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VOL 3. NO. 17 Friday, April 27 - Thursday, May 10, 2001
The Visit's Director Talks About the Challenge of Making the Film
By Avonie BROWN

Hill Harper and Marla Gibbs in a scene from "The Visit."

"The Visit" is like no other film I have ever seen and when I first read the synopsis I wasn't even sure it was a film I could enjoy. Alex Waters is in prison convicted for a rape he insists he didn't commit. He is also dying of AIDS. His personal struggle is to overcome his own bitterness and confront the issues that have kept him emotionally isolated from his family.

The performance of the ensemble cast led by Hill Harper as Alex, is gripping and flawless. Written, produced and directed by Jordan Walker-Pearlman, "The Visit" is a multi-layered psycho-drama that explores the dynamics of one black family trying to come to terms with its own reality. The film is an adaptation of a play by Kosmond Russell about his own relationship with his brother who is incarcerated in an Ohio prison.

Metro Connection had an opportunity to speak with Walker-Pearlman, the film's writer, director, producer, about the process of creating this work and I quickly discovered an artist who is very clear of his creative intent and the context within which he must operate.

Avonie: In making this film, what core audience did you have in mind?

Jordan: I want everyone to be exposed to the message of this film. But its important for a filmmaker to have a core audience and because it may be the last film you make, you have to make it the best film possible and you should have your audience in your mind and your heart at all times so that you don't confuse yourself or them.

The audience that I had in my mind and my heart where the people that I grew up around in Harlem. Some were middle class, many were below that economic rung and still more were way below that. I had very emotional experiences growing up, as we all do, but I had great support from people in that community. So I wanted to tell a story that would touch that audience.

I also thought that a film like this was urgently needed. I'm tired of going to movies where all you get about our experiences are broad comedies or gangster flicks. On their own there's nothing wrong with them but the issue is that is all that seems to get made. And then once every few years a film like "Soul Food" will come along and then there a dirth where all you get are glorified minstrel shows or you have people talking about being black.

I wanted to tell a story that was emotional and intimate and universally so. While it was culturally and specifically set in that community of black people, it could have been in terms of circumstance happen in any community. But the layers exist because of community.

Avonie: Given the norm and the economic realities of the movie industry what kind of resistance did you receive in trying to make this film?

Jordan: I combined the screenplay with another story I had already written so the writing of the film came very quickly in the summer of 1997. Then I shot a film called "Snow Taxi" (a documentary feature on snowboarding) and I was thinking about starting DaWa Movies because there were four or five stories I wanted to tell and one of them was "The Visit." I was pretty sure I wanted to do that first.

I knew no one would be interested in it but I said I'd spend two months seeing if anyone would be interested. I wanted to give the mainstream companies a chance before I said everything that needed to be said. And I really wanted it to be about making the movie not about trying to prove anything. So I spent about two months to see and no one wanted to do this film, no one wanted to touch it. So I decided to go ahead and start my own company for that purpose. And people still didn't know what was really going on and people who were involved still thought I was crazy to do it first and some who didn't know what was going on, didn't think much would come of it.

The process didn't end with the making of the movie. The process went into the distribution as well. Finding the right distributor was very difficult even among distributors that wanted the movie. They wanted it on very peculiar terms that were not acceptable.

They wanted to do a poster with Hill and the guard to make it seem like that was the issue. I had distributors tell me in turning down the movie that they would have accepted it with a white cast and they wanted to know what I was interested in doing next because they thought I was talented and they wanted to do a movie with me. But they would not take "The Visit" with black people in the movie.

The difficulties never stopped. And that's why Urbanworld is so significant. That's why I'm so gratified that Stacy Spikes started this company. Other companies could put forth more money, more glitz but no other company could have put in the experience combined with the passion and the heart and the ability.

AVONIE: Is this relationship with Urbanworld/ allowing you to get a lot of screens?

JORDAN: Yes! Stacy was a V.P. at Miramax and many of the other people at Urbanworld come from a lot of experience so I not getting any less that I would have expected from any other company. And the thing is what the others sometimes offer you is a trap too. They offer you a lot of money and they expect you to jump. And before you know it your movie is in two theater and then to video.

AVONIE: Were you clear on what you would have been willing to accept if a black company like Urbanworld didn't exist?

JORDAN: I was willing to accept what's called a "screen guarantee" where it would go out on a certain number of screens and I would have approval over marketing. I was worried number one that it would not be taken to the audience directly, that the audience would be bypassed in one form or another. This may be done with the best intentions. They may even pay you a compliment -- `Oh, this movie is mainstream and would appeal to the universal art houses.' Well good, they can go see it later because that's not who it was originally made for.

The other fear I had was the abuse of marketing. A lot of the mentality was and still is, how do we make $5 million or $10 million the first weekend? So they throw in a poster with a guard, a gun and Hill with his shirt torn and get all the kids in there. But their parents won't go see it because they see that image and immediately think its junk and they should see it. And the kids who do see it are disappointed because they go in expecting one thing and get another. But the distributor doesn't care because they make $5 million that first weekend and they know they can make $10 million more in video. That kind of disrespect for the audience is what I was most afraid of.

And then there is the pressure -- I've made a movie and I want to make my next one and I've got to get it out within a certain amount of time and that's the kind of pressure that they count on in bullying you. I tried not to bullied, I didn't always succeed but I tried.

AVONIE: You had your qualifying one week run in Los Angeles and New York as well and have been nominated for several awards. Has that fact made things any easier?

JORDAN: Yes in the sense that its sparked an increase in interview requests for me, Hill and Billie. We have great publicists so we were doing well anyway. But people covering the Spirit Awards or the Image Awards wanted to interview the nominees so it changed that. It doesn't hurt any of our careers individually but I don't think the awards has dramatically changed what the reaction to the film is going to be one way or another or what some people expect the reaction to be.

AVONIE: The critics have almost universally loved the film, any criticism is truly superficial and negligible. How did audiences react after the runs in Los Angeles and New York?

JORDAN: Yes the critical reviews have been amazing, I'm not mad at any of them. Hill and I agree that we will probably never get this kind of positive review again. But you shouldn't read reviews anyway.

AVONIE: I have problems with the notion of `critics' too because I think anyone who takes the initiative to create anything must be acknowledged for getting involved in the process. No matter how the end product looks people invested time and energy and some creative vision and while it may not tickle your funny bone or resonate with your sense of aesthetics, you have to give people credit for becoming involved in the creative process. And as a paying member of the audience we have to take greater ownership of what we choose to consume and ultimately how we respond to it all -- you can't simply let the thumbs up or down signal of a critic define your movie going experience. And in reality most of these critics are talking to each other or the studios not the public.

JORDAN: I agree. I think criticism has its place but they shouldn't be made public until one month after the film's release so then it just provides context for the audience.

AVONIE: That would be rough now because in the case of "The Visit" I screened it in early February and you had an April 19 release date. That would mean a complete restructuring of the marketing of movies and the mainstream would not have it since studios have now parlayed positive statements from reviews into their marketing campaign. Even if it is completely out of context.

For you as a creator, how do you reconcile your self with this inevitable aspect of the business?

JORDAN: All you can do is tell the truth in your filmmaking and try to do it simply.

AVONIE: Do you feel vindicated in a sense?

JORDAN: I feel more vindicated when somebody comes out of the theater (and they have) and fall into my arms crying. I feel more vindicated when somebody comes up to me and say they have never seen anything like this on film, or that it was a spiritual experience for them. That's where I feel really vindicated. The audiences have been so kind and beautiful to me in their reaction and that's been the most incredible thing.

Critics are also the reality and I've got an out of control ego so this has been very cool, but what you have to do is remember that they will put you up one week to tear you down the next. So what you have to do, if you're going to read critics, is treat each one as an audience member and say this one liked it and this one didn't just as if they were a member of the audience. That the perspective I'd like to put it in. It's been gratifying but it does not compare to a one on one experience with any individual who has seen the movie and has been moved by it.

Billie and I went to a screening and a man came out who didn't' know we were gonna be at the screening and he came up to Billie and this middle aged man literally collapsed in Billie's arms from emotion. That's an experience you don't get everyday.

AVONIE: What part of the film resonated most with you in writing it and did that change once it went to film?

In the writing I'd have to say all of it. And during the shooting I wrote new scenes even in the editing we were creating new scenes. The Motherless Child sequence with the pictures on the wall I didn't even shoot that, that wasn't in the script, that occurred in the editing room. I was listening to Sweet Honey In the Rock's 'Motherless Child" and I wanted to incorporate that song and I thought it was so close to what I was saying about Alex at that point. And for some reason I had asked by Grandmother to send me pictures of the family even though I didn't know how I was gonna use them. I filmed those pictures and in the editing room I finally found something that was very deeply personal for me. And at the screening in New York when my Grandmother saw the film for the first time she was just overwhelmed.

AVONIE: Jordan, thank you so much for "The Visit." I don't know what I was expecting when I first screened it but I know it wasn't this kind of introspective analysis. I guess it's a reflection of how we've been conditioned to not expect us to explore ourselves in this kind of way on film; for black men to emotionally interrogate their lives, to get within and look at the dynamics of how we operate.

JORDAN: That's what filmmaking should be about. And while the industry is defined by a whole lot of variables a lot of that gets dictated by the audience's response. If they are there to support films like "The Visit," then we will get more than an occasional film like this produced and distributed. We are a sophisticated enough class of consumers that we deserve real variety in the films that are produced about us or are marketed to us.

Thank you Avonie for even wanting to talk to me. I really enjoyed our chat and say hi to pops (Billie Dee Williams) when you talk to him.

Next week (May 4, 2001) we bring you my conversation wilt the icon of smooth and sexy, Mr. Billie Dee Williams.

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