One-Two Punch

I thought that making Monster’s Ball was rough. I vowed upon wrapping that film that I would never make another. After the accolades and success of that film, I was offered tons of projects from studios for lots of money (which I really could have used.) But all of them were jokes: Who’s My Baby’s Cousin’s Daddy, Leprechauns From the Hood (really). I felt that as a black filmmaker, my sophomore attempt at film should be just as interesting as my first; that I should not sell out.

Then Sherry Lansing, chair of the Paramount Motion Picture group, rang and asked what I wanted to do next. She is such a class act. Upon our meeting, I spoke of my passion for Shadowboxer. Written by William Lipz, it’s the story of Mickey, an abused kid who ends up killing folks for a living and yet somehow we feel sorry for him. She personally drove me in her golf cart to the head of her classics division, Ruth Vitale. Ruth had issues with the third act but, regardless, greenlit it.

At first Anjelica Huston was attached. My respect for Anjelica is off the Richter scale. She seemed perfect to play the role of Rose, Mickey’s mother, a woman who is dying of cancer, a contract killer in love with her stepson. Even though I thought she’d sorta been there done that in The Grifters, the role was still a tour de force for any actress in her age range, and I’d figured she’d bite. She did! Soon after, however, a whole range of conflicts arose, and I decided that I would rather walk away than to compromise my vision for the film. In my gut, I knew that Shadowboxer would be back. Don’t ask me why, but I did.

I went back to the drawing board to try and find a film of substance, hence The Woodsman. The process of begging people to invest in a movie about a pedophile was beyond humiliating. And yet again, accolades. With accolades, your balls grow. Accolades put hair on your chest. Accolades can even make you think you can direct. I was looking for something edgy, something raw. In other words, something me. On our very last day of shooting The Woodsman, writers Nicole Kassell and Steven Fechter rang to tell me that Shadowboxer had gone bye-bye at Paramount Classics. Second to my kids arriving into this world, it was the happiest day of my life!

Shadowboxer was a film I originally set out to produce. What I love most about producing is giving first-time directors a chance, a voice. With Shadowboxer, I decided to give myself that chance.

I called the director Oskar Roehler in Berlin. He had been attached at one point to the film, and is also a friend. I asked if he thought I could direct. He said yes. I believed him… well, sort of. If anything, I’d use this directing thing as an exercise for how to work better with my directors. I figured if I could just step into their frame of mind it’d make me a better producer. Again, I faced the grueling task of raising cash for a controversial film—this time about a mother and stepson who are lovers and contract killers.

Even as I write this, I think I am insane. I loved the concept, the idea, the premise. The abuse in this film was what struck the biggest chord with me. I was scared because it seemed too close to home. But I am at my best working from fear. I began calling the studios and as expected: pass, pass, pass. I wasn’t bothered or deterred because that has always been my experience with studios. I walk in, pitch, and they look at me like my dad used to when I’d tell him things like “I wanna be a ballet dancer when I grow up.” Being made to feel odd has been a life experience for me. It’s almost my comfort zone.

Anyway, I was blessed again by a group of private investors that gave me money for my baby. They didn’t really believe in the story. They believed in me. I talked them into giving me half of my budget. I’d raise the rest later, and start casting and crewing up immediately—with a firm start date. Fuck a bond. We’d worry about those matters later.

What gave me any credence as a director? If I were an agent I don’t think I’d let me direct either. I forgot to mention that’s what got me here. I spent 20 years trying to find actors work—as a talent manager… don’t ask. What I did learn from those years was how a set worked; I spent my life on sets around the world with some of the greatest filmmakers of our time.

For the mother role, I was floored that Helen Mirren wanted to take a chance with me. I have been obsessed with Helen Mirren since forever. I figured it’d be more interesting if someone like Cuba Gooding Jr. was cast, so that the whole interracial mother-son thing took us into another world. He has been my friend for 100 years and jumped on. I cast Mo’Nique in the role of Precious. The role was written as a 23-year-old white model chick. Her lover is the genius Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Macy Gray plays a nymphomaniac—funny as hell. With all of my characters, I cast against type because I wanted to show the world that people are more diverse than the cookie-cutter images that mainstream media spit out.

In life we unknowingly cross paths with many people who have horrible secrets. This story gives life to their existence. I was fortunate to have David Mullen shoot. Lisa Cortes, my best friend, produced. I conned Vivienne Westwood into costuming. Wow. But even with all these amazing talents, this was the most difficult experience I have ever taken on. As I think back, I don’t know that I would do this again. The hardest part was raising money at night while shooting during the day. I was away from my kids for more than a year. Still, out of a hard labor came my new kid, Shadowboxer. And I love him.

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