For his film Gun Hill Road, concerning a recently paroled father returning to a family undergoing a transformation with regards to his teenaged son, director Rashaad Ernesto Green decided to revisit his roots in the New York City borough of the Bronx. In this exclusive interview, he describes the reasons behind his choices to shoot this non-traditional film in an environment widely known for its limited latitude for accepting alternative lifestyles. Starring Esai Morales, the film, shot in 20 days in the Bronx with an additional day in Manhattan and one on Long Island, opens in New York Aug. 5 and opens wider a week later in NY and for the first time in LA, slowly rolling out across the country.
Below the Line: Why shoot this film in the Bronx?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: I was born in the Bronx and have roots there. I thought it was a very important aspect of the story to understand the environment and how it shapes the mentality of the characters in it. It’s also the part of New York that is not represented as well as it could be on film. The Bronx that I’ve seen portrayed in many films travels from one stereotype to the next with drug dealers and gangsters. We don’t often see into the depths of our families. The Bronx that I’m used to is steeped in family and community. The father and child in the film are inspired by a family I know very well. It is always hard to accept change, and here is a guy who is a Bronx Latino male who has also been in and out of prison, making that acceptance even more difficult.
BTL: Did you want to put the audience in Esai Morales’ (who plays Enrique) shoes? He‘s a very specific type of character with time spent in prison and a very traditional attitude towards family.
Green: I am presenting in the film a question: what if it were you? Of course it’s hard for all types of people. I understand that. During the course of this two hours, I try to show a man who has learned something. He has gone on a journey towards acceptance. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be escorting his [newly transformed] daughter to her prom. But he understands that love is more important than his hangups about how she chooses to live her life. Many parents are going through the same thing. When you put love and family first, we can make it past our own boxes and limitations and embrace one another because that’s what life calls for.
BTL: Do you think many straight fathers like Esai’s character can relate to this story?
Green: I think that many teenagers and their fathers are going to have differences and issues. Rarely is there a time when their adolescents are going to make it through their teen years without disagreements. This father’s struggle is made that much harder. Someone watching this film might empathize with the teenager because she’s just being herself, but to understand the father is more challenging for the viewer — but I’m asking them not to vilify him. He has been given an extreme challenge. He should be applauded for the effort. He hasn’t been provided with the proper tools to cope. But he is attempting to connect with his challenge.
BTL: How important was getting Morales in the role and having him aboard as a producer?
Green: I wrote the film with Esai in mind. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a child and saw La Bamba. I’ve been waiting to see him in another film where he got to chew on a role. I didn’t think that he had been given his due. Here he gets to play a Puerto Rican man from the Bronx. I’ve always believed that he was one of the most overlooked performers of his generation. We need more stories for these actors to work. It’s my duty as an artist to provide those opportunities to actors. Esai really responded to the script and wanted to attach himself so that people could see that he supported the vision of the project.
BTL: How did you and Esai develop the character together?
Green: Esai was very excited and willing to jump back into Bronx roots. But he has spent half of his life away from New York. He’s been in LA for a couple of decades now. Getting him back into that swagger, walk and talk was sometimes a bit of a balancing act. I encouraged him to just be himself and we’d believe him. It took some convincing that what he brought the table as himself was enough – that his roots would show through. It was all in his muscle memory. It was fantastic to work with Esai. He is a real craftsman. The man is dedicated like you wouldn’t believe. He puts every aspect of himself into his performance. We didn’t have the most ideal circumstances. We sometimes found out where we would be shooting the day we shot it. But he had me in tears at the monitor with some of his takes. He was a joy to watch, and to have Harmony Santana (as Enrique’s son) balance Esai and Judy Reyes (as the mother) out – she was so raw and opened herself in a way that kept them honest.
BTL: What would you like the audience to take from your film?
Green: In an ideal world, I want people to have their minds open, their hearts open, and to empathize with characters that they didn’t empathize with before. We are one family. If you put love and family first, no matter what your differences are, you can get over them. Love is more important than anything. The hope is that we have this slow burn with the film and continue to expand city by city. We hope it will travel and that people will respond to the film.
BTL: Would you like to continue to tell these types of stories in the future?
Green: I will respond as an artist to injustice and to stories that we need to shed light on in aspects of society that we are afraid to look at. I feel like the Bronx is always going to be a strong part of my storytelling. It’s a big part of who I am. I know a lot of New York stories. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do other stories. It’s what my heart responds to right now. I will continue to explore the things that I feel most passionate about. Right now, it’s New York, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to branch out.
Gun Hill Road’s opening day is Aug. 5 in New York City at the Angelika Film Center on Houston Street, the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street, and the AMC Bay Plaza in the Bronx. On Aug. 12, it will be opening in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Sunset 5, at the AMCs in Santa Monica, Burbank, Fullerton, Norwalk, and the Regal University Theater in Irvine. It will then hit San Francisco Aug. 19, then Miami, and will thereafter expand wider.