Forming a close and dedicated sense of community amongst the people you care about the most is often one of the most important and meaningful aspects in a person’s life. While people often strive to continuously prove their worthiness and virtue to those they have connected with, those bonds unfortunately don’t always remain in tact, no matter what circumstances they have gone through together, or how they’re related. The powerful examination into the difficulties of keeping those alliances strong is compellingly chronicled in the new independent drama, ‘Five Star.’ The movie, which was written and directed by Keith Miller, and is currently playing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and will be available on VOD and iTunes on Tuesday, is grippingly inspired by the life of Bloods member, James ‘Primo’ Grant. In his feature film acting debut, Grant, along with fellow first-time performer, John Diaz, enthrallingly showcase the harrowing effects of what happens when unfortunate circumstances regrettably break a relationship apart.
‘Five Star’ follows Primo (Grant), a five-star general in the Bloods street gang, and John (Diaz), a teen in his Ft. Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, who he begins to mentor after the death of his estranged father, Melvin. While John has lived most of his life without having a relationship with his father, who was respected by many people in Primo’s line of work, the teen is still curious about finding out the details about the circumstances behind the supposed stray bullet that ended Melvin’s life. Neither John nor his mother (Wanda Nobles Colon) believe his father’s death was an accident, so the instant street cred the teen has developed in the wake of the accident draws him into the gang lifestyle.
After Primo approaches John about becoming a part of the Bloods, the teen decides that running drugs for the gang’s leader is a more lucrative summer job than bagging groceries at the local supermarket, like his mother suggested. As John begins to prove himself to his new mentor as he reliably takes on some responsibility around their Walt Whitman housing projects in the New York City borough, the teen diligently tries to keep his new job hidden from the girl Jasmin (Jasmin Burgos) he’s dating. But just as John begins proving what an asset he can be to Primo, one of the gang leader’s most trusted workers insists that the teen never showed up with a package he was supposed to deliver,. As a result, John’s new mentor begins doubting his abilities and benefit to the gang.
Miller, Grant and Diaz generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview at New York City’s Dream Hotel Downtown to talk about filming ‘Five Star.’ Among other things, the filmmaker and actors discussed how he wanted to write and direct a movie about what it takes to be a man, and after he met Grant, who was open about discussing about his past experiences, decided his background would serve as an excellent source of inspiration for the drama; how Grant wanted to tell his story in the film, as Miller never judged him, and knew he would be able to powerfully adapt his life for the screen; and how Diaz was inspired to play John in the movie, because not only did he form an instant chemistry with Grant when they first met, but he has also dealt with some of the same issues from the film in his personal life.
ShockYa (SY): Keith, you both wrote the screenplay for, and directed, ‘Five Star.’ Your directing style often mixes narrative and documentary filmmaking, and mixes fact and fiction to create a heightened sense of realism in your projects. Why are you drawn to this type of filmmaking, particularly in telling Primo’s life story?
Keith Miller (KM): Well, I was looking to do a story about what it means to be a man, but I didn’t have a particularly story in mind. I was still in post production on my first movie (‘Welcome to Pine Hill’), which was about to come out. The lead (Shanon Harper) from that movie introduced me to Primo. We then had a conversation on camera, which I edited down. Primo was great on camera, and I had an instinct he would be a great actor, which he turned out to be in this film.
Movies are most exciting to me when characters are at a transition point in their lives. Primo was very open to talking about what happened to him in the past, what he could do in the future and where was at that moment. I thought this was a good question, because to a lot of people, being a man means being tough. Primo has been tough since he was 10-years-ld, and he now had to resolve that question in a different way, because he had children and a wife. So that seemed like a good place to start the story.
SY: Primo, why were you interested in collaborating with Keith to make a film that’s inspired by your life and experiences?
James Primo Grant (JPG): The vast majority of the film is based on things that have taken place in my life. Collaborating with Keith felt right, as he did something many people don’t do, which is listen. He never judged me me, so he’s a good guy. He came to me with the concept, and we sat down plenty of times together, to talk about things that have happened to me. He became like family to me, so when he suggested the film to me, I immediately said yes. The movie’s a work of art, and I’m happy about that.
SY: John, you play the young man who Primo begins guiding to join the Bloods, in part because his father was a respected member of the gang. Why were you interested in appearing in the movie?
John Diaz (JD): I did a short film (‘Mosquito’) with one of Keith’s friends, (writer-director) Jeremy (Engle). He made the introduction between Keith and me. I then met Primo, and they explained the story of ‘Five Star’ to me. The story pulled at me, as I’ve been dealing with some of the issues from the film in my life. There are also people in my neighborhood who have gone through the same situation. So I saw an opportunity to show what life is like in my neighborhood, as well as the type of life Primo has lived.
SY: Once you were both cast, Primo and John, what was the process of collaborating with Keith on your characters and the story before, and while, you were shooting the drama?
JD: That process was led by Keith, as he really had a story to tell.
KM: Drawing the line between what’s biographical in, and what we created for, the story was important, as a lot of the details were closely based on real life. But we worked on expanding the architecture of the whole movie, John’s character and certain other details. We were looking to create a character like John, because that’s the story that I made. The changes came in the details and specifics in how events occur. But things like the opening monologue came directly from Primo’s life. My goal was to set up a situation that has a strong enough structure that also allowed reality to set in. That way, the project can feel like real life.
SY: Once you began filming the movie, how closely did you stick to the script? Since the story is based on Primo’s life, did you all feel it was beneficial to improvise as you were shooting the drama?
KM: There’s a lot of the finished movie that’s very scripted. But I like feeling as though I’m really there. There’s a scene on the basketball court, for example, during which they play the game and then talk. A lot of that was scripted, but a lot of it was language that I wouldn’t have written on my own, and the actors added it in while we were filming. If I wrote those words, it would seem that as a white guy, this is how I think people of other races talk. So I told them, “These are the things I want you to say,” and they came up with the rest of the dialogue.
I sent certain portions of the text from that scene to people, and they asked, “Is that hip-hop, or is it from the movie?” That’s what I wanted achieve. So I would give them specific lines, and we’d film the scene once that way, and then we’d go off. I tended to use what sounded the most realistic, and in that scene, I think you feel it.
PG: I agree with that 100 percent.
SY: Were you able to have any rehearsal time together before you began filming, in order to build the characters’ relationships, and the drama’s overall story?
KM: I put Primo and John in a hotel room for the weekend with a bottle of champagne, but I don’t know what happened. (laughs) They really developed their chemistry.
JD: When I first met Primo, especially since we were in a situation where they already established how we were going to show his life, I wanted to do right by him. So I tried to talk to him as much as possible. A lot of people try to keep their distance from others, but my objective was to be as close to Primo as possible. I knew the closer I became to him, the better the movie would be in the end. If I was shy and only went to Keith when i needed something, the movie probably wouldn’t have turned out as well.
Keith set that boundary up early in the process by introducing us, and making sure we were together. He also made sure we were talking and understanding each other, and that we had the same ideas on the story’s background. I feel like that really helped us connect. I look Primo like an older brother now, instead of just as as a castmate.
JPG: That’s very true. We had various conversations where we’d talk and listen to our experiences. John took what Keith and I tried to set up to heart, and I appreciate that from him. This started off as a film, but these gentlemen became family to me. I’ll do anything for them.
KM: The scenes that were very scripted were well-played by them. I don’t give anyone the entire script in advance. When they arrived on set, I’d tell them, “This is what we’re doing today.” I’d give them the next section of the script, and we’d run through the scene as many times as we needed to until they were off-book, which means they memorized it. But I’d also let them go. I think their chemistry on screen is real.
Primo and I were at the auditions, as were the producers. We auditioned a lot of people, and as soon as John met Primo, his audition started. At first, John asked Primo, “How are you?” But five minutes after they met, John was already making fun of Primo.
JPG: A lot of people tell me that I can be standoffish at times. But when John came in that day, I thought, what is this skinny kid doing here? I tried not to punk him, but instead see how far he could go. But he stayed firm, and the chemistry started from there. Like Keith said, the audition started when we first met. If you can’t take me being somewhat of that strong personality, or just my energy at the moment, then we won’t build that chemistry. But these guys are phenomenal.
SY: How did having that instant chemistry together help build your characters’ relationships?
JPG: It definitely helped. Like John said, he views me as a big brother, and I view him as a little brother. In the film, I am a mentor to him in some ways. So the chemistry we built when we met really helped a lot. In the film, I want nothing but the best opportunities for him and his family, which is also true in real life.
SY: What was the process of showing the conflict Primo felt in the film as he was trying to leave the gang, in order to provide a better life for his family?
JPG: Keith definitely wanted to explore that aspect of the story, and I agreed with him. That way, you’re really able to see behind the stereotype of the lifestyle. It’s not a gang-it’s a brotherhood. Behind closed doors, these are real people. We have real lives and families who we love. You’ll be able to see that my character’s not just a tough street guy.
KM: What I wanted to do structurally was to introduce Primo, and then John. They have the basketball game, which is playful. John’s getting upset because he’s getting pushed around, and I wanted that feeling to be in the film. But then at the end of the game, Primo tells him, “Good job, you beat me.” There’s a rivalry there, but they’re still on the same team. That’s what I was hoping to show throughout the entire movie.
SY: In the film, does John look at Primo as a father figure because his own father isn’t in his life?
JD: The way I viewed it is the same way we view it everyday in society. The fact that he doesn’t have a father doesn’t get brought up, especially if he’s alive, but he’s just not in the picture. A lot of people in my neighborhood don’t have fathers, because they left. No one’s really booking for a father figure, and they put that barrier up.
JPG: You grow tough skin if you grow up in that kind of environment. I’m blessed to still have both my mother and father, even though their relationship isn’t as tight as it should be. But I can imagine that if he walked out, I would it’s his loss. If someone brought it up, I wouldn’t even want to hear it. I’d feel a little bit of anger inside me.
JD: I feel like that’s where it stems from. I wouldn’t say that my character is looking for a father figure; he was just looking for a way to make money and support his family. All of these neighborhoods are driven by money. The person who’s looked at the most highly has the most money. I feel like people get confused over that, and don’t really look at talent anymore. But I’ve never looked at anything like that.
In real life, I don’t have a father, as he left when I was two-years-old. My mom raised my sister and me. So sometimes I wonder what if I did have a father? I feel like I wouldn’t be the person I am if I did have a father. So it’s a situation where you are grateful for it, but there are times when it does settle in.
SY: With ‘Five Star’ being set in New York City, what was the process of shooting on location throughout the city? How did you find the locations that you wanted to include in the movie?
KM: It was a pretty collaborative process. Primo knows everybody in Ft. Greene, which was pretty helpful. He was really bouncing at the bar.
When we were going through the projects, we’d walk slowly through with the camera and boom. People would ask if they could be in the movie, and we’d say, “Come on through.” We’d try not to say, “Clear the streets, we’re here.” If people wanted to be in the film, they would be.
Primo’s connections were really good, because he knew everybody. We tried very hard to be respectful of the fact that we were outsiders. I didn’t try to pretend like I was one of the guys. We’re friends, but come very different places, and I tried to acknowledge that in every shot, and so did the crew. Most of the time, it did work out that we were collaborative and respectful.
SY: What was the process of shooting ‘Five Star’ independently, as both actors and as the writer-director? Did that aspect influence the creativity on the set at all, or how you could approach making the film?
KM: I think that process did help, because if there were big investors, John wouldn’t be in the movie. They’d say, “We love this movie, and we can get this star to play Primo, and this star to play John. Then we’d have a great movie, and people would go see it.”
They’d want big-level stars, because these days, the film industry’s not like how it was 10 years ago. There were indie art houses that would play these independent movies that people would go see in 20 cities, just because they’re interesting. Now that’s happening less and less. I was being told consistently that this would be a good movie, but they wouldn’t know how to sell it. There isn’t a big hook, because it doesn’t have a big actor like Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m part of a filmmaking collective in Brooklyn that permits a collaborative way of making movies, which was helpful in getting this film made.
SY: ‘Five Star’ had its world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and has received a theatrical and VOD release. What did it mean to you all to premiere the drama here in New York, where the movie’s set? Do you feel the On Demand platform is beneficial to independent films like this one?
KM: Yes, the VOD release definitely is helpful for independent films. We’re also really lucky that people have responded really positively since it premiered at Tribeca. The distributor has also been really enthusiastic.
But it is possible that a perfectly good movie won’t be seen, because there are 120 movies coming out on Netflix or iTunes on any given weekend. So the fact that we received even the tiny theatrical release is great. We want to make the release as big as we can.
But it’s more important to me that we made a movie where even though people can say negative things like, “You didn’t make any money,” it’s still something that I believe in. It’s also my hope that not just these two guys, but also the entire crew, can say, “I believe in this movie.” I think that’s pretty much the case, which is lucky for us.
Written by: Karen Benardello