|Photo by Wild Don Lewis|
The concept for Fronterz came out of thin air. Garth Belcon, a young actor/writer from New York and a regular face around Sunset Junction, was sitting in Café Tropical one day with his friends Courtney Jones and Reno Wilson, commiserating about the enervating, distressing, depressing hunt for movie work — especially for black actors who don’t rap.
“We were just sitting around over coffees, talking about how the rappers were taking all the work,” recalls Jones. “We look up, and right outside there’s a billboard for Half Past Dead, with Ja Rule and Steven Seagal. We’re just like, ‘Man, this is horrible.’ And then Reno says, ‘Has there ever been a movie about actors who turned rapper to get acting work?’ We laughed. We were like, ‘Yeah, ha ha ha . . . Hey!’”
That night Belcon went home and wrote a nine-page treatment. “We were in pre-production the next day,” he says. “No lie. We were actually going, ‘Okay, let’s figure it out. Here’s how we’re going to do this movie. We don’t know where we’re getting the money, we don’t know who’s going to be in it, but we’re doing it, damn it.’ And we just pounded it out, and away we went. Two and a half weeks later, we were shooting.”
Eleven months after that, the film was finished, completed for around 180 grand with the help of various friends and relations, the editing house King Cut, and a hell of a lot of good luck. It’s the kind of project that seems to attract goodwill. As featured actor Ted Danson puts it, Fronterz has that “My dad’s got a barn — let’s put on a show!” vibe.
In the film, scripted by Belcon but partially improvised, three underemployed, classically trained actors reinvent themselves as rappers: Malikai Cameron (Belcon) becomes “Pimp Mississippi Messiah,” Tracey Baker (Wilson) is “Lil Problem,” and Ron Lewis (Dennis Pressey) goes by “Big Spoon.” As the rap group “Large Money Mercenaries,” they cop every stereotype of MTV hip-hop — the jewelry, the booty video, the walk and talk — in pursuit of acting jobs. (The actors write and perform all their own raps — and they’re actually pretty good. “Snoop’s producers, Marc ‘In the Dark’ D’Andrea and Dave Shaw, are our music producers,” notes Jones, “and he says these guys are as good if not better than most of the stuff he hears.”) Along the way, the group contends with painfully uncool music and film executives, played by Danson and Henry Winkler, who fumble to cash in on a fad they don’t particularly understand. (Danson claims he had no idea how to play a record exec, but his coked-out slickster is hilarious.)
In a dig at the whole “urban” genre, some of the scripts offered to the faux rappers have names like Bitta Chocolate, The Adventures of Doo Doo Brown and Soul Patrol. “That’s true to life,” says Belcon. “It can never be just Love and Roses, it’s got to be Money, Love and Chocolate Roses. I swear to God, there was a script that came out a couple months ago called Soul Plane — like Airplane! but with brothers.”
“My friend in New York is a brilliant actor,” adds Pressey, “and he booked a recurring role on a series. There was a holdup at NBC; he got called into rehearsal, and they’re like, ‘We had to give the role to someone else.’ They wouldn’t tell him who. And then he saw in TV Guide that Eve got the role. It’s just epidemic.”
Co-producer Miles Presha jumps in: “How come there’s no rock stars getting in movies?”
“It’s okay if people pop up once in a while,” Pressey continues, “but Busta Rhymes in Finding Forrester, Busta Rhymes in Narc? I mean, I love his music and all, but he’s not a qualified actor. If it were an actor working off Sean Connery, it would have been a different feel. The work is being compromised. It’s an insult. You put 20 years of training into this, and [the rappers] just walk in. If they’re brilliant and don’t need to go to class, fine, but they’re not. They suck.”
In poking fun at hip-hop and Hollywood, Fronterz is a good-natured critique of the ways both rappers and black actors get packaged by the media. And much like This Is Spinal Tap, its satire is loving at heart. “We’re not haters,” insists Pressey. “We love hip-hop.”
The film is also spiritually linked to Hollywood Shuffle, which skewered racial stereotypes in ’80s Hollywood — though the Fronterz filmmakers are not jazzed about the inevitable comparisons. “Hollywood Shuffle [was about] how black actors were being offered shitty roles,” says Presha. “But now, actors are frustrated not only because they get offered shitty roles, but on top of that, all those roles are being taken by rappers — who aren’t even actors in the first place. You have to take more steps back in order to get work.”
Like Hollywood Shuffle — and Swingers, and Spinal Tap, and so many shoestring comedies that get their subcultural nuances just right — Fronterz is the kind of film that could only have been an indie. “You don’t have people from the studio telling you how they think the black thing should be,” says Presha. Without making a fuss about it, the film attempts to counter stereotypes with characters who are educated and middle-class, who have wide musical tastes and literate vocabs. “A lot of people don’t realize that there are brothers out there that just hang back and kick it with their friends and don’t talk about killing other people.”
“We’re trying to go against every Hollywood stereotype for black movies in every way,” Jones adds. “There’s not a single curse word in this movie, even though the guys are rapping. There’s no violence, there’s no nudity, there’s no drug use. None of us are eating fried chicken and watermelon and drinking Kool-Aid.”
If it seems amazing that these stereotypes are still up for discussion, maybe it’s because these guys have grown up facing them in some form or another. Pressey, Jones points out, grew up in the projects, but he was a rocker in the projects.
“Yeah, the Police, David Bowie, Billy Idol — that’s what I liked,” says Pressey. “Kids were like, ‘What’s that?’ I grew up in the projects — raw-dog East New York, but I went to the High School of the Performing Arts and became a classically trained actor. Other friends of mine are in jail for 35 years.”
“And I grew up more like the Cosbys than Good Times,” says Jones. “There is so much diversity within the black community, and we only get to see it from one perspective — what mainstream white Hollywood proper tends to put out.”
A middle-class kid from Diamond Bar, Jones has made a living as a gaffer and key grip for years but always wanted to direct features. He’d met co-star Reno Wilson in the late ’90s on a movie shoot, but the two had lost touch in recent years. Just before Fronterz came together, they reconnected. “I was getting ready to do a commercial in Utah, and one night I just sort of put it out there in the universe that I wanted to hear from Reno. A few days later in Utah, I was sitting on the crapper in my hotel checking my messages, and there was one from him.”
Wilson, like many people involved with Fronterz, grew up in New York and attended the High School of the Performing Arts in the 1980s. (Besides Pressey, executive ‰ producer Richard Leacock also attended, as did Chastity Bono, who has a small part, and Alex Desert, one of the film’s executive producers and a regular on Becker.) The son of an opera singer and jazz musician (his father died onstage), Wilson got his start on Cosby and has worked steadily in film and TV — but never had the chance to really show the range of his talents until Fronterz.
His classmate Belcon was a working child actor but had an epiphany at 15 that changed his course. “At that point I was a pretty boy,” Belcon says, “but I didn’t like how my manager was treating me. I felt like a piece of meat. It came to me that in some sense, to these people, that’s all you really are. Then I started thinking about [Diff’rent Strokes star] Todd Bridges. No one gave a shit about him — meanwhile, a few years ago everyone wanted a piece of him. I was really afraid of being put in these roles and then being dropped like yesterday’s hot commodity.”
Instead, Belcon majored in stage management and production in high school and at CalArts — and ended up touring extensively with schoolmate Danny Hoch’s one-man shows. The two started writing together, and eventually made two films: 1999’s Whiteboyz, about small-town wiggers, and 2001’s Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop (soon to be released on video by Russell Simmons). One thing Belcon learned along the way was that he loved to write — and that writers have no clout in Hollywood. “It sounds crass, but it’s a good thing to have some power. I learned I really needed to get to the point where I call the shots, because if I can do that, then my words will stand.”
That’s partly why Fronterz is special for Belcon: “On this film I’ve done everything I set out to do a while ago: I wrote it, I was a producer, and I kept a promise to myself that I would get back in front of the camera.”
Ultimately, the making of Fronterz was dependent on that camera. The film is one of the first features to be shot on a new breed of digital video camera that records at 24 frames per second, the same speed as film. Jones, the film’s director, sounds like a salesman when he talks about it: “The Panasonic DVX100 will literally change the face of independent filmmaking. People look at this footage and go, ‘That’s 16mm film, right?’ No, not even close. DV, baby.”
“We’re in a new age of filmmaking,” adds Presha. “There were times when I was driving the Suburban and Courtney was in the passenger’s seat editing on a Powerbook.”
It was that sort of seat-of-your-pants feel that attracted Winkler to the project. “It’s the only work I’ve ever done where the catering consisted of a bag of chips,” says the actor. “I was at a birthday party, and I met Courtney, who was there with Alex [Desert]. They said, ‘You know, we’re making a movie, and we have a part for you.’ We never spoke about the film. I didn’t know what I was getting into. They said that I would be the head of urban development. I was also told there would be a bag of Fritos. I just went with that flow. It just seemed like, yeah, I should be here, I should do this.”
Danson, too, got the bug. “The spirit of those guys actually rubbed off on me,” he says. “I did not want to do this film — I was doing it as a favor to Alex. The last thing I wanted to do was wake up early on my day off and shoot this film. But I really ended up enjoying it — it reminded me of why I first got into [acting].”
With the Fronterz screeners out to distribution companies, the filmmakers hope to get picked up for a 2004 release, and then to keep the spirit going. “This project started with a bunch of people who wanted to do it together with no egos,” says Wilson. “Maybe we’ll all trip out and act like idiots once this film comes out — but I doubt it.”
“We keep each other grounded,” adds Jones, “because we know the work we do is important, but the family is more important. We have other people who weren’t able to work on this movie for whatever reason, and we want to bring them in. There’s no reason we can’t.
“One of the many lessons we learned making Fronterz,” he continues, “is that people make moviemaking hard. They make it hard. It’s egos. I mean, movies are hard in that it’s a lot of work. But that’s not hard.”