Shooting Star

Houstonís busiest filmmaker relies on Zen calm ó and guerrilla tactics

While at Rice, he started a film workshop for inner-city kids, the Fifth Ward Young Filmmaker's Project. Lymelle Carter, a Methodist minister, gave his preoccupied son a piece of advice: "Whatever you do, don't quit your day job." Greg paid no heed; in no time, he'd shed his nine-to-five engineering work to take a more flexible consulting gig.

In 1996, he told his parents he was going to shoot a full-length film he'd written himself. He asked his mother to put up half the money.

The Carters have put five kids through college and one through medical school as well; investing in Greg's movie didn't seem like such a stretch. "That was going to be part of my IRA," Betty says. "But I had enough faith in him." Greg's sister Annie, a physician in Austin, supplied the other half.

Screenwriter Keith Kjornes works frequently with 
Courtesy of Greg Carter
Screenwriter Keith Kjornes works frequently with Carter.
Charlie Bethea (left) met J.R. Richard 13 years ago 
and couldn't stop thinking about his story.
Courtesy of Greg Carter
Charlie Bethea (left) met J.R. Richard 13 years ago and couldn't stop thinking about his story.

He shot Fifth Ward for $75,000. "This was guerrilla filmmaking at its finest," says Junie Hoang, a friend who starred in the film. His brother Lee took another leading role; brother Paul provided artwork for a character who dreams of escaping the hood to become a painter.

Fifth Ward aspired to be more than a shoot-'em-up gangbangers' delight. "The template at the time was Menace II Society, Boyz N the Hood" -- violent coming-of-age tales, Carter says. "But I had three intertwined stories."

The film premiered at Texas Southern University, played to a sold-out crowd at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and had six screenings at the Rice Media Center. "Everybody was just so excited to see a film made here," Hoang says. "We had to turn people away at the door."

On the film festival circuit, Fifth Ward found success -- and more important, a direct-to-video distributor. A cleaned-up version still plays on cable.

It wasn't enough for Carter to move to Hollywood or even pay back his mother. He kept consulting as an engineer; after all, he had a wife and two kids. He continued to teach filmmaking workshops. And when he got an offer to shoot the movie Thug Life for less than $100,000, he accepted.

One hit film, he learned, was not enough to give him carte blanche. Fifth Ward's distributor wanted to cut the two-hour film to 87 minutes, to better emphasize the violence. One of the story lines was axed completely.

"It was painful," he admits. "That was my baby." But Betty Carter had raised her boy to be practical. Getting to make movies meant sacrificing his artistic pretensions. "If I want to be a filmmaker," he says, "the first thing is that the film has to be successful."

He learned, too, when the Thug Life backers released a rougher version than he would have liked. "They just wanted something they could put in a box and sell," he says. He vowed that, even if he had to pay for it himself, he wouldn't release another movie without correcting every glitch he could.

But investors hardly cringed over Thug Life. A hit in video stores and on Showtime, it led to a series of offers for Carter to make "urban action" films for the growing direct-to-video market. The titles were forgettable; the plots far from Shakespeare.

Still, Carter was happy: He was making movies. Three years ago, he finally scrapped the engineering work. This year, he boasts that he's on pace to break Roger Corman's record for the most movies directed and produced in a single year, with six.

He's given himself over to the frenzy. He shot his last two films in Florida and New Orleans; after Resurrection, he headed to Los Angeles for two months, then Oregon. "I am a vagabond," he says. "I kinda live all over."

That roaming doesn't apply to his career direction. At this point, Carter shuns music videos. They may be lucrative, but he considers them a distraction. The prospects of making a fortune don't appeal to him -- recognition does. Carter says he wants an Academy Award before he turns 40. He's 37 now.

He's beginning to attract some stardust. Rick Ferguson, director of the Houston Film Commission, calls him "incredibly talented." He picked up an agent at the powerful William Morris Agency and is taking calls from New Line Cinema, which even he admits has left him awestruck. The Hollywood rumor mill has him in line to direct the next Friday movie, the comedy series starring Ice Cube. Or the next Ginuwine video.

"He's being noticed," says Ron Finberg, a Houston-based actor who's worked on Carter's last three films. "A lot of people want to ride his coattails…They see his vision and want to be a part of it."

"Slowly, instead of being on the other side of the desk trying to interest the important people," Carter says, "the important people are trying to interest me."

He basks in the attention. He drops "New Line" with a huge smile; he brags that he has a "firm offer" to direct a movie with Vivica A. Fox and DMX. Still, he insists he just wants to make movies. "I don't want to get locked into a five-year deal where I make a movie every two years," he says. "I like this pace."

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