In the Flying Saucer café in Brooklyn, New York, Rodney Evans settles into the same chair he sat in to storyboard almost the entirety of his first feature, Brother to Brother. "I can’t draw," explains Evans, "so I would sketch out these stick figures in a spiral-bound notebook, and then a friend of mine who is an artist made them look like people. The process took me two years."
If the mood this morning feels nostalgic, Evans has proved himself a bit of a connoisseur of the feeling. Brother to Brother, a bittersweet paean to an overlooked hero of the Harlem Renaissance, won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2004 for "passion in filmmaking" with its blend of archival footage, lush (and low budget) period recreations, and spirited contemporary sexual politics. It’s a film suffused with admiration and yearning, and the prize was aptly named. "A film like this gets made because people are passionate about the material and they’re willing to work for less," says Evans. Much less.
While in many ways the creation of Brother to Brother may follow the familiar indie trajectory of scrappy ambition and resilience in the face of innumerable hurdles, Evans at least had one enormous, free asset: the legacy of an artist community that has rarely been brought to life on screen. The Harlem Renaissance gave Evans personalities to burn. With such rich roles—black literary luminaries like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman—the film’s stellar cast of theatrically-trained black actors worked for $100 a day when "normally they’d make three times that," says Evans. He shot the film in two parts, fashioning a trailer out of the first bits of filming in order to secure financing for the rest. (They shot the remainder a year later.) Evans won’t reveal the exact budget because, he says, "when you attach a figure to your film, that automatically lets a distributor know what’s reasonable to pay for it." Suffice it to say the budget was low, he concedes, "but people will make sacrifices when they believe."
Brother to Brother follows Perry (Anthony Mackie), a gay college student and painter, struggling to make sense of a burgeoning romance with a straight, white friend. When he meets Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), the last living member of a group of Harlem Renaissance rebels, he’s drawn increasingly into Bruce’s memories of the sexual adventures of the black avant-garde at "Niggeratti Manor," a Harlem brownstone that served as the smoky, raucous meeting spot for Hughes, Thurman, and Hurston amid the roaring twenties. Jumping back and forth in time, the film draws evocative parallels between Perry’s emergent identity and Bruce’s own role in a bygone, artistic revolution.
For the past decade, Evans has been angling up to Brother to Brother’s tricky exploration of sexual politics by producing a handful of autobiographical, experimental shorts on 16mm. His first, Mirage, examined the perfect body-culture in the gay male consciousness. Later, as an assistant editor on Gummo and with Upright Citizen’s Brigade on Comedy Central, Evans became intrigued with tiny, buttonhole cameras that had been used on both productions. "I kept thinking, ‘What if you used these hidden cameras to get at something more sociological?’" says Evans. "There’s so much you can gather from people’s outlooks just from their gestures, particularly when they are not aware that they are being filmed."
For Two Encounters (distributed by Frameline), Evans and a white friend strapped on hidden cameras and ventured into, respectively, a white gay bar and a black gay bar to see how the men would react to their ethnicity. "I wanted to know what it felt like to be the one black person in a super Chelsea-fied gay bar like G, or the one white guy in a black bar like Chi Chis on Christopher Street," he says.
|Anthony Mackie in Brother to Brother.|
His most autobiographical short, Close to Home, became poignant (and literal) source material for Brother to Brother. It threads together two narratives—a reflection about his coming out to his conservative, Jamaican parents braided with verité moments from his breakup with a Latino (and straight) boyfriend. "I’d gotten this camera from this mentoring program at Film and Video Arts, and my boyfriend was really fascinated by it," Evan says. "So at one point he was filming me and said, ‘What is your problem?’ And I told him, ‘You really want to know?’ And this monologue just came out of me."
When Evans took the film to festivals, someone asked him if he’d ever thought of expanding the break-up segment, staging it with actors and writing dialog. "The idea intrigued me," Evans says. "And I thought, What would it be like if I lived in a different era? And that lead me to the Schomburg Center in Harlem. It’s dedicated to black culture. And I found this interview tape of Bruce Nugent that was mesmerizing, because he mixed this scholarly intelligence with a street savvy that you never see combined in one person. He was like Cornel West meets Quentin Crisp meets . . . me."
After that initial encounter, Evans sought out the executor of Nugent’s estate (the poet and painter died in 1987), who gave Evans thirty more hours of interview tape, and showed him some of Nugent’s artwork. "I’d always found myself attracted to this subset within the Harlem Renaissance that was this more rebellious, younger generation—Zora and Langston and Bruce," Evans says. "The executor told me that, near the end of his life Bruce used to live illegally in an art studio on Nassau Street so that he had to break in every weekend. And then I thought, What would happen to him on the weekends he couldn’t get in?"
In the script, Perry meets Bruce at a homeless shelter where he works, and from that spark, Evans weaves together his two stories about two artists in search of community. "I wanted to make a film about the friendship between these two people of different generations, and to incorporate all the greatness of the Harlem Renaissance," says Evans. "And the break-up scene that’s in there, that monologue is taken directly from Close to Home."
The Brother to Brother script took two years of writing, research, and escapes to writing colonies to complete. "It was really daunting to put words into Langston and Zora’s mouths," he says. "Part of the trouble for me was thinking, Who the fuck do I think I am to do this?" He developed the script to the point where he felt he could approach grant foundations, and then, with support money from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Jerome Foundation, Evans set up a string of artist’s colonies and "disappeared for a year." In 2000, the script won the Independent Feature Project’s Gordon Parks Award for Screenwriting, the signal to Evans that he was ready to shoot.
Not surprisingly, casting an explicitly black and gay film proved to be one of the major challenges. "I went to see every off-Broadway show with black actors in it for a year," says Evans. "I had this huge list of 100 people." But because the lead was a gay part, many black actors wouldn’t even read the script. While Ang Lee might be able to lure Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger to play gay cowboys in his forthcoming project Brokeback Mountain, "it’s a little more complicated for young black actors because of the hip-hop machismo mentality," says Evans. "If you have a guy’s tongue in your mouth, you can’t go back to your hood and get respect."
Then Evans read a Variety review of "Up Against the Wind," a play about Tupac Shakur that spotlit the work of a new, young actor named Anthony Mackie. Evans was able to track Mackie down after a Julliard showcase. "At the time I was thinking of him for the part of Marcus, the friend [and a supporting role]. He took [the script] and called back a couple of weeks later to say, ‘I’m really into it, but I only want to come in and read for Perry.’" It was the most interesting, complex part in the script and Mackie wanted to fight for it. "He said, ‘If there is personal shit that I need to deal with to do a gay part, well that only hones my craft,’" Evans remembers. "So many actors are in it for ego reasons. When he told me that, it just really separated him out."
With the cast in place, Evans filmed the first "chunk" in one week during the fall of 2001. "We couldn’t do the period stuff because all the costumes and design would take all the money we had," says Evans. "So I really focused on the contemporary material and a couple of key period scenes that didn’t need a lot of design elements." Fortunately, Harlem worked in his favor. "So much of that part of the city hasn’t changed, so we just shot up against the brownstones and put a long cigarette holder in Zora’s hand and suddenly it’s Harlem back in the day," Evans says.
Evans edited that footage into a sample reel and sent it to 100 producers and cable channels to raise the rest of the budget. The Gay Men of African Descent, a community-based group in Harlem, organized a screening and benefit in conjunction with Lincoln Center. "That allowed us to reach a lot of people in the black gay community who were excited about the material," says Evans, "and were willing to write checks." ITVS ultimately came on board, as did the National Black Programming Consortium. A year later, he called up the cast and said, "We’re ready to finish the movie."
Given the limited budget, Evans considered making the film on digital, but because the story was so suffused with period elements, he didn’t feel audiences would buy the recreations if they looked too "docu-home-movie." "The question becomes, How do you create that world with no money? It’s not an option to fill a street in Harlem with period cars," says Evans. "But if all that footage exists already why not blend it into what you can do?" Evans and his cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian (Lovely and Amazing) looked for inspiration in the movies of Oscar Micheaux, widely recognized as the first black independent filmmaker in America, and then found black and white archival footage to license and fold into the contemporary material they shot themselves. Evans, having worked as an editor for years, makes the linking seamless.
Once the film was finished—and accepted to Sundance—Evans hired acquisitions vet Steven Raphael, formerly of USA Films, as a sales rep to get distributors into screenings and to conduct follow-up detail. "He just got the film," says Evans. "It spoke to him, and he was really honest about its strengths and weaknesses. Because he comes from a marketing background—he was head of marketing for American Splendor and other HBO films that are coming out theatrically—he knew how we could sell it."
Using a sales rep has become a standard part of going to Sundance. "There are like four people who represent everything. Like John Sloss and Cinetic, who had twelve projects [at Sundance]," Evans says. "You have to decide whether you want to be the least important priority on a slate like that, or if you want to go with someone smaller who has two or three films. Steven had a huge job and he was phenomenal. We’ve got four theatrical offers and we’re still sussing those out."
It took six years for Brother to Brother to go from the Flying Saucer to its first broad screening. And, though Evans is still negotiating the distribution, he hopes the film will debut in theaters this fall. "There was talk of us as a summer tent pole to go up against Spiderman 2, but . . . " says Evans. "Somehow, I don’t think so."