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|Grandmothers and Geraniums...
June 15, 2000
Long day. Hot day. Beautiful day.
We began filming a scene on the West Philadelphia porch of the character named Beverly Johnson. She's the grandmother of Jamal (played by Kamal. I'm having a little trouble getting the names right. I find it easier to call the actors by the character names throughout the shoot day). A woman whose real name is Mrs. Johnson owns the porch we are shooting on. This documentary/fiction hybrid has the potential to be very confusing.
Beverly begins each day sweeping off the porch, sweeping off the night before. We've got to dress her porch with geraniums. Beautiful pinks and purples. Because of the shooting schedule, we need to return to Beverly's porch next month (when the mural across the park from her home is complete), and the geraniums have to look equally as luscious (it's supposed to be the next morning). I'm wondering if they bloom all summer long. And if not, then what?
As part of the research for this film, I interviewed fifty Philadelphians last summer about the drama of everyday life in the city. I asked questions about hopes, fears, heroes, villains . . . Beverly's character is inspired by an interview I did with a woman named Renee Grundy, who works in the Mayor's office of complaints. Whenever anyone has a problem and contacts City Hall, Renee's office deals with the call. When asked the hero/villain question, Renee said, "I would say that heroes for me are - if I could identify just regular folks -would be grandmothers. There's millions of grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That's one heck of a thing if you think about it. And so I call them heroes."
When Sonia Sanchez and I met to design the script, she, too, felt it was critical to pay attention to the grandmothers in the city. The character of Beverly began as a small part in Michael Hollinger's story (a neighbor visiting the mural painter, Lucy, with some lemonade). Sonia took off from there, and created the whole Beverly/Ramona/Jamal storyline.
In the scene on the porch, Beverly and Jamal discuss Jamal's mother, Ramona who has become consumed by drugs. It's a touching and loving scene that explores the delicate relationship between grandmother and grandson. When we complete an especially good performance, I notice that one of the production technicians (who has been holding a reflector to bounce sunlight onto the faces of the actors) is crying. I know we've got a good take.
Midday. Mayor Rendell, who is supposed to be on set for a cameo appearance in a mock news report about the mural (FOX news is letting us use their car, crew, reporter and camera), calls to cancel. He's dealing with the sinking homes in Wissinoming, and Vince Fumo's attempts to thwart a baseball stadium at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. We'll try to get him this Friday, when we stage our flashback protest at City Hall.
After our lunch break we move back to the mural location, to film the scenes when Lucy meets up with the FOX news team, and when Lucy's husband drives up to the mural. He thinks he's picking her up to go to the funeral of a friend (another mural painter). She's determined to stay and finish the mural.
The scene happens in the car, with the windows rolled up and air conditioner on. Actors are wearing wireless microphones. I've got a headset on that can pick up the sound. There's a moment when we are futzing with lights and trying to block shadows and reflections in the windshield. I hear actors Hayden and Johnnie (Lucy and Bob) talking about how they're unclear about the frame, about the distance they have to move within the frame. Makes me realize that I need to be more vigilant about explaining the technical end of what we're doing - what the camera is actually capturing, how close or how far away we're seeing.
Neighborhood schools let out and by 5 p.m., and when we are ready to film the scene in the car, there are at least 30 neighborhood kids on the street where we're filming. The energy oozing from the group is amazing, wild, exciting. Many, many children are huddled around a black and white nine -inch monitor - with no sound. They have a lot of questions, but watch, transfixed. As though they've never watched television before.
10 hours after we begin, we wrap for the day. As the crew packs, I spend some time speaking with Vodges Street neighbors who've been watching the filming. Despite our efforts to inform the neighborhood what we're up to from early on (we went door to door with flyers last week) it's clear to me that very few neighbors know what's really going on. I'm surprised when one of the neighbors asks if we're going to paint over the mural when we're done. She's pleased when I tell her that it's going to stay long after we're gone. She seems even more pleased when I tell her that we only have one day left of filming on her street.
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