This article is an amended and updated version of an interview that appeared in the Sunday November 1, 2015 edition of the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.
Fade to Gray
IN 1990 Trinidadian G Anthony Joseph was a “struggling artist” living in the United States, doing side jobs like working at a gas station, driving limos and answering phones while going to acting and producing school. One night he decided to write a movie for Trinidad and, spurred on by his mentor, late veteran actor Horace James, he wrote, produced and starred in the martial arts action film Men of Gray, this country’s first two-hour television movie.
Twenty-five years later Joseph, who has produced seven feature films, has begun work on Men of Gray III: Liberty in the Fires, the third and final installment of the franchise, and is also developing a Men of Gray television series. Sunday Newsday chatted with the actor/producer and president and founder of film production company Tritan-Northstar Entertainment, during an interview.
“I love being back home. I miss people, family and running that Savannah. I miss the weather. I love this humidity.”
Joseph and his family live in Hollywood but he noted that he never let living there influence the basic things he learned growing up in Trinidad such as honesty and integrity “which you could find a lot of in Hollywood but you can find a lot of the other side.”
“You just have to have a really strong sense of who you are to live there. Because it could get to you not just from a business level but from a personal level as a human being.”
He pointed out that Hollywood is the movie capital of the world. “Even today when I get up it’s still a dream to think that I’m here. I still pinch myself all the time.”
Joseph was back in the country to look at actors for Liberty in the Fires. He explained that when he wrote the first Men of Gray, which he did during lulls while working at Chevron gas station from 11pm to 6am, he never envisioned it as a trilogy. He recalled returning to shoot the film and finding James and the Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) station “very supportive.” They were editing on their last day in TTT and decided to leave and days later the Jamaat al Muslimeen stormed the station as part of the attempted coup of July 1990.
After long delays he returned to the US and was surprised to receive a number of faxes of news articles about the movie. They took Men of Gray to a couple of film festivals and they won. He was encouraged to return home for a sequel, which would become Men of Gray II: Flight of the Ibis, though he thought it would take six months and not four years.
“From that point on it just became this thing. That’s all I can really say. It just blew up and still defines me up to this day.” He remembers going to see Flight of the Ibis at Globe cinema for the first time and he knew he “had something” when the camera panned down and showed the capital city for the first time and everybody in the “pit” section remarked “Port-of-Spain boy!” He noted the film did not come out like a “B” movie and, though they had technical challenges, “it still felt like this was a movie, a real movie.”
The Road to Liberty
For the third movie he had not planned to start it for another two years but he had problems with the creative team on another film and thought it was a sign. He decided to speed things up within the company and, after a decade, to finally get it written and released. “I have to make it in such a way where it’s global but still in a way where we don’t lose the Caribbean/Trinidad audience. That’s the hard balance to find on this one.”
He explained that the Caribbean market cannot sustain the movie financially and noted the movie is more global in scale, and is “bigger, better, faster.”
He is at the stage where he is deciding on directors and actors – a mix between big stars in Hollywood and local actors. They have started initial casting and on this trip they are calling back one or two people they saw before and are looking to cast a few more roles. Joseph said he was “absolutely surprised” by the local acting talent.
“I was not expecting what we got the first time…(and) that first day of casting just blew us away. Actors and actresses who came in were great.”
Joseph noted that Trinidad currently does not have any standing sound stages where sets can be built so it is not “totally film ready yet” and 99 percent of the time they have to depend on practical locations. He gave the example of the 2009 action film Contract Killers which was partly filmed in Trinidad, received a slew of awards and was aired on Showtime, Starz, Netflix, The Movie Channel and Amazon. Joseph recalled for the movie they had a scene on Independence Square but were not allowed to shoot in any local banks due to fears of bad publicity of being associated with a “robbery.” They had to move the production to shoot in a bank in Florida which was a high cost and down time.
For Liberty in the Fires they scouted locations and they have found two to three places in Trinidad that can double for scenes out of the country which saves time and money. The movie is also being shot in USA and Mexico.
Joseph reported that, though he wrote both previous films, he will be skipping writing duties on the final installment.
“It’s too painful. I’m not a writer.”
Joseph’s subsequent and recent trips to Trinidad were to visit additional locations and give a workshop for actors and producers hosted by Pauline Mark and The Trinidad & Tobago Performing Arts Network. One hundred per cent of the proceeds went to developing a local actor and one of Joseph’s favorite charities Wishing for Wings run by Debbie Jacob.
“Once again, the actors in the two-day workshop who read scenes from the Men of Gray 3 script were absolutely amazing.”
Opportunities for TT filmmakers
On the Trinidad and Tobago film industry in general he said the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company provides grants and there are opportunities with streaming site YouTube.
“So there’s no excuse any more for not getting your work out there.”
He said, however, that TT filmmakers cannot make everything “just for the diaspora and the Caribbean region and tell ‘we stories’ only.” He noted that the films should be able to reach a global audience and there must be a financial return for the investors or even for a grant.
“In that aspect, out of all the work I’ve seen come out of Trinidad, I’ve maybe seen one or two pieces that I can say ‘you know what, those guys are worth giving more funding to, to produce something for the global market.” Other than that I think a lot of producers and directors locally are missing the mark in what I’m saying.” Those two local productions he singled out were Pan! Our Music Odyssey (2014) written by Kim Johnson, and Pothound (2011) by Christopher Guinness. He said people may think Hollywood is a “closed door” but when you look up the directors and the crew they are from all over the world.
“Hollywood doesn’t care where talent comes from. They just want to see the finished product done well.”
Joseph, a bpTT-ttff Pioneers in Film 2013 award recipient, said sometimes locally we can be myopic and want to do everything internally “no matter what” but nothing is wrong with pulling people from abroad.
“Keep the focus on quality and subjects the world can relate to.”
He added: “To me it’s not about Trinidad, it’s not about Hollywood, it’s not about Canada, it’s about the world.”
His advice to local filmmakers is a film starts with the written word i.e the script or treatment.
“That first ‘idea’ must be boss. That’s when all the decisions are made as to what is going to end up in front of the screen.”
He stressed that they take their time on that initial work, and especially in pre-production, before they start shooting. He noted that the basics of a film also have to be right – including framing, sound, actors, script – and the deliverables for a distributor “have to be spot on or else it’s not going anywhere.”
“You miss any of those elements and…it jars you right away that this is just not flowing well. And that’s what I feel we have not as producers and filmmakers in Trinidad understood those objective laws as yet of what makes a movie feel like a movie.”
He said that Flight of the Ibis “felt like a movie” and “that’s why I think today it’s still remembered.”
He continued: “Not to mention, I always attempt to create an experience around my movies and not just an event or a typical movie release. An experience tends to live with you for the rest of your life whereas regular advertising of a movie’s release tends to be forgotten when the next big movie comes along. My wife, Ric Moxley (the director) and myself worked hard to create that experience for Men of Gray.”
A message from G. Anthony Joseph posted in February this year:
Hello to all the young and old alike up and coming producers, directors and actors in my wonderful home town of TT and across the globe. Every so often I will receive a post about what’s going on with Men of Gray 3-Liberty in the Fires. I can go into a prolonged account of the ups and downs of producing any feature film but instead, I want to provide you all the most important factors that go into the process of creating any movie I have produced and why I never rush the process.
(A) I am constantly guided by this ability I have to know exactly what a film should sound, feel and look like which all starts with the script. If the envisioned feature film is not executed like a symphony on the script page that vision will never ever end up on the screen. Eventually, the actors, the music, the editing, the mood, the set design must all be right and fit together perfectly. Some may not agree with this, but there is only one “RIGHT” way to create a film where all the essential elements come together perfectly, and when one thing is off it throws everything else off completely. Think of a puzzle where one, two or three pieces are missing, the moment you see that puzzle, your eyes immediately go to where those missing pieces should have been. One of the driving forces I bear in mind is to make sure “you know the extent of your own ignorance.” You must objectively know when it’s being executed right and when it’s not or else you will never bring a product into the world that will be remembered, unique, change people’s lives or set a new standard. Do it right or don’t do it at all, or, as my wife says, “You gotta know when you don’t know.”
(B) This film (even though a dramatic action film) delves deeply into a philosophy of life that has driven many aspects of my life. There is only one of you in this wonderful world and if you can somehow inject some of who you are into a project, you are sure to bring a unique perspective or angle to anything you touch and create. (That statement makes me think of my friend <renowned Carnival artist> Peter Minshall). So, it’s important that the director, art director, director of photography that we attach, understand my producer’s vision and can execute these ideas perfectly on the screen.
Once this creative team is assembled, which is where we are now, there is no turning that train around. I am never in a rush to get to this point. I am constantly in a state of “This is not right yet.” This mindset is the only way I don’t die a little bit every day by compromising my vision. In closing, I know MOG 3 will be successful to what I call the “outside world,” but everything I do to challenge myself in order to make a great film, is to make sure it’s a success creatively for myself. Men of Gray 3- Liberty in the Fires is my moment in life when I decide who I really am as an artist.