Exclusive Interview: Director Chris Browne Talks About His New Movie GHETT’A LIFE, The Jamaica Movie Industry and Gwyneth Paltrow
Written by Araya Crosskill
Making movies in Jamaica is like making them anywhere else in the world: They’re almost impossible to do, and no one wants to put up the cash.
Then there is that other thing.
More often than not, there isn’t one.
So what do you do if you’re Jamaican and all you ever wanted to do was direct movies?
You write your own.
It’s what Christopher Browne did in 2001 when he wrote Ghett’a Life, an against-the-odds drama that’s one part Billy Elliot, one part Rocky.
That screenplay was good enough to win Browne the 2006 Hartley Merrill International Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival in France, and it even attracted the likes of respected cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, who worked on Ghett’a Life as Browne’s director of photography.
Recently, Browne took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about his latest release.
What is Ghett’a Life about?
Chris Browne: Ghett’a Life is an “against-the-odds” action drama. The main character is Derrick, an inner-city teenage boy who inadvertently discovers that his dream lies in a boxing gym. But this is election time in Jamaica, and the boxing gym is located on the wrong side of his politically divided ghetto community. His father, who is a loyal party supporter, forbids him from going to the boxing gym, as that would mean crossing party lines.
When Derrick follows his heart he is confronted with the serious repercussions of his decision. On the one hand, the Don (the community’s political overlord) is set on keeping Derrick from crossing over to the “other side,” even if it means destroying Derrick’s dream. On the other hand, Derrick’s father is so blinded by political tribalism that he sees his son’s actions as a betrayal.
On the “other side” is Derrick’s coach and mentor. He shows Derrick that Jamaica is bigger than just one community and that dreams are worth fighting for.
Your main actors are largely unknown, even inside Jamaica, what were you looking for when you casted the film?
Chris Browne: There are a few major characters. Eight to be exact and I wanted them to be totally Jamaican, not American or English playing a Jamaican.
Casting the Derrick character was the most challenging, as he really had to have something special. He had to be believable as a boxer but have the vulnerability to portray a teenager from a Jamaican ghetto, one who is going through changes, questioning authority, and his world around him.
I was very, very lucky to find a young boy, Kevoy Burton, an 18 year old still in school, who had barely been in acting class for a year.
He pulled it off.
He wasn’t the only great find either. We found other very talented teenagers from Kingston’s inner cities: the kids who play his friend, Big Toe, and his enemy, Gully Rat, come to mind.
The older actors who play his parents, mentor and the bad guy are veterans from Jamaica’s thriving theater scene in Kingston.
How hard was it to get financing?
Chris Browne: As the saying goes “nothing before its time,” and it really goes for this film.
I wrote Ghett’a Life in 2001, and over the years as I rewrote and rewrote, I looked for financing.
I got some English producers (who had a development deal with the UK Film Council) involved in 2004. Then that fell apart, but in 2006 the script won the Hartley Merrill International Screenwriting Award at Cannes, which created some interest.
But I got increasingly frustrated with waiting on others, so I decided to become the reluctant producer. In early 2009, with US$8,000 I went out with a small crew and, in one day, shot the trailer for the film and edited it after two weeks.
With trailer in hand I sent out 200 invitations to prominent Jamaican businessmen asking them to attend a screening at a local cinema in Kingston. Only half came out, but what was shown was enough for Tony Hart, who is well-connected locally, to champion the cause. His interest got a merchant bank (Pan Caribbean) to get involved. Within six months of the screening, Pan Caribbean put together the small budget needed to do the production, all the way to 35mm prints.
Your director of photography is Bobby Bukowski (Bukowski’s worked on 2009’s The Messenger, which went on to receive two Academy Award nominations). How did you pull that off?
Chris Browne: I have known Bobby from my film school days in Chicago, back in 1982. Back then Bobby was doing his Master in Cinematography at NYU.
He has been coming to Jamaica over the years, and we have always kept in touch. He knew about the project from when I had a few drafts back in early 2002 and I knew that his fondness for Jamaica and his openness to working on small films (as long as he likes the story), increased the possibility of our working together.
But I was very lucky to get him when I did, as a window opened on his calendar, which dovetailed with our shooting schedule. He actually left Jamaica the day after we wrapped to go start pre-production on a big Hollywood picture in LA.
He was great for this film though. He brought his wealth of experience to the project, and was totally committed every day. He made it look great. I really can’t thank him enough.
By your own admission you are not a writer, so explain how you copped such a prestigious screenwriting award?
Chris Browne: Over the years I have written my own short films and feature-length scripts, but I have never thought myself much of a writer. When I write I do enjoy the experience when I get it right, but, man, it is a painful struggle.
With Ghett’a Life I was determined to create a strong story no matter how long it took, because I wanted a strong foundation for this film.
As for Cannes, it was just by chance someone mentioned to me the Hartley Merrill screenwriting competition. I never really expected anything to come of it, and I was amazed when I heard that I was short-listed. That got me very excited.
I heard the news that I had won here in Kingston and I must admit I was very emotional. But I still don’t consider myself a writer.
Where can North American moviegoers see Ghett’a Life?
Chris Browne: The film is now represented by JINGA FILMS, a sale agent out of London, England. They screeened the film on the May 16 at Cannes (Film Festival), and we are on the short list for the Toronto Film Festival. We have not made any deals with US distributors so far.
Your closest friends from film school make up today’s elite moviemakers, but would they surrender their Hollywood renown for the complete freedom you have as a director/writer/producer?
Chris Browne: I am sure my film-school friends from Columbia College (in Chicago): Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List; Saving Private Ryan) or Mauro Fiore (Avatar) can have complete freedom now that they have their Hollywood status.
I went another route: the road less traveled. Living in the Third World and trying to create an industry here in Jamaica. Telling our stories and find our own untapped markets.
In 1999, you co-wrote and directed Third World Cop, the highest grossing film in Jamaican history, and the most successful movie ever produced in the Caribbean (see the trailer here), tell us why Ghett’a Life is going to be so much bigger?
You can never predict the future, but I am hoping that Ghett’a Life will upstage Third World Cop as the highest grossing film. Third World Cop had action; humor and music, which is what the Jamaican audience gravitates towards.
Ghett’a Life has much of the same: action, humor, music. But the story is much stronger and has a meaning that the audience can identify with.
The production value is much higher given a few reasons: our bigger budget; we shot for 6 weeks instead of 21 days like we did on Third World Cop, and we shot on the Red One Digital Cinema camera, as opposed to the Mini DV format.
Again, some great Jamaica music reinforces the emotions throughout and it’s a film about change. I hope it will inspire the youths from the inner cities of Kingston, and beyond, to want to change.
If you could work with any actor/director/producer in the world, who would it be?
Such a tough question. There are so many talented actors, directors and producer out there. That it a choice not easily made. I would say Alan Parker, as a director. I love his films. His choice of topics. The stories. Like Midnight Express, The Commitments, to name a few. Wonderful. Also directors Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott. As for actors I would choose Gwyneth Paltrow, I have a role for her right now in my next film, a love story set in Jamaica.
Ghett’A Life will be released to theaters July 27 2011 in Jamaica.