By Sydney Levine | Sydneys Buzz March 25, 2011 at 2:30AM
I am finally catching up with some of what I missed at Sundance -- just in time for Cannes!. This one I had heard about from a acting school colleague of Rashaad before Sundance was announced. Now I have finally seen the film! Wow! It is so strong and uncompromising, I actually had a tough time staying with these characters, so strongly into their own world were they. The realism of their characters, flaws and strengths, the realism of those rough South Bronx streets, the grittiness and proximity were palpable. This film will remain with me for a long time to come. Esai Morales and Judy Reyes were great. And the young man...who is he? Even IMDb didn’t help me find him as I forgot his name in the film. What a sweet and beautiful young man. All the actors were good, even the supporting roles, especially of the nemisis, Sugar, played by Robert Salzman, who must have done something as horrendous as what our hero, Enrique, fears in his own son. Enrique's steadfast and unquestionable machismo made Esai Morales' figure positively tragic.
The video here speaks with Robert Salzman's own voice and makes you understand how he was able to play the role of the convict/ ex-con Sugar:
Director Rashaad Ernesto Green started his own his career as an actor and has a natural feel for the actors. A New York native, he received his BA from Dartmouth College, MFA from the NYU Graduate Acting Program, and will graduate this May from NYU's Graduate Film Program. After spending three years acting in theaters nationwide and working with directors such as Spike Lee, Rashaad worked as a teacher in the South Bronx before moving behind the camera to tell stories. Rashaad was included on the latest edition of Filmmaker Magazine’s elite 25 New Faces of Independent Film list as well as indieWIRE's 2009 Top Ten New Voices in Cinema.
Gun Hill Road's Rashaad Ernesto Green, courtesy of Sundance Institute
The world premiere of Rashaad’s film Premature won the Grand Jury Prize in the HBO Short Film Competition at the 2008 American Black Film Festival, is currently airing on HBO and has played over 40 festivals worldwide, including Palm Springs International Shortfest, Munich International Film Festival, Sapporo International Film Festival of Japan, has broadcast in England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Kenya, Japan, and has garnered over 20 awards, including the Directors Guild of America Student Award and the National Board of Review Award. His short Choices premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and his latest short Cuts has also screened on HBO. Selected for the 2010 Tribeca All Access Program, IFP’s Independent Film Week, and a recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Foundation–Cary Grant Film Award, Rashaad recently completed his thesis feature film Gun Hill Road which premiered in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition. Gun Hill Road was picked up by U.S. distributor Motion Film Group and will be released early this summer.
Here's an article that was in the NY Times recently.
Repeating IndieWIRE's Sundance article on how Rashaad found Harmony Santana, a non-actor who plays the lead Michael/Vanessa - a real deal transgender girl on streets of NY and Sugar, Robert Salzman, the big guy from prison - whom he approached on the D train is worth the ink. Both have been offered roles in upcoming films.
Finding Harmony and Sugar…
The greatest challenge was casting the role of Michael, the teenager in the film whose sexual transformation tears at the core of the father’s belief system. I knew from the start I wanted to cast the role non-traditionally, i.e. outside of the normal means of finding talent through an agent or casting director. In order for the film to be successful, I needed to find the genuine article. The search was absolutely grueling. I pulled my hair out for weeks and kicked myself for writing myself into a hole. We stumbled in and out of 18 and over nightclubs at 3am, attended every youth organization and function you can think of. And eventually, we found Harmony. Newcomer Harmony Santana was working at a parade booth in Queens. She was the right age and type, showed up on time to the audition, had that special something I had been looking for, and was dedicated to learning the craft of acting.
One day I approached a man, Robert Salzman, who was sitting on a NYC subway car on a hunch that he had been through the prison system. He did, in fact, spend seventeen years of his life incarcerated, but had since been rehabilitated and employed as a bouncer for the last ten years. I wound up casting him for the role of Sugar opposite Esai Morales. On the day we shot the jail scene, which was actually filmed in an active NY State prison, Rob took a nap in one of the cells during a break. He woke up with tears in his eyes, because for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to stay there. He could get up, walk out, and that was okay.
And more from Ra:
As you know, we were picked up by Motion Film Group after our second screening in Park City. The film will be released in the early summer. I met Ronna [Wallace] through our attorney Andre Des Rochers of Gray Krauss Des Rochers, LLC. He told me that he had worked with her in the past and that she works harder than anyone else, and has been around the block a few times. He warned me of the business's tendency to go with what's hot at the moment, but really believed in Ronna who knows what she's doing, and fights for the films she reps. So I had coffee with her. Gun Hill Road had attracted interest from many sales reps, and we were very close to signing with a few that struck us as good choices, but Ronna had something special. She truly LOVED the film. I knew she would fight hard for it. She's a bit of straight shooter. No pretense. I'm from New York. I liked her directness. At the time, she didn't have any other films on her slate at Sundance, and I was thrilled with the idea that all of her attention would be focused on our film. Every time I mentioned her name, people nodded their head immediately affirming how powerful a force she is. I'm really glad we went with her.
We will be playing festivals all over the US & Internationally before our release, none of which we can announce just yet. I believe I can announce the first one tomorrow. Let's just say this. I will not see any part of New York in April. I'm excited to see the world and show our film to eager audiences.
Let me know what else you'd like.