Our Song is the story of three teenage girls facing the challenges of growing up in a world filled with uncertainty, risk, and, ultimately, hope.
Following Lanisha, Maria, and Joycelyn through the hot August streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Our Song explores the ways in which family, friends, and community all compete to shape a young person's life, plans, and path, along the way offering a rarely seen glimpse of teenage inner-city life.
During the closing weeks of summer, the small moments and dramas that mean nothing and everything to a young girl navigating her way into adulthood start to accumulate. And these girls and their friendships change forever.
with writer/director Jim McKay
Interviewed by Stephen Garrett
Tell me what OUR SONG is about to you.
In a very simple way, OUR SONG is a story about friendship. But it's also a film about choices, the choices we make and how these choices are influenced by our environment in terms of our families, friends, income, health, education, and so on.
What compelled you to make the marching band the center of gravity around your characters?
My very first ideas for the film were about a group of young girls who were outside the "cool" sectors of their peers. I had done a whole draft of the script when one day I was walking in downtown Brooklyn on Jackie Robinson Day and this small parade came flying by. And there was this marching band playing "I'll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy and just completely rocking the house. It was this very inspirational moment, because in the faces of the kids in the band, I saw the characters from my story. I decided right then to write a band into the script. A year later, I thought I was about to shoot the film, so I went looking for a band to use and I found out who the band was that I had seen that day - the JRC Steppers. I called them up and Tyrone Brown, the director, invited me to a parade. I went out to Crown Heights and they took me with them on the bus to Mount Vernon for the annual Memorial Day parade. I fell in love with the band, the kids, the program. And that was the start of a year of hanging out, observing, and writing them more into the story.
The function that the band serves in the story is the same function that it serves in the lives of the real kids who are a part of it - a safe, stable, educational and positive place for kids to go to, kids who may not necessarily have safe, stable environments in their homes or neighborhoods. A lot of the film is about how our outside environment affects our internal growth and the plans that we do or don't make. So in this story a lot of the outside forces for the girls are barriers - the bureaucracy of the school system, the home environment and whether or not it's emotionally supportive, finances, health, safety... And then in the midst of all that chaos, there's this band, which is, to some degree, an oasis.
Where did you find the lead actors? Their performances are so strong... We did traditional casting sessions and also a few open calls. Kerry Washington and Melissa Martinez came in to the sessions and Anna Simpson came to one of the open calls. She had seen a flyer on the wall at her high school in Queens. For all three, this is their first film. Even still, their experiences and their techniques are all very different. So it was a fun and interesting challenge figuring out how to communicate with each one of them individually and then as a group. The audition period was so long it was almost like rehearsals. Each of the actors probably came back five times, each time reading with different combinations of girls. Once we hired them, they started rehearsing with the band immediately. I took them out and introduced them to Tyrone, the band director, and he threw them into the band as if they were any other kids joining up. Then we had a month of regular rehearsals before the shoot. So once we were on location, they were ready.
I'm at a bit of a loss to say much more about them because I think their work is so strong and beautiful that it speaks for itself and I don't want to sound obnoxiously proud. So I'll just leave it at that....
How much time did it take to make the film?
Well, I wrote for a year and a half, then spent a year with the band while I rewrote and tried to raise money at the same time. When it became clear that I wasn't going to find the outside money I was looking for, I made the choice to move ahead and started putting together a team of people who would ultimately work together to get the film made. I had had an experience with GIRLS TOWN that sort of worked out in the end and which was largely based on faith and recklessness - educated recklessness. And so I put together a strong team of people, starting out with Alexa Fogel as casting director (who would later, with her partner, Joe Infantolino, become a co-producer) and Paul Mezey, with whom I was working on SPRING FORWARD, as producer. And I felt like once we got the ball rolling things would come together in one way or another. Michael Stipe was already on board and then Diana Williams came on as the third producer and here we had all these people working for free on nothing but faith and a belief in the project... It was terrifying, as usual, but still, it's easier to jump off a cliff if you've got a bunch of people who you like and respect who are jumping with you.
So we cast for about four months in early 1999 and then shot for 20 days in July. It was a pretty quick shoot, which was kinda nice, in a way. Then the edit was about four months long. And here we are.
How did GIRLS TOWN influence OUR SONG?
After GIRLS TOWN, I felt I had accumulated a lot of other stories about teenage girls that I hadn't put into that film. And I was also acutely tuned-in to that population, so every time I was out walking, or riding the subway, I was observing young people and coming up with scenes from their lives. I wanted to make something about young women and I wanted the story to be smaller than the one in GIRLS TOWN. I wanted to show the moments, the small, subtle moments that make up an experience. I felt confident as a writer by then and I started taking notes and writing scenes. My early outline was called "The Other Girls" because I specifically wanted to make a film centered on characters who were real - outsiders who didn't look like they just walked off a music video shoot. So there's some common ground between the two films, but I think mostly because they're both about young women.
But specifically about lower-class minority women. Well, you can see how different the girls are in the specifics. The cast of GIRLS TOWN was mostly white and the cast of OUR SONG is mostly black and Latino. And the girls' ages are different - they were 17 to 21 in GIRLS TOWN and are 15 and 16 in OUR SONG, which, as anyone who knows young people can tell you, is a major difference. Finally, the setting for GIRLS TOWN was fairly suburban, whereas OUR SONG is more inner-city. So the two films cover some similar terrain, but it's only because there are so few films in existence about these characters that the similarity jumps out at all.
How would you respond to criticism about being a white man making teenage women ensemble pieces?
I'm constantly checking myself about what and how and why I'm doing what I'm doing. I think there's a lot of culture and story stealing that goes on and I don't want to be a part of that. I've tried hard to be very collaborative in my work and make sure that I'm telling stories truthfully and responsibly.
I also think people in the film world have a responsibility toward the people and communities with which they're working. I've helped raise some money for the marching band and have committed to doing a big benefit screening for them next year. We did a mentorship program during the shoot in which we teamed kids from the band up with crew members so they could learn some things about how films get made.
I have no illusions about what this film did or can do for the participants' lives, but I've tried to have a relationship with all the people in the film that was more than "get in, shoot, and get out". I'm sure that I've gained much more from that relationship than anyone, in terms of my own personal growth and enlightenment. And I just hope that the people we worked with are proud of the film and feel good about their work and experience.
As a filmmaker, I feel like when you're given the opportunity to make a film, it's a pretty special thing. To waste that opportunity by doing some that's self-centered and unoriginal is a waste of time and energy. All these movies about struggling writers or actors ... it's frustrating to me. Making a film is a struggle. You spend three or four years of your life obsessed with this story, why not learn something in the process? Why not experience something new and enter into a new territory?
There's a certain universality to the stories in OUR SONG, to the choices that we make at that age in terms of what we want and who we want and what we think of ourselves. And so a lot of the things in the film could happen anywhere with any characters. But I chose these characters cause they were the ones that I wanted to see a movie about. And I hoped that others would, too. I mean let's be honest, does the world really need another coming-of-age movie in which a teenage white boy experiences his first wet dream?
GIRLS TOWN and OUR SONG have some similar aspects and themes -teen pregnancy or staying in school, for instance - but they compliment instead of repeat each other. One of the big challenges I faced with OUR SONG was that I had three very different characters all dealing with very different stories: Lanisha is struggling to keep her friends and family together and to push past all the adversity put in front of her and "succeed"; Maria finds out she's pregnant and has to figure out what she wants to do about it and how it's going to affect her own plans; and Joycelyn finds herself drifting from her old friends and seeking acceptance from these other girls who are a step-up from her on the social ladder.
What I didn't want was for the film to be seen as a story about teen pregnancy, and that was a challenge because that's the one story of the three that's the easiest to put a label on, the easiest to define, even though the way we're showing it is hopefully new. So I tried to show the stories via their nuances and the things that are not said rather than address all these dilemmas directly.
The film is very subtle in that many of the scenes are just intimate moments where the girls are talking and bonding.
I think audiences today are used to being force-fed every bit of information necessary and, as a result, can sometimes have a hard time dealing with the blanks, the in-betweens, the unspoken words. Trying to stand firm and be committed to this desire to leave holes, to join the story in progress and to not explain every little thing and yet still give people a cohesive story that doesn't completely alienate them was a challenge. When you're that age in particular, but also throughout our lives, you rarely end a friendship in one fell swoop. Everything isn't always clear-cut and cleverly articulated. I tried really hard to say the things I wanted to say without saying them outright.
What kind of conversations did you have with your cinematographer, Jim Denault? Jim and I watched some of Frederick Wiseman's PUBLIC HOUSING together. It's one of my favorite films from last year. We also watched LA PROMESSE and A DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS and talked a lot about these very realist, visceral-feeling stories. But when it came down to it, we followed the story and made up our shooting style accordingly. I think what we ended up with is very clear stylistically, even if it wasn't necessarily always intentional.
We basically echoed the reality of the world we were shooting in. When we were in very controlled circumstances where the girls' lives were more safe and controlled, then our framing and lighting reflected that. And when we were out on the streets and dealing with distractions and unlocked spaces and hectic backgrounds, then our shooting was accordingly less controlled. It's pretty simple, really. For example, when Lanisha is with her dad, we're in the safest space in the story - he's literally a security guard. And so those scenes are shot locked-down with a tripod and carefully lit. We made a decision before we shot that we wouldn't use a dolly at all, just a tripod and hand-held. We had a skeleton camera crew of three and a very, very small lighting package. We didn't have a lot of locations locked before we shot, so we often got there and made decisions on the spot. We had shot lists and some loose storyboards, but often, Jim and I felt our way around the film instinctually.
But the film is scripted.
Absolutely. We started with a full script and very little changed, aside from a few things that weren't working in rehearsals or small bits of language that the actors turned around. Once we were on location, a number of things changed because of extenuating circumstances.
You're dealing with a 60-piece marching band as one of your lead characters, half your cast is under 18 and non-professional actors, forget about pagers and cell phones, some of our actors didn't have phones at all or weren't always staying in the same apartments.... Not to mention the fact that our three lead actors were taking the subway to location every day, from the Bronx, Harlem, and Far Rockaway. So there were tons of potential challenges. But in the end, all of them were overcome in one way or another.
What, if anything, changed during the edit?
A lot of things were very flexible because of the different narrative structure we were working with. So that left things a little more open than usual, which made it more of a challenge, but also made it more fun and interesting, too. Alex Hall, the editor, and I went through endless fluctuations of the story and found that moving or cutting a single scene could change the entire story or the way the audience felt about a character. I guess that will happen when the story or the dialogue itself isn't telling us what to think about certain characters. And then there were the final two shots of the film, after Lanisha and Maria say goodbye, where we made lots of variations on the shots and each one ended up redefining the entire film! It was a big desire of mine to end with more of a question mark than a period. And so a lot of the challenge in the editing room was to preserve the mysteries of the film. Not just in the ending, but throughout, to respect the pauses and try to emphasize or illuminate the things that are unsaid.
JIM McKAY (Writer/Director/Producer)
Jim McKay is a film and videomaker who has produced and directed a full-length documentary, LIGHTHEARTED NATION; a feature-length concert film, R.E.M.'s TOURFILM; numerous music videos; and an award-winning series of psa's called DIRECT EFFECT. He co-wrote, directed, and co-produced GIRLS TOWN, which received the Filmmakers Trophy and a Special Jury Prize for Collaboration at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. The film was released in August, 1996 in the U.S. by October Films. McKay is the Chair of the AIVF (Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers) Board of Directors.
PAUL MEZEY (Producer)
Paul Mezey is a New York-based independent producer. In addition to OUR SONG, his recent feature film credits include the acclaimed THE CITY (LA CIUDAD), directed by David Riker and in release by Zeitgeist Films; Tom Gilroy's SPRING FORWARD, in the American Spectrum at Sundance 2OOO; and Aiyana Elliott's THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK, in the Documentary Competition at Sundance 2000. Mezey supervised the financing for HURRICANE STREETS, which won three awards at Sundance 1997, and recently supervised the completion of the Sundance 1999 Grand Jury Award-winner AMERICAN MOVIE, currently in release by Sony Pictures Classics. He has been nominated for the Producer Award at the 15th Annual IFP West Independent Spirit Awards.
DIANA WILLIAMS (Producer)
Diana Williams has worked on several independent feature films in addition to OUR SONG. She is the Associate Producer of THE LOVE MACHINE (directed by Gordon Eriksen), Co-Producer of NICE GUYS SLEEP ALONE, (based on the book by Bruce Fierstein and directed by Stu Pollard), and Associate Producer of CHUTNEY POPCORN (directed by Nisha Ganatra). She has also produced documentaries, including ANOTHER FIRST STEP (directed by Michael Whalen) and the Emmy-winning short documentary, SYLVIA DREW IVIE.
Williams' current projects include ONE DAY RICHARD (directed by Charlie Jordan), PLASTIC JESUS (to be directed by Pablo Miralles), SPICE (written by Andrew May), and the documentary REUNION: 10 YEARS OLDER, WISER, AND BLONDER (directed by Michael Whalen).
CAROLINE KAPLAN (Executive Producer)
Caroline Kaplan is the Vice President of Production and Development for the Independent Film Channel and IFC Productions. She oversees the development and production of original programming specials and series for the Independent Film Channel and manages the day to day development and operations for IFC Productions. She has produced the films BOYS DON’T CRY, MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR., MEN WITH GUNS, and GRAY’S ANATOMY, as well as six films premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: OUR SONG, HAPPY ACCIDENTS, GIRLFIGHT, SPRING FORWARD, SONGCATCHER, and SOUND AND FURY. Prior to IFC, she worked as Director of Programming and Production for Bravo.
JONATHAN SEHRING (Executive Producer)
Jonathan Sehring is the President of IFC Films, a division of Bravo Networks which is responsible for the production, acquisition, and distribution of all films and film-related programming utilized in Bravo, IFC, and Bravo International Networks. In his tenure with the company, he has produced the films BOYS DON’T CRY, MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR., MEN WITH GUNS, and GRAY’S ANATOMY, as well as six films premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: OUR SONG, HAPPY ACCIDENTS, GIRLFIGHT, SPRING FORWARD, SONGCATCHER, and SOUND AND FURY. Prior to joining Bravo, Sehring was Director of Programming for Janus Films, Inc., where he worked in various positions in both distribution and production.
MICHAEL STIPE (Executive Producer)
Michael Stipe is a singer/songwriter, photographer, and film producer. He is the founder of Single Cell Pictures and co-founder of C-Hundred Film Corp.
ALEXA L. FOGEL (Co-Producer)
Alexa L. Fogel is a producer/partner of Beech Hill Films and oversees creative affairs for the company. Prior to starting BHF in 1997, she was a Vice President at ABC Television, where she won two Emmy Awards for NYPD BLUE and produced the independent film LIFEBREATH. She is currently the casting director for the HBO original series OZ, for which she has been awarded three Artios awards. She began her career as a Casting Director in the Theatre.
JOSEPH INFANTOLINO (Co-Producer)
Joseph Infantolino is a producer/partner of Beech Hill Films and oversees business affairs for the company. He has represented film companies, producers, and creative talent in New York for the past several years, serving as counsel for, among others, the Shooting Gallery (producers of SLINGBLADE) and Pierpoline Productions (one of the producers of IN THE COMPANY OF MEN). In 1996, Mr. Infantolino produced the Off-Broadway play, “Sanctimonious Monday" starring Vincent Pastore (THE SOPRANOS).
SUSANNAH LUDWIG (Associate Producer)
In addition to her work on OUR SONG, Susannah Ludwig recently served as Associate Producer on THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK (directed by Aiyana Elliot), Production Manager on SPRING FORWARD (directed by Tom Gilroy), and Producer on THE HAT (directed by Terry Stacey and Julia Jordan), all of which will screen at Sundance 2000. Ludwig served as production manager on LA CIUDAD, recipient of the IFP Open Palm Award, Best Picture at the Havana Film Festival, and an official selection at the 1999 Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Sundance 1999. She has produced numerous short films and has produced and directed her own documentaries, including SURVIVOR IN HER HOUSE, about a domestic violence case in Maryland.
ALEX HALL (Editor)
OUR SONG is Alex Hall's second feature film with Jim McKay. He edited GIRLS TOWN in 1996. Other feature credits include TAXMAN (directed by Avi Nesher), KISS ME GUIDO (directed by Tony Vitale) and Additional Editing on OFFICE KILLER (directed by Cindy Sherman). In addition to work for NBC, ESPN, and numerous commercials, Alex has edited the VH-1 Legends shows on George Clinton, U2, and David Bowie.
JIM DENAULT (Director of Photography)
Jim Denault has been the cinematographer for such independent films as Kelly Reichardt's RIVER OF GRASS, Hal Hartley's THE BOOK OF LIFE, Lisanne Skyler's GETTING TO KNOW YOU, Jill Sprecher’s THE CLOCKWATCHERS, and Nick Gomez's ILLTOWN. His work on Michael Almereyda's NADJA was nominated for an IFP Independent Spirit Award in 1996. Recent projects include Katherine Dieckmann's A GOOD BABY, Kimberly Pierce's BOYS DON’T CRY, and Michael Walker's CHASING SLEEP.
JAN McLAUGHLIN (Sound Mixer)
A multi-media chef of sorts, Jan McLaughlin revels in the process of blending as many disparate flavors of the spoken and written word into her work as a sound mixer for film and television as possible. Beyond her audio gear, she includes among her favorite tools choreography, film, fashion, still photography, telecommunications, theater, painting, and the increasingly audio/visual internet. Her credits as sound mixer include SIDE STREETS (directed by Tony Gerber), ALL OVER ME (directed by Alex Sischel), CAUGHT (directed by Robert Young), and HEAVY (directed by James Mangold).
KERRY WASHINGTON (Lanisha)
Kerry Washington is making her motion picture debut in OUR SONG. She is currently filming Thomas Carter’s SAVE THE LAST DANCE IN CHICAGO. The Bronx-born actress has appeared on television in HERE ON THE SET, LOVING, MY SPECIAL ANGEL, and LIVING IN THE AGE OF AIDS. Her stage work includes Lorraine Hansberry's IN GOOD COMPANY at the Horizons Theatre.
While a student at George Washington University, she appeared in several productions including THE COLORED MUSEUM, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. She was also a member of the NITESTAR Theatre Company and the Tada! Children's Company.
ANNA SIMPSON (Joycelyn)
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Anna Simpson began her acting career at the age of nine playing a blind girl in a performance of UPBEAT at the Sorrentino Recreation Center in New York City. Anna continued acting in school plays, children's theater groups at the Queens Library, and performances at the Apollo Theater. OUR SONG is her first feature film.
A student in the 11th grade at Ida B. Wells High School in Queens, Anna plans to finish school and then continue her education in the arts by attending acting or modeling school. With inspiration from singers like Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill, Anna dreams of pursuing her singing and acting careers to their fullest and, like her character, Joycelyn, hopes to one day become a star.
MELISSA MARTINEZ (Maria)
Born in the heart of Spanish Harlem on the east side of 115th Street, Melissa Martinez grew up in the projects and lived with her mother, father, and two brothers. She's had long hair practically all her life. She was fortunate to have parents that were very encouraging and supportive of her career choices. As a child, she sang in front of crowds of people outside and at the community center. Her first joy was to perform and it was something she was determined to do for life. In the 5th grade, she did a dance to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" and realized she loved dancing. Her favorite film as a kid was “Singin' in the Rain”.
One of the dream roles she'd love to play is a period piece film about the late 19th century. It's one of her passions.
THE JACKIE ROBINSON STEPPERS MARCHING BAND
The JRC Steppers Marching Band is one of the many programs within the Jackie Robinson Center for Physical Culture (JRC). Based in Brooklyn, New York, JRC is an after-school program servicing young people ages 8-18 in the communities of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Fort Greene, and Oceanhill-Brownsville. The program reaches over 5,000 students from all ethnic and religious backgrounds who benefit from academic instruction, sports and cultural activities, counseling, and workshops. JRC has been cited by the International Youth Foundation as one of the 30 best youth development programs in the world and by the General Accounting Office in Washington, DC as one of the ten best prevention programs in the country.
The JRC Steppers practice and perform year-round, with an ever-expanding repertoire that includes "I Get Lonely" (Janet Jackson), "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" (Michael Jackson), "Doo Wop (That Thing)" (Lauryn Hill), "I'll Be Missing You" (Puff Daddy), and "Ooh Child" (The Five Stairsteps).
The Steppers are regular pre-game and half-time performers at Giants Stadium and have performed for mayors, governors, and world leaders, including President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.
INDEPENDENT FILM CHANNEL PRODUCTIONS
IFC PRODUCTIONS is a subsidiary of IFC Films, the production entity of the Independent Film Channel, managed and operated by Bravo Networks. It is the first channel dedicated to independent film, presented 24 hours a day, uncut and commercial free. Jonathan Sehring (President, IFC Films) and Caroline Kaplan (Vice President, Film and Program Development, IFC Films), OUR SONG’S Executive Producers, have overseen projects such as Bravo’s Emmy-nominated series “INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO” as well as the network’s Cable Ace Award winning series “THE SOUTH BANK SHOW,” the Cable Ace Award-winning profile of Sam Fuller, “THE TYPEWRITER, THE RIFLE & THE MOVIE CAMERA,” and the channel’s other original documentaries.
IFC FILMS has six features at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: OUR SONG, Brad Anderson’s HAPPY ACCIDENTS, Karyn Kusama’s GIRLFIGHT, Tom Gilroy’s SPRING FORWARD, Maggie Greenwald’s SONGCATCHER, and Josh Aronson’s SOUND AND FURY. IFC PRODUCTIONS has four major theatrical releases to its credit: Kimberly Pierce’s BOYS DON’T CRY, Errol Morris’ MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR., John Sayles’ MEN WITH GUNS, and Steven Soderbergh’s GRAY’S ANATOMY. IFC PRODUCTIONS is also co-producing the digital initiative, InDigEnt, which will produce ten digital films in 2000.
C-HUNDRED FILM CORP
C-HUNDRED FILM CORP was founded in 1987 by Jim McKay and Michael Stipe. C-Hundred's DIRECT EFFFCT PSA series was distributed by Deep Dish television and Video Data Bank, won prizes at numerous video festivals worldwide, and was included in the Whitney Biennial video program.
C-Hundred's film projects and their directors include OUR SONG, AMERICAN MOVIE (Chris Smith), BACKWARD LOOKS, FAR CORNERS (Christopher Munch), BENJAMIN SMOKE (Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen), GIRLS TOWN (McKay), HOSTAGE (Walid Raad), LA BODA (Hannah Weyer), MUTE LOVE (Patrice Mallard), SCARS (James Herbert), SPRING FORWARD (Tom Gilroy), and TREE SHADE (Lisa Collins).
BEECH HILL FILMS
Beech Hill Films, Inc. is an independent New York-based production company formed in May 1997 by Alexa L. Fogel and Joseph Infantolino. Since its inception, Beech Hill has produced the independent feature film CHARMING BILLY, which recently premiered at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, where it won the Best Actor award for lead actor Michael Hayden's performance. The company is currently co-producing the independent feature OUR SONG and is in preproduction on its next feature, FACE, by award-winning writer-director, Bertha Pan. Numerous other film and television projects are in various stages of development, including DADDY COOL, based on the 1971 Donald Goines cult novel, which the company is developing with Samuel L. Jackson; PORK PIE, to be directed by Jonathan Frakes and starring Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine; GIRL GONE, based on the play by Jackie Reingold and starring Kyra Sedgwick; and 10,000 SUNS, an original screenplay by noted playwright Howard Korder.
Journeyman Pictures is a newly-formed production company founded by Paul Mezey.
Independent Film Channel Productions
in association with
Beech Hill Films and Journeyman Pictures
a C-Hundred Film Corp movie
written and directed by