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Unforgettable Patricia Neal

September 6, 2010 1 comment

Patricia Neal

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I meant to post the following article immediately after hearing that Hollywood icon Patricia Neal had passed.  Better later than never.  I had the pleasure of interviewing her a couple times, once by phone and another time in person, and in each instance I felt I was dealing with a member of Hollywood royalty, although she never lorded her status over me.  Quite the opposite.  She was delightfully informal and humble.  My interviews with her, along with seeing her make some public appearances, all happened as a result of several visits she made to Omaha, where I live.  The first of these occurred in conjunction with a screening here of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  My article below resulted from a phone interview I did with her and the piece appeared in advance of the event.  She was the guest of honor at the screening and that was the occasion when I first saw her in person.  A few years I later got to meet her when she made two or three appearances at the Great Plains Theatre Conference here. During one of these conference appearances she made her As I Am presentation at the Joslyn Art Museum and afterwards my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to meet her backstage, where I conducted a short interview with her.  She was as charming and radiant up close as she was on the phone or on the stage.  I was making arrangements with her good friend and fellow actor Joel Vig for me to accompany her to a local bingo parlor – she loved playing bingo – and do a piece about her passion for the game.  It never worked out, as her increasingly frail health made travel more difficult.

Her life was filled with great triumphs and tragedies, and I feel privileged to have had my small brushes with her larger than life presence.

Unforgettable Patricia Neal

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

There is an elusive, indefinable yet unmistakable quality separating certain motion picture actors from the pack and, in a bit of celluloid alchemy, transforming them from mere players into bona fide stars.  Whatever It is, then Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal has got it.  In spades.

With her dreamy eyes, dark hair, fair complexion, musky voice, keen wit and earthy Southern charm she’s cast an indelible presence on the big screen since her 1947 debut.  Always at her best playing unadorned, independent women, she still retains an element of mystery about her.  She was Alma, the sensuous but no-nonsense housekeeper spurning heartbreaker Paul Newman’s advances in “Hud,” a role which won her the 1963 Oscar for Best Actress.  She was Maggie, the tough yet tender nurse romanced by John Wayne in “In Harm’s Way.”  And she was the beleaguered but unbowed wife and mother in “The Subject was Roses.”

The spunk this native Kentuckian has displayed as a performer is no act.  Her spirited determination in recovering from massive strokes suffered in the mid-1960s has made her a role model for stroke victims and an outspoken champion of physical rehabilitation efforts.  Her fight back from the debilitating strokes, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak, has been documented in her 1988 autobiography “As I Am” and in a 1981 TV film, “The Patricia Neal Story.”  In 1978, her example of courage led Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, TN, where she grew up, to dedicate the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center.

 

 

 

 

It isn’t often a genuine Hollywood legend passes through these parts, so you can imagine the buzz building in anticipation of Neal’s scheduled appearance this month at the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha.  The actress is coming from her home in New York City for a special revival showing here of one of her earliest and best pictures, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), which she co-starred in with the late Michael Rennie and Hugh Marlowe.

The one-night-only presentation, on Saturday, October 9 at 7:30 p.m., is the latest classic cinema showcase of Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford.  In addition to Neal, actor and former child star Billy Gray, who played her son in the film, will be on hand, along with a replica of the film’s famous robot, Gort.

The sold-out event is a fund raiser for Children’s Square USA.

Although largely absent from the screen the past two decades, the 73-year-old Neal, also a noted stage and television actress with a Tony Award and many Emmy nominations to her credit, recently made a triumphant return to the movies with her critically-acclaimed performance as the eccentric, pipe-smoking title character in the Robert Altman feature “Cookie’s Fortune.”  There’s even talk Neal may get an Oscar nomination.

She’s come a long way from Packard, KY, the now defunct coal mining camp she was born in in 1926.  Her father worked as traffic manager for the local coal company.  After moving with her family to Knoxville, she showed an early interest in acting, reciting monologues at church meetings and social gatherings.  As a Christmas present her parents enrolled her in acting lessons when she was only seven.  After her high school graduation she attended Northwestern University and its prestigious speech and drama department.  Two years later she joined her drama coach for summer theater in Eagles Mere, Pa. and then followed her fancy to New York, where like so many aspiring actresses she supported herself with modeling jobs while studying her craft (as an early member of the Actor’s Studio) and auditioning for parts on Broadway. The theater was her first love.

“I wanted to be a STAGE actress,” she emphasized in her throaty voice during a recent phone conversation.

After debuting on Broadway in 1946 she made her mark the next year when she reprised the role of Regina originated by Tallulah Bankhead in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest.”  Her performance wowed critics and audiences alike, earning her the coveted Tony and Drama Critics’ Awards.  Soon, Hollywood came courting and she signed with Warner Brothers Studio and headed West.

“Well, I was thrilled to go,” she explained.  “The play I was in closed and everybody wanted me in Hollywood and so I thought, ‘Why not?’  So I went under contract with Warner Bros. and I was with them three or four years until we parted and then I did some pictures for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, some for 20th Century Fox and some for Universal.”

Her early years in Tinsel Town were frustrating ones.  She found it difficult adjusting to the new medium.  And it seemed studio moguls were unsure what to make of this lovely new starlet.  Neither a glamour queen nor a femme fatale, she was instead a smart down-to-earth woman whose grit let her hold her own with any man on screen, yet whose aura of deep lament lent her an appealing vulnerability.  A character actress at heart, she simply didn’t fit the leading lady mold of the day and found herself assigned to a string of weak parts in mediocre pictures.

She ultimately did cause a stir those early years, but not for her acting.  When the single Neal’s romantic involvement with married American screen icon Gary Cooper    was made public, a scandal ensued.  Cooper and Neal had starred together in “The Fountainhead” and “Bright Leaf” and while news of the affair left his stardom untarnished it unquestionably hurt her fledgling career.

Still reeling from her failed tryst, she started work on “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”  Understandably, she held small hope for the project, which appeared another in a long line of forgettable films.  After all, it was “just” a science fiction story, which in that era usually meant a low budget, low brow B-picture aimed at the Saturday matinee crowd.

One plus, however, was its director, Robert Wise, whom she’d worked with previously and admired.  Even though Wise was then a still up-and-coming filmmaker, his reputation for quality and professionalism preceded him.

Referring to Wise, she said, “He was very good.  A fine director.  I had done “Three Secrets’ with him and obviously he liked me because he wanted me for his next one.”  Still, she said, she found it hard to take “The Day the Earth Stood Still”  seriously.  “Oh, I thought it was hysterical when I did it.  I didn’t buy all that outer space stuff.  I could hardly keep a straight face, but boy it turned out to be a good one didn’t it?  Oh, I love that movie.”

Her jaundiced reaction then is understandable given the plot.  Capitalizing on the UFO scare at the time, the film opens with a flying saucer landing near the Washington monument.  Emerging from the craft is an alien emissary, Klaatu (Rennie), and his robot protector-enforcer, Gort.  Klaatu announces an ultimatum:  If humans cannot mend their violent ways, Planet Earth will be destroyed.  Klaatu is shot and imprisoned and, after escaping, hunted.  The strange visitor is finally befriended by Neal’s character, an earnest single mother, and her son.  Now regarded as a classic, “Day” is a message picture in the guise of sci-fi.  It is both an ageless plea for peace and tolerance and a time-capsule glimpse at the paranoia and tension existing under the placid surface of post-war prosperity.

 

 

While all quite silly to Neal, it was business as usual for Billy Gray, then 13 and far too young to appreciate the film’s campy elements or its serious intentions.

“It was more business-like than a romp in the park,” he said by phone from his home in Tapango, Ca.  “I didn’t realize how brave it’s subject matter was.  I didn’t have any understanding of its message.  I’ve had a chance to see the film a few times over the last two decades and it’s amazing how well it holds up as a piece of movie making.  You buy into it even though it’s a bit stylized.  You accept the concept and just go along for the ride.”

After the film Gray went on to his best-remembered role, as Bud, in TV’s popular “Father Knows Best” series. He still acts occasionally on TV and in theater.

Following the film Patricia Neal appeared in a few more pictures before returning to the stage.  She met and married author Roald Dahl, now deceased, and started a family with him.  The couple eventually raised five children in his native Great Britain.  In 1957 she was lured back to Hollywood by the opportunity to appear in “A Face in the Crowd,” a brilliantly-written and acted film under the direction of Elia Kazan, who directed her on stage in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”  Despite glowing notices, the film did little for Neal’s career, so she resumed stage work and raised her children.

As the decade of the ‘60s dawned, Neal and her family endured a series of tragedies that ironically coincided with her greatest success as a movie actress.  First, her infant son Theo suffered severe injuries when hit by a taxi in his pram. Next, her daughter Olivia contracted measles encephalitis and died at age seven.

“Sad things have happened in our family,” she said.

Then, in 1962, along came “Hud,” and the Oscar.  In 1965 she was fresh off co-starring in Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way” when she started work on legendary director John Ford’s last film “Seven Women.”  It was while in production on the Ford film that Neal, then three months pregnant, suffered the strokes that altered her life.

Neal credits Dahl with devising an innovative rehabilitation program enlisting the intensive aid of family and friends. Little by little her recovery progressed.

“Roald didn’t like the idea the doctors were going to send a person once a week for 15 minutes, so he had all my friends come in and teach me, and that was so good.  They played bridge and croquet with me.  It really worked perfectly.  Roald did a lot, you know.”

Years later, she and Dahl divorced.

Miraculously, the child Neal was pregnant with at the time of her strokes was born a healthy girl, named Lucy. It turns out Lucy is her lucky charm.

Neal, who made her a heroic film comeback in “The Subject was Roses,” had not done a feature since 1989 when Lucy, now a screenwriter, ran into director Robert Altman at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and discovered he was still looking for someone to fill the title role of Cookie in his new film.  Lucy suggested her mom.  Altman liked the idea.  Later, Lucy arranged for the two to meet at a part she threw at her Hollywood home.  Altman hired Neal on the spot.

 

 

As Cookie, Neal plays a colorful older woman who talks a blue streak, just the kind of part she likes sinking her teeth into.  “Oh, I loved it.  I’m a character actress.  I’m meant to be 85 in it, but I ain’t that old, so I’m really made up.  I have a wig on.  It’s fantastic.”

Asked to explain her method of creating characters, she answers:  “I sort of have an actor’s feeling for things.  That’s all I can tell you.  I just do my best.” When it’s suggested she purposely shunned fame, she surprisingly replies, “Oh, I’d like to be a star.  I’d like to be a bigger star than I am.  But I’ve done all right.”

Finally, asked to venture why so few roles have come her way recently, she quips, “Oh, I don’t know, but I’m getting, shall we say, not a lot younger.”

When not acting she stays busy traveling as an enthusiastic participant in the Theater Guild’s Theater-At-Sea cruise programs, which have taken her from Alaska to Australia.  “I love to travel.  Oh, it’s gorgeous.”  From Omaha she’ll travel to Atlanta to belatedly celebrate the 100th birthday of her mother, Eura Petrie Neal.

She often visits with fellow stroke victims and is a vocal advocate for rehab efforts addressing the whole person.  She’s pleased by the progress made in brain injury therapy.  “It’s wondrous what they do now for people with strokes.”

Also a frequent public speaker, Neal talks about her life and recovery in the hope she can provide inspiration to other disabled individuals.  Her simple message: “Never give up.”

Omaha’s Monty Ross talks about making history with Spike Lee

September 6, 2010 1 comment

Readers of my film posts will recognize a familiar refrain when I say that my home state of Nebraska has contributed an unusually large number of influential players to the film industry, especially considering the small population of this Great Plains locale.  My blog contains articles about many Nebraskans in Film and more are coming.  The following story profiles Omaha native Monty Ross.  He’s someone you’ve likely never heard of, yet he has enjoyed a major career alongside one of contemporary cinema’s most successful and outspoken filmmakers, Spike Lee. I’d known about the Ross-Lee association going back to the late 1980s, when I was active in Omaha as an alternative film programmer.  I even made a half-hearted attempt then and once again in the ’90s to bring Ross back to his hometown for a program.  It never happened.  Another decade passed before I finally did contact him, this time for an interview and profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I loved telling his story because it’s one that was little known even where he grew up. No one’s brought him back here to honor him, and such recognition is long overdue. Whatever part I can play to make that happen I pledge to do.  If and when it does happen I will finally be satisfied that Omaha and Nebraska did right by him.  It’s a sore point with me that this city and state do not do nearly enough to embrace its remarkable heritage of Nebraskans in Film, and giving Ross his proper due would be a good start.

 

Omaha’s Monty Ross talks about making history with Spike Lee

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Spike Lee’s cinema joints rocked the American cultural landscape in the 1980s and 1990s. Collaborating with him on these explosions was Omaha native Monty Ross, a co-founder of Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks and a longtime producing partner. After an extended leave of absence to make his own projects, including the well-received 2002 Showtime movie Keep the Faith, Baby, a biopic on Civil Rights champion Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Ross is back in the 40 Acres fold as Special Projects Director for the New York-based production company.

Ross, who spoke to The Reader by phone from his 40 Acres office, has contributed to the emergence of a modern black cinema with broad appeal. With his help Lee took up where Sidney Poitier left off in legitimizing blacks as bankable film artists. Just as the popularity of Poitier’s films opened doors for generations of African-Americans in Hollywood, so too did the success of Lee’s pics. Where Poitier’s directorial work (A Piece of the ActionStir Crazy) diffuses race, Lee’s embraces relevant themes ideologically and dramatically aligned to the overtly social-political black consciousness of filmmakers Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks and Charles Burnett. While those directors could not break the glass ceiling imposed by the mainstream industry, Lee’s managed to do so by straddling the independent-studio line, thereby affording his movies the kinds of budgets, casts, prestige and buzz his predecessors’ movies never enjoyed.

And Omaha’s own Monty Ross has been there for it all — as actor, production manager, co-producer, vice president of production, adviser, friend and I-got-your-back-Brother. For the acclaim and controversy over Lee’s brazen films, for Nike spots that made Lee a cult figure, for music videos that tapped the hip-hop scene. He’s been about as close to Lee as anyone on this sky-rocket ride, which after sputtering reignited with the 2006 release of Inside Man. Lee’s new HBO documentary on the human rights failing that attended hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, premieres on the cable network August 29, the one year anniversary of the disaster. It’s sure to stir passions the way Lee’s early work did.

Ross is now and always has been part of the cultural-creative pot Lee’s joints get stirred in.

“The blood and sweat he pumped into that company often goes unnoticed,” film producer Lashan Browning has said of Ross, “but he was the heart of it all.” Lee said as much in a Moviemaker Magazine piece. “He was very important. People may have read about Spike Lee, but it wasn’t just me, it was Monty Ross,” Ernest Dickerson (cinematography), Wynn Thomas (production design), Barry Brown (editing), Ruth Carter (costume design) and “my father” — jazz musician Bill Lee (score). “This is a team we have.”

Until now Ross never shared his story with Omaha media of how he came to be part of this small inner circle. It’s a tight, loyal crew together two decades now. Ross goes all the way back to Lee’s thesis project, the student Academy Award-winning short Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Ross played the lead.

Wearing specs, Ross resembles Lee. They talk alike, too, sans the Brooklyn accent for Ross. Married to still photographer Carol Ross, with whom he has one child, Austin, Ross knows he’s fortunate to be an intimate and colleague of a film pioneer.

“Here’s this kid from Omaha, Neb. who went to college in Atlanta, hung out, met a friend from New York City, came to New York to do a film with him and the next thing you know he becomes a cultural icon. From my vantage point, getting everything prepared and making sure we dot our Is and cross our Ts, and witnessing the reaction of people, I’ve just been amazed all the way, you know, because it happened to me,” Ross said. “I thank my lucky stars every day because it could have gone so many different directions. It’s humbling and I think anybody who’s full of ego and says the opposite is full of shit to be honest with you.

“You don’t know when you write these things or when you film these things what’s going to happen. A lot of the things that happen we don’t have any control over. Sure, you can have control over the film — what you write and shoot and things like that, but one thing you do not have any control over is the reaction of people. And the reaction that Spike has gotten to his work has been phenomenal.”

He offers his own take on the strong responses Lee’s in-your-face films illicit.

“I always tell people, You don’t have to necessarily like the films and you don’t have to like Spike. People are often commenting about the stories and I say, ‘Well, there’s no perfect film, there’s no perfect filmmaker.’ Spike came along and presented his work in a way that had never been seen before from a black filmmaker. His work had a sense of being independent and commercial at the same time. The thing that matters is the reaction to his work. You can’t buy that.”

Like Lee, Ross is a die-hard hoops fan and he likens the way Lee came on the scene with serious craft and something to say and in the process revolutionized the place of black filmmakers in America to the way innovative players express themselves on the court with their ground breaking moves and skills.

“I played a lot of basketball and, you know, people have been dunking the ball since they put the hoop up but when Dr. J. did it, ‘Ohhhh…did you see that?’ People have been doing behind the back fancy passes for years, but when Magic Johnson did it, ‘Ohhhh…the no look pass!’ It’s just weird about that combination (that makes one a genius and another average) and why that happens.”

In the case of Lee’s ability to express an authentic black experience that speaks universally to people, Ross said, “Hey, it’s one in a million. It’s one in two million. Where does that voice come from?” The question may not have an answer. But it’s clear Lee‘s found a way to articulate the spectrum of black life, from its heights to its depths, and the complexities of black-white relations without alienating a large portion of black or white audiences.

The coalescing of Lee’s vision, informed by the Forty Acres team, intersected with the American Zeitgeist in terms of black identity, black pride, black rage and black power. Ross recalled when he felt the Gestalt take shape.

“I think I became aware of it when I saw She’s Gotta Have It for the first time. What I saw was Spike’s goal and Ernest’s goal and Wynn’s goal. ‘My God,’ I said, ‘We’re doing something a lot different than our predecessors. We’re thinking about it a lot different. So, when I saw that I just thought, We’re onto something. It was just a culmination of having that core of people around you who think like you do and they’re able to take your vision and take Spike’s vision and then make it happen in a way that’s visually stimulating and pleasing to the audience. Just like with a winning basketball team, we all thought along the same lines.”

Recognizing a synergy or convergence of ideas, he said, is an empowering thing.

“I think it’s like finding that diamond for your wife or your girlfriend or whatever. It’s that moment when you say, ‘Oh, wow, this is what I’ve been looking for.’ It’s a connection. That’s the way it was for the audience, too. They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I want to be projected. That’s what I’m talking about.’”

 

 

Spike Lee and Monty Ross

 

 

Ross doesn’t analyze why it is he and Lee click. They just do. “I’ve always been a type of person who realizes when something works, it works, and you don’t disturb it,” he said. “You just ride it out.” The trick is to find your niche and revel in that rather than worry about props. “Once you start getting into that ego gratification and say, ‘Well, his name’s bigger than mine.’ than you’re going to lose,” he said, “because you know somebody’s always going to do something better. Once you have something that works, stick with it. That’s definitely a credo I live by.”

An Omaha North High graduate, Ross is the son of a social worker mother and hardware store owner father who divorced when he was young. Both his parents have passed. His only sibling, an older sister, no longer lives here. Ross, whose favorite haunts were a pair of North 24th Street landmarks in The Ritz Theatre (long defunct) and the Bryant Center (still there), struggled in the classroom before finding a home in school theater productions.

“I started to really feel good about myself and about being in school,” he said.

Harboring a dream to be an actor and to escape the “limited horizons” Omaha offered young blacks in the ‘70s, he went South to attend historically all-black Morehouse College in Atlanta. The contrast was stark. He left behind stagnated, segregated Omaha, where riots and other ruptures left the black community a desolate island with few black professionals to emulate, for Atlanta, a booming, integrated city with a flourishing black culture and black presence in all sectors.

Aside from a few well-known athletes trotted out for kids to idolize, he said growing up black in Omaha “you really didn’t get that college-educated role model you could attach yourself to and get a sense of motivation from.” In Atlanta, he saw up-close black legends like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and sampled a “renaissance” of black artists and entrepeneurs. “It just began to blossom as a cultural center.”

He flunked out of Morehouse but was there long enough to act in plays with a then-unknown Samuel Jackson and to be noticed by an aspiring young filmmaker named Spike Lee, a Morehouse grad. After a semester or two getting his grades in order at a Dallas, Texas college, Ross returned to Atlanta to attend Clark College and after graduating he worked as an actor for the Atlanta Street Theatre, a company he’s still associated with, which gives free performances to school-age children. Soon, his path intersected again with Lee’s. It was the late 1970s and Lee was a firebrand talent on the verge of making some noise. The then-New York University film school student often visited Atlanta, where his grandmother Zimmie Shelton lived, and it’s there he and Ross hooked up again. The young director showed Ross and a small coterie of friends his films. Ross was blown away.

“Spike came down every summer he was in (film) school to screen his short films and I remember seeing the first short film, The Answer (a response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation), and after looking at the movie I jumped up and I said, ‘Oh, man, you got it, you got it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You are about to do something that’s really, really special. You’ve combined everything into this little short film and I can just see it speaks to what you’re always talking about.” “Yeah, man.”

By then, Ross made Super 8 films himself and taught kids the craft in a CITA program. He and Lee were two young men filled with dreams. Not unlike the stoop and street dwellers of Do the Right Thing, they riffed on things-to-come.

“It began pretty much just hanging out at his grandmother’s house and just sitting there talking about how one day we’d like to make a movie together,” Ross said.

By the early ‘80s, Lee itched to make a bold statement. According to Ross, “He said, ‘Man, we’ve got to do something that’s a little more edgy.’ He wrote a screenplay called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop. I said, ‘Let me read it.’ So I went by his grandmother’s house and we sat down and read the script together along with another friend of ours. I said, ‘Hey, man, I’d love to do the movie.’ So I came to New York the winter of 1981 and in one month we made the film.”

Ross had been to the South Bronx before but not Brooklyn. It was also his first time acting for the camera, and it showed in all the retakes his scenes required.

“It was funny because I wanted to express myself a little differently. I wanted to move around, and film is very restrictive. I remember once I walked around and I said the lines and Spike and Ernest were like, ‘No, no, no, no…You gotta stand still! Film is expensive!’ So I went through that whole spiel, but I learned pretty fast. I still feel every time I watch it I could have delivered a better performance.”

Intent still on being an actor, Ross said, “I wanted to be in front of the camera, but fate would have a whole different direction for me. After Joe’s I went into the (Army) Reserves and after finishing up my Reserve training I came back and hung out with Spike.” Lee planned making his feature debut with The Messenger, with Laurence Fishburne set to star, but weeks before cameras were to roll the main investor pulled the plug when additional funding could not be raised.

Meanwhile, Ross said the production manager on Messenger had a falling out with Lee and quit. Harsh words uttered by the crew member — to the effect “You guys will never be the filmmakers you want” — inspired Ross to put himself on the line. “So I told Spike, ‘Man, you don’t have to go through that. The next time, let me be the production manager.’ He said, ‘Well, what about the acting?’ I said, ‘Duty calls. It’s something that you need and we don’t have to go outside ourselves. We’ll just make it work.’ He said, ‘You bet.’ Spike wrote She’s Gotta Have It, sent the script to me and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Financed in part by maxed-out credit cards, She’s became an indie breakthrough, grossing millions over its couple-hundred thousand dollar budget and putting a gritty, sophisticated spin on black romantic comedy that resonated with folks.

The film made Lee’s career and established Ross as his right-hand man. Getting there was a crucible, but Ross endured and emerged a seasoned pro.

“It was really a hard lesson for me. That’s when I really first got acclimated to New York City. I’d just run around figuring out where post-(production) houses were. I made mistakes and I had to cover my mistakes. I had to learn about dealing with the Teamsters,” Ross said. “It was a time and experience I will never forget because being thrown in the fire like that gave me an opportunity to really learn the business, and that’s what happened.”

Like any low budget pic, She’s required crew to pull double or triple duty. “We didn’t even have a first assistant director,” Ross said. To make their days they had to cut corners and stay several steps ahead. Ross adapted to the hectic schedule, finding he was good at leading other people.

“My working style was to always make sure the next day was covered. I kind of had a camaraderie with the crew. I said, ‘Hey, whatever you guys need, let me know.’”

Caught up in the minutiae that is a film project, Ross didn’t have time to reflect on what 40 Acres had done until the end of the frantic shoot. When he realized it’d come to an end, he didn’t want it to stop. He knew it was historic.

“And lo and behold two weeks later I was like, ‘Hey, we’re out of stuff to shoot.’ This was a Saturday afternoon and I said, ‘Well, let’s just keep shooting. Let’s just make something up while we still have people here. You never know…’ And about six o’clock that evening we called wrap. It was a special moment, you know. We had completed the movie. At least got it in the can.

“I’m not one to get into anything all spiritual and weird and stuff like that, but it was a special moment. I kind of had a feeling, Oh, this could really go somewhere. I think we’ve got really great performances and we’ve got a good look. Wynn Thomas came in with the production designer and he expanded on Spike’s vision. And Ernest came in with the lighting we had and did a wonderful job.”

Bigger budgets followed on the string of much-talked about films that came in She’s wake — School DazeDo the Right ThingJungle FeverMo’ Better Blues, Malcolm XCrooklynClockers — but really all of Lee’s work, much of it with Ross serving as producer, is rooted in those indie, low-budget early years.

True to his bottom line sensibilities Ross finds satisfaction in “the economy of resources” 40 Acres achieved on what proved to be critical-commercial hits. By contrast, he finds hard to swallow the excessive expectations of today’s spoiled young film lions, weaned as they are on techno-digital props and pop-art devices that can interrupt narrative flow and inhibit human values.

 

Spike-Lee.-Do-the-Right-Thing-3

 

 

 

 

 

Do the Right Thing

 

“I hear them say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have this crane or I’ve got to have this lens’ and all these things we couldn’t even think of….I think it really gets down to how well you use your imagination, how well you focus in on what’s important and how well you can tell the story. I think what’s missing with a lot of the young people is that sense of — Let me tell you this story. To get you on the edge of your seat and to make your senses perk up. That’s what we’re looking for. I want a good story, period. Something that’s innate in our nature is our love for a good story and a good storyteller. At the end of the day I think people still want to sit in that dark room and watch a good movie and they want a story that’s well told.”

Far from despairing over the state of motion pictures today, Ross is optimistic the influence of personal filmmakers like Spike Lee has made the term indie synonymous with not just quirky pics, but quality work made by passionate artists.

“I think when you look at what’s happening at the Academy Awards a lot of the movies that have won Best Picture have not been those big studio films, they’ve been small independent movies,” he said.

Ross took time away from 40 Acres to develop a project he felt so strongly about that a one-year leave of absence turned into seven when the project got stalled in development limbo, all of which made the film’s title, Keep the Faith, Baby, ironic.

“I always thought the Adam Clayton Powell story was a story that should be told… that his story was an important part of our history. Powell was a legendary Congressman from New York (Harlem) and I thought he was a missing link in the Civil Rights lineage from Marcus Garvey to A. Philip Randolph to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X. He had demonstrations and sit-ins. He was a lone wolf in Congress, and despite being controversial he got like 50-60 pieces of legislation passed that became the background and foundation for the War on Poverty and for a lot of the social change that Martin and Malcolm and other leaders talked about. He was the man of the hour others sought out. He was making things happen.

“I told Spike I was going to stay committed to getting the film made and he was like, ‘No problem,’ and that’s what happened. I moved out to L.A.”

Waiting for it to get made Ross produced a film (Escaping Jersey) and directed another (Reasons). After moving to Charlottesville, NC so his family could be near his wife’s folks, this prodigal son returned last year to New York and his 40 Acres home.

“I never left,” he said. One of his jobs as special projects director is to head the multi-media company’s internship program. To kids with film ambitions he says, “The sky is the limit, and it all depends on your perspective. The industry is vast with great opportunities. But before you begin your journey ask yourself this question: What is it that you would like to contribute to the industry to make it better?”

 
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