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Graffiti and the Mural...
June 14, 2000


Call time: 3:30 a.m.
Location: West Philadelphia Mural site, 55th and Christian Streets

Cast: Jamal, Kamal Bostic-Smith, Lucy, Hayden Saunier, Beverly, Nell Johnson, Raymond, Bill Rowe


Call time was 3:30 a.m. I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m. I woke up at 1:30 a.m. with a TO DO list running through my head like SEPTA's high-speed line.

Everybody got to the location on time (4:30 a.m.) We're all there early - more than a dozen on this production team -- to catch the sunrise on film. Instead, we spent over an hour watching the rainfall.

The goal was to get a shot at dawn of the character JAMAL walking across a park in the West Philadelphia neighborhood. JAMAL leaves his house in the early morning hours, to pay a visit to a mural going up in his neighborhood - JAMAL is going to spray paint a "tag" - the name ZAP - across the bottom of the mural. Bits of sunlight should be peeking in to the corner of each frame. Instead, we have bits of mist wafting through the frame. It looked great nonetheless.

This storyline, written by Michael Hollinger and inspired by an interview I did with Jane Golden about the drama of everyday in the Department of Recreation's Mural Arts Program.

We are using a Recreation Center as a base for the next three days of shooting in West Philly. The staff is extremely gracious. It must seem very strange - this little village of people lands in your turf, and proceeds to take over with make up, props, wardrobe, equipment, and coffee.

As we waited for the rain to subside, I met with the graffiti artist we've contracted with to paint the ZAP tag. Seems like I need to work on my graffiti vocabulary. Dan tells me that what I've been seeing in my head is not a tag, but a production. He's nervous that he won't have enough time or spray paint to achieve the effect I've sketched out - but he does, brilliantly.

For the weeks preceding the shoot, I've been working with the Mural Arts Program. We've commissioned a mural to be painted especially for the film. The mural will live in this West Philadelphia community long after the filming is complete. It's a real thing, a lovely, impressionistic landscape created by artist Parris Stancell. He's spent weeks getting it ready for today's shoot. We've had many discussions about where the spray painted tag should be - in the lower third of the mural. Parris spends many hot days working on the upper section. There are leaves and rocks in dappled sunlight. It's been such a treat to visit the mural as he's been painting. Most everybody who walks by comments on it. This work has a way of connecting people - albeit briefly - on the street. It's a real force.

When I went to check on the progress of the spray painted tag - I was stunned to see it much higher than I thought I had discussed with Dan. The ZAP tag -which is beautiful - was painted right over the middle section of Parris' work. Right over the lovely row of rocks. Right into the leaves of the big tree. Exactly where Parris and I agreed it would not be painted.

When Parris arrived, he looked crushed. We talked it out, and he was very polite, but understandably very angry. The only thing good to come out of this misunderstanding was that Hayden Saunier, the actress playing the mural painter who is crushed by someone tagging her mural, is watching my exchange with Parris. Sure enough, Hayden nails the scene where she drives up to her mural, and sees the tag.

The rain stops. We set up. We're on a roll. It's cloudy, sunny, cloudy, sunny. We've rented a large light (the techs call it a 12K, but I call it the sun) to create the illusion of a particularly hot day. The sun light doesn't work. They take the sun back to the shop, and return a few hours later with another one.

The things I love about filming on location - in Philadelphia, most people are excited to see a production going on. Everyone's inquisitive. When they find out we are not the news, they are always a bit disappointed (because, I guess, they won't be able to go home tonight and see on television what they saw in person today).

Things I don't love. We are shooting this film out of order to make the best use of our resources. Continuity becomes a very scary word. Is the car parked in the same place as yesterday? Was she wearing that bandana? Was the iced tea pitcher in her left hand? Such simple questions can paralyze a production, until you revisit the script, talk it out, cross your fingers and continue to film.

In the end, all went well. Very well. The cast was splendid. Hayden must be exhausted tonight. It was a rigorous day -- she went up and down the scaffolding at least a dozen times. . . not to mention the sixteen glasses of lemonade she drank for the scene with Nell.

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