Small of Her Back, A Film Made in Ditmas Park

Neighbor and filmmaker Russell Sharman is preparing for the premier of Small of Her Back at the Urbanworld Film Festival this Friday and Saturday. You can buy tickets here. The vast majority of the film was made at 570 Westminster Road here in the neighborhood. Russell describes the film as “claustrophobic,” noting that it touches on perceptions of gender, race and mental health.

They say it’s better to show than tell:

In the lead up to the premiere, Russell took time to answer questions about himself, his time in New York and his career, which winds through a number of fields (including off-off-off Broadway).

Introduce yourself to the neighborhood.
I’m an anthropologist, writer and filmmaker, though each one of those carries a certain weight with which I’m not entirely comfortable. I grew up in Texas, and studied film at the University of Texas. After a (very) brief stint in Hollywood working as an unpaid production assistant on a Civil War zombie vampire movie, I stumbled into anthropology in Boston and Oxford. My wife, Cheryl, and I landed in New York, East Harlem specifically, in 1999, and I joined the anthropology department at Brooklyn College in 2001.

My area of interests in anthropology has always been at least tangentially connected to my passion for story-telling and filmmaking. And I never stopped writing. But it receded to the background until a script I wrote for fun, a comedy, with two friends from Texas, found it’s way to a producer in Hollywood. We wrote another that sold to Warner Bros. in 2008, the same year that my first stage play, Small of Her Back, was produced off (off off) Broadway. Since then, my two writing partners and I have written for several studios on projects that seem stuck in perpetual development and will most likely never see the light of day. My own frustration with that development process led to the making of Small of Her Back as a film.

How long have you lived in the neighborhood?
Cheryl and I moved to Ditmas Park four years ago. After eight years in East Harlem, we decided to move within walking distance of my teaching job at Brooklyn College. That was 2008. The same year my play was up and running and we sold our first script, so it was a big year. And it was easy to embrace the neighborhood as part of that big year. What drew us are still some of our favorite things, the trees, Prospect Park, the Q, Cortelyou Road. And I love the contrasts, block by block, from CSI to Newkirk to Ocean Ave.

If I had to pick a least favorite thing, it might be the fact that I don’t actually live in one of those beautiful houses that line the side streets. I console myself that they must cost a fortune to maintain, but still… must be nice.

Other than living here, are there any advantages the neighborhood offers? Any distinct disadvantages? Was Ditmas Park your first choice in location for the film?
Shooting my first feature on a very small budget meant using what I had. Namely, my neighbor’s apartment. And the exteriors of my building and the surrounding streets. There is such diversity of architecture and urban design, you can be in half a dozen different locations within just a few city blocks. And it helps that, for the most part, Ditmas Park is very quiet. My sound guy certainly appreciated that.

Who and what influenced you during the writing and directing process? What are your five favorite movies?
The film is based on the play, so it is a very enclosed, even (intentionally) claustrophobic film. There are a few twists and turns in the plot, but essentially the film is about how we perceive weakness or strength through gender, race and mental health. A young woman, seemingly unstable, is visited by a man offering to “help,” but as the night unfolds, the dynamic between them is completely reversed. But it’s also about our incessant need to connect with others, however obliquely, and how the internet in particular can either enhance or obscure that connection.

A lot of these themes were inspired by work my wife, Cheryl, has done on gender and mental health as a researcher and writer. Visually, I thought a lot about other claustrophobic films like 12 Angry Men, Tape, and Hard Candy (an odd trio, I suppose). And none of those would necessarily be on a top 5 list. Which is an agonizing question, by the way. Here are 5, in no particular order, that would be somewhere near the top… The Conversation, Charade, Casablanca, Manhattan and Fletch. I feel like I’m cheating on about 100 movies just by typing that list!

After this movie, what’s up next for you?
I’m working on some footage we shot almost immediately after Small of Her Back, trying to see if there’s a story there. A bit more experimental. But I’m also continuing to work with my two writing partners on new ideas and studio jobs. We just did some work on an animated movie that will be out Thanksgiving 2013. And we’re about to jump into a new script next week. Meanwhile, I am still teaching at Brooklyn College, just a 20-minute walk from my apartment in Ditmas Park!


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