Noel Calloway

No surprise that over the years I’ve done a lot of interviews with filmmakers. But one thing that I’ve rarely done, is interview a first time filmmaker. The opportunities don’t come around that often, which is one of the many things that makes Noel Calloway so interesting.

Calloway has written and directed his moving feature film Life, Love, Soul which comes out on DVD and VOD next Tuesday, Aug.27th, through RBC Film Group.

Starring Chad Coleman (Tyreese on The Walking Dead), Jamie Hector, Robbie Tate-Brickle, Egypt Sherrod, Terri J. Vaughn and Valerie Simpson, Calloway’s film is about a 17-year-old honor student struggling to cope with the sudden death of his mother in a car accident. As a result, he is forced to reconnect with an estranged father who’s been absent for most of his life.  Though his father tries, in his own awkward way, to make amends for his past mistakes, new problems arise to rock, even further, the tumultuous father-son relationship, creating new challenges for the young student.

So just this week, I talked to the very interesting Noel Calloway about his film, its long journey, which stated just after high school, how he wound up directing the film, when, originally, he wanted someone else to direct it, and why he thinks films have a greater purpose.

SERGIO: I have no choice but to start off with the most obvious question. Is Life, Love, Soul autobiographical or based on someone you know? You know what they always say to beginning filmmakers - write what you know.

CALLOWAY: It’s actually based on a lot of people I know and I guess that was my reality growing up in terms of just people in my school, people in my community, just people all around me. It’s a collage of a lot of peoples' stories and I thought it needed to be told in a real honest and candid way.

The father, played by Chad Coleman in your film, is a very angry frustrated guy; from people you know from your experience, is that common? That these absent fathers are that bitter and angry?

To be frank, I don’t know if that’s common. That is a side of the story that I use as a dramatic tool because when you talk about a father not being in the home talking from my experience anyway, we always get the mother’s perspective and the children’s perspective. Usually the father is mum on the subject. In my experience you never even hear the father’s side. So that part in my film was sort of a “what if?” What would a man, who has supported his children financially and in his eyes, hasn’t been allowed to be in their lives, how would he feel? And I think the anger was more grief and misplaced emotions. And I can speak for myself as men, our knee jerk reaction to sadness is anger, as opposed to the vulnerability and weakness that is perceived when you’re sad and hurting. So I thought that was his coping mechanism as opposed to him being just outright mad.

Which leads me to ask, and I hate to put you into the shoes of a sociologist, why is this situation practically the norm nowadays? To not age myself, but when I was a kid growing up you rarely saw black kids being raised by single mothers unless the parents were divorced or the father was dead. Now granted you had parents who didn’t like each other and had a hard time being together, but they somehow stuck it out and worked through it. Now it’s: “You left the cap off the toothpaste. Bye I’m gone!”

Yup, yup. And that’s the most disheartening thing about it, is that it’s so often, and not to take the position of a sociologist, it’s that attitude that it’s so much easier to walk out, or on the other side, I can do that alone. Because when I grew up, that was the norm, and that’s what prompted me to write this script. At my high school graduation I looked out and I saw mainly mothers and grandmothers, but fathers sprinkled in here and there, but not prevalent, and that image just stuck in my head. So I wrote the script the summer after high school. It was that image I had: “Where are all the dads? Why are they gone?”

So wait you wrote this script right after high school? Was it first a short story or originally as a screenplay?

I wrote it as a script in 1997 and of course I’ve rewritten it countless times because as a 17 year old I don’t know how good a writer I was, but this is what I wanted to do. So I went to Clark University in Atlanta as a Radio/TV/Film major and when I came back home to Mew York, I jumped full in and went back into these scripts that I had written…

(At this point Calloway excuses himself for a few minutes to take care of his young daughter…)

I see you’re leading by example. Good for you! (laughs)

Yes absolutely! (laughs) So as I was saying I had written all these scripts, but this one just resonated with me and it was the first one I had written so it was near and dear to my heart. It just seemed important. If I was going to dive into this insanity of independent filmmaking and if I only had one shot, because you never know, then it should be a film that made a statement along with being a good, entertaining film. And this is the one I thought that could do that. It took us a while to get it out, but now it’s more important than ever with the national conversation that’s going on in terms of this epidemic of homes without fathers.

By the way I’m glad you talked about your past and the long journey that it’s been. I always try to tell people who are interested in becoming filmmakers that’s a long hard struggle. It takes years of dedication and really hard work. But why the path of being a filmmaker for you? Why not become a painter or a writer some other way to express yourself?

Early on I just loved movies. Before I knew what quote/unquote filmmaking was I loved movies and I wanted to write them. I didn’t know I wanted to direct them. I didn’t know that I wanted to produce them. I just wanted to write them. I originally had no intention of directing this film, but when I started talking to directors about the script no one fully understood the vision. So actually I was pushed into directing the film myself by the producers of the project.

At first I was like “Wait I don’t really know how to do that.” But they would hear what I was saying to the other directors we were interviewing and they said: “No you need to direct this because you have a very clear vision of what you want this film to be and that is what directing is; although I had go to school for it and sort of learn the technical side. And for a young man growing up in Harlem, I’ve never known a movie director before. The first set I was ever on was as the director of my film. I didn’t know until then that I had this skill set and the acumen to do it.

But midway through the first day of shooting, as I was interacting with the cast, I felt very very comfortable. That I can convey a message and to me that’s what being a directing is. Being able to communicate a message to the cast, the crew everyone, and to translate your vision to the screen, and I think that I’ve really found my sweet spot.

So are directors born or are they made?

I think they’re born. I absolutely think they’re born. Before, I was a director of teen programs for the YMCA and I’ve created summer camps. I’ve been in lead positions and have brought all kinds of people together and value the importance of a team and their collective work. And I think good directors are born because it’s not about ego, it’s about that collective work.

If, for example, an actor has a notion to go into a certain direction my only instruction would be to tell him go 100%. If this is the choice you’re going to make, then commit to it 100% and my job is to get you to 100%. It’s not my choice to make your choices for you. And what I heard from the actors was that, that was sort of refreshing and I think it made for a better project because it allows everyone’s voice to be heard. And I don’t care how smart you are, one person is not smarter than ten together.

So in regards to the cast, how were you able to get Chad Coleman? Timing is everything and now with his role in The Walking Dead, which will be more prominent when the new season starts in October, it adds an extra level on interest to your film?

Perfect timing. Just like you said it takes years and time and patience, but it seems that this film has really been blessed. Everything seems to be breaking at just the right time. We cast Chad before The Walking Dead. We cast Tami Roman before Basketball Wives. We didn’t know these things were going to happen. Chad came on board as a result of Jamie Hector being on board. I met Jamie at a screening for his film Blackout that he did with Jeffrey Wright and Zoe Saldana and I had been a fan of his since The Wire. It wasn’t until I started speaking with him did I realize that he was far removed from the character Marlo. He’s from Brooklyn, New York and he’s a community guy. We had a lot in common and especially in what we felt about our role in the community, in helping young people and helping men. So I told him I have a script that I think you’ll like. With no expectations I didn’t expect an actor of that stature would want to sign on to a project of mine and his first out the gate.

He and his manager got back to me and said that they loved it and he said he didn’t care about the money, he just wanted to be involved. He just wanted to do it and I was overwhelmed. And from that his manager contacted Egypt Sherrod and sent her in for an audition. And then Jamie contacted Chad and then Chad reached out to Dedra Tate, one of our main producers and she’s had a long relationship with Chad. He called her and said Jamie told me you had this great script that you’re producing, and I’ll like to take a look at it. So he read it and really responded to it the way that Jamie did and told us he wanted to be involved.

And it just started to snowball, a word of mouth sort of thing. Then Terry Vaughn gets involved and then everyone heard about it from a peer or someone else, and they felt that the content of the script was something that was necessary right now, and they could be proud of being a part of. Because, and this is not something that was actually said to me, I get the sense that they don’t feel that these roles are out there for them. So when they come along, they want to grab on to them by any means necessary. And for that reason, that’s why I think they stuck with me for four years as I tried to get the film made.

Clearly then you believe that films have a greater propose than to just entertaining?

Absolutely. I mean I grew up looking up to filmmakers like Spike Lee. He dealt with subjects that weren’t always the easiest to talk about, but he gave us a platform to discuss them. So when you talk about a film like say Jungle Fever dealing with mixed relationships, you can talk about the characters in the film and what’s going on, on the screen. But you’re in fact talking about things you feel in your own life which is separating yourself from it, so you can have a more honest conversation. 

I think good films do that and can still be entertaining, and the teaching comes from the audience interacting with each other. Because you can watch a film and walk out and that’s that. But with this film, at every screening, the Q & A and dialogue after the film goes on so long, because people are talking about their own stories, and it relates to what they see on the screen and how they want to do things differently.

Here's the trailer for the film: