It covers familiar subject matter — inner-city gangs; navigating the joys and trials of adolescence; growing into manhood in an urban environment. But this movie is different. It does what only art can, and that is it makes us feel, and it makes us understand. It is not a documentary, but it uses true life to create a fiction that is reality. We are brought into the world of the film, which is not so much an interpretation of the streets and projects of Brooklyn as it is the area captured in time, much like a Cartier-Bresson photograph, presenting the viewer with glimpses of private lives in public spaces. It gives us meticulous portraits of its characters, bringing us to an intimacy with them scene by scene. It presents layer upon layer of the mundane details until it adds up to profundity. This is a film not to be missed.
“Five Star” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival April 17. The next day, we got to sit down with director Keith Miller and stars Primo Grant and John Diaz.
Q: How did the three of you wind up meeting?
PRIMO: You better ask the director. He found us.
KEITH: I met Primo through Shanon Harper, who was the lead of [my previous film] “Welcome to Pine Hill.” They bounce at the same bar. And he said, “Oh, you’ll like this guy.” So we met. We did a short, documentary-style piece “Gangbanging 101.” We talked when he finally saw it, he’s like, “Let’s make another movie,” and I was like, “Yeah, let’s make another movie.” And we talked and got very close in that phase of conversation, and that helped inform the story ideas of the movie … We held auditions and, I’m in the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, and one of our members, Jeremy Engle made a short film called “Mosquito” (which, if you haven’t seen you should go and look for it). John was in it, and it’s all kids with, like, huge afros set in 70s New York, and it’s very cool. And I said, “Oh, you know, I’m auditioning for a young guy in a movie.” And he sent over James, who’s the lead, and John, who was the co-star in that. And so they both read for the part, and they were both really good. But then when I put these two [John and Primo] together I thought like, uh, the look was really cool together, and then we just went from there.
Q: How much of the story did you guys devise together versus written out beforehand?
PRIMO: I’d say, uh, 70-30? That accurate?
KEITH: And what’s the 70?
PRIMO: The 70 is…
PRIMO: Like you stated, you know, it’s on camera, so it’s fiction, but these were real moments with me and my kids, and … I was really working at Moe’s. John was really that kid that goes back and forth, hangs out with his dudes … I’d say it’s a blend. You know, I don’t even want to say “70.” It’s a blend of both, you know.
KEITH: I think that to. I very intentionally disregard that distinction of real and fictional and that’s why we don’t necessarily all agree about that, which is good for me, you know? That’s interesting. But I think that there’s two levels to thinking about it. Like, on a scene-by-scene level, I try to make it geographically and historically as close to reality as possible. In terms of the story structure, that’s all my writing, right? And there’s certain scenes that are very specifically scripted and others that are much more loosely scripted. So in terms of a scene, he works at Moe’s. Does the guy who gets him to work for Tony Yayo, do the security there, is he actually the bar owner? No. Did he do security for Tony Yayo? No. Has he done security for musicians? Yes. So, you know what I mean? Like, here are these things of like, “Okay, I can use that. That’s good for me.” Like with Tony coming from essentially the same area but being different was an interesting point for me. So the big story was completely written, and there were elements in it that had nothing to do with either of their stories, let’s say. But on the ground, the local part of it, you know that is his, and that is his wife and whatever. The way things are run in the streets I don’t think it’s run exactly like that. I wanted to do it outside a lot more, like in nature. I mean, putting it into 60-40, 50-50, 70-30 is always weird, but I would say that on a local level it’s very reality-based, but on a structural level it’s all written.
Q: So what was it like direction the loosely-improvised scenes? What was it like acting in them? Did they present any specific challenges to anybody?
JOHN: So with any scene we did, no matter if it was fully scripted or a little bit loose, every scene had a point we had to get to, and Keith made that point very clear. So it was a situation where it’s like, even though it’s a loose scene, even though it’s somewhat using our own reality to it, there’s a point that we have to get to. Primo has to ask this question, and Primo has to get to this answer, to this situation. That situation has to happen. So I feel like a lot of it was more Keith. He took real control over that. And as the actor, I enjoyed that. Just watching the director coming over and grabbing. And he would take Primo, and he would be like, “John, can I borrow Primo for five minutes?” And he’d talk to Primo, and I’d be like, “Hey, Primo. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I know it’s something about the scene.” And then he’ll come to me, and tell me something about the scene. And we’ll both go in the scene not knowing what he said to each other. But we both know where we have to get to, because Keith has explained that to us. So it helps with the reality factor, but it also helps with the scripting factor. It’s really structured the right way.
KEITH: I think that’s a great way to describe it. It’s always nice for me to hear the guys talk about it, because I have my vision, they have theirs… We all disagree about stuff, but in a good way for me. I find that interesting. Like a lot of the rehearsal, whether it’s a scripted scene or an unscripted scene… I think it’s weird for me to talk about rehearsal, because, let’s talk about the scene in the car, the opening scene, like how do we rehearse for that? We have like a therapy session. We sat down for four hours, and we talked about a lot of stuff. Primo told me that story, but also ten other stories. And my directing that scene was … I think it’s very hard for a tough guy to be brave emotionally. Right? And so what I said to Primo, was “I don’t care if you’ve faced a gun, this is tougher. You’ve got to really be real in front of the camera. You’ve got to tell the story.” So that’s the way I direct, you know. It’s really more like getting them to get to an emotional center as opposed to some kind of, “Look at the camera this way.” The way I direct the crew is like, “Be ready for anything. The cameras are like this. They’re moving around.” But just like I’ll grab John or Primo, I’ll also grab the camera and be like, “Get this angle and that.” You know, it’s all pretty adroit live-action stuff.
Q: What was the casting process like? Professional actors versus non-professionals. How did you go about finding people to fill these roles?
KEITH: I obviously started with Primo. Then we did open call casting and some online stuff. People read for the parts. We did a lot of auditions for Jasmine’s role, for John’s role, for the mother, and the wife, actually. We originally didn’t use [Primo’s] wife. And that was one of the few reshoots. Like I just didn’t feel right. And one of the things that came up was that a lot of the who were more traditional actors, like had a bigger resume and done TV or some other movies, they just couldn’t handle it. You put a trained actor, from good to very good actor, next to these guys, they just look terrible. You know? So Wanda, who plays [John’s] mother, what I said to her, she reminded me of this [at the premiere] last night, actually, that I had said this, said, “I can tell when you’re acting. Don’t act. I want the real thing here.” And she could get it, right, because she has an experience that corresponds to the experience of the movie, just like John does, or Primo does. So the casting was just like a regular casting, but then it was also through the network. Like Jasmine came because John knew her from high school.
JOHN: Yeah, we were in the same acting class.
KEITH: And Primo’s crew in the movie are Primo’s buddies. And Raylo’s crew are John’s buddies. You know, so it was more like, “Hey, you guys have got people.” So it was a lot of real casting, but it was also like reaching toward the person right nearby.
JOHN: Probably one of the coolest things was my friends all beat me up. And the guys started being really mean to me and pushing me, and those are like my actual friends that I hang out with every single day. So that’s a very scripted part where he had to come in like, “All right, you have to be angry at John, because usually you’re not angry at John, but you have to be.”
KEITH: Actually, they said that was easy.
Q: There seems to be a lot of autobiographical content in the movie from the principal players. Is that safe to say?
KEITH: With Primo’s part definitely. With some of the other characters, and I don’t want to say which is which, because that’s kind of, actually very personal stuff, there was a lot of uncanny synchronicity … You know, I’d direct someone and say, “Okay, you know, on this part I want you to do this, and this is your motivation, this is the history.” And then they’d turn to me and say, “That’s what happened.” And then tell me a story that would freak me out it was so close. And that happened with a number of the actors. But I didn’t write John’s character based on John. Like I wrote it, and then John filled it.
Q: Did having to perform any of the personal subject matter present any acting challenges? Was it hard to put on camera?
PRIMO: The only difficult part that Keith had to really talk to me to was the Bar Mitzvah scene. I’m not a church-goer, I don’t do temples. I have my own different belief. And at the end, he was like, “You want me to tell everybody that we came all the way out here for nothing? That we pack up and leave?” It’s kind of like a guilt trip. You know, these guys did just come out, all the way out here, so … the only difficult part for me was the Bar Mitzvah scene. Otherwise than that, everything was cool, sweet. And, you know, other points where I had to actually get in touch with some of the stories Keith said he wanted to open and see. And it’s a little emotional speaking about because … Just to see where I’m going, you know, is that I’m happy. Yeah, it’s a little difficult sometimes.
JOHN: I said this yesterday, but I guess the hardest part about this whole situation is letting you guys see it … When we’re shooting it’s really intimate. Even though there’s cameras there we got to a point where we know the camera guys now. We know Adam. We know Alex. And it’s like, we feel as comfortable with Alex and Adam as we do with Keith, so we’re not afraid to let our emotion out, let our emotions on film. But I feel like the hardest part is having your family, having people you know, or having people you don’t know sit down and actually see it. Like when I was talking about my aunt [in the film], my aunt was sitting right there, and my aunt knows I hate going to her house. And as soon as I said that line, she looked at me … And it hits home sometimes, and it’s like some of the hardest parts is letting some people actually enter your life. You don’t know how all these people are going to judge. That’s the biggest thing I said to Primo: “You were really strong about that. Because people can take this movie and judge it however they want. People can talk behind their back however they want. But at the end of the day, you open your world to people.” I tell you [Primo] this all the time, but that’s really cool. I had to deal with half of it, because I came in halfway through with Keith and you guys. But this is you. You got some strength, man.
PRIMO: It’s kind of scary in the sense of you’re only known to a certain amount of people, you know? But now, you know, and God willing, God’s grace, the world will know me. The world will know who I am. What I am. I’m not afraid, but I worry on what the negative outcome could be for my children, or even for my lady, or even for myself, or even for people involved in the film around me, which is why I wouldn’t dive into certain topics too hard. There are certain things I *can’t* release to you. I mean, it’s scary, but, right now there’s some grace and nothing bad has happened. I got all the right phone calls, everybody was supporting me. Everybody I needed to get a confirmation from has given it to me, and it’s just incredible, man. It’s an incredible feeling.
It’s overwhelming sitting here with you right now … We were just sitting down two years ago and, “Hi, I’m Primo. Hi. Hey. What’s up?” Two, three years later, we’re sitting here, and we’re doing an interview! I didn’t think I’d be here. I don’t know about *you* guys, I never thought I’d be here. It’s something I wanted, I dreamed of. But me? Gang-affiliated. I sold drugs as a kid. You know? I’m the angry guy that you see in the morning on the train, with just that serious face. If he didn’t see the film, and you probably see me in the street, nine o’clock at night, don’t think it would have been a “Hey how you doing?” I would have kept it moving, you’d have kept it moving. So to be here right now is amazing. It’s a feeling I can’t really put in words. You know? And to let the world into my life, into John’s life, and to get to know us from this point? It’s really never going to be a secret again. I speak for me. I’m overwhelmed, and I’m thankful. I’m thankful for Keith, just even having the faith and wanting to do this and saying, “You know what? Sit down with this guy.” And I’m thankful for John being who John is. He’s a wonderful, beautiful actor. This kid has a future. I’ve watched him over the last two years grow from somewhat a teenager into a young man. And I am proud of him. You know, I think John stole the movie, and brought that humor, he brought that childhood love, he brought that teenage love, but then he also brought that “I’m a man now.” When you see him on the roof with the gun, and then at the beach, he’s just, “No more fun and games.” You know, like, “Stop playing Primo!” You know, and to watch him grow in that sense and to see him now? I’m proud of these guys. I’m honored just to be a part with these guys. So that’s what I have to say.
Q: How was filming in the community? Were there any challenges, or were people pretty open and receptive to you guys coming in and shooting?
KEITH: Yeah, you know. Pretty much. Everybody knows Primo with this, that’s one thing. Even when he wasn’t there, it’s a very respectful crew. I would never allow the UPM (the Unit Production Manager), or the [Assistant Director] say, “Hey, you have to leave. We’re doing this.” Someone’s there, we say, “Hey, do you mind if we shoot here, ’cause we’re going to do this. Do you want to be on camera, do you not want to be on camera?” … And so, I tried to be, and everybody was as generous with them as we were asking them to be with us. And really, there was not one time that I even felt like people were pissed off at us. Like, I would stop what I was doing and say “Hey, what’s the matter? What happened here that this isn’t right?” You know? And there were times when the producer, the assistant director would be like, “Hey, we really got to get going.” And my feeling was like, “No, we don’t. This is not our place. We’ve got to make sure they’re not upset about it.” So, it was really no problem whatsoever. The locations, and everything … we got lucky.
Q: The film has a very naturalistic feel and tone to it. Is that the kind of tone you knew you wanted from the beginning, or did it develop with you guys working together?
KEITH: I want the movie to feel very much like we are in this specific place that is real, lived-in, intimate. I want our proximity to it to be that we’re close. So that the difference between the world that we see and the world that we’re in … It’s hard to differentiate them. And I’m very certain of what happens outside the frame of the movie, and so I feel like the way to get that is to get as much reality in it without overblowing like reality TV or verite style. I think the camerawork is beautiful in it, and those guys are amazing — but I didn’t want it to call attention to itself. So I didn’t want any shots that were *beautiful* you know. Or I didn’t want any lighting that was like, “Oh, amazing!” Or sunsets … I mean, the beach has it, but that was an intentional decision to make of like, romantic kids on a beach. You know, with sunset. So I was very clear about not making what I would call an “aesthetic movie.” You know, like the Coen brothers’ last movie every shot is pretty. And after a while, for me, in a movie like this, I would feel like that would be so distracting from the human, the intimate story of the people. So, that was a very conscious decision from before PINE HILL and now here. It’s like, I took the score of the initial cut of the movie. I had scoring in it, and I was like, “No. Sounds like a movie.” So I wanted to remove that.