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August 2007
An Interview with Director Nelson George

An Interview with Director Nelson George

By Wilson Morales

August 6, 2007

Nelson George is widely respected in the business for his creativity as a author, music and culture critic, journalist, and filmmaker. Within the film business, he helped finance Spike Lee’s first film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’, and has written and co-produced other films as well. He recently made his directorial debut with ‘Life Support’, which was featured on HBO. George also co-wrote the film, which was inspired by a true story, and is part of his sister’s life. With Queen Latifah as his lead, cast members included Wendell Pierce, Rachel Nicks, Anna Deavere Smith, Evan Ross, Tracee Ellis. ‘Life Support’ drew many to watch it on the small screen. As the DVD is set to come out, George spoke to blackfilm.com about working with Queen Latifah on the film, what to expect on the DVD, and working behind the camera as a director.

For those who may not have HBO, can you briefly talk about what ‘Life Support’ is?

Nelson George: It’s a film about a contemporary black family dealing with the HIV virus. It’s a family drama because when you have HIV, it’s always about family. It’s about the relationship between mother-daughter-grandmother and how the virus is present in their lives and shapes their relationship towards each other. It takes place now but in many ways it’s about how history and the persecution of this family still play out.

How did you get Queen Latifah to take the lead role in the film?

NG: I had known her loosely from my days when I was a music writer through her manager, Shakim. There are only actresses that I really thought serious about playing the part. I needed someone who the black community had investment in because it’s a difficult part. A lot of people might not want to watch it if they didn’t feel like there was someone they really liked who was in the role. I went and got the script to Shakim, who then passed it on to Latifah and she really was interested in it; and connected with the character and the world. I flew out to LA where was recording an album. We had a meeting for about an hour in regards to the film and she said she wanted to do it if she could find time in her schedule. Luckily for us, ‘Hairspray’ pushed back its start date, opening up a three month window that she had. We were able to prep the movie, make the deal and shoot the movie in twenty days, with her working seventeen of those days in New York. We did it fairly quickly. She’s had 2 friends, a male and a female, who have died of the virus. She had a direct connection to the material. The film wouldn’t have happened without her agreeing to do it.

How did you decide you wanted to direct this? Any challenges in doing so?

NG: I directed this because no one else could direct this. It’s a story about my family. I wasn’t going to write something about my family and let someone else directed it. I was going to write a piece about the virus from the point of view of my family history and my family’s relationship with the virus and this is something you don’t hand off to someone to do for you. Either I was going to do it or it wasn’t going to happen.

Is there anything special that will appear on the DVD?

NG: There are three extras on the DVD. There’s a short documentary about the relationship between my sister and Latifah, and it’s how they met and interacted with each other. There’s a longer twenty minute documentary, that was shot by my assistant, on the making of the film, and there’s actually a deleted scene, which is the most valuable thing on the DVD. At the end of the film, all of the women gathered and they say the name of someone who died and they released these red balloons. The names of everyone they mentioned was of a real person. What we did was I asked, Queen Latifah, each person to talk about the person they mentioned on the roof and it’s incredibly powerful stuff. It was actually almost too real for the film. We tried to put it in but the emotion from all the women was too much and so it exists as its own thing. It’s just an amazing, remarkable discussion. They talk a lot about mortality and death. Not simply the death of their friend but the fear of death that builds in them. They could also die of the virus. It’s really multi-conventional and I think quite powerful. I think it’s a big addition and anyone who liked the film before will find that worthwhile.

How do you walk from the film, which is a part of your life, to your next project?

NG: Now that it’s aired on TV and the DVD is coming out, it actually feels like closure for me because the last part of the journey of the film for me in coming out this way is over; and the other thing is that we got a couple of Emmy nominations. Latifah got nominated for Best Actress in a miniseries and that also is a bit of exposure. I always felt from the very beginning that the part had the potential to an Emmy caliber part and I always talked to Latifah and her manager about the fact that this is a role that potentially your talent and the kind of role it is, you can get a nomination. The fact that the DVD is out and that she got nominated feels like the end of this journey for me. My life goes on and my sister does speaking engagement on that aspect will go on for a long time. This period feels really good.

What are you looking to do next?

NG: I have several projects that I’m writing for movies and TV. I really enjoyed the process and the camaraderie. It was a lot of fun to someplace everyday where you are working with really talented people and though the film is a drama, there was a kind of playfulness and fun to the process of making the film of going to the set and of blocking out the scenes, of working with the actors and seeing what they wanted to do and see what the DP thought of certain things. I found it to be quite enjoyable and at times very stressful. I was physically tired at the end of it and took me a while to recover. Despite that, the satisfaction from the work was remarkable. All the relationships I made helped me appreciate the directing process in a different way. I’m anxious to do it again, hopefully to do some more work that will have some emotional and resonance. That’s hopefully the goal.


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