TribecaFilm.com: So tell us about your film.
Joshua Bell [director]: A .45 at 50th is about activist and Academy Award-nominated actor James Cromwell and his involvement with the Black Panther Party when he was in his late thirties [which] would have been in the late '60s... Once he got out of college, he really got quite involved in various political and social causes that were happening, and one of the things he became involved with was something called the Committee to Defend the Black Panthers, which was a legal defense fund set up for the Black Panther Party to help get the Black Panthers out of jail once they were incarcerated. Typically in jail or in prison, they would be killed, more often than not by operatives from the CIA and the FBI and that sort of thing, so that's why the Committee to Defend the Black Panthers was so important. As soon as the Black Panthers would go into jail, this group would raise the money to have the means to get them out of jail, and I think they helped with their lawyer fees and that sort of thing as well.
TribecaFilm.com: How did you get involved? What inspired you to tell this story?
JB: John, James Cromwell's son who is the co-director of the project and who lives in Minneapolis and couldn't be here with us, he had heard over the years these kind of wonderful, amazing stories from his dad just about the things his dad was involved with, from the March on Washington to dodging the Vietnam War, and so this story was one of a few that we had toyed around with retelling and this seemed to be the most complete, for a short film. And we thought it was an interesting kind of relationship—people hear James Cromwell and Black Panther Party, and it's kind of unusual, so we thought that that had its own enticing kind of through line, and James is a wonderful story-teller, so it was kind of easy.
TribecaFilm.com: What was the craziest thing that happened while making the film?
JB: The craziest thing I remember doing was shooting illegally out of a mini-van going down Olympic Boulevard with a camera and seven guys piled into a mini-van with the camera strapped in and the sliding door open and going down, keeping an eye out for cops, and John's riding his bicycle down the street. That was kinda crazy.
TribecaFilm.com: What's your advice for aspiring first-time filmmakers?
JB: Someone gave me this piece of advice, and it was really valuable and really horrible advice... I was consulting this alum from my undergraduate [program] and I was like, I'm thinking about getting involved in film, and he said, "Don't. Don't do it." And I was like, that's so discouraging! And I was really upset about it, but I realized he was [telling me] you will save yourself a lifetime of pain because making films is really, really challenging and you have to really want to do it and want to love it and be incredibly tenacious, but if you have those things and it's in your blood, then you gotta stick with it.
David Hopper [editor]: There will be... naysayers, and they'll say, don't do it, don't do it. There are all these hurdles, and I think [in] the end, especially with the technology [that's] available to everyone today, I think you can go out and make a film. I mean, look at Paranormal Activity... Go out there and do it. And if you fail, get up and do it again. But you'll never know if you can do it unless you try... Josh and I went to film school and we "learned" [air quotes] to make films, but you know, at some point I think if you just round up a group of people that you trust and share some kind of bond with, just go out there and make it and have fun and who knows what will happen.
JB: Here's the advice. Don't go to film school.
TribecaFilm.com: What are the challenges and advantages of making a short film as opposed to a feature-length film?
JB: I think the biggest challenge of making a short is telling a complete story in a fixed amount of time. I think that's actually, from creating an arc, it's much more challenging in a short than it is in a feature. You really have to be very, very concise and do things in shorter strokes and it ties your hands in some ways. It's advantageous because you don't have to necessarily carry the weight of the drama for an hour and a half or two hours. Yeah, I think to tell something that's complete, and that's one of the things we struggled with with this film, is trying to come up with something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end in basically 10 minutes. And feeling like we could create something that had a journey and shaping that arc, is probably the biggest challenge.
TribecaFilm.com: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, alive or dead, who would it be?
DH: I would say the Maysles brothers. So there's one dead and one alive. Cover 'em both.
JB: This Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky ... He did this movie called Stalker which blew my mind when I was in college... He did the original Solaris. He did a bunch of other cool things.
TribecaFilm.com: Do you want to talk more about the Maysles brothers and why you'd want to have dinner with them?
DH: I just think that they might be the great, maybe the greatest documentary filmmakers... To see that those two guys made Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter, that's such a wide array of films and styles, and they pulled each one off successfully. I think that they're really amazing filmmakers, and the fact that it was a two-man crew, [that] they were able to go out and do that, I think that that's just incredible... The thing that's so amazing about the Maysles brothers too is that they are able to create this—especially in documentary film, you have to be able to create a trust and a bond, especially if you're going to be out on the road or in their house for months over the course of a year or two... They're able to really bring something out and find things that maybe some other people didn't see and create stories out of... I don't know how they pitched Grey Gardens. Just to say two kind of "strange" [air quotes] ladies living out in one of the fanciest neighborhoods in the country—I think that that's an incredible movie.
JB: Being a documentarian, I don't think it's imperative that you're friends with your characters but that trust that is built is different than narrative filmmaking. The actor is kind of doing their thing and playing a role, and it may or may not be that person, and the director, they have that relationship between director and actor and maybe director and friend. But with a documentarian, it's like this is the person, and you're forging that relationship with them, so I think it's an interesting dynamic and one that requires a lot of trust, so I appreciate that, about what David said about the Maysles brothers.
TribecaFilm.com: What piece of art—it could be a book, film, television show, whatever—do you recommend to your friends most often?
I don't know if you've ever seen Overnight
; it's about Troy Duffy
. He's a filmmaker; he sold a screenplay to, I guess at the time Miramax, and it's this whole arc of his career basically self-destruct[ing]. He was a bartender in LA, sold a script, and all of a sudden was like the darling of independent film. And then I think ego got into it and he basically sort of—it was like the rise and fall of this artist. It's a really incredible documentary... Troy Duffy is the filmmaker behind The Boondock Saints
and The Boondock Saints II
, but this documentary is behind the scenes of trying to get this movie off the ground and seeing all of these people who came in and out of the picture and how it went from this Miramax darling, like a $20 million film, to, like, a $1.5 million film, finance-wise... [And] Jersey Shore
. I don't know what that is, but I am fascinated by that entire [show].
For film, there's a film called Baraka
, which was probably instrumental in me becoming a filmmaker. It's shot on 70 mm, beautiful, there's no dialogue, it's essentially a documentary but it's more kind of like a, I don't know even how to describe it, but it's people, places, and things from all over the world, and it's intercut and it tells its own narrative just based on the editorial and the music. Amazing, amazing film.
TribecaFilm.com: What would your biopic be called? It could be a motto, too, if you have a motto.
My favorite is "Nighthawks," by Edward Hopper. It's not really a great name for a picture, but I just think what it's capturing, I think that that's an interesting portrait. Late at night, in the middle of a city or a town somewhere. I don't know why I like that, but if I was compared to it, that would be pretty exciting.
JB: Conversations With Ninja Aliens. [laughs] I don't know!
TribecaFilm.com: What makes A .45 at 50th a Tribeca must-see?
JB: John Cromwell came up with the tagline for the film, "J. Edgar Hoover wanted to kill my houseguest," which I thought was kind of funny. I think that the film is interesting because you have James Cromwell, who is the farmer in Babe, a little bit campy, very stoic, and you have him retelling this true-life incident of his involvement with the Black Panthers, who are probably one of the most important left-wing political organizations in United States history, I would say. I mean, they scared the bejeezus out of white America. And I think the principles that they stood for were something that we still need to be talking about, so I think that kind of inherently makes the film interesting.
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