Shooting Urban Films

By Sid Kali, posted 1 August 2007

Who is Sid Kali? I've written, directed, and produced two full-length urban features, CONSIGNMENT and IN WITH THIEVES, plus have a third feature in production titled STASH SPOT.

Some people feel that when you attach the word urban to an independent film the story will be based on slices of life that unfold in housing projects or the barrio. Which do provide rich and colorful backdrops that reflect a slice of americana.

On the flip side urban culture has moved beyond the housing projects and barrios. Taking those attitudes and feelings into new environments. This opens up new backdrops for you to shoot urban films. You no longer are forced to only shoot in the inner city to produce urban films.

A few other hits urban movies take is that the production quality will be less than an art house film made on a similar budget. That urban movies don't have well written scripts and they all look the same style wise.

Many innovated filmmakers that love the urban genre are changing the way people think about that. They are putting out high quality urban movies made on indie budgets that are freshly entertaining.

The diversity of the urban genre continues to grow because the storylines are connecting with a larger audience by going beyond what you would expect to see in an urban movie. The elements you can fold into an urban drama are becoming more complex earning these films more respect.

Through networking I've connected with Irish-American filmmaker Mike O'Dea founder of Shamrock Films. He is currently in production with TOWNIES. A film about the Charlestown mob. Looks like a great urban movie being delivered from the viewpoint of Irish-American gangster characters.

The word 'crime drama' is used to describe films like 'Training Day', 'The Departed' and 'Scarface', but to many urban movie buffs these aren't crime dramas. They are urban masterpieces done by highly talented and respected filmmakers at the top of their creative game.

Shooting urban movies has always been a goal of mine. When I began fleshing out the script for CONSIGNMENT my first feature film I wanted it to be authentic across the board. Nothing kills the vibe of an urban movie more than it being completely phony. Like in the older Westerns when the Native-Americans were played by blonde hair blue eyed actors. Imagine how different 'Dances With Wolves' would have played to viewers.

There are tremendous actors out there at every level that can deliver powerful performances. On a larger budget feature actors are able to get into character, research the role, or work with a dialect coach if needed. On a truly independent film budget you will be lucky to get in a decent amount of rehearsals before shooting.

It is sometimes a benefit to work with real people for what I see as tailored roles. In CONSIGNMENT we had a character named Smiles that was from the streets and had survived a nearly fatal shooting. My friend Ruben Navarro was cast. Unfortunately, he did survive a near fatal shooting in his life. It made sense to me as a director to work with him as a first time actor since he understood the character from personal experience. It wasn't like he was being cast as for a role he had zero knowledge of.

As the writer I felt that this particular script was best served highlighting a Black and Latino perspective playing out through the film. The plot centers around a Virginia Beach drug dealer that runs into trouble and has to lay low in Southern California. This being the movies all the problems that come with power, drug money, fast women, and jealous rivals has to come out. It was nice to be able to mix in the subtle cultural differences between the two places.

This came from being able to work with Co-Producer/Editor Tim Beachum that had lived in Ohio, Detroit , and Virginia Beach. I've only lived in Southern California. When the film was done shooting we were able to mix in some outlaw bikers and corrupt police. The personal bonus was being able to add people I grew up with to the cast to give it a real edge.

I felt comfortable adding elements from the East Coast because I could consult Tim Beachum. If that option had no been there I would have focused on writing what I knew. That would have been a film that was completely slanted to the West Coast lifestyle. If you're able to ever expand your film take advantage of that. If not and you have a limited budget write a film you can shoot within your resources using what you know.

Through collaboration with the website Jackin4Beats.Com we were able to add a quality soundtrack featuring East Coast & West Coast artists including Custom Made Recordings, Ayreon The Don™, and Malice & Da Commission. You're going to hear "NO" a lot when tracking down music for your soundtrack. A nice music budget makes it easier, but most independent films have very little money for music. Don't give up or settle on music that doesn't fit your film. There are music artists that will appreciate the exposure of being on a movie soundtrack. CONSIGNMENT lent itself to a hip hop soundtrack, so we focused on rising hip hop artists. In our case it happened to work.

CONSIGNMENT has recently been acquired by Maverick Entertainment Group, Inc. It will be a direct to video title. It will be released November 2007.

After the experience of CONSIGNMENT. We decided expand our take on the urban genre with our second feature film IN WITH THIEVES. This urban film blends together a Cuban cartel deep into their darker version of Santeria, blood diamonds being pushed by an African based crime group, ruthless Albanian gangsters, and an American burglary crew.

This unique blend of creative and visual elements we felt would make for a provocative urban film. The inspiration was to show that urban stories can have global influences.

The production of IN WITH THIEVES was difficult because casting was calling for extremely diverse and capable actors that could play real in front of the camera. Good fortune smiled on us bringing some tremendous talent that we had not worked with before and some faces from CONSIGNMENT we respected.

The goal was to fold in the Albanian Mob, American crooks from the streets, an African based crime syndicate and a Cuban cartel that practiced a wild version of Santeria. I asked a family friend that ran a botanica to show me items that would be authentic. She set me up down to Jesus Malverde giving us realism at the voodoo altar scenes.

Sharing real experiences and honest practical advice with others interested in shooting urban movies is what this article will hopefully do. The biggest lesson I learned was that if you have a certain amount of time and money to produce your film do not overwrite your script and over schedule each shooting day to fit your over all schedule. I'm not a film professor so the easy way for me to put it is like this. If you're 1st Ad or UPM breakdown the script and say it will take 14 days to shoot your film, don't expect to shoot in a 7 days and get everything you want.

Think about trimming the script if you can't extend the shooting days. On IN WITH THIEVES this became a reality for me as a director as the shooting days I had available began to shorten quickly in comparison to what we were getting into the can. By the third day rock and roll UPM Cameron Penn already let me know at the pace we were shooting we wouldn't nail all the pages we needed to finish the movie.

I knew the script was ambitious and my own writing ego wasn't open to deleted some scenes that really weren't crucial to the film. Ego is a terrible thing, not just in film, but in life. At least for me anyway. Before the fourth day of shooting an actress who had a supporting role let us know she couldn't show up for her first day of shooting because her agent got her an audition for a well known television pilot. I never begrudge anyone that has a chance for a shot at what they feel is a bigger opportunity than what they committed to.

We wished her well and knew the production could not shoot around her or reschedule her. The practical choice was to release her from the film. It was a blessing in disguise. I had to do some re-writes to remove her character from the script. This allowed me not to fall in love with any scene or dialogue that wasn't important to the film. It has been said that screenwriters should not fall in love with their own words. I agree!

I was able to write her out and the story was tighter. We finished the movie. It's currently in the final stages of post-production . We will begin shopping it to interested distributors shortly. If you are interested in seeing the trailer for this film please Google IN WITH THIEVES.

With the love for urban movies still strong we're starting production on our third feature STASH SPOT. Rival criminals fight to find a fortune in cash ripped-off during a drug deal gone bad. When the stick-up artists responsible turn up dead, a bloodbath erupts as each vicious criminal makes their ruthless play to locate the money.

You always learn things with each film you produce. Hopefully filmmakers will continue to push the urban genre beyond what it is now.

* Quick and dirty tips if you're going to produce your own urban movie:
(* does not apply to filmmakers that have Hollywood connections or access to big money)

Avoid writing an amazing scene like the shoot-out in 'Heat' if you can't pull it off.

Write realistic locations into your script that you have shooting access to.

Action scenes are always going to take longer to light and shoot than talking head scenes.

Make sure your dialogue is authentic to the culture of the street. If you're writing your own script your words cost nothing.

Wardrobe can't make Corey Feldman (nothing against The Corey) a Latino gangster by putting him in a bandana and a flannel buttoned only at the top. I surprised they think that works, but they do in some really bad urban movies.

Whatever happens keep the show rolling.

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