Made for a staggeringly low budget of $65,000, writer/director/producer/ actor Christopher Cherot's new film Hav Plenty has made the festival rounds to extremely positive response. Picked up by Miramax after the Toronto Film Festival, Hav Plenty also caught the attention of producer Babyface Edwards, whose involvement will no doubt raise its profile even further. But the film isn't just another half-hearted attempt to capitalize on the resurgence of domestic dramas and comedies geared toward black audiences; it's a smart, funny movie that, marketed correctly, stands a good chance of drawing a crossover audience. Cherot talks a mile a minute with the enthusiasm and self-assurance of someone who truly loves film, and his fiercely independent stance is, he acknowledges, in the proud tradition of indie stalwarts like John Sayles and John Cassavetes. Cherot recently talked to The Onion about the state of black filmmaking, shooting on a tight budget, and the importance of being indie.
The Onion: Do you think Boyz N The Hood sparked the resurgence of low-budget films directed toward black audiences?
Christopher Cherot: Man, that movie cost $7 million to make. It was a 35mm movie with stars! And it was John Singleton's first film. It's amazing that he got that kind of money for a first-time writer/director, 22 years old, straight out of film school. Of course, [it was tough for Singleton to follow up] being called the wunderkind of his generation and having his film called the quintessential black experience in the United States, which it wasn't. That's assuming that everyone goes through the "'hood" experience. But all these labels stuck onto John started to affect his movies. He started to believe he actually was, you know, the savior of his race and the leader of his people. And all of his movies, instead of becoming great stories, were just reduced to these message movies. Look at his last movie, Rosewood. The dude lost his audience, and that's sad. Spike Lee's a little different. I mean, Spike's a great producer, and he can get people to look at something they wouldn't normally look at. He can get people to turn their heads, maybe just by saying something purposely outlandish or arrogant. The way he marketed Malcolm X was amazing: People were walking around with X hats a year before the movie came out, and they didn't even know what X meant. But in my opinion, I don't think the dude has mastered the art of script-writing. His scripts are all over the place. He Got Game was a typical Spike movie. As a director, he's still growing and trying new things, but his writing is the same. The movie suffers. Some of those scenes with the prostitute are some of the most painful, boring scenes to watch. This was a movie about a kid trying to make decisions about his life, and [about] his dad maybe, or maybe not, wanting a piece of it. And that's what it should have stayed about. There was a great subplot about his cousin Booger, and that was just thrown away. That would have been so much more interesting to watch than this ridiculous subplot about a prostitute. Stick with the story!
O: Wasn't the end of Hav Plenty tacked on after Toronto?
CC: Yes, but it's a continuation of the story. It's not an additional subplot to throw in as a left turn. When I wrote that, I made sure it kept to the autobiographical intent of the film. So the writing was consistent. It was so important to me to make sure I was still telling the same story that when I shot the scene, even though the epilogue was shot under Miramax's wing, I used the same style, the same crew, the same everything that I used for the bulk of the film, which was Super 16mm, minimal crew, no production designer. Miramax didn't want it shot that way, but they didn't give me any trouble, you know? I was saving them money. For those last five minutes, Miramax added another $50,000. My original budget... When I sold the finished film to Miramax, I had spent $65,000 making this movie. When I was editing Hav Plenty at the end of '96, there was a movie at the Sundance Film Festival, January '97, called Love Jones. This guy, [director] Ted Witcher, stood up in front of some cameras and was like, "Yeah, this was an independent film. I didn't have a whole lot of money. I only had $7 million. You know, it was a tough time for the actors, but they persevered, and as long as they had their trailer, they were okay." I had $65,000. My actors didn't have a trailer. They stayed in the basement of the house we were shooting at, okay? He went on to say, when the job was over, you know, Larenz Tate went on to do The Postman with Kevin Costner; Nia Long went on to do Soul Food. My actors, when they were done, went back to their jobs at McDonalds and Estee Lauder, okay? Love Jones might have been tough, but the lower the budget, the tougher it is. I didn't have $7 million. Time and money are the two most important things to think about on a shoestring budget. After that, you worry about the direction and the acting. It's an exhausting way to work, always worrying about how much you have to spend.
O: Was it a relief to have the film picked up?
CC: You know, you're the first to use that word, but that's exactly right. Everybody else asks if I was happy or excited, but the thing I felt the most was relief, 100 percent. The only thing I wanted to do after the movie got bought was go home and go to sleep for a long, long time.
O: Would you ever want to work with the really high budgets Hollywood keeps doling out?
CC: I would only make an $80 million movie if I had an $80 million script. I know that I want to maintain a level of creative autonomy that is only available in independent film. If that means I have to keep making the films myself, I'll keep doing that. Fortunately, Miramax understands filmmakers. They also understand, which is rare, that half of making films is business and the other half is creativity, and without the story, you don't have a movie. Fortunately, you can work in the Miramax system and still maintain a high degree of autonomy. But what's always first and foremost in my mind is being able to tell the story I want to tell the way I want to tell it.