It’s been a long
journey for Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, whose rousing political
drama Better Mus’ Come opens
in theaters this weekend via its acquisition by AFFRM (African American
Film Releasing Movement). Saulter’s feature debut was shot in 2008; since then, it has garnered
accolades since it premiered at the Bahamas International Film Festival in
2011, where it won the Audience Award. Better
was also the Viewer’s Choice Award winner at the Trinidad and Tobago Film
Festival that same year. In 2012, Better
won a Best Director award at the Pan African Film Festival, and its lead actor Sheldon
Shepherd was named Best Actor at the American Black Film Festival.
Better, starring Sheldon Shepherd as Ricky and Restless City’s Nicole Sky Grey as his romantic interest Kemala, begins in 1977 and ends in the first couple days of 1978 during the Green Bay Massacre. The Jamaican story, based on true events, follows Ricky, a gang leader and political pawn, as he struggles to navigate the hardships of life in Kingston, and to define a better way of life for his young son.
Next up for the up-and-coming filmmaker is the contemporary tale titled Stingray. According to Saulter, Stingray takes place “in the upper, upper echelons of Caribbean society. These are the people who run the country”. He describes the film, which is scripted and has already sparked the interest of several investors, as a love triangle through which exposes how people truly feel about each other. The narrative is set on an island off Kingston, Jamaica, and Saulter, who is looking to cast international talent, hopes to go into production before the end of the year.
I had the pleasure
of chatting with Saulter about his start in filmmaking, his passionate approach
to Better Mus’ Come and realization
of this dream project. And it’s just the beginning. Saulter’s Ring di Alarm, in which he directs a
short film in a co-produced compilation of eight others helmed by Caribbean
filmmakers, is currently traveling the festival circuit.
VM: ‘Better Mus’ Come’ was relatively low budget. How were you able to maximize the budget?
SS: The budget was very low for a period piece. In Jamaica there’s really not a developed film industry. There are no prop houses; there wasn’t a salvation army that had all this vintage clothing. We had to go around people that had family members who had all this stuff from the 70’s and 60’s, and we hoarded all this material. We had people; we had bodies, and the entire community was working with us; that’s how we had huge crowds on the film. I’m the cinematographer, so a lot of the work that went into creating the impression of this kind of epic large thing.
VM: This is your feature film credit, and for a production of this scale it’s pretty impressive. How did you do all that?!
SS: I went back to Jamaica after living in New York and started to work on experimental stuff and basically I grew as a filmmaker. I went to film school; I was a PA on a lot of projects and I worked so hard, you know, you’re young and I learned from different mentors. And luck put me in the position to work with amazing people. One of my mentors by the name of Little X [Director X], who is one of the most successful Hip Hop video directors for Drake and all these artists. He took me under his wing after I came out of film school and moved to New York. I worked in videos for Jay-Z, Pharrell to Busta Rhymes and Wyclef. I quickly realized how much I wanted to make films instead of music videos.
VM: How challenging and different from music videos was directing your first feature?
SS: I think of it as a race. Once you start running, yes it’s the most difficult moment, but it’s a moment you live for, so I kind of met all the challenges. I’m most alive when I’m on set. Whether I’m imagining it on my head, I know what I want to capture. There were issues all the time, something didn’t show up or some actor was late, etc. I put it in my head that part of filmmaking is problem solving.
VM: There were some great action sequences in the film? How difficult were they to orchestrate and shoot?
SS: Since the
beginning we wanted to get a Hollywood stunt guy, because we knew the action
had to work. We contacted a stunt guy out of L.A. He got all the weapons and it
was pricey, but we said, “OK, let try to make it work. In Jamaica, because
there is no developed film industry, the State Department of the U.S. needed a
letter from the Minister of National Security of Jamaica to give the O.K. for
these guns to be sent to Jamaica, and the Minister needed all the serial
numbers from them before he could send it. So, it was a catch 22; there was
more motion. We had to find someone else to recreate them. We found a man from
the village area named Captain Robert Higgler and he came in a Stunt Weapons
Supervisor, which I’ve never done before, but he became our lead for the
Jamaican military and through that, we were able to get the actual weapons from
the 70’s in storage, and got them decommissioned. He taught the actors how to
fire the guns, and since then, Captain Higgler has become the go-to-man for
action for anyone that wants to shoot in Jamaica.
VM: I loved the romantic subplot in the film. Did you initially set out to for the film to include a love story?
SS: Yes, I
definitely knew it would be a big part of the story. A big element of the film
was that you could live in a community and two streets down; you can’t go there
because it’s controlled by a gang that’s aligned by the other political party.
I thought it was sort of silly, but it’s so real. I wanted to have a character
that totally went against those rules and that was the character of Kemala. The
main character Ricky has this ideology to fight for politics that is totally
falling apart, and Kemala is not caring about the borders. That made him
question his own parameters that he was putting on himself. That love story was
the more developed subplot. There were more scenes, more stages of them falling
in love, but ultimately, in the end, through the edits and the re-edits, and testing
and showing the film to people and getting comments, we had to really
streamline the film. Really, the film is 100 minutes long, and it doesn’t seem
that way, but it’s because we kind of trimmed everything that was absolutely
not necessary, because if we had added the other things, it would have been two
hours long. I don’t know if two hours would have had the impact that it did. As
much as I loved the love story, we really had to leave some of it on the
VM: You had a lot of footage to work with.
SS: A whole lot. That film was made in my bedroom. As a young filmmaker, I shot a lot of stuff because I wanted to make sure that I got everything, but now I’ve gotten much more precise with my shooting. Editing is a whole other layer because then, sometimes you realize characters don’t even need to say this or that. It becomes an issue of exposition, and over-explaining something. In the script, I’d reinforce certain things about what I wanted people to know two or three times, but in the editing room, I’d be like, “I only need to say this once, maybe twice.”
VM: Sheldon Shepherd was great. How much direction did you have to give him? Was his performance your vision for the character?
SS: We basically
found a middle zone. I did a lot of rehearsals with these actors. I didn’t over-rehearse
them, but I definitely worked with the to the point that I was conscious of
their abilities before shooting. Sheldon, this was his first film. All the
actors except Roger G. Smith; this was their first time making a film. Some had
no acting experience. Sheldon had stage acting experience. I recall him and a
couple of other actors that had only done stage, and in the Jamaican stage
scene, you have to project everything to the back of the room, and I had to
kind of work with him to understand that on the screen you don’t hardly have to
show anything; you just have to feel it, and it will come in your physicality;
the audience will sense it. So, I worked to bring him down to a level of a very
subtle performance. Some of the actors that had done no stage, never acted
before, I worked with them to bring them up to the point that they could
VM: That was going to be my next question. How was it working with untrained actors?
SS: They didn’t
have experience, but they did have raw talent. We definitely chose people
that we knew had the energy and could hold your attention on the screen. Once
they got the principles, it wasn’t too hard.
We only had one or two scenes where we had to do a lot of takes. For the
most part, we got the shots within a few takes. A lot of the times the first
take was the best, because the actors are not analyzing themselves as much;
they just do it. I believe in happy accidents and I’m not necessarily into
actors getting the dialogue exactly as I wrote it; I’m much more into them
understanding the motivations and have it come out in a natural way, and maybe
catch something that I didn’t expect.
VM: Did Roger Guenveur Smith come up with his own script?
SS: He came up with his own script. The first scene that we shot from the film was the scene he was in, and the beauty of it was that people knew he was a known actor. He did such a good job, and there’s so much of that political speech that never made it to the film. At the end of it, the people in the neighborhood said, “When the real politicians come down here, they don’t talk like that, none of them have speeches as good as that.”
VM: What would you advise an up and coming filmmaker?
SS: They have to know that they have to have the passion to bring a film to the end, and they cannot rely on anyone else really. You can rely on your team to do their jobs, but you have to carry the torch and do anything you need to, not just to shoot and finish, but to get the film seen. You have to know within yourself that you’re going to have to take this. Don’t sit back and think other people in your team are going to make it happen now because you’ve done your part. You have to carry that torch, and no one is going to care as much as you do, and nobody is going to live with it as long as you are because it’s your film. I could’ve had moments when I could’ve said, “You know what? Let me make another film; this is taking a long time to get distributed.” It can be difficult to stay passionate. You have to be that passionate and be prepared for it to get what it deserves. Make sure you have a really good team going in at the beginning and don’t have people in your team that aren’t there 100%.
VM: How was the process of seeking distribution?
SS: I knew it was difficult, but I also knew that the film was great. I’ve had enough people that genuinely thought it was a great film, not like, “OK, nice try, let’s see what you got next.” I went to a lot of distributors and I always got positive responses and interest; also distributors that have shown interest in my next film. But there’s this issue of what is black cinema and black film. What does the back audience want? A lot of people automatically don’t add all these layers to the film. They think it’s either about Tyler Perry or Denzel [Washington].
VM: That is an on-going conversation at S&A
distributors that know there’s more to that; they still don’t know how to sell
it, or how to go to their partners and say, “We’re taking on this film. There’s
no really known actors in it, there’s a cameo by one guy who is somewhat known.
It has subtitles; it’s dealing with politics you may not know about.” It’s a
great film, but they didn’t know how to sell it, and I got that response a lot.
And this firm [AFFRM] is looking for specifically what this film is, a film
from the African diaspora, uncompromising in its creativity, and it was a
perfect fit because they were looking for what we had. Ava [Duvernay] shared
her philosophy and the people behind this organization, the volunteers, and the
people that do it because they want to see it; there’s a real power behind
Better Mus’ Come opens in limited release this weekend. For locations and times, click HERE.