By Stephanie | Shadow and Act April 29, 2011 at 2:25AM
Nominated for a 2011 AMAA (African Movie Academy Award) in the category of “Best Diaspora Feature”, The Tested has evolved from a solid short, which aired on BET in 2006, into a gripping feature film. Set in NYC, the story follows the intersecting lives of Julian Varone, a police officer (Armando Riesco), and Darraylynn and Dre Warren, the mother and brother of the young man Julian hastily killed. The story examines the themes of remorse, atonement, and redemption in a highly emotional look at the clashing of closely existing worlds.
A few months ago, after we posted updates on the film The Tested, we asked our readers to pose questions to the film’s star Aunjanue Ellis and the film’s director Russell Costanzo. You asked great questions, and they both generously responded, providing insight into the history of the film, character development, the ups and downs of independent filmmaking, and their upcoming projects.
SA: It's what you'd call an "unglamorous" role for Aunjanue, and I think one that takes a certain kind of actor to make believable, and I wanted to say how much I appreciated the fact that she looks like a "real" black woman in that situation. I totally believed her in the role. So kudos to casting her in that role.
AE: First thank you!! And thank you for this forum.
SA: Are you both happy with the outcome? Or maybe a better question would be, is what you ended up with, what you initially envisioned?
AE: So, I don't think about outcomes. Every role is a potential lover. I ask: Are they someone I want to wake up to in the morning and go to bed with at night? Do they question my assumptions about life? Consume me to distraction? Make my cry then clown to make me laugh again? If I say yes, if I say yes, then it’s all I need. I don't think about marriages, babies, homes, cars...the journey itself is what electrifies. Darralyn did all these things. Thank you Russell!
SA: How did Aunjanue and Russell connect?
AE: The uber producer Melissa Miller.
SA: You’re a chameleon of film, in a wide variation of roles. Is there a common trait that draws you to each character?
AE: See the answer to question 2. And I would add...I get teased for having played a crackhead a few times. Don't care. I am not interested in playing women whose only concern is that they haven't dated in a couple months. I dream to play roles where not only are the characters' backs against the wall, but the wall sometimes is the only thing holding them up. On a resume, under qualifications, they would write "been to hell and back for more because I can take it."
SA: After being a part of Brother to Brother, was there anything that you took away from playing Zora Neale Hurston?
AE: Yeah. I worked on that movie with my friend and inspiration [director] Rodney Evans. That film led me on a whole experience with Zora. I read bios of her, read everything about her I could find, and then wrote a short fiction piece inspired by her childhood.
SA: What do you think your character Darraylynn is teaching the audience about rage and revenge? What's the takeaway, given how the film ends?
AE: I don't know. I hesitate about moral lessons. I think that when a film does its job it poses questions rather than gives answers. It should act as a frustrating counselor who, at your bidding for advice, says "what do you think?" I think that's some of what the culture critic Greg Tate meant by art leaving a "metaphysical stain."
SA: Do you have any children and if not, how did you relate to the type of mother she was and the pain that she felt after losing a kid?
AE: I do not have kids. I have a nephew, Maeson, that I am helping raise who is the love of my life. Nothing is better than this kid. Not even the chocolate he loves so much. I would be fearful for my own existence if anything ever happened to him. And I know loss. Too many people I've loved dearly have left this earth. And some I've lost are still here breathing the same air. That grief can be comparable if not worse in its consumption.
SA: The role she plays in The Tested looks pretty intense. What’s the difference in how she prepares for this role as opposed to her recent intense mother role in the film Money Matters?
AE: I hate the idea of universality. It’s crippling and reductive. Every woman with a troubled child does not behave the same. So I approach every character as a tourist on a trip to some remote country. I learn her language. Her paradoxes. Her secrets. And then immerse myself with no guided tour. I seek to get lost in her unknown. Yep. I mean it.
SA: What other projects does she have coming up?
AE: These days my project seems to be ferrying all the women in my family from ages 5 (my little cousin) to 65 (my mother) to the Justin Bieber movie. I've made two trips so far and it appears another is coming up. So somehow I now know the lyrics to this kid's songs. I'll admit a couple of those tunes I gotta say-- I like. I have to temper the experience by coming home and YouTubing old concert footage of Maze and Iron & Wine. Have to. The screaming girls...well I can't say much. No one would sit next to me when we went to see Purple Rain the first time.
But if you are asking about work...! I play Madeline Hightower on the CBS show The Mentalist. And this summer I will be in the screen adaptation of The Help. The movie stars such fab chicks as Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, and the one and only Cicely Tyson. We filmed it in Mississippi where I am from and where now I call home again. So check it out August of this year.
And I am developing a literary/literacy program in my hometown called re(A)d magnolia. And learning how to throw a football fast and far!
SA: Talk about the process from short film to feature. I’m very curious to learn about the journey from short film to feature film. What was that like for both the actors and the director, since the story has changed and evolved?
RC: We were actually fortunate enough to win top prize at the LA shorts fest, and part of the prize package was $60k of in-kind services. But the really great part about it was that there was an expiration date on it - we had 2 years to use it or it'd expire. Believe me, the fear of letting that go to waste was a great motivator!
So the natural thing for us to do was to take this award-winning short and make it into a feature. Lengthening the script wasn't too difficult because I had some ideas that I wanted to explore and they seemed to fit in with the short film story. There's also a great deal of momentum when you have an expiration date because you get to plant your flag and say "we're shooting this film by this date come hell or high-water", and people (cast/crew/financiers) tend to gravitate toward that. So many filmmakers talk about wanting to shoot something, but there's nothing like setting a date and building toward it that will get people behind you.
Once we got into the shoot it was totally surreal to reshoot some of the scenes that made it into the feature script. Particularly for me and Mike Morris, who was the only main actor we used from the short.
SA: How many years from penning the short, making it, then expanding it into a feature-length script, and then making that? Was the plan always to make a feature, and you used the short film essentially as leverage for the feature?
RC: I def set out to make a short that would showcase my abilities as a feature director - in fact, many people have said that the short plays like a mini-feature. I had an idea for a kid to join a gang and what he deals with before the initiation from all the way back when I was in film school (late 90s) - I kind of forgot about the idea until I met the financier of the short and that's when I pitched it to him - it was about a year after that that we were finally shooting it - and then 3 years from then (after shooting it, editing it, going to fests, and winning the prize package) that we shot the feature – long, long journey - but my experience is that a lot of indie films have journeys like this, where they go away for a while then come back.
SA: I'd like to know the filmmaker's experience after going through the entire process, with this feature. Specifically, I'd like to know if he's come out of it encouraged, anxious and optimistic about the state of the industry and his chances at whatever he defines as success, or if he's been disillusioned, like so many others we've come across over the years.
RC: It's hard to not be discouraged in this climate, but independent filmmaking isn’t supposed to be easy - you have to adapt to the new changes in the industry the best you can - TV is huge right now, so maybe try that arena. Success is relative to your own standards, and those standards will change whether you like it or not. For example, getting a theatrical distribution deal was once a mark of a successful achievement as a filmmaker - but less and less, audiences are actually going to theaters - so at what point does that "success" of getting theatrical change? Does getting theatrical and having it gross $35k and be out of theaters in 2 weeks really mean that your film was a success? I feel like the definition of success has become in a way really narrow and yet really general. Narrow in the sense that if you don’t play 1 of only 10 festivals in the world and you don’t have someone from a very small group of people singing your praises then the indie film world won’t consider you a success. General in the sense that there are other ways via the web and TV for a filmmaker to have an outlet and feel creatively satisfied, which in turn then makes the indie filmmaking world less significant and more secluded.
So if you carve out your own definition and then achieve the success you wanted for yourself, then you better be happy with it (e.g. "success means playing Sundance"), but then you play Sundance and you don’t get theatrical and the film goes away very quickly. To me I suppose success for an individual film is that you the filmmakers are happy and proud of it and that it can, in some way, lead you to more work you can be proud of.
SA: I saw the film last fall and stylistically, it almost feels like a documentary, and I'm wondering if that was an intentional choice. It definitely serves the story, and the characters are all very believable.
RC: Yes for sure it was intentional. Me and my DP Chris Scarafile watched Narc and 21 Grams before we started pre-pro. We wanted that gritty, handheld feel, but we also chose to increase the use of handheld cameras as the film went along. We also used a more contrasty film stock for the second half of the film. Our story becomes increasingly intense and the characters (all 3 of them) kind of go off the rails more and more, so we wanted the look and feel of the film to reflect that.
SA: So, what happens next? The film is playing the festival circuit, it has representation. Given how unforgiving the current distribution climate is for indie dramas, what are your realistic expectations for the film's future?
RC: I feel because we have a niche audience, (or what by industry standards is considered niche), we could get theatrical. But nowadays there are many other avenues and ways to get your film out that I expect to be able to at least find an audience. But finding the audience is only part of the problem, getting it to them and trying to make my financiers money back is the other part of it. Having Elephant Eye (our sales rep) behind us is exciting and instills hope that we'll find the right path for this film.
SA: And what's next for Russell? Is he working on anything new that we should be aware of?
RC: I'm working on a number of projects. I just finished a script which I hope to shoot this summer. It still deals with family, like The Tested, but it's different in many other ways. It's about sibling rivalry between a filmmaker sister and musician brother, and I'm shopping around a TV series about the Russian mob.
SA: Are you both happy with the outcome? Or maybe a better question would be, is what you ended up with, what you initially envisioned?
RC: Very happy. I learned on the very first film I’ve ever directed that what's in your head will never be exactly how it ends up on screen. Never. There are just too many intangibles that come up. But the goal is to make it as close to what's in your head as possible. And somewhere between your head and the screen is where many great new ideas come from all kinds of places. Wrangling those ideas and choosing the best ones is part of the journey. There are many moments that are damn close to what I envisioned, and a few that are different. But on a whole, at the end of the film, when Darraylynn sings in the choir, it has the feeling that I wanted, and that might be most important.
SA: How did Aunjanue and Russell connect? And did Russell always know that he wanted her for the part, or was it just a case of her being available and right for it?
RC: Actors are people, and like people they're different from each other. Some are quiet, some are needy, some aggressive, some insecure, some use humor to negotiate a point, some get bullish. I find the best way to direct actors is to pinpoint what they like and give it to them (if they're quiet, leave them alone - if they're needy, give them feedback, etc.). Aunjanue was quiet and within herself on set, which I love. She has a soulful quality to her, which is why I wanted her in the first place. That's a quality you don’t want to interfere with.
But I can say I didn’t quite realize how tuned into the role she was until toward the end of the shoot when we were shooting the final scene between her and Mike Morris (who plays her son). The scene on the page was weak; I was avoiding it for far too long and now was the time to address it. We had a talk outside of the set while the crew was preparing, and she just came up with the action for the scene (she shows him old pictures and they slow dance). It might sound schmaltzy out of context, but within the body of the film it's a perfect fit, and remains my favorite scene in the whole film.
SA: In all its travels, what's the reception been like from audiences in general?
RC: People are moved very deeply by it. It's an exhausting film, the emotions run deep, it's visceral, and it deals with issues that have been haunting our country for a long time. The acting is almost universally praised as well. People go nuts over Aunjanue's performance.