Shooting Star

Houstonís busiest filmmaker relies on Zen calm ó and guerrilla tactics

Nor does he want to be pigeonholed as a guy who can only film gangbang gunfights. He shot My Big Phat Hip Hop Family last November partly in order to break the mold. He has even bigger aspirations for Resurrection, which he hopes to premiere at next January's Sundance Festival. He thinks it could be the movie to change his trajectory.

From the beginning, "I didn't want to be just a good black filmmaker," he says. "I wanted to be a good filmmaker, period."

Carter and Bethea with their "name" actor, Charles 
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Carter and Bethea with their "name" actor, Charles Durning.
Problem-solving without a budget: Shoot "Astrodome" 
but not "Reliant."
Daniel Kramer
Problem-solving without a budget: Shoot "Astrodome" but not "Reliant."

J.R. Richard was the Randy Johnson of his day, a six-foot-eight right-hander with a fastball fast enough, and wild enough, to scare the hell out of anyone near the batter's box. Despite lousy run support, he was a 20-game winner in '76 and came within two wins of that mark for the next three seasons. In 1979, he led the league in strikeouts and finished third in voting for the Cy Young Award.

Tragedy struck in 1980, when Richard suffered a stroke. His arm never recovered, his friends deserted him, and his wife left him. The man who once earned $850,000 a season ended up living under a bridge. Today he credits Jesus for bringing him back and into a job coaching youth baseball at the Sport House on Hillcroft.

Charlie Bellinger Bethea had the idea to film his rise, fall and resurrection. Bethea, the ex-wife of Oilers great Alvin Bethea, knows something about the life of pro athletes, or as she puts it, "womanizing, boozing, beating and show-offing." She also knows Richard, whom she met at a funeral in 1991.

When she had a stroke of her own two years after their meeting, she became obsessed with Richard's story. In her decade of recovery and isolation, she says, "I thought and thought about J.R. so often." Last winter, friends put her in touch with Jimerson, a casting director based in Los Angeles. He liked the idea, and for 5 percent of the profits, he agreed to set up a deal with a writer and a director.

For director, he had just one choice: Carter. "He's the only person I know who could competently turn out a film for $250,000," Jimerson says. "It's almost unheard of."

The writing work went to Kjornes, a Dallas-based writer who has scripted Carter's last five films. Big, white and balding, he doesn't look like a guy whose bread and butter is writing about black gangstas. He freely admits he has no street cred: "I write as if each character is a college graduate, and if Greg wants them to talk differently, he has them improvise from there."

For Resurrection, Kjornes spent two weeks in "beer joints, juke joints, eating wings and shooting the shit," cajoling Richard into telling his story. He calls his script the Cliffs Notes version of Richard's life: "Movies are life with the boring parts cut out," he says with a shrug.

Like Carter, he is relentlessly practical. He details some of his greatest last-minute revisions. The heroes of Thug Life were supposed to be fleeing in their car, but instead, it broke down. To avoid wasting the day of shooting, Kjornes penned a scene where the characters change a flat. In another film, a key actor missed his call time, so Kjornes fired off a new scene that had the character knocked out and thrown in a trunk.

Waiting at the toll exit that first day of Resurrection, with no leading man, someone makes a suggestion: Kjornes should rewrite the J.R. Richard Story to make it All His Friends and Family.

Kjornes watches Carter pacing the berm. "Don't give me an idea," he says. "Don't do that!"

Carter approaches moviemaking as a science. It may be the way he's wired; his mother notes that he could always fix broken appliances. He credits his engineering background. After seven films, his sense of practicality has been burnished until it's his first and final instinct.

"He's very creative, and he has a very visual mind," says Pamela White, a partner at Breakaway Films, the studio behind Carter's most recent film. "But he also has a business sense about him."

With Woodbine out as the star of Resurrection, Carter's second choice immediately becomes David Ramsey, the actor that casting director Jimerson originally wanted for the role. Ramsey starred in the UPN sitcom Good News and played Muhammad Ali in a biopic for network TV.

Carter remembers that Ramsey has hair, while the stand-in for the tollbooth scene is bald. So he instructs the stand-in to don a head scarf, just in case.

"I know I can only control what I can control," Carter says simply. "I knew I was going to have to get another actor, and I needed to shoot the scene so I could cut in someone else."

Between takes, Carter gets on the phone. Ramsey pledges to drop another project and take the next morning's red-eye from Los Angeles to Houston.

Costume designer Rachel Finley has 24 hours to scrap the entire wardrobe she'd planned for Woodbine and get clothes that fit Ramsey instead. "That cut my budget in half, and it was pretty small already," Finley admits.

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