INTERVIEW: ALRICK BROWN
"I was in heaven. That's what school was to me."
NYU graduate Alrick Brown talks about film school and "Film School," the IFC documentary series about four students' struggles to get their student projects made.
By JOSHUA TANZER
One of four students featured in the IFC series "Film School," Alrick Brown grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers University, got a master's degree in education and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone before entering NYU film school. His student film, inspired by the police killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York, is called "The Adventures of Super Nigger." He sat down with three reporters in IFC's midtown offices and talked about what it's like to make your own film while the cameras are turned on you. Here is an edited transcript of that interview:
Q: What was your motivation behind making this film?|
ALRICK: When Diallo was shot in '99 I was in school, and I wrote an article with the same title. The shooting read like a comic book when I heard it, you know? Somebody shot 41 times, unarmed he had to be a superhero, right off the bat. So I wrote, you know, "The Adventures of Super-Nigger." And at the time I thought: That could have been me. It was just that simple. That could have been me, one of my friends, one of my relatives, and I was pretty pissed off at the time.
And a couple years later I get to NYU and I get a chance to make a movie, and so I took it and turned it into a screenplay. But I just didn't want another black guy to die unarmed without people thinking about what's going on. It's just that simple. It's kind of selfish, actually, because I was just thinking about myself. I think that's what that case did for a lot of people. It wasn't so much about, you know, the 41 bullets; it was like, black people were like, "Damn, that could have been me! That could have been my brother! That could have been anybody! The kid wasn't doing anything!" So that was my motivation.
Q: Did you know before you even started making the film that you were going to be doing the TV series?
ALRICK: No, I knew this was going to be my film a while before, so I already started planning I had most of my crew together. When this thing came up, it was like, okay, we'll see. I called the producer and said, "Listen, man, I got a story. I've been places, I've done things, I'll make an interesting film." And he felt the same way, and then I met Nanette [Burstein] and she felt the same way. But this is why this is different from [other] reality series: because it's such an intense process making a movie that if you're thinking about the [TV] camera then you're not thinking about your film. You know, there's fifty people depending on you in your crew you can't be thinking about what's going on here. So I was so busy just trying to raise money and get things done for my film that those cameras became secondary. Problematic for people around me sometimes they wouldn't pay attention because the cameras were there, they were uncomfortable but for me, no.
Q: Tell us a bit about the process of getting involved in this documentary.
| ||"I said if we don't raise enough money, then I've been in Africa for two years. Haven't used credit cards. Have no credit-card debt. I'm going to put it on a credit card. That's exactly what I did, and I paid back the credit card with, um, my student loans!"|
| || Alrick Brown|
ALRICK: I was at home and got an e-mail from the faculty saying they're trying to do this thing and does anybody want to apply. And they were only offering it to certain students, the students working on their thesis films, and I was like, [with uncertainty] "Ummm, ahhhh..." I sent the e-mail back and I was like, "I have a story. I am a story." I don't know how I phrased it, but I'm like, "I am a pretty interesting person." I was just comparing myself to my classmates and where their life experience is, and you know, I was just coming back from living in West Africa for two and a half years in the Peace Corps. That's where I applied for film school, and I had never touched a camera before that, but when I got to NYU I did my first thing, the life experience that I had was automatically evident.
So I e-mailed Jordan [Roberts], and he was in California at the time. I got a phone call, like, ten minutes later, and we talked for ten or fifteen minutes. I could hear it in his voice. He was excited you know, that's the director [pointing to himself] picking that up. I knew it was on at that point. And then I told him the title of my film, and I heard it raise another octave. And he asked me to send him a treatment and I didn't have one. I had my idea, I had my script handwritten, but he wanted a treatment. I was busting my ass trying to find software to do it, and it didn't happen, so what I did was I sent him the article that I wrote in '99, and he read it, and the next time we talked he was like, "You should go down and meet Nanette for an interview."
Q: What article?
ALRICK: When Diallo was shot and I was in college, I wrote an article of the same title, just describing in a "Superman" kind of way "Is this the end of Super-Nigger?" And that was published in a local paper, my college paper, it was called the Carta Latina, Black Voice or something like that. But that was what he read, and they liked it, and I met Nanette a week later. There was a group of people waiting to be interviewed for this, and again, it's not arrogance. It's not arrogance! It's just like, because I'm a storyteller. I'm like, who has a better story right now? I just thought about it and I'm like, this is a story, you know? This is definitely a story. I sat in front of Nanette and we hit it off. She saw my first film I did at NYU, and that was one of the reasons why she picked me as well. It was like, this kid has some talent.
Q: You didn't seem to have the same trouble with raising money and getting together a team that some of the other people did.
ALRICK: Well, see, I had my team already. I already knew my idea, and I started coveting people way in advance, so I knew. I was looking out who's going to be working for me, and I got those people already and got the idea in their heads a long time ago. And then as far as the fund-raising, realistically, I knew it was going to be hard. So I did a couple things. I'm going to ask all of my friends and family for $50, each person give $50 and see how much money we can raise [hold a] fund-raiser and that stuff. And I said if we don't raise enough money, then I've been in Africa for two years. Haven't used credit cards. Have no credit-card debt. I'm going to put it on a credit card. So I knew that it was going to get done no matter what. That's exactly what I did, and I paid back the credit card with, um, my student loans! For a lower interest rate. I'm in debt now. That's the funny thing this show is coming up, people see me on TV, but I'm more broke than I was last year. You know, this game is an interesting game. This is what you do.
Q: Was the camera worth it? Your cameraman asked for a really expensive camera that maxed out your credit card. So was it worth it?
ALRICK: Yes, it was worth it. Because the subject matter of the film is such that you needed to make the film look as nice and as "Hollywood" as possible. That was my whole intention with this movie. It wasn't to make a student film. It was to make something look Hollywood, so that people who wouldn't normally care about a police-brutality situation get them to that situation. That was it. I bitched and moaned, because that was a lot of friggin' money, but I hired him for a reason. Everybody who was there was there for a reason. And I wouldn't change it.
Q: One of the interesting things about the series was that you can almost see that there are some people doing this the right way and some people doing it the wrong way. Did you have any idea what the other guys were up to? Was it totally separate or would you cross paths and figure out, "They're fucking this up" or "They're doing this better"?
ALRICK: The NYU program might seem competitive on the surface, but it's actually pretty communal, so we know each other. Vincenzo [Tripodo] actually whether it made it into the show or not worked on my film, and so did Leah [Meyerhoff]. So she was on my set. Not every day, but they got to see. And I've worked with Vincenzo before this and I worked on his film. But we shot at different times, so we have to cross paths, we have to learn from each other. ... As far as the show, Vincenzo and I at least, we had to get together to debrief on what it was like just to be followed, and, you know, what would happen in our futures because of this, and more girls or less girls. [Laughter.] You know, we had those discussions, definitely.
Q: And did that work out?
ALRICK: You know, it's funny, man. I'm still broke and girls like money, so I don't know.
Q: Knowing that there was ultimately a competition, that there was going to be a "winner," did you care about helping the other filmmakers or was it all about you?
ALRICK: For me I'm not going to speak for the other filmmakers my competition is always personal. When you're doing a movie that's personal I think Leah, hers is very personal as well the competition becomes secondary. You know, I'm doing this to save black men's lives. [A loud siren is suddenly heard outside.] I'm doing this to save people's lives. So. like, if it wins at the end, that's a nice bonus, that's a nice plus. But if it gets seen by a lot of people, I'm going to be all right, I'm going to be good. That's all I really want. But then if it wins a compeition, if it goes over really well with my professors, those are all bonuses. The competition is secondary. I know that for a lot of students it's mostly competition. They size each other up and all that stuff. But, you know, that's too much energy I don't have. That same amount of energy I just put towards trying to tell a damn good story. Trying to tell a good story, having good people around, and having the story be about something, you win. Whether the film sucks or not, just the process of doing it and the heart that goes into it, you walk away feeling good.
Q: It seems like some of the other filmmakers hit a wall, where they had to feel like, "I'm not making art anymore, I'm just struggling." Or, "Oh my God, chaos is descending, people aren't doing what I say, and maybe this is just not going to happen." Did you have a point like that?
ALRICK: You know, because there's the purpose behind it that's bigger than me and all the people in my crew, I can't feel like that ever. Think about all the police-brutality victims that there have been. There's a point where we kind of felt like they were watching over us, so no matter what happened it was going to be all right. At any point where anyone could even feel like that, like it wasn't going to happen, the person to their left or to their right is going to be you know, if I wasn't on, then my cameraman, Carey, would just, you know, "This is what we're going to do," and vice versa.
|"If I could fucking make 'Spaceballs' and they call me a sellout, I would be happy."|| |
| Alrick Brown|| |
Q: What picture did you have of the other people and the state of their projects?
ALRICK: I had never worked with Leah so I don't really know her style. I know Vincenzo. I know he's really dramatic and he's passionate and angry. I knew whatever he did he was going to do his thing. Actually, he's a damn good director, so I wasn't so worried. I knew he was having problems with his producers and raising money and shit. and he would call me. He would call me. But I think he manipulated the situation to where they got their stuff together and got the money and he got his film made, you know? And I didn't doubt that not with these people. Barbara we were a little worried about from the beginning, because she's kind of introverted. We were wondering if she could handle the pressure. But I wasn't worried about the others.
Q: Have you known since you were, like, ten that you wanted to make movies, or were you in the Peace Corps and you just said, "You know, I want to make a film about something"?
ALRICK: I'm the kid who you know, my neighborhood was rough, so I went right home and watched "Transformers" and "GI Joe" and "Thunder Cats," and that was my life. But I always saw more than the other kids. For some reason, I was breaking it down and taking it apart. And I would buy a ticket to the matinee and I would sneak in the theater and stay and watch three or four movies one day. That was my Sunday afternoon me and the old lady in the movie theater. And I watched all the credits. So it was always a part of me. And as I got older, man, I'm like, movies were bad. You know? They were not good.
Q: What do you mean?
ALRICK: Movies especially the ones that could be good, like the ones that had a good premise, decent actors, an interesting story line they just kind of went to about 80 percent of what the potential was. And I'm sitting there like, "How did they do that? Why didn't they just take it all the way?" And it was that that motivated me, really. And so I always had it inside of me. But there was no audio-visual thing in my high school that dealt with stuff like that. I didn't know how I was going to get to it. But when I was in Africa, I decided, whether I make films myself or whether I go to film school, I am going to go that direction now. Because what am I going to do in my life, from this point forward, where if I died I'd be happy? It was as simple as that. I could die right now, today, and feel good about making "The Adventures of Super-Nigger." And that was the decision I made out there.
When I got accepted living out there for two years, you forget how important things are to other people. Super Bowls and all, they don't matter in the village [with] no water and no electricity. I got accepted, but at that time I decided I wanted to stay a third year in the Peace Corps. I'm like, "Ahhh, you know, film school, whatever. No big deal. I'll just stay in Africa." And then I ran into some girls who were doing Fulbright [fellowships] and they were like, "You got into NYU?" And they started like [excitedly], "Da-da-da-da-da-da Spike Lee and da-da-da-da-da-da it's a great opportunity." But then when I found out I got the fellowship, I was like, "Man I never went to school for free before." I've always had two or three jobs and I did decent in undergrad and my first graduate degree. I'm like, "If I can go for free, imagine what kind of a student I could be." And so I had to come back and do it.
Q: What kind of difference did it make going to school, as opposed to reading some books, getting a camera, getting people together and making a film on your own which people also do here.
ALRICK: You know what people say all the time you don't need to go to film school to learn how to make films and it's absolutely right. And not everybody's going to be able to get to school because of the price and all that stuff.
But, this particular program and I'm not trying to do an NYU commercial, because that's not what this is about but this program, where your first semester, we get into school, they do a tech on a 16mm camera. I've never touched a camera with film before. So the first day you're there, you're touching the camera. A week later, you're like doing directing exercises. The next thing you know, that first semester, you've worked on six short films, just working with your classmates six short films in one semester. And then you start editing it yourself. I don't know any people that I grew up with who want to make films, who started making films, who got to make six films in four months. So there is something to be said for being a part of a program that forces you to churn material out. Whether it makes you good or not, that's a whole other question, but the technical aspect I love that.
And the cushion there's no studio banging on your door. This is for a grade. So it's like, I can make a bad movie, get a C, and still go on with my life in principle or I can make a really good movie, get an A, and still go on with my life. But if you're doing it out in the world, you just spent your rent and you just broke up with your girlfriend, and you're fucked, out in the real world. You know? NYU you get insurance, you get equipment. And my classmates, when we got there first semester, they were complaining about how much the school wasn't doing for them. And I'm sitting there, just coming back from my village, and in Manhattan, with cameras and insurance and all this stuff, and I'm like, "This is a $70,000 camera that we get to run around and play with!" There was nothing for me to complain about. I was in heaven. That's what school was to me.
Q: What do you think you can tell people who are going out there who want to learn to be a filmmaker? What are the movies that you have to go out to see?
ALRICK: I don't have a concept of the history of film. I didn't have it when I got to school. I have a concept of storytelling that's the heart of where I come from. I would tell a filmmaker, whatever inspired them to want to make a movie like for me it's "Transformers," for me it's "Thunder Cats," for me it's "Goonies." "Spaceballs"! If I could fucking make "Spaceballs" and they call me a sellout, I would be happy. How much fun would that be to make? Seriously, if you could have made the original "Spaceballs" I mean, come on, if you watch those movies and you can sit down with your friends and laugh and joke about it, that's what inspires filmmakers ultimately. It's not the little things that Orson Welles did, or whatever. Those things are ... neat, but it's really those things that made you feel something or made you laugh or brought this memory from childhood. You cannot watch "Goonies" and not want to call your friends and go on a fucking adventure! You know, because you felt like that when you were a kid. You wanted to find that treasure map! You know? You watch a good karate flick you go outside and start kicking. That's what does it for me, and that's what's going to do it for other filmmakers.
|SEPTEMBER 10, 2004|
OFFOFFOFF.COM THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK
Reader comments on Alrick Brown:
Successs from Barbara J. Beal, Mar 1, 2005
SuperN from Mary Heydron, Apr 6, 2006
hi from isaak, Apr 13, 2010
Post a comment on "Alrick Brown"