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Interview: 'Brother to Brother' Director Rodney Evans Talks 'The Happy Sad' (on VOD 1/14)

Interviews
by Nijla Mumin
January 8, 2014 2:16 PM
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In one of the first scenes in Rodney Evan’s film The Happy Sad, lovers Aaron and Marcus wake up the morning after their first threesome, refreshed. After six years together, they are considering an open relationship, a subject that the film explores deeply.

A follow-up to his critically-acclaimed film, Brother to Brother (2004), The Happy Sad is based on Ken Urban’s play of the same name, and centers on the lives two interconnected couples in Brooklyn- one black and gay and one white and straight- as they redefine sexual identity and norms of monogamy. Marcus and Aaron, played by LeRoy McClain and Charlie Barnett provide complex portrayals free of tortured identity politics or finger-snapping caricature. Their relationship takes the focus, and that’s refreshing.

I caught up with director Rodney Evans to discuss the film, it’s modest production model, the complications of open relationships, and the state of black LGBT representations in cinema. The Happy Sad, which had it’s theatrical run this August, will be released January 14th on major digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon VOD, Hulu, SundanceNOW and Xbox through Sundance Artist Services and Cinedigm.

Rodney Evans

Shadow & Act: What brought you to this particular story, and how did you work with adding your own directorial voice to the material?

Rodney Evans: The film really evolved out of my relationship with Ken. I saw the play and I was really blown away by it, and Ken and I started talking about how it would work as a film and he mentioned that he had already started to adapt it into a screenplay but had never written a screenplay before, so he asked if he could send me a draft of it. So, it literally started as me giving feedback to my friend on his script and then by the third draft, I was really in love with it and we started to talk about the possibility of my directing it.

So, it’s a pretty quick turnaround in that we started talking about it in 2010 and we started brainstorming about how it could be transformed for the screen.  In terms of my directorial perspective, the play was much more of an ensemble piece- there were seven main characters and I was much more focused on these two central couples, so I ended up pulling the couples to the foreground. The play was much more of a musical as well, and Ken and I decided that we didn’t want to have any “burst out in song” moments in the film, and we were just going to keep it to a much more realistic tone. Those were the major changes that we made and originally, the characters of Marcus and Aaron were not African American in the original theater production.

S&A: Oh ok.

RE: So, that was a change that came up very organically just through the casting process and through actors I was interested in working with.  

S&A: That’s really interesting. What impact, if any, do you think this racial shift in casting, had on the overall film? 

RE: The casting of black actors in the roles of Marcus and Aaron made it a more diverse and complex film while also doing justice to the multicultural aspects of Brooklyn that I know and love. So much of the movie is about characters stepping outside of their comfort zone and engaging with people who are different, and looking at how these experiences make them re-examine their own identities. So having a multiracial cast is part of that.

I also know so many gifted black actors who rarely get to play complex and nuanced characters so if I have the ability to do something about that then I will. For me, it's a real joy to see actors of the caliber of LeRoy McClain and Charlie Barnett put their skills to work to fully embody these characters. The power and the intimacy of their relationship is one aspect of the film that I am really proud of especially, because it still feels so rare in terms of the portrayals that are out there.

S&A: The film also takes a very honest look at open relationships as alternatives to monogamy.  What did you want to convey about open relationships, and the obstacles that they present to the characters? 

RE: I wanted to do justice to the complexity of open relationships and especially as they were depicted in the character’s lives and for me, it’s always interesting to me how open relationships seem quite easy in the abstract, then when you’re really dealing with it in a concrete, emotional way, and things that you think are going to be not so emotionally complex or fraught with complication, end up being so. I’ve had some experience with that in my own life and I definitely had very close friends that had similar experiences to the characters in the film, and for me, it was really refreshing to see that the story that I saw playing out in the lives of my friends, and all around me, that I very rarely saw depicted in film.

S&A: Just going back to Marcus and Aaron’s relationship, I notice the film is very much a kind of a multicultural project without overtly commenting on race, while your film Brother to Brother was kind of greatly informed by this examination of black, gay characters. How would you compare and contrast the films in terms of race, or their treatment of race?

RE: That’s a great question. I think that Brother to Brother was very much informed by this historical research into the gay underground of the Harlem Renaissance and doing this kind of dual narrative between the past and the present. Those kinds of questions of identity were really kind of integral to that piece, and to a lot of the ideas that went into the writing and the research process. 

With this piece, race was much less the kind of central element, and it was really much more about issues of intimacy, trust, monogamy, and infidelity, and how people define those things within these sexual relationships, and how these things can be fluid. I think especially with a younger generation that’s more open to that idea in terms of the fluidity of sexuality, that was much more at the foreground of what I thought the characters were dealing with.

S&A: Can you talk about working with the actors on this project because the performances are really strong.

RE: The actors were really amazing. I worked with a couple of fantastic casting directors in NYC- Susan Shopmaker who had done casting on Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and Lois Drabkin who did casting on Night Catches Us, and a lot of it was them casting a really wide net, and I tend to see a lot of theater in New York so I have a rolling list of actors that I’m really blown away by, and interested in working with. In terms of these specific actors, I think this was a much more collaborative process in terms of utilizing things like improvisation.

It was a two camera shoot so a lot of times we would improvise the pre-scene beats and then kind of naturally drift into the scene as scripted, and sometimes I would not call cut and let them just continue on with the scene, sometimes I’d give them a kind of outline of the specific scene and they would fill it in, in terms of specifics of dialogue, and those were all very new ways of working and I have to say it was really inspiring to me as the director to have that kind of open, collaborative process with the cast.

S&A: I also noticed this running theme of the fluidity of sexuality between the characters and how that became disrupted when titles and categories of sexual identity got in the way. I wanted to get your thoughts on that because that reflects a large part of society in terms of defining one’s self, and it’s really explored in your film.

RE: I think that, in some ways, some characters have more internal conflict in terms of needing an identity or a label and I think that the character of Stan is obviously exploring gay relationships but also being a little bit unwilling to define himself as Bi and with a character like Mandy, we see her evolve into a lesbian relationship. I think that the characters grapple with ideas of self-identity in different ways and if anything, I think that the film does a good job of depicting that kind of fluidity in a much more realistic way, and really is true to the experiences of younger generation and people in their 20’s.  

It’s been interesting to see the responses in different generations. You know, the film seems to have a stronger impact with younger people and people in their 20’s who I think are less apt to need those types of definitions that seem so integral and important, even just like a decade ago.

S&A: You wrote and directed Brother to Brother in 2004 and since then, there’s been several films addressing LGBT people of color and themes. Do you think there’s been progress made, or more work to be done, or both?

RE: In terms of specifically, LGBT characters of color, I do think there’s been a rise in representations in LGBT communities of color, but then I also think there’s a long way to go, and that my evolution as a filmmaker was very much informed by that lack, or that void, of specific kinds of experiences and I still think there could be more where you feel less like you’re one of a handful of people responsible for depicting this huge diverse, community.

I think there could be more representations but I think in terms of the cultural environment now, versus when Brother to Brother came out, there are more portrayals of LGBT characters of color on television than in film. Because television is such a form that so many people have an intimate relationship with, I think those changes have really impacted people who may not be close in terms of their actual relationships or their lives, maybe have a certain window into that experience based on television portrayals.

So while I do think there have been changes made, there could be more and part of my reasons for making films is to add to both the quantity of those types of portrayals and the complexity of the portrayals. That has really been a real, galvanizing force in terms of filmmaking and feeling like there is a community out there that appreciates those characters, and honestly meeting those audiences and having them show such a strong appreciation for films, makes it that much more important to continue making work.

S&A: Can you talk about the production model for the film. I read the directors statement and you hinted to the way you were able to make the film with in-kind resources from New York-

RE: The film was made with a skeleton crew and I was really glad to have it be intimate where the focus was on the acting and the performances. It was an extension of the process I had with making a short film called Billy and Aaron and I shot that film in the summer of 2009 in Amsterdam with a three-person crew and that was entirely shot in eight hours total. I was really inspired by that process of not having a huge apparatus attached to filmmaking and having the technology serve the actors, honestly.

So, it was really a very fast production and was shot in 16 days in Brooklyn, and some of it was shot in my apartment and in the apartments of close friends of mine, in different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, so it definitely had this kind of homegrown feel to it. It was the right production model for this story. A lot of the resources and crew came from the film department at Temple where I teach. All of that helped keep the budget low and when you keep the budget low, you have more creative control and can take more risks.

S&A: What other projects do you have in the works, or what’s next for you?

RE: Billy and Aaron, the short that I mentioned is about the jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, so that film is actually an excerpt from a feature-length script called Day Dream and that’s a script I wrote and that I am hoping to be able to shoot this year. I’m also reading scripts that I’ve been sent and staying open to other projects as well. But that film Day Dream has been the main focus in terms of what I’m doing next, and putting the pieces together on that.

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