By Don Simpson | January 29, 2012
The winner of the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Feature Narrative at Slamdance 2012, Welcome to Pine Hill is the most naturally positive portrayal of a black character that I have ever seen dedicated to film — and I am incredibly embarrassed to say that if I knew that a white guy directed Welcome to Pine Hill, I probably would not have even bothered watching it. But the outsider perspective actually works in Miller’s favor, and it certainly helps matters that he avoids all of Hollywood’s racial stereotypes. Most importantly, Miller does not approach Welcome to Pine Hill as a film about race; though he understands that our world is far from being colorblind and race-related issues are inescapable. (An alternate title for Welcome to Pine Hill could be: The Embarrassing Things That White Guys Say to Black Guys.)
Most impressive, however is Shannon Harper. As I commented to Miller, Harper never once seems like he is acting. Harper (who had never acted before in his life) essentially pulls off something that most seasoned actors have been trying to do for their entire careers. He never allows the camera (technically, three cameras) to compromise his amazing presence, and his resulting performance is one that I will probably never forget.
Smells Like Screen Spirit chatted with Miller on a cold, snowy day in Park City just moments before he won the Grand Jury Sparky Award at Slamdance 2012.
Don Simpson: The opening scene, which was originally a short film titled Prince/William, is based upon your initial meeting with Shannon Harper. Can you talk about that conversation and what prompted you to make a film about it?
Keith Miller: I found the dog in July 2009 and then two months later Shannon came up to me just like he does in the film and we had essentially that same conversation, but on film the conversation is only about four minutes long and in reality it was an hour and a half. In the morning, when I went back to pay him for the dog, I asked him if he wanted to make a film about the previous night’s conversation, because of the race and class stuff and the ownership and love of a dog. It all seemed very revealing and Shannon is a very thoughtful person. We both commented that we gained a lot of respect for each other during the course of that conversation. What you see in that opening sequence is very much like what actually happened. The difference is that in reality there was just a lot more information — potentially a lot of it was repetitive — and the discussion was much longer.
DS: Shannon is a very big guy. Taking race completely out of the equation, just having someone of his physical stature confronting you on a dark, secluded sidewalk about a dog that he claims is his, must have been a frightening experience.
KM: It might be silly of me, but I did not think about it that way at all. I think that is one of the things that opened up the possibility for a deeper level of conversation. When we talked about it later, he said how normal it was for him to see white people cross to the other side of the street when they saw him coming. There I was, talking to him late at night and for quite a long time, and essentially I was not backing down. I was not afraid of him, and that could just be ignorance really because Shannon is a bouncer for a living and has studied martial arts — even besides the fact that he is just a big guy. So, he is not only strong, but he is strong and trained. But I was not afraid and he probably thought I was just really stupid or maybe he saw that as a sign of respect for him.
DS: You mentioned that Shannon is a bouncer in real life, does he also have a day job in an office, similar to his character Abu?
KM: Yes. Shannon had a day job that was very similar to the one he has in the film. He did interviews very similar to those. In that job he started as a security guard, but when they realized how smart he is, they moved him up. Why have him sitting around when he could actually do stuff?
DS: Being that Welcome to Pine Hill is brutally realistic, did you have any guidelines that you set for yourself or your cinematographers to achieve this high level of realism?
KM: I tried to set conditions so that the action in front of the cameras would remain undisturbed because there was a bunch of us in a lot of those locations. At first we worked on the look — how the cameras were going to move. I’m very opposed to the use of shallow depth of field and racking focus, which of course we all loved three years ago, so I did not want that sort of thing. I wanted the cameras to flow through the situations, and not always focus on the character’s mouth. The shooters are my fellow Brooklyn Filmmmakers Collective members and they are mostly documentary shooters, so that is kind of the way they are used to working. They don’t just point their camera at a face and wait for it to stop talking; they have a great emotional sense. So we worked on what each individual camera was going to do and I knew that we would be doing a lot of long takes. In most cases we shot with three cameras rolling simultaneously for 45-minutes. So with that approach you are going to lose a lot of stuff, you don’t have to have a shot of a face when something great is happening — my role as editor was to work with what we got. Amazingly, though, they often caught the place I would want the camera to be. Like how in the opening scene, when I say “I love this dog” the camera slowly pans up to me like a storyboard shot that was never storyboarded. There is a symbiotic relationship with the the way that the cameras and boom move around — they move in a triangle around half of the action with the actors in front of the cameras for long periods of time. I worked with each actor individually to find out who they were as people. I tried to pull that out of them while also giving them the criteria for their character. While we were shooting I was actively engaging with the cameras and the actors to push things in one direction or another. Once everyone knew what their goals and tasks were, my main directive was that reality does not stop; so we don’t stop until you hear cut, no matter what happens. A lot of characters flow in and out of scenes that way. Like the guy in the final bar scene who brings over the two shots to Shannon’s table — I sent him over there with the shots and told him to say that it’s his birthday and get them to do a toast. None of the cast or crew knew that was going to happen, but for me the final shot of that scene that ends with Shannon laughing was the skill of the cinematographers and the adroitness of the actors being able to respond to everything.
DS: And the actors are primarily untrained. Shannon in particular had never acted prior to Prince/William, right?
KM: Shannon had never done any acting before. He still says that he not an actor, actually — and I respond that 80-minutes wants to disagree with him but he can say whatever he wants.
DS: I really love Shannon’s performance. It does not seem as though he is performing at all.
KM: That is one thing I should say. It was very much of a performance for Shannon. It was not like he was naively just hanging out in front of the camera. We worked a lot on what was happening and how he should respond. People refer to the film as a documentary, and considering the reality of the situations and the amount of realism poured into it, that was the goal; but as far as the players are concerned, it was very much of a performance. Shannon, in particular, has an uncanny ability to turn on a very natural reality as soon as I call “action.” For never having been in front of a camera before, that is a very unusual skill for even a pretty good actor. He knew what the conventions were and he knew exactly what we were doing. His skill is in his ability to make everyone think that he is just being himself in front of the camera. After we did the diagnosis scene with the doctor, I asked him how he felt and he said “I feel like I just got cancer.” Every time I have worked with a really, really good actor, they don’t come down from scenes like that too easily because they are really going through the situation. Then, there is the scene with Abu’s mother (who is not really Shannon’s mother) and watching Shannon going through those very real emotions; even after the million times I have watched that scene, that is still very moving to me.
DS: I really admire the way that you avoid the traditional racial stereotypes of Hollywood, instead creating a very honest and even-handed portrayal of a lead black character.
KM: Well, the original incident that incited the idea for this film was race and class. I think what Shannon was most surprised by was my willingness to say “you’re black and I’m white, let’s talk about that.” One of the things I have done since shooting the film and leading up to Slamdance is write a piece for the Huffington Post called “Who Am I to Tell This Story?” because it is very loaded to be a white director and tell a black story. My thinking on that was that I was telling a story that was set in a black world with a lead black character, but Shannon and I are close working friends, and I ended up being friends with almost everyone in the cast. I was very conscious of exploitation and the power imbalance and the history of racism. I was not interested in a “look how black people live” kind of story. The film does show a certain amount of real life within the black community that I have not seen in films. It is not an attractive view, it is just sort of reality. That was the hope, to address all of these things openly and directly, but without condescension or the allusion of colorblindness.
DS: I also found your portrayal of some of the white characters very interesting, for example, the white hipster in the bar paints a pretty negative picture.
KM: White twenty-something hipsters have the attitude that they “get” black people because they listen to Biggie Smalls. I wanted to show the transparency of that attitude. Remember that scene in HATE (LA HAINE) when the guys go into the art gallery? Up until that point we are with them, but then they start hitting on the women and it is revealed that they are misogynist jerks. We shot the bar scene over the hipster’s shoulder, so we don’t get to really see him. We are looking at what he’s looking at. Shannon’s performance, particularly when the hipster asks him if he went to college, his facial change reveals a lot. It’s obvious that Shannon had been in that situation before. He knew when he said “no” then he would be considered the “poor, dumb black guy.” That’s when he’s done with the conversation. Then going into the next scene with the cab driver, Shannon really complicates the whole situation.
DS: Once Shannon gets to Pine Hill, the white characters, especially in that bar, treat him more equally.
KM: Well, the one white guy does open the conversation with “Oh, you’re from Brooklyn”… But, yes, I was trying to play off the expectation that a black man travels to a white land and this can’t go well. I was living in the town where that was shot and the two guys who I hung out with both have black children with girlfriends/wives who are black. There is obviously a lot of racial tension around there, but its not much different in the city. They just talk differently or use different terminology.