By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
Then Ramsey misses the flight. By the time he arrives on the second day's set, an aging used car lot south of the city, it's already 3 p.m. Under a brutal sun, he discovers that the air conditioner in his RV is broken.
The shoot is plagued with more difficulties. Sound stages are too expensive, so Carter and his crew have chosen a dozen locations. With careful cropping, a single location can be used for multiple scenes. A restaurant, for example, can become a club, eatery or bar.
But the many locations require several moves, subjecting the crew to unforeseen problems. During a day's filming at Wheatley High School, someone throws bricks through the windshields of several crew members' vehicles. One Saturday, the crew unknowingly sets up the camera on a hill of fire ants, leaving ugly red welts on their ankles for days. By mid-shoot, five of the nine volunteer production assistants have dropped out.
The budget is a constant concern. They were planning to shoot inside the Astrodome -- until Carter learned it would cost $5,000. (Assistant director Crochet also explains that the interior is still set up as a football field, thanks to Friday Night Lights.) Carter settles instead for a shot of Richard leaving the Astrodome and shaking off autograph hunters.
Even that proves tricky. A sign above the exit reads "Reliant Astrodome." Carter tells cinematographer Billy Daniel to capture "Astrodome" but somehow not the corporate sponsor.
"This is gonna be tight," Daniel mutters.
And Carter notices that the kids playing autograph seekers are all black. "There were never this many black folks at an Astros game in this era," Carter says. He orders Crochet to join the scene, as well as production assistant T.J. Valentine and a journalist there to report on the filming.
"I've already played a radiologist," Valentine sighs.
"I'm just trying to keep it real," Carter says. He instructs the three white people to stay on the edge of the shot, so as to seem more numerous. He couldn't seem more relaxed.
Carter may rely on recruiting raw extras for some of his scenes, but in Resurrection he's also working with proven Hollywood talent. For the first time, he's directing an Academy Award nominee. Charles Durning, nominated for best supporting actor for his work in both The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be or Not to Be, agreed to play the small but key role of the Astros' owner. "There are people who insist on private limos," says Kjornes, who suggested the actor for the job. "Durning you can pick up in a FedEx van."
When Durning's plane arrives late the night before his scheduled scenes, Finley is embarrassed to arrive at the actor's hotel room at 1 a.m. for a wardrobe measurement. But Durning says he's just glad to be working; the next day, he cheerfully signs autographs for the extras.
Most of the actors on Resurrection similarly avoid pretentious airs. The exception is Kenya Moore, the former Miss USA playing Richard's second wife. She refuses several costumes, sending Finley scrambling to find clothes that fit both the period and Moore's prickly sensibilities. When showers pound the set, Moore refuses to walk 100 yards from her RV until someone gets her a new pair of shoes; she's not about to walk through the rain in her own.
Such pampering might be standard in Hollywood. But not in Houston, and not without money or time to spare. "There's not much you can do except tell people, 'This is an independent film,' " Carter says, shrugging.
In Durning's biggest scene, the entire Astros board assembles to tell Richard he's being released. But several actors portraying board directors fail to show up, and if the production has any demographic shortfall, it's aging white men.
So Kjornes is cast on the board. His brother Kevin, a cop, is drafted as well, along with Glenn Taylor, a former Hempstead County judge.
It seems to take forever to get the new actors prepared. Daniel is steaming.
But Carter is in a good mood, as usual. "Me and Billy are in Zen mode," Carter explains to the crew. He gestures above, then to himself: "It goes from God, to Greg, to Billy."
Daniel looks ready to kill. "I just set up my shots," he says, under his breath. "Then I wait."
Filming starts, although good takes aren't to be found. Ramsey's cell phone starts ringing. A line gets flubbed. The sound engineer realizes the chairs are squeaking, so everyone is told not to shift.
Without the squeaking, they can hear the elevator rumbling behind the wall. They have to delay each take until it stops; several takes are aborted, mid-scene, when it unceremoniously starts up again.
Kjornes has been bumming around the set in a blazer-and-shorts combination, boasting that he doesn't own long pants. Finley assumed it would be okay because he's seated behind the conference table.
But the lighting, apparently, gives his knees a glow. Carter instructs Finley to get him some pants. Since everyone is already in place, Finley crawls under the table to slide the trousers over his legs.
"There are so many metaphors for what's happening right now," Carter says, laughing. "Nasty immoral "
"She's just doing her job," Kjornes cries. The entire crew cracks up. Finally the take starts beautifully. Durning delivers his lines with perfection. Ramsey, in character, seems bitter, drunk, sardonic. The tension grows thick. Ramsey stands up and leans in to shake his fist at the board -- and Kjornes bursts into laughter.
"I'm sorry," he cries, tears rolling down his cheeks. "I'm sorry."
"I think we gotta do that again," Carter says, grimacing.
The fierce pace flows into the final night of shooting. Most days, they've been on set from about noon until two or three in the morning. More than 20 hours of digital tape are in the can; production assistant Jordan Sartell says he didn't even realize Ronald Reagan had died until days later, when he happened to glimpse a TV screen in a bar where they were shooting.
Tonight was supposed to be the wrap party, but delays have forced an extra day of shooting. It's not until the final day that the last site is chosen: the home of Quanell X, the black activist and one of the movie's backers. The house is sumptuous, with a grand entryway and a kitchen right out of Martha Stewart Living.
It will be the location for a particularly tricky scene: a sweeping tracking shot that follows Richard's first wife, played by Sara Stokes, as she bursts into a party, searching for her husband and confronting his friends. It's one long, continuous take, unbroken even when she bursts into the bathroom and finds him canoodling with her best friend.
Problems delay the action until 11 p.m., and even Carter seems on edge. For the last two days, he's been filming into the wee hours, then getting up early to teach at the Rice Media Center. He's tired. He admits his back is hurting.
Sartell, the production assistant, is in charge of the scene board that numbers each take; tonight, he's been changing the movie title with each take, each title reflecting the growing despair. The Day After Tuesday becomes the first take. Take Two, Apocalypse Soon. Take Three? Your Movie Is Doomed.
Through the exhaustion and annoyance, the camera rolls again. This time, the extras look appropriately like they're partying heartily. Stokes seems properly worried, then agitated, then angry. And when Ramsey, playing Richard, emerges from the bathroom in his hospital gown, shouting at her to let him explain, it's somehow real. The entire crew is riveted.
"Hey, you did it, bro!" Carter cries. "That was almost perfect." Still, there's a sound problem. "Everybody back to one!" They pick up the pace. Take four. Almost there. Take five. Take seven.
Finally, Carter pauses. He and Daniel camp out on the floor. Cast and crew gather around to watch the scene's replay on the monitor.
For a better view, they stand on their toes and lean on each other's shoulders. They have never been this quiet -- or this rapt.
When the taped scene ends, Carter beams.
"It's really good," one amazed extra whispers to another.
"Maybe there is hope for this movie," Sartell says. A crew member outside bursts in to ask him how it went. "He got it," Sartell whispers in disbelief.
But there is no applause, no pause for reflection. Carter releases the extras with a quick thanks for their cooperation. "Peace out," he says.
Inside, it may be midnight, but Carter will work his crew until 5 a.m. -- until the last scene is shot, the final image captured.
And the last problem is solved.