Storm Saulter Talks to S&A About Filmmaking and Passionate Journey of 'Better Mus' Come (Now in Theaters)
Photo Credit: S & A
Interviews

Storm Saulter Talks to S&A About Filmmaking and Passionate Journey of 'Better Mus' Come (Now in Theaters)

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It’s been a long

journey for Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, whose rousing political

drama Better Mus’ Come opens

in theaters this weekend via its acquisition by AFFRM (African American

Film Releasing Movement). Saulter’s feature debut was shot in 2008; since then, it has garnered

accolades since it premiered at the Bahamas International Film Festival in

2011, where it won the Audience Award. Better

was also the Viewer’s Choice Award winner at the Trinidad and Tobago Film

Festival that same year. In 2012, Better

won a Best Director award at the Pan African Film Festival, and its lead actor Sheldon

Shepherd was named Best Actor at the American Black Film Festival.

Better, starring

Sheldon

Shepherd as Ricky and Restless City’s Nicole

Sky Grey as his romantic interest Kemala, begins in 1977 and ends

in the first couple days of 1978 during the Green Bay Massacre.

The Jamaican story, based on true events, follows Ricky, a gang leader and

political pawn, as he struggles to navigate the hardships of life in Kingston,

and to define a better way of life for his young son.

Next up for the

up-and-coming filmmaker is the contemporary tale titled Stingray. According to Saulter, Stingray takes place “in

the upper, upper echelons of Caribbean society. These are the people who run

the country”. He describes the film, which is scripted and has already

sparked the interest of several investors, as a love triangle through which

exposes how people truly feel about each other. The narrative is set on an

island off Kingston, Jamaica, and Saulter, who is looking to cast international

talent, hopes to go into production before the end of the year.

I had the pleasure

of chatting with Saulter about his start in filmmaking, his passionate approach

to Better Mus’ Come and realization

of this dream project. And it’s just the beginning. Saulter’s Ring di Alarm, in which he directs a

short film in a co-produced compilation of eight others helmed by Caribbean

filmmakers, is currently traveling the festival circuit.

VM: ‘Better Mus’ Come’ was relatively low budget. How were you able to

maximize the budget?


SS: The budget

was very low for a period piece. In Jamaica there’s really not a developed film

industry. There are no prop houses; there wasn’t a salvation army that had all

this vintage clothing. We had to go around people that had family members who

had all this stuff from the 70’s and 60’s, and we hoarded all this material. We

had people; we had bodies, and the entire community was working with us; that’s

how we had huge crowds on the film. I’m the cinematographer, so a lot of the

work that went into creating the impression of this kind of epic large thing.

VM: This is your

feature film credit, and for a production of this scale it’s pretty impressive.

How did you do all that?!


SS: I went back

to Jamaica after living in New York and started to work on experimental stuff

and basically I grew as a filmmaker. I went to film school; I was a PA on a lot

of projects and I worked so hard, you know, you’re young and I learned from

different mentors. And luck put me in the position to work with amazing people.

One of my mentors by the name of Little X [Director X], who is one of the most

successful Hip Hop video directors for Drake and all these artists. He took me

under his wing after I came out of film school and moved to New York. I worked

in videos for Jay-Z, Pharrell to Busta Rhymes and Wyclef. I quickly realized

how much I wanted to make films instead of music videos.

VM: How challenging

and different from music videos was directing your first feature?

 

SS: I think of it as a race. Once you start running, yes

it’s the most difficult moment, but it’s a moment you live for, so I kind of

met all the challenges. I’m most alive when I’m on set. Whether I’m

imagining it on my head, I know what I want to capture. There were issues all

the time, something didn’t show up or some actor was late, etc. I put it in my

head that part of filmmaking is problem solving.

VM: There were some great action sequences in the film?

How difficult were they to orchestrate and shoot?


SS: Since the

beginning we wanted to get a Hollywood stunt guy, because we knew the action

had to work. We contacted a stunt guy out of L.A. He got all the weapons and it

was pricey, but we said, “OK, let try to make it work. In Jamaica, because

there is no developed film industry, the State Department of the U.S. needed a

letter from the Minister of National Security of Jamaica to give the O.K. for

these guns to be sent to Jamaica, and the Minister needed all the serial

numbers from them before he could send it. So, it was a catch 22; there was

more motion. We had to find someone else to recreate them. We found a man from

the village area named Captain Robert Higgler and he came in a Stunt Weapons

Supervisor, which I’ve never done before, but he became our lead for the

Jamaican military and through that, we were able to get the actual weapons from

the 70’s in storage, and got them decommissioned. He taught the actors how to

fire the guns, and since then, Captain Higgler has become the go-to-man for

action for anyone that wants to shoot in Jamaica.

VM: I loved the

romantic subplot in the film. Did you initially set out to for the film to

include a love story?


SS: Yes, I

definitely knew it would be a big part of the story. A big element of the film

was that you could live in a community and two streets down; you can’t go there

because it’s controlled by a gang that’s aligned by the other political party.

I thought it was sort of silly, but it’s so real. I wanted to have a character

that totally went against those rules and that was the character of Kemala. The

main character Ricky has this ideology to fight for politics that is totally

falling apart, and Kemala is not caring about the borders. That made him

question his own parameters that he was putting on himself. That love story was

the more developed subplot. There were more scenes, more stages of them falling

in love, but ultimately, in the end, through the edits and the re-edits, and testing

and showing the film to people and getting comments, we had to really

streamline the film. Really, the film is 100 minutes long, and it doesn’t seem

that way, but it’s because we kind of trimmed everything that was absolutely

not necessary, because if we had added the other things, it would have been two

hours long. I don’t know if two hours would have had the impact that it did. As

much as I loved the love story, we really had to leave some of it on the

cutting floor.

VM: You had a lot of footage to work with.

 

SS: A whole lot. That

film was made in my bedroom. As a young filmmaker, I shot a lot of stuff

because I wanted to make sure that I got everything, but now I’ve gotten much

more precise with my shooting. Editing is a whole other layer because then,

sometimes you realize characters don’t even need to say this or that. It becomes an

issue of exposition, and over-explaining something.  In the script, I’d reinforce certain things

about what I wanted people to know two or three times, but in the editing room,

I’d be like, “I only need to say this once, maybe twice.”

VM: Sheldon Shepherd

was great. How much direction did you have to give him? Was his performance

your vision for the character?

 

SS: We basically

found a middle zone. I did a lot of rehearsals with these actors. I didn’t over-rehearse

them, but I definitely worked with the to the point that I was conscious of

their abilities before shooting. Sheldon, this was his first film. All the

actors except Roger G. Smith; this was their first time making a film. Some had

no acting experience. Sheldon had stage acting experience. I recall him and a

couple of other actors that had only done stage, and in the Jamaican stage

scene, you have to project everything to the back of the room, and I had to

kind of work with him to understand that on the screen you don’t hardly have to

show anything; you just have to feel it, and it will come in your physicality;

the audience will sense it. So, I worked to bring him down to a level of a very

subtle performance. Some of the actors that had done no stage, never acted

before, I worked with them to bring them up to the point that they could

project.

VM: That was going to

be my next question. How was it working with untrained actors?

 

SS: They didn’t

have experience, but they did have raw talent. We definitely chose people

that we knew had the energy and could hold your attention on the screen. Once

they got the principles, it wasn’t too hard. 

We only had one or two scenes where we had to do a lot of takes. For the

most part, we got the shots within a few takes. A lot of the times the first

take was the best, because the actors are not analyzing themselves as much;

they just do it. I believe in happy accidents and I’m not necessarily into

actors getting the dialogue exactly as I wrote it; I’m much more into them

understanding the motivations and have it come out in a natural way, and maybe

catch something that I didn’t expect.

VM: Did Roger

Guenveur Smith come up with his own script?

 

SS: He came up

with his own script. The first scene that we shot from the film was the scene

he was in, and the beauty of it was that people knew he was a known actor. He

did such a good job, and there’s so much of that political speech that never

made it to the film. At the end of it, the people in the neighborhood said, “When

the real politicians come down here, they don’t talk like that, none of them

have speeches as good as that.”

 

VM: What would you advise an up

and coming filmmaker?

 

SS: They have

to know that they have to have the passion to bring a film to the end, and they

cannot rely on anyone else really. You can rely on your team to do their jobs,

but you have to carry the torch and do anything you need to, not just to shoot

and finish, but to get the film seen. You have to know within yourself that

you’re going to have to take this. Don’t sit back and think other people in

your team are going to make it happen now because you’ve done your part. You

have to carry that torch, and no one is going to care as much as you do, and

nobody is going to live with it as long as you are because it’s your film. I

could’ve had moments when I could’ve said, “You know what? Let me make another

film; this is taking a long time to get distributed.” It can be difficult to

stay passionate. You have to be that passionate and be prepared for it to get

what it deserves. Make sure you have a really good team going in at the

beginning and don’t have people in your team that aren’t there 100%.

 

VM: How was the process of

seeking distribution?

 

SS: I knew it

was difficult, but I also knew that the film was great. I’ve had enough people

that genuinely thought it was a great film, not like, “OK, nice try, let’s see

what you got next.” I went to a lot of distributors and I always got positive

responses and interest; also distributors that have shown interest in my next

film. But there’s this issue of what is black cinema and black film. What does

the back audience want? A lot of people automatically don’t add all these

layers to the film. They think it’s either about Tyler Perry or Denzel [Washington].

 

VM: That is an on-going

conversation at S&A

 

SS: Even

distributors that know there’s more to that; they still don’t know how to sell

it, or how to go to their partners and say, “We’re taking on this film. There’s

no really known actors in it, there’s a cameo by one guy who is somewhat known.

It has subtitles; it’s dealing with politics you may not know about.” It’s a

great film, but they didn’t know how to sell it, and I got that response a lot.

And this firm [AFFRM] is looking for specifically what this film is, a film

from the African diaspora, uncompromising in its creativity, and it was a

perfect fit because they were looking for what we had. Ava [Duvernay] shared

her philosophy and the people behind this organization, the volunteers, and the

people that do it because they want to see it; there’s a real power behind

that.

Better Mus’ Come

opens in limited release this weekend. For locations and times, click HERE.

 

 

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