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April 2006
Preaching to the Choir: An Interview with Director Charles Randolph-Wright

Preaching to the Choir: An Interview with Director Charles Randolph-Wright

by Wilson Morales

April 10, 2006

Over the last few years, there have been numerous directors who have crossed over from doing music videos to helming feature films. Some of these directors have included F. Gary Gray (Set It Off), Chris Stokes (You Got Served), and more recently Sanaa Hamri (Something New) and Chris Robinson (ATL). While the music industry has a pool of talent where producers can find directors to do films, the theater world has some notables as well. Theater directors Sam Mendes (An American Beauty) and Rob Marshall (Chicago) have smoothly made the transitions and have won many accolades for their film works, and last year, Susan Stroman took "The Producers" to the big screen. Joining the film industry now is Charles Randolph-Wright. Randolph-Wright's play Blue, starring Phylicia Rashad, broke box office records at Arena Stage, the Roundabout Theatre (NYC), and the Pasadena Playhouse (also starring Diahann Carroll and Clifton Davis) and subsequent productions throughout the United States. Randolph-Wright is bringing his making his film directorial debut with "Preaching to the Choir", which features a bevy of talent including Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Tichina Arnold, Marc Damon-Johnson, Janine Green, Biloah Greene, Darien Sills-Evans, Marva Hicks, Eartha Kitt, Patti LaBelle, Adriane Lenox, Novella Nelson, Tim Reid. "Preaching to the Choir" is a comedy drama mix with sibling rivalry, gospel, hip-hop, and redemption set in Harlem, New York. In speaking to blackfilm.com, Randolph-Wright talks about directing his first film and making the transition from the theater world.

How did this film come about for you?

Charles Randolph Wright: Actually, for me, I was hired to do this film. The guys that produced it had a script. They wanted to do this film in New York City that makes gospel and this music and this theme and these brothers and they had a script which I liked. I thought there were things I wanted to change as every director on earth does, but I really liked this story and that it was a real view of Harlem; a view of Harlem that you don't see in films. It's a view of normal people. It wasn't a world of everyone being hyped. I really liked the idea of seeing of women walking down the street, who are those normal women living in the neighborhood. I came aboard and we shot this film which was actually almost three years ago, the summer of 2003, and last summer is when we went to ABFF, the American Black Film Festival. On second thought, it was 2004 when we shot it. We were at the Pan African Film Festival in LA prior to ABFF. That was in the spring of last year. At ABFF, we won the audience prize and the grand jury prize and also the best actor prize. So we won every award in the festival. Afterwards, we got attention from different entities; different entities who really wanted to take this on and do something with it. We decided to go with Codeblack Entertainment because it was very unique; a black distribution company partnering with Radio One and TV-1. To me, it's the wave of the future. It's something we have to do. We have to really put out our own product. First of all, it's impossible to get a movie made, and when you finally get it made, it's just as impossible to get it out. To have a place where you can get films out and where you get it to the community and get it to an audience that will automatically go to the film and then you may have a greater audience, but unfortunately many people at studios have no idea how to market that to certain audiences. They don't know that the audiences exist and audiences in the African American community are all kinds of audiences. They want all kinds of movies, but the powers that be, the typical Hollywood producers, for them, there's only one genre of a film with people of color in it. What I really loved about this film is that it's music and it really shows all types of people in Harlem and it crosses many barriers and people and ages and type. We have a rage, an extreme rage of people in our lives, in our community and I think our art should reflect that. I'm very proud that I feel this film does and I hope it can open the door for others to do that. Codeblack is distributing several films and they are really trying to make this pathway so that there is a place when we make a film and get it done that there's a place to get it distributed.

Can you talk about the casting?

CRW: We cast in New York and everyone wanted stars, they wanted names and I was fortunate in that the producers wanted great actors and a lot of people I knew are great stage actors. The two women who plays the sisters, Adriane Lenox, won a Tony for "Doubt" and Denise Burse is in August Wilson's last play and she's in Baltimore doing that right now. There are many actors in this film who are not names in the Hollywood realm but are tremendous actors. The guys who play the brothers (Billoah Greene and Darien Sills-Evans), some people recognize them, but they are not name actors. We will get lucky because I have Tishina Arnold and I got Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbale, before he got cast in "Lost". I also have some friends of mine, Eartha Kitt, Patti Labelle, Ben Vereen, Tim Reid, and all of them did me a huge favor. They made no money and did appearances for me in this film. Novella Nelson is an amazing actress who plays Aunt June and she's done many films and television work and theater. She may not be a name that people instinctively recognize outside of New York, but they recognize her face and definitely her talent. It was a great mix of people who were extraordinarily to me. They gave up their time and they allowed me to direct them in a way that got this done. We did this in 26 days, which is unheard of especially for a musical because there are some musical numbers in the film as well and the actors were amazing. So mainly, the film was cast in New York and the casting director is Aleta Chappelle. We brought in all kinds of people and found this amazing group of people. The kids are great. I love the work that they did.

How was the transition from theater to films?

CRW: I had a lot of television and I had had done commercials and videos so it wasn't completely foreign knowing what that image is. I love that I get to work in theater, film and television cause each medium sort of informs the next. Television teaches me expediency and film is about image and theater is about the word. So you take from each thing and it helps the next. I'm the king of multi-tasking so I guess when I did the film I learned that that was it, but I think directing a film is probably the hardest thing there is because you have so much that you're doing all at once. I think of all of the things in it and it kills you. You collapse when you finish and you get back up and you do it again because it's non-stop, but I feel that it uses every part of you. I also feel that my theater, especially in this because of the music, that music theater background and my music background both really helped me do what this was. In television, you learn how to get things done quickly and what that means so I think all of it helps. It wasn't foreign to me and I felt really at home doing it.

What challenges did you face in making this film?

CRW: I think the hardest thing was dealing with this music because there were all these choirs, and there's a choir competition in it, and there are a lot of different songs and pieces and the first thing I did when I met these guys is that you can bring in all these church choirs, which is what they were thinking they were going to do. There is a group called the Broadway Inspirational Voices and it's a gospel choir comprised of singers from Broadway shows. It's a gospel choir created by Michael McElroy and it's got Joseph Joubert, who works with him, and the two of them arranged this music for the film; so I had one group playing all these different choirs vocally. In one week, we recorded 13 songs literally at night and in the actual film, there're extras who are playing these choirs and some of the choir members are each choir, but it would have taken so much more time to do that and it wouldn't have been the sound that we ended up getting. I was able to say that now, "You're a Methodist choir and you are very bourgeois, and now this Pentecostal choir, now you're a Spanish choir and you're a bad choir and you're out of tune, and they can flip instantly because they're actors and do it and that would have been a lot more challenging with just a normal church choir who weren't actors. I would have to get several different choirs to get and the field that I was looking for. That was one of the first big hurdles and then this film takes place in several locations so I the New York area, we were shooting LA, we were shooting North Carolina, and we shot within 30 miles of New York for all of that and for the majority of the film, we shot in the streets of Harlem and instead of being difficult, that was a joy. It was exciting to be up there and to show how beautiful that part of the city is. They're not in Harlem, the buildings, and it's like the Village in a sense with the lights because there are not a lot of tall buildings so you really have beautiful lights in these streets and it gives this look that is so perfect on film and it's not a look that you can typically see. Anytime they show Harlem, it's graffiti and see a car burning in the background. You don't the beauty that we all know exist in that neighborhood.

What's next for you?

CRW: There are two different films. There's a film based on a play that I wrote that we're about to do called Blue. It's based on a play that I did about my family and we're in the process of dealing with that. Diahann Carroll and Phylicia Rashad did the play, so I have to have them back and I'm not sure as who the rest of the cast will be. Both Diahann and Phylicia know I will stand in their doorsteps until they say yes, but they are both friends and I would like to have them both do this, so we're talking around their schedules. Roger Bobb will be producing that film. I have another film, which may happen before Blue, and I'm in the process of dealing with, called Sanctuary. It's been written by Budd Schulberg, who wrote "On The Waterfront" and he wrote "Face in the Crowd" and he's an extraordinary writer, "What Makes Sammy Run", and this a novel he wrote in the late 60s and he wrote the screenplay in the early 70s and I was working on a stage musical and it turned out he wrote the original story for it and that meant we would be working together and I was out in house in the Hamptons and said, "You must have something in here that I can use". This man is a legend and he said, "You know, I have this one book" and I read the book and it knocked me out. Immediately I optioned it and it turned out that he had a screenplay to it which I didn't know, so we just got a new draft of that. My producer is Janet Yang, who produced "The Joy Luck Club" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt". Right now, the script is out to some people and we're waiting on the main character to say yes and as soon as that happens, then we're going. It's an ensemble piece. It's a very film and completely opposite from what I just did and the writing is extraordinary. To get an opportunity like this is what you dream of.

Why should people go see "Preaching to the Choir"?

CRW: To feel good. I love to go to theater, to film, and watch television and see myself because for so many years I did not and I feel incredible. I've watched audiences see this film and it makes them feel good about who they are and their families. The brothers in the film may have a complicated relationship but they love each other and the end of the film you know that this relationship is always going to be complicated; so it's not a picture perfect world what it talks about is how love can transcend those complications and that's what I think people come away with. It's a feel good movie and people will love the music. Nona Hendryx did the score for this and she wrote original music for this and she coordinated with Michael (McElroy), who did the gospel things in it and really brought all this together and you know what music can do in any medium and especially in film and the power it has. You feel this energy and especially in the performance scenes. Because I'm from theater, I tried to shoot this in a way that felt like you were there. All too often I see scenes in church and I just don't believe them. It's missing that real power of church and I tried to incorporate that as much as I could.

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR opens on April 14th in select markets, which includes Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, D.C/Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Augusta, Norfolk, Cleveland, Memphis, Charlotte, Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, Indianapolis, Dayton, Columbus, Jacksonville, Louisville, and Minneapolis


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