Shooting Star

Houstonís busiest filmmaker relies on Zen calm ó and guerrilla tactics

For a film with a tight schedule and an even tighter budget, Resurrection: the J.R. Richard Story is not off to a great start.

Today's scene, the first to be shot, is supposed to show the former Houston Astro at his rock-bottom worst: strung out and begging his ex-wife, a tollbooth worker, for money. Filming was set to begin at 9 a.m. at the Sam Houston Tollway. The toll exit has been shut down, the caravan of rented RVs has arrived, and Kenya Moore, a former Miss USA who's playing the ex, is costumed in her tollbooth finest.

But the start gets pushed back to noon, then 1 p.m. By 2:30, the sun has baked everyone to a disgruntled crisp.

David Ramsey, sporting his 1970s-era wig, with 
director Greg Carter.
Daniel Kramer
David Ramsey, sporting his 1970s-era wig, with director Greg Carter.
Carter's parents: Betty diverted some IRA funds to 
help her son finance his first film.
Daniel Kramer
Carter's parents: Betty diverted some IRA funds to help her son finance his first film.

Still, the camera crews idle. Still, director Greg Carter paces a grassy berm, cell phone glued to his ear.

This is Carter's seventh feature-length film; his crew knows the drill. "On a low-budget movie, you expect this," says Tony Crochet, an assistant director.

If anything, "low-budget" is an understatement. Carter intends to deliver Resurrection, a two-hour biopic spanning four tumultuous decades, for just $250,000. "The people I know in Los Angeles spend that much on a music video," admits Benjamin Jimerson, a co- producer.

The strangers on the set -- college kids volunteering as production assistants, would-be actors eager to get a second of face time -- weren't expecting such chaos. Two extras are fresh from Friday Night Lights, the Billy Bob Thornton movie recently shot in Houston. "Now that one ran like clockwork," one says.

People begin to whisper that the actor playing J.R. Richard is running late. Someone says he's still en route from California.

Screenwriter Keith Kjornes isn't fazed. "Just get a black guy and shoot over the back of his head," he suggests, cracking himself up.

At 3:30 p.m., Carter finally instructs everyone to turn off their cell phones and pagers. A big man in Timberlands, khaki shorts and braids, he couldn't seem more relaxed.

"All right, kinfolk, let's kick ass," he says, grinning. Within minutes, the cameras are rolling.

Nine takes are spoiled by airplanes overhead, flubbed lines or over-the-top acting. It's almost 5 p.m. by the time Carter has his shot. Somehow, he's still grinning.

It's only later that anyone realizes the magnitude of his achievement. There was truth to the gossip: The star, Bokeem Woodbine, was actually heading away from Houston instead of toward it. His manager announced that morning that Woodbine wasn't doing any movie that didn't have the Screen Actors Guild seal of approval. Carter's people pleaded for time to get it; Woodbine promised to wait -- only to leave town a few hours later.

A marvel of Zen calm, Carter never flinched. Low-budget filmmaking is all about problem-solving, he explains later. So what if his star is on a plane headed in the wrong direction? To Greg Carter, this is not a crisis. It's a problem, and problems exist to be solved.

One of the first exercises Brian Huberman gives his film class at Rice University is a murder montage. Huberman provides a bowie knife, and each student is supposed to graft together a quick sequence, Psycho-style, that looks like a murder.

What they aren't supposed to do is draw blood. But Carter, whom Huberman recalls as possessing a "hale-fellow-well-met big booming black voice," was nothing like the blasé would-be doctors who typically dabble in Rice film courses.

"Within seconds," Huberman remembers, "he'd opened up his wrist and the blood was flowing."

Carter laughs about the incident today. "We had no money for special effects, and so when I said, 'I'm bleeding!' they thought it looked cool and wanted to film it," he says. "I was like, 'Okay, guys, I'm dying!' "

Huberman says he knew immediately: Carter would do anything to make films.

Carter found his calling later than most. His mother, Betty, first decided her boy was going to be an astronaut. A retired HISD middle school principal, Betty Carter is not a woman to be messed with. So Greg Carter took as many science classes as he could at Milby High, then went to Texas A&M to join the ROTC and study engineering. The combination, Betty thought, would get him into the air force and, eventually, NASA.

But Greg's eyesight wasn't good enough for the air force. After he got his degree in 1990, he took an engineering job in Houston.

By then, he had stars in his eyes of the metaphoric variety. In his senior year at A&M, he'd acted in a play. He wasn't exactly a natural: "We were doing musicals, and I'm a big guy. I sweat profusely. It looked like I was going to have a coronary up there!"

He liked it enough to sign up for a course on writing plays, taught by Charles Gordone, winner of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Just a few credits shy of his engineering degree, Carter had found his calling, science be damned. "I realized, I don't want to do engineering, I want to be a storyteller."

Stage was too limiting, he says; he wanted to show life. So after graduation, he audited film classes at Rice, where he shocked the blue-haired alumni with his violent short, A Woman, A Cop, and a Killer. "I was kind of militant then," he admits. "I kinda wanted to be like Spike Lee."

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