July 26th, 2010 by Glendyn
I’m very proud of this short documentary I made earlier this year. This film is one of three Exit Films and Publicis Mojo produced for an energy drink called ‘Burn’, and it will be streamed on websites throughout Europe. Playground is a portrait of 21 year old rapper, poet and ‘beater’ named Julius Wright a.k.a Lyrical God who lives in Philadelphia. Enjoy…
The brief for Playground was simple. Perhaps a little to simple, make a film about ‘…an unconventional urban musician, somewhere in the world…” kind of narrows it down a little huh? After a couple of frantic weeks research here in Melbourne, London and New York we eventually stumbled upon this clip on YouTube of a guy called Lyrical God.
I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was something that just grabbed me about Julius. I had a feeling in my gut there was something more going on than just ‘tapping pens’ on a table. I found Julius on Facebook, took a punt and sent him a message. I can only imagine what he must of thought when he recieved it. “Hi I’m from Australia and I’d like to make a film about you… next weekend!”. So within a day or two I was chatting to Julius on the phone and he seemed like a really cool guy with a great approach to his music and his life in general.
We got go ahead from Mojo (the agency we were working with in Sydney) on a Wednesday, my assistant Ryley and I were on a flight to Philadelphia on Thursday and we were shooting with Julius on Friday.
I had been waiting for an opportunity like this for nearly ten years. The idea of taking the bare essentials and being jettisoned into the unknown to make a film for me the ultimate way to create, where you rely not on a script, but more on instinct and intuition. Responding to what you see and hear, hour by hour, day by day. That’s pretty much how I shot Playground over the five days we were in Philly.
Ryely and I found ourselves in an all black neighbourhood in South Philly, totally out of place for a couple of pastey Australians, but we were welcomed by Julius and his friends immediately and were made to feel most welcome. I was totally drawn in by the city and the people we met and I hope that comes through in the film a little.
Above: The last image I took of Julius just after we finished recording in the studio at 3am.
I guess the coolest thing about the experience was meeting and getting to know Julius and really liking him. The risk for me with a project like this was turning up in Philadelphia and Julius being keen on having a film made about him, but showing no interest in actually getting it made. I mean, all I had seen was some YouTube clips and a phone call. He could have easily lost interest in the idea of making a film when it became apparent that he was going to have get up early, do different things, hang out with us etc. I’ve seen the novelty of filmmaking wear off on people before, once the novelty wears off, it’s just hard work. However, I think Julius really got into it, he loves performing more than anything else, but over all I think he loved sharing the experience in making a film with us. He really wanted to make it work. And was very generous with his time.
One thing became very apparent while we were there though. It’s really hard for a black kid like Julius to make the leap from living with his Grandma in a row house in South Philly to being a successful musician. Everyone around Julius knows he has talent, and this is in an environment where everyone can rap and freestyle (all the guys you see rapping with Julius in the film live on his block) in fact everybody you see in the film is incredibly talented. Everyone expects Julius to ‘make it’. But by the end of our short week with him, I was all to aware of the great divide between who and where he was and what he dreamed he could be and how freaking hard it is going to be for him to make that leap. Simply by the fact that he is a young, black and poor. He has to busk to eat. And while everyone around him is saying how amazing he is and how he is going to be rich and famous one day, most days there is nothing in the fridge to eat, and he’s out hustling for change. The pressure to make it and fulfill his and his friends and families dreams must be huge.
I wish Julius all the best. I know he has a really great support network and his managers Aaron and Nathan, who look out for him in so many ways other than just financially are two of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I hope this film is one stepping stone closer for him to his dream.
(On the geeky side, this short project was my first real attempt at shooting on the 5DmkII which I have been discussing here for a while now. Again, I was so impressed with the quality and the usability of the camera in the real world. I used no focus rig or extra bits and pieces. Pretty much the camera and a monopod was all I used. We had a sound recordist with us most days which made a huge difference, but some of what made the cut is the 5D with a microphone mounted on top. Simple, discreet and beautiful ‘film like’ quality.)