Sometimes you just know when something's not right. You see it, or hear it, and you know instinctively there's something missing. You sense a faint beat where there should be a strong heart. You see a short phrase where there should be a full story. That happened to me just over a year ago in the early afternoon of April 24, 2009, when I saw the Los Angeles screening of THE SOLOIST, helmed by British director Joe Wright. The film just wasn't right.
A joint production of corporate giants Paramount and DreamWorks, THE SOLOIST enjoyed all the pre-release pomp and hype of a major Hollywood production. It was based on the highly touted, unlikely friendship between Los Angeles Times' columnist Steve Lopez and mentally ill Skid Row resident, Nathaniel Ayers, who, in his youth, was sufficiently talented to attend New York's famed Juilliard School of Music. To top it off, the film starred two of entertainment's most popular stars; Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx. You can't get much better than that - or so I thought, until I actually saw the movie.
My anticipation for THE SOLOIST was higher than for most films. Homelessness, mental illness, poverty, and the streets of Skid Row had interested me for years - as far back as 1974, when at age 25, I moved to Los Angeles and started working along Skid Row at the Greater Los Angeles Community Action Agency, the nation's second largest anti-poverty program.
Poverty and homelessness were still foremost on my mind in 2009 when THE SOLOIST was released. The nation's economy was spinning downward and poverty was spiraling up. As mental health facilities closed across the nation, our mentally ill were forced into jails, prisons and onto the streets - often without their medication.
Naively, I found myself hoping that somehow THE SOLOIST, with its intriguing relationship between Nathaniel and Steve, would be the catalyst to inspire folks to step up and help the homeless. But as I would soon note in an article some could call scathing, my hopes were dashed by director Joe Wright's portrayal of Skid Row residents as "a tainted Gomorrah teeming with decadence and dereliction."
My admonitions would go even further:
"Director Wright committed a major injustice against the Skid Row community by creating a monolith of inhumanity which he melded them into. He showed throngs and throngs of drug-crazed, illness-crazed, violence-crazed people who rarely displayed a single lucid moment. Rather than pay respect to their suffering, Wright placed them in a cinematic stupor and filmed them in a Fellini-esque haze. But where Fellini created cartoons from actors he hired to play cartoons, Wright created cartoons from people he hired to play themselves."
Understandably, director Wright took umbrage with my portrayal of him as unsympathetic toward the Skid Row community and responded in kind, stating.
"To have the love that I hold dear for the community of the Skid Row residents called into question is very hurtful."
I apologize to Joe Wright if I misrepresented him as personally dispassionate. My outrage was out of concern for his film's over-the-top portrayal of the Skid Row community - an outrage I now know I was correct to perceive - which, ironically, Joe Wright inadvertently helped prove to me.
On June 1st, less than a month after writing my article, I received the following email via Facebook from a woman who identified as Susan. It read:
Subject: Your editorial on "The Soloist"
I co-executive produced "The Chorus," a documentary that depicts the true nature of Skid Row and I would love for you to see it.
I'm doing a screening on Friday, June 5 at my screening room in WLA. Please contact me if you're interested in attending.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Without hesitation, I wrote Susan and accepted her invitation.
Serendipitously, perhaps even miraculously, a second movie had been made; a documentary originally titled THE CHORUS as a take-off on THE SOLOIST, that was now titled LOST ANGELS. It was an expose dedicated entirely to Skid Row and to the extras employed on THE SOLOIST. Joe Wright was an Executive Producer. Susan Klos, author of the above email, who'd read my article, was a Co-Executive Producer, and Thomas Napper, a long-time associate of Joe Wright, lovingly and patiently directed.
I attended the screening that Friday, accompanied by Jamie Romano, my friend and Skid Row advocate, who collaborated on my original article. What Jamie and I witnessed on screen that evening was the authentic portrayal of the Skid Row community that the THE SOLOIST had dismissed. LOST ANGELS is an astonishing no-holds barred truth-fest; drenched in character, dipped in honesty, and steeped in heart. Every resident glossed over in THE SOLOIST is meticulously recaptured in LOST ANGELS through their stories and their visions of Skid Row.
Finally we meet the real people. We learn their names, their histories, their demons and their delights. Thomas Napper fills every frame with the realities of Skid Row. His lens shines the light on a people and a place too many choose to turn away from. He gives them his camera and they give him their confidence, their respect, and their truth. The result is an invitation, not an invasion, into their community of compassion, revelation and love.
From what I've ascertained through interviews and conversations with workers and volunteers, unlike THE SOLOIST, which many on Skid Row didn't like, the reviews of LOST ANGELS are glowing.
General Dogon, Civil Rights Organizer for L.A. CAN who is featured in the film, approved wholeheartedly. He particularly appreciated the attention paid to the inequities in the Safer Cities Initiative that criminalizes poverty and victimizes the residents of Skid Row, while affording the wealthy on bordering streets disproportionate freedom.
My friend Jamie, an impassioned and seasoned advocate for the homeless, called THE SOLOIST an insult to the people of Skid Row. But she had the opposite view of LOST ANGELS, stating:
"LOST ANGELS" is a very accurate depiction of the caring and familial community that exists on Skid Row. It is a great counter to THE SOLOIST, which with its grossly exaggerated violence, did a tremendous disservice to the community. It also strongly suggested there is but one redeeming human being [Nathaniel] in a sea of sickness. "LOST ANGELS" proves this isn't so."
But the truest testament to the uniqueness of Skid Row and its people is revealed through the words of director Thomas Napper. Here are some highlights of my interview with Thomas. It's an illuminating window to his compassion and humanity:
LM: How about some personal info on you? Isn't this your first time as principal director?
TN: Yes it's my first film as director. I've been working as Joe's [Joe Wright's] Second Unit director since 2004... Making this documentary at times has been a really steep learning curve for me - telling the story inside out so to speak. With the features we were always following a beautiful blueprint, but working in the documentary form, I think really suits me. I loved writing the film inside out, writing in the edit, and responding to the edit by returning to characters & stories with more specific intent.
Tyler Hubby my editor was very patient with me and his experience really helped contain my child-like enthusiasm without dampening it. Our writer Christine Triano worked with us constantly to build the story blocks and find the design. I cant overstate how much they both helped me.
LM: What was the most important "thing" you learned from making this film relative to the characters and the lives they lead?
TN: The whole experience was a learning experience. There was nothing familiar for me in the process except a camera with glass on one end! I think I arrived on Skid Row with a lot of pre-conceptions and fear. I was also grieving the death of my Dad a few months before so I was a bit of a mess really, pretty raw in some senses, but also willing to put my guts into a new experience.
Walking the streets of Skid Row day after day, on my own or with KK [Skid Row resident featured in film], I was just amazed at how decent people were to each other. I would say that this really surprised me. That's not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a mess; dog eat dog, and really hectic. But the residents and the community all know each other - have been through a lot together, and pro-actively do a lot together. They are more aware of the needs of their friends than any other community I saw in LA. This has really affected me and I have tried to bring this back with me. I helped to set up a community association for my building as soon as I got back to London. We have just built a public garden in London which was directly inspired by Skid Row in LA.
LM: Can you give me a short inspirational statement regarding your experience making the film?
TN: I mentioned [on the phone] that we were making this film while Senator Obama was running for the democratic nomination and calling on Americans to selflessly build a better nation. KK and I were pretty inspired by Obama at that time. Who wasn't? It just felt like the truth was on the table again after the Bush era. I knew that these [Skid Row] people were prepared to tell their stories in an honest way, and that that honesty would cut through people's preconceptions and fears about mental illness, about drug addiction and homelessness. That's what happened to me when I met them. They blew my mind again and again. So that was my goal at every stage - not to lose that raw honesty and the surprise of hearing someone with schizophrenia talk eloquently about schizophrenia and homelessness.
When new camera crews came down and sat in on interviews I would watch their faces, and it was the same thing time after time. They were blown away by these people - by what they had been through, by their honesty and their dignity. This is the vulnerability people generally try to hide from each other, their failures, their addictions, the voices in their heads, or their arrest sheet - and here we are listening to the most authentic stories from the people we just ignore in the street. That became the guiding intelligence of the film, and that's how we approached the wider themes and issues, through characters and their experiences.
LM: How long did it take to make the film?
TN: I met Bam Bam, Lee Anne, Linda and Detroit [extras in THE SOLOIST; featured in Lost Angels] in those first rehearsals/improvs for The Soloist supporting artists. That was Jan '08. KK and I met at an extras casting a few days later on San Julian. Danny was my 2nd on the Skid Row shoot of The Soloist in May '08. OG and General Dogon came from attending church and human rights meetings at LA CAN respectively. I started production with producer Agi Orsi in July '08, and we were based at Big Time [Big Time Picture Company] where you caught the screening. We started editing at the end of the summer '08. I think Tyler started in August.
I wanted to shoot slowly and really build relationships with the wider community and film our characters at real events, so we shot once a week for about 20 weeks. We started with a lot of interviews. I think we did these for two months. Each interviewee recommended other people to talk to and that's how we built up our network. People knew people knew people. The main characters selected themselves in the edit. They were just so powerful. The biggest headache was keeping the number down. I wanted to include everybody, but that film would still be in the edit! We stopped filming around the beginning of '09. I think we edited into spring '09, screening the film regularly to get feedback from the community, advocates and the cast. That was really important to my process - sitting with an audience and having these amazing Q & A's even though the film was not at all finished. Those Q & A's really galvanized us. They were very intense debates about the issues in the film and sometimes went on for longer than the film.
LM: Any interesting production tidbits that made this film process unique to others?
TN: The other thing I wanted to mention was our use of Skid Row residents as our crew. This again was hugely important to the success of the project at the time of filming. We had KK as my main assistant all the time. He had 34 years experience on Skid Row. Danny Harris was my Assistant Director on the shoot days and he can handle himself and can run like lightning. We had Tito and Apollo as PA's who we met at the Midnight Mission, who were our point guys on the street and keen as mustard. They also did a great job. Bam Bam was the grip once he realized I would pay him to carry tripods, and we had Rainbow doing the catering. She is not from Skid Row but she has chronic schizophrenia, so she got on great with the cast and did a marvelous job of feeding everyone and anyone who was hungry who came through. Doing catering on Skid Row is no mean feat.
I wish we had a crew picture because we were quite a sight when we started coming down the street......but we just got on with it, with the resources that we had, and made the film in this spirit of inclusion. We were like a Skid Row theatre company rather than a big outside film crew.
LM: What do you personally take away from this filmmaking experience?
TN: On a personal level, it has been life changing, partly obviously because of what happened to KK, which was devastating. But I think the strength of someone like Linda in dealing with her situation has taught me quite a lot. That you can still love, be loved, and find a place for yourself. I have learned a lot from all of these people - too much to list - but it has shown me that beauty exists even in the most unlikely places; sometimes even on the darkest streets of Los Angeles.
I think Skid Row as a place, as a community, required me to stand up and be counted, and at first I questioned whether or not I had the courage to pull it off. But there is nothing like knowing you are onto something. We just found support everywhere we went. Once people realized what I wanted to do with the film and that I was genuine, people just kept coming at us with ideas, resources and commitment, which led to more like-minded people and their ideas.
I have enormous admiration for the people that work on Skid Row. Pete & Becky at LA CAN, Alice Callaghan, Casey Horan, Jeff & Kathryn Deitrich, Orlando Ward, Gary Blasi, Mollie Lowery. These are very very inspiring people who have devoted their lives to solving very difficult social problems. And when you see what they do and how they approach problem solving, it's very inspiring indeed. So I made this film for them, as a way of opening people's eyes to what they do, as well as letting the people of Skid Row speak for themselves.
LM: Can you detail what post-film involvement there is between the cast, crew and Skid Row residents?
TN: Well, Susan Klos, Karen Gilbert, Agi Orsi, Gary Foster and Catherine Keener are all still going down to Skid Row and are regularly in touch with our main cast. The relationships and bonds between us all go way beyond the edges of the film. I think that says it all. We have all found real friendship through the making of these films. When I found out that Catherine was going down to Skid Row to meet Detroit, I asked her to do the voiceover. The fact that she knows and cares about these things enough to go down there on her own, well, I don't need to add anything else. She was the only person who could do the job.
Gary Foster, who executive produced Lost Angels, is now working on the board for LAMP. Susan Klos, who also Exec'd, is going down to Skid Row regularly to meet Detroit and her family. Karen Gilbert, Associate Producer, is delivering furniture, clothes, food whenever she gets a break from her work on HAWTHORNE. Christine Triano, the writer, is working at Homeless Healthcare. She is really on the front line now. I could keep going. We have all found different ways to stay involved and carry on helping in whatever way we can. And I think that will continue. Skid Row is just not going to disappear, as much as the politicians would like it to.
LM: What are your plans for your next project?
TN: To be honest, the ink isn't really dry on LOST ANGELS... I'd really like to do another documentary. It's been an extraordinary privilege to work inside the Skid Row community like that - and to have been given the access we had was just an honor. I'm developing a project that links to the addiction/recovery themes in Lost Angels. I think I sense a dedicated full length piece here, and something that could really help people understand the issues. The commonality of addictive experience really fascinates me...
LM: Is there anything you want to say about the Police and the Safer Cities Initiative?
TN: Those who sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither. (Abraham Lincoln)
Thank you, Thomas, for giving Skid Row and its residents the honest depiction they deserve. You have my deepest appreciation.
Los Angeles Film Festival World Premiere
(formerly The Chorus)
LOST ANGELS Trailer
Friday, June 25 7:45 PM
Saturday, June 26 1:45 PM
Downtown at LA Live
800 W. Olympic Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90015
Free screening. Tickets are first come, first serve.
(Theater has 300 seats)
Directed By: Thomas Napper
Producer: Agi Orsi
Executive Producers: Gary Foster, Joe Wright, Susan Klos
Writer: Christine Triano
Narrated by: Catherine Keener
Director Thomas Napper's empathetic, but tough-minded documentary invites us into a part of Los Angeles that many choose to ignore-downtown's Skid Row. As we meet the distressed area's residents, including a former Olympic runner, a transgendered punk rocker, and an eccentric animal lover and her devoted companion, their remarkable stories paint a multifaceted portrait of life on the streets. There are undeniable problems-mental illness and addiction are common themes-but there is also hope and a surprising sense of community. Passionate, polemical, and generous in spirit, Lost Angels finds a unique vitality to life on Skid Row and a stirring humanity in those who live there.