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Old Settler
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Debbie Allen: The Director In-Depth

 
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The Written Word

Choosing the Source


 
"I got involved in The Old Settler after my sister, Phylicia Rashad, optioned the play by John Henry Redwood. I read it and felt it spoke so much to me about who Phylicia and I are to each other as real sisters."

"I loved that the main characters [in The Old Settler] were sisters, with a mirrored history, and that there were conflicts between them. I loved that they were real people living in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. The story was rich with culture and character. It's rare to find parts where you see two women who relate to each other in that very natural way, with a lot of humor and pathos at the same time."

 


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Debbie Allen video

Debbie Allen on what drew her to The Old Settler

Working with the Screenwriter


Script
 
A page from The Old Settler script with the script supervisor's notes for the editor

 

Set Plans

EnlargeProduction designer John Iacovelli's floorplan of Elizabeth & Quilly's apartment

 


 
"The screenwriter's role was very instrumental, because it's difficult to take a stage play and adapt it for the screen.

Shauneille Perry, the screenwriter, had quite a task to shape what was already well-liked material and condense it to a 90-minute film and at the same time open it up visually -- while staying true to the language of the play."

"I was really specific with the screenwriter about the actual physical makeup of the apartment, that there were going to be big windows, a fireplace, a kitchen, and two bedrooms that came off that central living room space.

"Our production designer, John Iacovelli, gave us a floor plan so the writer would have a framework of where the characters could go and what they could do."

 

Capturing the Period


 
"As one who loves literature, art, music and history, I've been deeply rooted in the Harlem Renaissance for many years.

I actually did a film called Stompin' at the Savoy,about four women who worked as domestics and were trying to get out of that life and into a better one.

But that is such a rich era, and it's the era my parents grew up in -- they were young lovers at that time."

"There are certain things they would say then that we don't quite say now. I had never heard the term 'Old Settler,' which refers not to the Old West but to a woman who is over 40 and has never been married and doesn't seem to have any prospects. This more or less is what Quilly and Elizabeth [The Old Settler's main characters] are at this point in their lives.

Phylicia [Rashad, Debbie Allen's co-star and real-life sister] and I had two aunts who were very much like these two women. We remembered how they dressed. Phylicia and I grew up in the South, so we could also relate to that part of the story.

People are very slow to make changes there. They may wear the same hairdo for 30 years.The houses never change, so I could talk about the doilies and pictures of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln that would be on the walls. So being steeped in this period is natural for both of us due to our upbringing by our mother, Vivian Ayers, who is an artist and poet."

"Michael Ralph brilliantly plays the street prophet, a West Indian who foreshadows the Harlem riot.

The riot isn't seen in the movie, but it is alluded to. He has this one speech that gives a great sense of texture and paints a picture of what was happening in Harlem then."

 


Crowd Outside the Savoy, Harlem
 
Crowd Outside the Savoy, Harlem

© Bettmann/Corbis

 

Mantelpiece from the Set
 
Mantelpiece from The Old Settler set with real pictures of Debbie Allen & Phylicia Rashad as children

 

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Michael Ralph as a West Indian Street Prophet

Michael Ralph as a West Indian street prophet

 

 

The Look

My Initial Vision


 
"The production team's first meeting took place at my house. I had ideas and a color scheme in mind, how I wanted the movie to look, because that has to be a real collaboration. If one of the entities steps away from this initial vision, it changes it.

So I had conversations with John Iacovelli (production designer), Marilyn Matthews (costume designer) and Johnny Simmons (DP) who was my right and left hand on this whole thing.

They had a clear idea about what I really wanted to see, based on our initial conversations, and they did a great job."

 


Debbie Allen with Director of Photography
 
Debbie Allen confers with DP John Simmons

 

Designing Hair & Makeup


 
"The look of the movie has a kind a muted tone to it at first, and then we introduce color to it as we go along.

I wanted Elizabeth to go from having tight hair and no lipstick to being more colorful and alive, with her hair loose."

 

Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad
Elizabeth's look changes from the beginning (left) to the end (right) of the film.
Phylicia Rashad

 

Developing the Costumes


 
"The clothes back in those days were made so much better than clothes are today. They actually took time to make clothes to fit a woman's body. Today they make clothes that fit sizes, so it stretches to fit this and that.

The clothes back then were so well tailored and so beautifully crafted.

Of course, I didn't like the underclothes. (Honey, they can keep those girdles and bras. It was like being an armadillo, or being in battle.) But the dresses were beautiful."

 


Extras in Costume
 
A group of background players, in period costume, chat outside the soundstage on KCET's back lot where The Old Settler was shot.

 

 

Casting

Working with My Sister


 
"Phylicia wanted to play Elizabeth. Phylicia is the older of us and...

...both our personalities are parallel to the characters we play.

Phylicia is the more restrained one and I am the one who is known as being more gregarious, loud, and colorful. It was pretty obvious to us who should play what part."

 


Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen
 
Phylicia Rashad as Elizabeth and Debbie Allen as Quilly

 

Filling the Supporting Roles


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Husband and Elizabeth Meet (still)

Bumper Robinson as Husband in the scene in which he first meets Elizabeth

 

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Crystal Fox as Lou Bessie

Crystal Fox as Lou Bessie. The video clip shows her barging into Elizabeth & Quilly's apartment

 


 
"There were many people who auditioned [for the part of Husband] that were very good, but Bumper Robinson gave me the necessary strain of innocence, vulnerability and manliness at the same time. He was able to convey 'country' without being a buffoon, without leaning on it. And I could see him with Phylicia.

I kept thinking of that first moment when they see each other, what that must feel like.

There's always a certain degree of physical attraction between people and the rest either happens or it doesn't."

"There was no question about who should play Lou Bessie. Crystal Fox brought to the role something that was really needed. Lou Bessie could easily come across as evil, crass, and self-serving. But we needed her to be seen as a young woman who is stuck between a rock and a hard place...

...someone whose circumstances have really etched out an edge in her language and in her seemingly aggressive and bodacious nature.

She is desperate to solve her personal problems -- being with child, and with a man who doesn't love her the way she loves him."

 

 

The Shoot

Approaching a Scene


 
"The first thing that goes into shooting a scene is understanding what's on the page. What are we conveying? What is the intent of the scene? What is the need, the object, the action, the obstacle? What is the tone? Is it funny? Is it sad? Does it move the story forward or reveal character, or both? You have to examine a scene on the page first. Then you get into the basics of acting: Who are you? Who are you talking to? How do you feel about that person? Then you get to things like how can I light this, and how do I shoot it? What do I want it to look like? There are so many considerations."

 


The Script
 
A page from the script

 

Facing Money and Time Constraints


Call Sheet

EnlargeA detail of the Call Sheet from Day 9 showing what must be done on that shooting day

 


 
"The biggest challenge was that we had to shoot so quickly and with such a limited budget.

But out of limitations comes creativity."
"Time management is a big part of the director's job.

Everything has to be well thought out -- what do you really need, when can you do with less coverage. Even when you have a big budget, you can't just shoot everything. There are some scenes that work beautifully in a moving, sweeping master, which is how I like to work."

 

Pacing the Shoot


 
"As far as pacing the shoot is concerned, I know when I've got it. I don't think there's any reason to take ten takes unless you need them.

There were some scenes where I took ten takes and there were some where I took one.

I didn't need the insurance. I do it again if my DP tells me it didn't look good in the camera or if the actors didn't hit their marks. But if everything was working why do it again? I'm always moving forward. That's just how I am, which I can see when I look at the dailies and notice when I say, 'Cut!' I'll stop to get what I need to get but then I move on. I always know when I have it and can move on."

 

Directing the Actors


 
"I'm respectful of other artists and I think there is a way to talk to actors to let them know they are making this. It all has to come through them. A director just pushes them a little this way or that way.

You keep molding them and you can get the performance you really want and that they are able to give."

"I have a lot of funny lines, but they all come out of [Quilly's] character. It's how Quilly sees the world. She always just calls it like it is. Whereas other people might be more restrained, Quilly has to comment. So by the end of the play, when she becomes very quiet, that's a real change."

"I direct actors with what I call 'broad strokes.'

I think a good director casts a film so that the actors bring a lot to the table.

Then you give your actors broad strokes based on what your idea is for what is going on in the room and the circumstances surrounding it."

 


Debbie Allen Directing
 
Debbie Allen directs Crystal Fox (as Lou Bessie), Randy J. Goodwin (as Bucket) and Eartha Robinson (as Lula Mae)

 

Rehearsing


Rehearsing
 
Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen (with her back to the camera) confer with cast and crew

 


 
"In the film world you don't often get much rehearsal time. Only on big-budget films do you have the opportunity to rehearse for a week or two. Usually you hit the ground running. You may get a day or two at most with the actors.

But it was not possible to do this movie, in this matter of time, without a solid rehearsal period.

There was too much to absorb. So we had about an 8-day rehearsal, a lot for a movie of this nature. It helped a lot. We were all familiar with the rooms, the props. We knew what we were doing in each room and who we were."

 

 

The Camera

Designing My Own Shots


 
"I design my shots. I walk the rehearsal as the camera and say 'this is where I want to be... I want this look.'

It feels like choreography.

I use something that is a real staple in the directing world. It's called a dance floor. You lay it down so that it's so smooth you can roll around, and you can put furniture on top of it. It's seamless and you don't see it."

"We use this in the shot where Elizabeth is waiting forever for Husband to come.

It's just one shot, panned and dollied with her all through the room.

Then we sit down and we lock. I designed light changes so that it goes from evening dusk to evening to late night into early morning when she gets up. It's one shot."

 


Director with the Camera
 
Debbie Allen sets up a shot

Working with the Set


The set
 
The Old Settler set as seen from above

 


 
"Doing something that stays mostly on the sound stage, with very little exterior, is a challenge.

It goes back to a style of moviemaking I remember seeing as a child, in movies like The Man With The Golden Arm, which I think was shot all on a sound stage.

We could have done this movie very differently had we shot on the streets of Harlem and taken a 40-day shooting schedule."

 

High-Definition Video


 
"Making this movie was a great opportunity for me to explore high-definition. I'm glad I got to see what the challenges are, what makes it better. It works wonderfully.

It really doesn't look like tape but very much like film.

But it does take a lot of management. There are all these cables and electrical connections -- it's like Alien dropping off the camera! It needed a lot of attention that a 35-millimeter shoot (or even a 16) doesn't need. The upside is that high-definition is a lot cheaper and a lot faster. I got my dailies every day, although I couldn't always look at them because I was usually preparing for the next day's shoot, both as an actress and as the director."

 


High Definition Camera
 
High-Definition video camera on the set of The Old Settler

 

 

After the Shoot

Working with the Editor


 
"The role of the editor is critical and I had a wonderful editor, Lillian Benson. This project is the first that Lillian and I worked on together. I wanted to work with her not only because she has a wealth of experience but also because of the documentary nature of the other projects she has worked on.

This movie needed to have a sense of then and now, and I knew she would understand what I was reaching for as we went along."

"I basically shoot the movie the way I think it should be cut, so my directives to the editor are in the camera.

It's kind of dangerous to cut in the camera, but that's the only way I know how to direct.

That's the only way I can control my movie. If you shoot everything, then everything is liable to end up in the movie. If you have a vision, you don't have to cover every scene."

 


Director and Editor
 
Debbie Allen and the editor, Lillian Benson, discuss a cut

 

Director and Director of Photography
 
DP John Simmons sets up a scene with Debbie Allen as Quilly

 

Scoring the Movie


Radio from the set
 
A vintage radio accents the film's period authenticity

 


 
"In scoring we have a lot that was not evident in the shooting. The radio is on all the time.

The radio for these women is like television is for us today, which is really like looking at the radio."

 

 
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