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Director Series-George Wolf

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By Mary Ann SkweresHBO Films’ Lackawanna Blues, adapted from Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical, award-winning, off-Broadway play, explodes onto the screen in a joyous celebration of black community on the eve of desegregation. A mosaic of music, dance and sexual energy, the film is young Junior’s (Marcus Carl Franklin) coming-of-age story under the maternal wing of Rachel “Nanny” Crosby (Law and Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson), a generous, tough, larger-than-life woman who runs a boarding house for an assorted collection of colorful misfits whose damaged pasts, along with Nanny’s unconditional love, shape the boy’s life. Making his film-directing debut, Tony Award-winning and Public Theatre director George C. Wolfe brings his deft hand with actors and eye for sumptuous detail to creating the tactile world of this golden age gone by. Working in a new medium, Wolfe drew upon the exceptional talents of his creative collaborators to pull the audience into this highly personal anthology of remembered stories.Below the Line: What inspired you to bring the story of Lackawanna Blues to film, and what was your vision for the piece?George C. Wolfe: I had a prior relationship with it, because at the Public Theatre we commissioned Ruben to write it as a one-person show. Later Ruben was working on the film version for HBO and they wanted to get a director involved, so he suggested me. They had been talking to me about doing a project before, so I said I’ll get on board and help out and then we’ll see. We talked about my vision for it: about the world and the landscape. In addition to being about this little boy and Nanny, I wanted it to be about the death of this community and how, in a sense, integration killed off this rich, varied and complicated culture that segregation had created. Visually, I wanted it to have visceral power. So color and texture and a layered world became very important to me—a world that was sensual and had dark edges and was vibrant and alive. A lot of times in movies depicting black people, it’s foreground and it’s background, but you’re not aware of all these extraordinary little details of culture, details that are there all the time.BTL: The production design is very detailed. How did you find and collaborate with your production designer Richard Hoover?Wolfe: I’m incredibly obsessed with detail, but in theatre you can do only so much detail. Film gives permission for my detail-crazed person to come out and live in full flourish. I know Richard from the theatre. We found this extraordinary house on West Adams, and from then on, the film started living for me in a very specific kind of way. I was with Richard selecting wallpaper, paint colors. For example, we had discussions about Mr. Paul’s room. Finding that wallpaper, if you look at it, it’s bars. Because this man is in prison, regardless of any space he’s in, he’s perpetually going to turn whatever space he has into a cell. So we tried to do these subtle things in contrast to the vibrant life going on at Maxie’s, which is in many respects a contrived world because it’s a ’40s dance and it’s already the ’60s. There are people dressing up to create a world that doesn’t exist anymore. So in scenes like this you have to come up with a series of contrived colors.BTL: Besides the obvious sumptuous look of the film, what else did cinematographer Ivan Strasburg bring to the table?Wolfe: The movie is ultimately this long journey towards being in the presence of something you’ve lost. We wanted to created swirls so the rhythm of the camera was not boxed in. Particularly in certain scenes—like the fish fry, and like Maxie’s—you get the sense of a circular motion going on. In terms of camera dynamic, we wanted to put the audience in the movie, never, ever witnessing it, but inside the rhythms of it and also inside the textures and details of that world. At the end when you go outside with Junior and you see all these empty lots and boarded-up buildings, you’re missing that textured, incredibly intense world where color and dynamic and sensuality and seduction are a part of the way of life.BTL: Since this is your first film, how did you find your editor, Brian Kates?Wolfe: Nellie Nugiel [producer] and Shelby Stone [executive producer] had interviewed a bunch of people and by this time knew me very well. They thought I’d get along with Brian. He and I got together. He had seen my theatre work and really loved it. He was very excited about the film. I saw some of the work that he had done, such as The Woodsman. We talked and got along.BTL: The editing was fairly fast, plus in some sequences—like the wood-chopping scene with Mr. Luscious (Delroy Lindo)—you have these little flashes of the past or simultaneous action. How did you and Kates come up with the editing style?Wolfe: You’re seeing the movie from Junior’s point of view. We were playing around, wanting to create a sense of horror and danger. There’s no way this man is going to hurt this little boy, but through this little boy’s point of view, you’re experiencing the fear of what he’s perceiving. History is framing this scene so what the boy is experiencing is this man who he knows is nice and friendly above ground, all of a sudden, in this dark basement, talking about beating somebody up. So the image that is going back to Junior’s head when Luscious talks about hitting the man—Junior is seeing Luscious chop that wood. It’s about how the little boy is processing information and how we are processing information so that when we come through that dark story to the other side, we’ve journeyed through. This little boy is learning that things that we might be frightened of, on the other side are not frightening; they are much more emotionally complex.BTL: Your costume design played an important role in setting up this world. Is the designer someone you worked with before?Wolfe: It’s sort of two people: Paul Tazewell, who I had worked with in the theatre and did certain of the women’s costumes, and Hope Hanafin, who I had never worked with before, but knew my work in theatre. Once again, every single thing was about bringing all these details and textures so that you realize you’re in the presence of a world that has existed for a very long time. I hate costumes that look like costumes. I love costumes that look like clothes. You have to realize that people wear these clothes. A lot of the time you see movies and you wonder, my God, how big is that closet! We wanted to create this sense of style over fashion. All these people had a sense of their own individual style. Also we played with palette, because it was all about seducing the audience into wanting to live inside this world forever, so that at the end, when that world ends, it’s your loss.Lackawanna Blues premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2005 and made its HBO debut February 12. The film continues to play on HBO through March 8.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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