Jerry LaMothe has crafted a distinguished career as a filmmaker that can speak for the unspoken, most notably for the people 'around the way' like in his home neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, while still maintaining an entertaining and clear vision of how he sees the world. We caught up with him in advance of this Thursday's anniversary screening of his debut film AMOUR INFINITY that takes place at New York's own MIST Harlem at 4pm and 8pm, to chat about what it took to make his first film and what keeps him going.
For those perhaps more familiar with LaMothe's latest award-winning work The Tombs but not his earlier films, AMOUR INFINITY (A Brooklyn Love Story) is an urban tale of street life, hardship, and love. It revolves around Derek, a young East Flatbush, Brooklyn man (played by Lamothe) who has lost his job and the mother of his child just left him as well. He almost gives up on happiness until he stumbles across Amour (Jamie Burton-Oare), an old friend from high school, and their friendship blossoms into a love neither has ever experienced before. But as he attempts to juggle fatherhood, love, loyalty, a son, and a secret, what will each cost him?
In celebration of LaMothe's career and his big new international production The Promise Keeper starring Jamie Hector ('The Wire'), S. Epatha Merkerson (Peeples), Jimmy Jean-Louis (Toussaint L'ouverture), Garcelle Beauvais (Flight) and Edwidge Danticat (Stones in the Sun) [see more info on it below] New Voices in Black Cinema and the Creatively Speaking Film Series are collaborating to present Amour Infinity on the big screen to audiences for the first time in close to a decade. The screening takes place at MIST Harlem and tickets are available at http://bit.ly/AInvbc58
What was your inspiration for writing the story of Amour Infinity?
Initially, my goal was to break into acting. I was an aspiring actor looking to create work for myself. I'd been an extra on some big budget films and knew that was a dead end road. After getting kicked out of a John Singleton audition, that I crashed, I knew something had to give (he laughs).
In 1999, I heard about the Acapulco Black Film Festival on 107.5 WBLS. I saved my money, flew out there and participated in the Actors Boot Camp, hosted by Bill Duke and Robert Townsend. During the lecture, they pointed out that as people of color, we didn't have the luxury of just being "actors" that we had to write and produce our own content. They discussed the DV revolution and how with the new Canon XL1 and SonyVX1000, people who otherwise would've never had a chance to make a movie [with the cost of film], now could. They waged a bet... Townsend himself said that if anyone in this room were truly sincere and committed to their craft, at least one person in this room would come back with a film next year. The following year, Amour was traveling the festival circuit.
You played Derek, the lead character, in addition to writing and directing. Is there any other character in the film besides him that you could relate to on a personal level?
Not necessary relate to, but more so familiar with. As they say, you write what you know. The character Derek was largely based on my personal life, so I clearly related to him the most. However, I think we all know those guys "on the block." I grew up with many of those characters.
The film was made on a budget of $45,000. What was your process like in terms of raising funds and shooting on such a small budget?
Given it was my first film and I had no real knowledge of budgeting and financing a film, at first I thought I could shoot the film for about $5,000. I was already rehearsing with the cast, and four days from shooting, when I realized I had just enough to shoot for two days. I reached out to friends and family members, along with my personal savings and used my weekly paycheck. My mother had been saving to buy a house for years, and she emptied her savings, about $5,000, which was a lot, to help me make the movie. But ultimately, I needed more funds. I reached out to some local entrepreneurs who owned several fried chicken spots in the community. They'd known me most of my adolescent life from buying chicken nuggets and fries almost every day from them. They had love for me, so they signed on as my EP's and financed the film.
How did you assemble your cast?
The cast was largely assembled from the group I met at [the] ABFF Boot Camp from the year before. Laz Alonso and many others were in that class. Jamie Burton-Oare (Amour) sat beside me. She was mad cool and driven. Like me, she was hungry and motivated by the class. She lived in Harlem, so we kept in touch. Once I returned to Brooklyn and started writing the script, I called her and told her I had a part for her. I then posted an ad in Backstage magazine and held an open call. Nearly 400 people came out. That's where I cast many of the remaining roles.
What was the biggest challenge posed to you in creating Amour Infinity?
What wasn't a challenge! Amour Infinity is where I truly learned about Murphy's Law. The bulk of my funding wasn’t secured until my first day on set. My car was towed two days before principle photography and I had to pawn my jewelry to feed my cast and crew, during the third week of shooting. My cast, and some crew, was never aware of most of these obstacles. It wasn't their burden to bear. My favorite quote, whenever I'm in production is, "Heavy is the head that wears the crown." I can go on and on. The beauty of it was, I knew at a certain point, there was no way this movie wasn’t going to get made. After a while, I realized these were the hurdles that come with any ambitious endeavor you take in life, to propel yourself. None of this took anything away from the experience and blessing of actually pulling it off.
I have a certain level of fearlessness, when it comes to making films. All my projects to date have been independent, privately funded projects. I tell people all of the time, if I made my film the practical so called standard way of making a movie, which I suppose in theory means, EVERYTHING is in place, before moving forward (financing etc,) here it is 13 years later, I still wouldn't have a single film credit to my name! My life has never been that way. I can’t sit and wait for everything to fall in place. I have to keep it moving, hustle and grind, then everything else around me peeps game and falls into place. The universe conspires to open doors and opportunities for you, when it realizes you will not accept another option or direction - that you’re strong in your convictions about your purpose. No one should ever be able to convince you that you can’t achieve something that you’ve done before.
How did the positive response to your debut affect your career?
It's truly been an amazing experience - especially for a debut film. Anytime you can create anything, be it a song or a film in this crazy assembly line crank them out society and still have people appreciate, discover and watch something you created over 13 years ago…that is truly a blessing. The truth of the matter is, there are multimillion dollar studio projects made every year, that are all but forgotten, no sooner than [after] they’re released. Over the years, many people have written to me, expressing their love for the film and the impact it had on their lives. Many of my fellow filmmakers today were inspired and motivated by Amour and I can't tell you how many mothers have approached me to tell me how they named their daughters "Amour" after the film’s character. By being invited to film festivals, the film also provided me with the opportunity to travel and see the world - something I never really had the blessing of doing prior to.
Seeing the film air on television on pay-per-view (before On-Demand and Netflix), along with films like Amores Perros and Before Night Falls blew my friends and family away. Everyone in the hood saw it for free, because everybody had the illegal box! The film premiered in 2000, at Urbanworld [Film Festival]. Legend has it they remodeled their security tactics after our premiere! Anyone who was there can tell you, it was bananas - completely sold out and over packed. John Singleton was dating an actress from the film at the time, so he was in attendance. He LOVED the film. I never told him I was the brother he kicked out of his audition, the year before.
Less than two years after the Actors Boot Camp at ABFF, Amour won best film at the Jamerican Film Festival in Jamaica. During the award ceremony, they called my name and who's there to present me with the plaque? None other than Chris Tucker and Robert Townsend himself! I was like wow, what an irony. The man whose speech had inspired me to be a filmmaker in the first place was now presenting me with an award. I never got a chance to tell him that and how much I appreciated him.
Looking back after 13 years, is there anything you would like to have done differently with the film?
Like with any artist who looks back at their work, there are a million things I could've done differently in retrospect. You have to trust the decisions you made at the time with what was available to you. I seldom watch my old work for that reason. With every piece, we grow and get better (or at least we’re suppose to) so yes, when I watch my previous films, I'll find myself cringing at some moments because the person that I am today, would’ve made a different choice. 'Why didn’t I cut there, or damn, why didn’t I have him do that over'? You’ll drive yourself crazy. Outside of that, I watch my movies every couple of years or so - especially with an audience. I enjoy watching because it’s very nostalgic for me. I met many lifelong friends and created great bonds through Amour. Sure, I can critique myself all day - I'm my own worst critic - but at the end of the day I wouldn't change anything. Most of what I can criticize, also serves as what made Amour appealing to many. It's an unpolished raw film.
Who have been some of your biggest influences as a director/writer?
Spike Lee, first and foremost. This is pretty obvious in my work - particularly in my earlier ones. I'm drawn to ensembles, so I'd have to say Robert Altman and Charles Burnett. I think Christopher Nolan is brilliant. I also find Frank Darabont and Edward Zwick's work compelling.
You've worked with many great actors—are there any performers you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to direct?
I’ve been blessed to work with many amazing talent, from veterans to newcomers. There are many others that I’d love to work with, including Don Cheadle, Issac De Bankole', Michael K. Williams, Ken Watanabe and Irrfan Khan, to name a few. I’m also a big fan of Yassin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def). We’ve been trying to work together for over ten years now. Scheduling and funding have always gotten in the way. I think it's safe to say that we have a strong mutual respect for one another (laughs), so if it is written, we’ll get it done one day. If all goes well, I should be working with at least two of the aforementioned, over the next year (wink).
Can you briefly describe your next project, The Promise Keeper?
The Promise Keeper is my next passion project. I'm extremely excited about it! I've been developing it, over the last three years. It's about two childhood, lifelong friends and their connected journey, despite their different paths and years apart from seeing one another. The story is about self-discovery, bonds and ancestry. It’s also very mythical.
Jamie Hector, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Garcelle Beauvais and Edwidge Danticat are attached. Both Nonso Anozie and Eriq Ebouaney, recently signed on and I think those cats are wicked (actors)! Many of these guys definitely would be on my list of talent to direct, had I not already have the good fortune to be working with them. There’s some other talent we’re in talks with, but I’m not at liberty to announce just yet. We’ve also been promoting and marketing the film through Forest Whitaker’s JuntoBoxfilm.com. The indie film community can follow the progression of the project and catch a sneak peak at the script and breakdowns. Part of the shoot is in Haiti, so this is an extremely exciting and ambitious project for me. I’m basically pacing myself, like a trained runner running a marathon. I’m enjoying the journey.
The 13th anniversary screening of AMOUR INFINITY takes place at MIST Harlem Cinemas (46 West 116th Street, New York, NY) tomorrow Thursday May 16th at 4pm and 8pm. Jerry LaMothe and special guests will be in attendance for a Q&A following the 8pm screening. Tickets are available at the MIST Harlem website at http://bit.ly/AInvbc58. More information is available at www.ActNowproduction.org
This interview was written with assistance from film and pop culture writer Aisha Harris.