Film Scouts Interviews

Marc Levin on "Slam"

by Glenn Myrent

Music from
Buy The Soundtrack.
Cannes, May 21, 1998

Glenn Myrent (GM): The slam movement seems to be the 90s manifestation of the Beat Generation, combining jazz and poetry. Where did it all begin? Was it in New York?

Marc Levin (ML) : It actually started in Chicago, believe it or not, I think in the late 80s. Bob Holman, who's in "Slam" playing the MC, brought it to New York. He's a real impresario playing himself in the film. He's kind of the P.T. Barnum of the slam movement and is an old buddy of mine. When he first started in the late 80s at a cafe in the East Village, I would just go down there and it was just such a great mix of characters. You had the beats. You had the hipsters, you had the rappers. You had the performance artists. It was the one place you had all races and all generations. I remember once Alan Ginsberg was down there and he said something like, "This is the true safe house in New York." You would laugh, be moved, it was a total mix. I'm someone who loved the word in terms of the power of the word.

GM: Your film is a good illustration of how the "word is mightier than the sword."

ML: I think what happened is this became a stage for all the people who believe in the power of the word. Whether they're rappers or poets, writers, monologists, performance artists - all those people share that you can just get up there and in some way, with the spoken word, that's all you need, if you can find the right rhythm and the right way to say it. So, the slam is the popularization of it. What purists would say is the bastardization of it. But, you know, c'est la vie.

GM: So what is the origin of the word slam?

ML: I don't know. My partner, Richard Stratton, who's the producer and co-writer of the story with me, just finished a book which is kind of the making of "Slam" - the screenplay - an anthology of a lot of the poets' works. In it, Bob Holman has a chapter on the whole history of slamming, which I found fascinating. So, it's got the genesis of how it all started and who some of the key players were. I think Saul Williams is kind of like a third generation already in terms of the stars of that scene. Although when I saw him I was just amazed at the new direction that I hadn't seen in any of the slams. He was a totally new thing. Those are his poems we hear in the film. I couldn't pretend to write stuff like that. We went back and forth, in terms of should the character Raymond Joshua be played by a rapper? an actor? or a poet? And what was great is, Saul Williams was all of them. He was in the NYU graduate program so I went to see him in classical drama. He was obviously an unbelievable poet. He was into music and his soul had the feel of this universal empathy. So he was just the person.

GM: On the screen credits five of you are listed as writing the script. How did the screenplay evolve?

ML: There was no script until a month ago when someone transcribed the film ! (laughs) Seriously ! It was mostly improvised.

GM: Did you work like Mike Leigh where the actors improvise and the script evolves from their characters?

ML: That's funny you mention Mike Leigh, we just had lunch with Katrin Cartlidge and she's a friend of ours. One night in New York, we asked her to come up to our studio. She had told us a lot about the way Mike Leigh works and we wanted her to see what we were doing. We showed her a rough cut of the film. She was so moved by it. We went out that night drinking and she said to us, "Well, do you work like Mike Leigh?" "I don't know, you worked with him. You tell us." She said, "We improvise for a few months and then we have a script." And she said, "Do you improvise on set?" We all laughed and said, "Of course." She said, "You do?" "Why, isn't that what you guys do?" She goes, "No, no, we improv and work out and it goes through different scenarios but then we have the script taken from all that and Mike will never let us deviate from the script on the set." We were all stunned.

We went to Washington with a fifteen page scene outline which is to me really the essence of the story: The structure and then the beats in a scene, key lines, key images, and movement. But we were shooting in a real jail. We were shooting in Southeast. I mean, you're not going to just block out scenes the way you would in a conventional feature. Also, it took me a while to put it together, but, you know after watching Homicide and NYPD and movies where there's cinema verite techniques all being used and watching MTV, it was like, Jesus, this is what I do all the time. I've been doing it for twenty-some years. Why would I imitate the way they do it? Wake up. Do it your way. Make your weakness your strength. And no one else is going to be able to go into a jail in Washington D.C. like you are, bring five people in, so you better maximize that. And everyone else was cast from the jail, from the gangs, from the officers.

GM: What are the logistics of shooting in a real jail and what specific problems did you have to overcome?

ML: The main logistical thing is getting permission. Believe me, this may be a once in a lifetime phenomenon, because two things: first we wanted to shoot in New York at Rikers Island because we live in New York and it would have been easier. Sonja did a poetry workshop out at Rikers - but they wouldn't even let us take a Hi-8 video camera out and just tape that. So, it became clear that there were bureaucratic political problems in New York. I had just been doing a film for HBO called Execution Machine. I spent a year on death row in Huntsville, Texas, so I dealt with the hard core, not only criminals but corrections officers and administrators, so I know how tough these guys can be. So then I got to Washington D.C., because we were shooting a documentary which I'm now going back to finish - we started it and then "Slam" came out of it - called "Thuglife in D.C." And it's really the tragic side of the same story. It's about the jailing of all the young black men in Washington. The main character is a 17-year-old talented kid, but he'll never see the light of day. He'll grow old and die in prison. And so when I went down there, I sat in the first meeting at a table with about 20 prison officials. They were all black. And the head of the Department of Corrections was a black woman and the head of the D.C. jail was a black woman. Strong black women. And they started laughing. Look at this. It's got to be a white Jewish middle-class, middle-aged guy from New York who comes down here and wants to do this ! They knew my work. They had seen "Gang War." They'd seen "Prisoners of the War on Drugs," and what I discovered - I kind of expected it to be a little like Texas, - instead, I found they knew what was happening. They were locking up their own families, their own community and they were being torn apart. It was a job, they were professionals, they were getting paid but it turned into almost a revival meeting of them basically saying, the media sucks, no one has ever told our story and if you're going to tell it, we'll do whatever you want. I was amazed.

To do a documentary is one thing but when you go to a prison official and say I want to shoot a dramatic film with actors, it's a whole other thing. You've got lawyers, insurance, who's getting paid, who's not getting paid. It's a different world. To show you how crazy it is, this is really what happened with the head of the D.C. Department of Corrections. I finally had a meeting with her about this idea. I thought, oh my god she's a hard ass. I just thought it was going to be insurance, and releases and how much money is going to be paid and all sorts of legal hassles and so what happens? She's testifying on Capitol Hill. She comes to our meeting so disgusted with Washington and the Gringrich Congress that she doesn't want to talk about any of the legal issues. She says to me, "go through the scenario." So I talk out the story and she stops me and goes: "Now there's this workshop and there's this volunteer woman and you say she has this poetry workshop and then at the end, the two of them get together? Now, what is this I hear you want them to kiss?"

"Well, I don't know, a little sexual energy. Maybe, maybe not." She says, "Wait a second, you want to make it real, let me tell you something - there could be a volunteer like that who sees a real talent in one of these young men and who steps out and takes a risk and encourages that, but if that guy ever tried to cross that line and kiss her she'd be so angry that he'd abused her trust that she might never talk to him again. So you can't have them kiss. He can have that look but she'll cut it off." And all of a sudden I'm going wait a second, I'm having a story conference with the head of the Department of Corrections and I was worried she was going to go through all the legal problems and she's telling me this is the way the scene should play? And then I realized in a way that she had been there early on in her career, and this had probably happened to her and so she had been speaking about her own experience and I said, the more I think about what you're saying Miss Moore, this is actually better, this is an improvement, because it's more dramatic. You don't know if there's really anything there and you don't know if they'll get together. I like it, I buy it. So she says, "It's going to be a great movie."

So I said, "You mean we're doing it?" "Yes." It was an oral agreement, nothing signed. I made a committment that we would donate a library of books and videotapes to the jail which we're going to do. But that was the way it happened and then she said, "Listen, who knows if I'll be here in a few weeks. You better move fast." Because this was all happening as the U.S. Congress was passing the balanced budget resolution and in that was a section that basically took away home rule from Washington D.C. and was going to close down their whole correction system.

GM: Isn't it ironic that working on this documentary that paints a rather bleak picture of the system, you've made an optimistic fictional film.

ML: That is really the ultimate irony of going into fiction. I had to go into fiction to find hope. I think it's real. But in the documentary I'm doing, "Thuglife in D.C.," it's tragic. This kid will never get out. His father was in, his grandfather was in, he has a kid. So I had to go to fiction to find a way to tell the hopeful side because there is a hopeful side of this story. Somebody asked me at a press conference: "Well is this too idealistic? or romantic?" I said look who's sitting up here with me: Bonz Malone whom I've known for over 12 years. I met him when he was 17 years old. He was a legendary graffiti artist. He'd been thrown out of every high school, he'd been arrested and somebody saw he had talent and put him on this teenage newspaper and so he didn't have to go to jail or didn't have to go to class and he graduated. Now he's a national columnist for Vibe - he's one of the chroniclers of the whole hip-hop scene.

Richard Stratton, my producing partner, who wrote the story with me, he was in a federal penetentiary for eight years. He became an author. Here he is. It can happen. But in a documentary sometimes you focus on the darker side because you want to wake people up to the tragedy of what's happening so for me the irony was, I had to flee to fiction to find a way to look at the hopeful side.

GM: The other night at the Directors' Fortnight screening of "Slam", you said that the French New Wave and in particular May 68 made you want to become a filmmaker. Why?

ML: I was a teenager. I was a kid. I was in the streets of Washington and New York. Sex , drugs and rock n' roll. Civil rights, anti-war, the student revolt. That's what for me where it was at. That's what turned me on. And then seeing these films that were made in the midst of all that, that said to me, wow, that's what I want to do. So, I think there's been a lot of revisionist history of what went down then, and all the people that have sold out, or lost their souls, or the failure of the 60s. I only speak for myself. It was real inside me as a kid, I didn't have to read about it in the paper. That was just who I was, who my friends were, and it's still in me. I have kids who are 15 now; how do I find what is still alive in me, what is still part of what keeps me young and how do I speak to a new generation? There's no doubt that hip-hop and rap is a new generation. It's the language of a new generation. So in many ways the last ten years of my films have been trying to learn and figure out a way to stay real to who I am, and what I feel, and yet speak to this new generation and the language they understand.

GM: Is that why you make films?

ML: It saves me from going crazy. I think that's it. It's my form of sanity. In other words, I think if I hadn't made this film, the frustration, the rage, just all the bullshit, this is the way of getting it out. Also, I love real characters. When I was 10 and 11, my friends were all lunatics. I've always been attracted to maniacs. That's just me. And so here's a way of being yourself, that's what you do. You interview, you talk to, you live with, you work with, so this is a way I could be myself and make a living and hopefully speak to other people. But, when I was shooting this film, "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock," we had this moment where we were caught in the middle of a drive-by. We were with the Crips and the Bloods drove by, and they just started firing and luckily no one was seriously hurt but it was a pretty crazy moment. You think you have a camera and you're safe. No one is going to be that crazy to start firing, and we were coming down from that and this little 8 year old kid came up to me and said, "Are you gonna ever make a real movie?" Hey, man, it doesn't get any more real than this. I don't need much more than this. I asked him, what do you mean? He goes, "This is a tv documentary. That's allright. But I mean a movie in a movie theater with popcorn and movie stars, don't you ever want to make a movie like that?" I said, "Yeah, sure, I want to make a movie like that, but why are you asking?"

And he said to me, "Because you've lived with us all summer and now you've just survived this, I want to know the story you would tell." That is a question that has haunted me. Because it had been repeated many times over. It's easy to go into people's lives and have them confess, and tell you and open up and basically he was saying, you know, what do you think about all this? What would you do? So I think in a way, "Slam" is my answer to that kid and to many other kids. I don't think the hope is forced or faked. You have to have hope. It's part of the human condition. I believe it's not poetry that's going to save the world. It's certainly not slamming that's going to save the world or even film. I think two things: one, I hope this film is part of wider phenomena that after rappers like Tupac went down in the States, there's a new feeling that hip-hop is growing up and has more potential than just being gangsters shooting each other and bragging who's tougher. It's international now: It's not just American, it's French: MC Solaar and IAM, and British. That's very exciting. It's a global youth culture. It's a language of the youth of the world. And it's being taken to new places and thinking about new things. And I hope that this film is part of that. That is something that can change. In other words, it's not just a movie, it's a movie and an album and writing. You read about the French in the 20s, or the French New Wave in the 60s, or different movements when you have just a bunch of people that are all somehow feeling the same thing - most recently, Denmark's Dogma Movement - then something starts to change. It's not one movie, it's a whole group of artists that are somehow reading the same thing in the air.

The other thing I would say just for the United States is, I wouldn't look to the mainstream politics of the President or the Congress or anything like that. The only way the social issues of the drug war and the gang war is going to change, and the weapons, is the kids that have lived it. They've been in jail. They've held their cousins in their arms when they've died. They've been in the gang wars, the crack wars, their younger brothers have seen it. The veterans of that war which is kind of the Vietnam War of this generation - every generation has it's own fight, and only when they get it together - and that is what I'm saying, I think that is just beginning, you're looking at Bonz and Sonja, you're looking at the beginning of that. And it's not just slam - it's happening in many different forms. That is the only way there will be change and I believe that will happen. I don't know when. Five, ten years, but I believe it will happen. Look at American culture. Racism is the wound in the American psyche. And yet where the black and the white have come together is where all the excitement has been. Jazz ! Rhythm n' blues, rock n' roll, rap, that's where it's at.

A Danish journalist asks Marc Levin if he's had any contact with Lars von Trier and his Danish Dogma Movement as illustrated by "The Idiots" and "The Celebration"?

ML: I would love to sit down with them and have them meet our whole team. I think that is where it's going. Where reality - where fact and fiction clash, where reality is staged in a drama - my friends call it "drama-verite," - but that is where the action is. The technology allows you now to move in that direction. It's not so much staging everything - yeah, you'll have Godzilla and all the spectacles. That's great, but people hunger for something authentic and how you do that, given the new technologies that are out there? I think that's very much the future. You've got to find the right people who want to work like that. The inmates in the prison were very cooperative. That poem, " I shot 3 motherfuckers and I don't know why." Sonja ran a workshop and obviously every prisoner wanted to be in her class. But we brought some poems down and said, you can read this or that, and this one guy said, 'Just give me a chance - I write rhymes to my girlfriend - I would just love a chance.' And none of us had heard what he did. We figured, we might as well film it and we were just stunned. That was one take. That was his audition. And we were like, wow !

Back to the 1998 Cannes Film Festival Interviews

Back to the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Interviews

Back to the 1998 Toronto Film Festival Interviews

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.