing area of DC he doesn't recognize. With heightened aesthetics and a dreamy, surrealist doco style, the film addresses race, personal demons, friendship and loss.
The film, which premiered on Slamdance, caught the attention of none other than Ava Duvernay and is now streaming on Netflix after being recorded by her film company Array this summer.
The filmmakers met with NFS for the first time on the eve of their festival premiere. Check out the movie and read this excerpt from this fascinating, honest interview about making movies by any means, finding DP Mark Jeevaratnam in a coffee shop, and making a movie where the community is your budget.
NFS: So that production in the DC neighborhood where you grew up was a homecoming for you too. How much did you go into the community to make this film?
Merawi Gerima: When I landed in DC I didn't have a lot of crew or cast. There were about 40 characters to be cast. We only had about a month, or maybe a little over a month, preproduction.
I felt a great urgency to make the film. I started writing it in the summer of 2016. We filmed in summer 2017. We basically shot the first draft, but the urgency of all that kind of dynamic, our need to just get it done, I think that shows in the film.
We literally snatched family, friends, and people off the street, sometimes on the day of the shooting. Aside from Obi and the mother, we mostly dealt with non-actors. That was also important to me because I prefer to be with authentic DC people than with trained actors.
It all came from this comprehensive community effort. When people found out we were making this story, their first question wasn't, "How much? What's your budget?" It was like, "Yeah, how can I help? I have three kids. Do you need child actors? I have 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 the actors were people I grew up with. The child actors are the children of my friends who I grew up with and who play the younger selves of their parents.
It was amazing. All of my explosive anger about what was going on somehow merged with that powerful production or the experience of just being held up by my community. With our recent showing in DC two weeks ago which was the most amazing homecoming you could ever ask for.
"For me, Delonte's character is my worst enemy. When I come back to the hood with a camera, I think I'll do something big."
NFS: How was the conversation between you and Mark, your DP, about the unique style with which you would make this film? Was that your strategy?
Gerima:. Mark, we literally don't know each other, he came into town by chance. I had a cameraman and the planning didn't work out. Take it from there, Mark.
Mark Jeevaratnam: I came into town to visit my cousin and was looking for a cafe where I could sit and find out how to become a cameraman, write emails and convince people that I can take pictures –
Gerima: – Because you just graduated.
Jeevaratnam: – I just finished school. My friend told me about Sankofa and I did a little research and found that a filmmaker I admire very much was his cafe. So I'm joking that I had a cup of coffee there and I had the opportunity to make this movie. It was really just a pure universe. I don't know how else to describe it.
Gerima: My family, we have this bookstore and coffee shop in DC. My parents are filmmakers. It's kind of like what we're getting out of. And my father knows that I'm making a movie. He went inside.
NFS: Usually when you have a dad who says, "Oh, you're DP. My son is a filmmaker." You would be like Twist eyesand "Daaaad".
Gerima: To all the filmmakers who come by, my dad says, "This is an opportunity for you to learn, do, or move on as you can."
Jeevaratnam: I didn't expect him to be there at all. In my eyes, here's a filmmaker giant who owns this bookstore. He's probably not actually there. You know what I mean? He probably has people running it for him. He came up from his processing bay. I just approached him somehow and said: "You are Haile Gerima." He said, "Yes, and who are you?" I just finished my backstory … I just finished AFI, I'm a cameraman. I'm in the city. So he said, "Come back tomorrow. Let's have coffee." We had coffee and at the end of the conversation he said, “I want you to meet my son. He's making a movie.” It developed from there in a very organic way that ultimately led to that moment sitting here with you.
NFS: At the moment, when you met and decided to work together, how close are you waiting from production?
Gerima: Like two or three days. I literally called him two days before production and said, "Yo if you come back to do it I can put it back a day." So we basically had two or three days of pre-production. It was crazy. And he still had to go to Jersey to get his camera.
NFS: So what camera did you have to go to Jersey to get? How big was your production?
Jeevaratnam: I had a relationship with ARRI Rental in New York and went up there to see what they had lying around. I think at that point the Mini was out, the Classic wasn't working that well. So we took the Alexa Classic. They had the Arri ZEISS Ultra Speeds. We grabbed a couple of focal lengths and then I asked them to keep it as minimal as possible because I knew the reality of our production is that we're under-challenged and inexperienced and need to act quickly. This film almost blurs the line with documentaries. There are so many non-actors and we were shooting in a real, living, breathing neighborhood.
Gerima: With so much going on.
Jeevaratnam: It wasn't like a big film crew come in and buy the whole block and have cinematic immunity, all up and down. We were really just part of the whole fabric of this community. It was important to me to keep it small and minimal as the camera has great performance. We had to be careful how we use this and how we move around the room.
Gerima: In addition, we had no choice but to be small. On our biggest days we had about 10 people including the actors, half of them on normal days. And all we had to move was just a pickup truck that actually started the movie. My pickup.
The cross-country material was shot by me and my friends while traveling, without any idea how it would be in the finished product.
At first we didn't have a camera. The discussion was that we're going to shoot this on my dad's Nikon –
Jeevaratnam: – DSLR, everything.
Gerima: – But then Mark came up to me and said, "Yo, I think we might have the option to use Alexa." I think for me I was nervous because I felt like it was going to bring a lot more drama than we were ready to deal with. I felt like I wanted to stay small and be as fast as possible. At the same time, it's hard to say no to this type of injection of production value.
So we set out to do it, but I'll tell you in a moment, it slowed us down in so many ways. It's a big package. Many boxes come with a set camera and set lenses. Do you know what i mean? It restricted us creatively in terms of camera angles and stuff. You can't compare something as small as a cell phone or DSLR to something as big. Still, as he said, these limitations gave us more opportunities to really drive creative solutions, creative and elegant solutions.
"… a few days after we started shooting," You know what? Let's lean into this stuff. Let's lean into all of our limits. ""
NFS: How would you describe the style of the film and how you made it?
Jeevaratnam: My admiration for Merawi and for the story was how authentic it is and how close it is to his own experience. I think filmmakers need a lot of courage to approach this vulnerability. But in the end, I firmly believe that these are the best stories. I definitely admire how fearlessly Merawi tried to unwrap his own story, distill it, and calculate with it. To be a part of it is an amazing honor.
I think a lot of the aesthetic or style of the film was really determined by our limits, and in many ways a lack of experience and extreme lack of experience, but it was a trial by fire. Much of it was limitation. I don't want to appreciate that. For example, it was raining outside, I didn't have a rain cover for the camera. I could only put the camera on the porch. And now, in my opinion, this is one of the bravest decisions in the film. But really, I just had nowhere else to put the camera. A few days after shooting started, we quickly realized: “You know what? Let's lean into this stuff. Let's lean into all of our limitations. “And really let that sway the ultimate aesthetic of this film.
"My favorite thing about our film is imperfection."
NFS: There are many different levels in this film that speak for racing. Gentrification, over-police, friendship and change. In the middle of these levels, the main character is a filmmaker who keeps saying he wants to make his film. At the end of the movie, people say, "Yeah, you and your movie …" So there is a question about the value of filmmaking. How do you feel about this question now?
Gerima: This part of the film was important to me because I know in myself and in so many people who come to the film that they come because they want to bring about social change. That is one of the biggest driving factors. But this drive is often greater than it actually is. Like what the movie actually did. I think film is such a long game anyway that it almost feels like there's not much you're doing, especially given the self-destructiveness. You know what I mean. Sometimes you feel helpless.
I look at my sister. She is a teacher and teaches in a public high school in DC. For me there are people who are actually on the front lines. You are mentally and physically in line with the most intense work. I find it difficult to get started as a filmmaker and to exaggerate my work and my impact because it's hard to imagine. You do not know. But I also come from that tradition of filmmakers, my parents and their cohort and the people who came before them and see film as something they do to bring about media change. And they believe in the power of it. For them, film is a weapon. I think these are the two sides of this internal conflict and I am trying to find my place here.
For me, Delonte's character is my worst enemy. I come back to the hood with a camera and some tape and think I'm about to do something big. Then someone from there just said: "We don't really need you." You're not actually saving us. That was something I absolutely had to acknowledge. In this film I am mostly supposed to work on my own demons. If you ask me what is the greatest force in film, this has been an opportunity for me to see my own film as guilt, inadequacy, anger, and frustration. If people can relate to it then those are all pluses.
We always say that film is a mirror. We felt like we were in the production process, every time we were on target it showed us. Every time we have been lazy or weak or whatever, it instantly shows you your shortcomings and your strengths.
"I never want to wait to be given permission to do anything."
NFS: What is your advice to filmmakers?
Gerima: I think it is always awkward to give advice. But I will say that for me one of my most central guiding principles is that I never want to wait to be allowed to do anything. I want to be able to say that I will always give myself the green light and stick with it, regardless of the resources available. It's a method my parents used. My father is probably editing a five-hour documentary that he made over the past few years.
My mother is also a filmmaker. Both had also raised six children and had been blocked by a racist industry in their prime. You never stopped. They always have projects to work on, always scripting, always editing, always publishing, always reviewing, and always teaching. My father was a professor at Howard Film School for 40 years and now does his own film workshops. This is the best nugget I can give anyone. Do it now. Green light yourself according to your own knowledge of where you are.
(Film School) will put restrictions on you that are really based on scaring you. That it is difficult to get involved with a feature. "You can't make a feature film."
Jeevaratnam: The mystification for sure.
Gerima: Yes. “You can't make a feature film for less than $ 20,000. or $ 100,000 or a million dollars. “There are people who make $ 200,000 short films. In school, I went to $ 40,000 for a 12 minute movie. There is no possibility. Just do it alone with whoever you have around you, whatever you have on hand. No matter how it turns out, let the imperfections in. My favorite thing about our film is imperfection. For real. It's like what we didn't make it turn that way. That's my favorite thing, those random mistakes that we edited in the film.
Thanks Merawi and Mark!
Do you want to see residual? It's streamed here on Netflix now.