First time writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green has been to 20 or so cities to present his movie Gun Hill Road at film festivals around the world. He was leaving for Germany last week and couldn’t remember if he was scheduled to be back in Philly for Qfest when I got to speak to him.
The film is a tight family drama about a Bronx family dealing with two crises– a father adjusting to freedom after a three-year prison stay and the courage of his teenage son transitioning to female. Strong performances by Judy Reyes, as Angela, the mother trying to hold the family together, Esai Morales as the ex-con and a breakout performance by Harmony Santana, as Michael/Vanessa.
“Audiences have been connecting to it. They feel like it’s a realistic depiction of subject matter of the Bronx and a realistic depiction of a transgender teen.” Rashaad said. “It’s a very realistic depiction of a transgender teen. It’s also rare that a transgender character is portrays by a transgender person, at least in a leading role. So it‘s a more authentic perspective.” Green started out as an actor and he writes tightly structured scenes in the movie, from that perspective.
“I wanted to avoid the indie-film feel.“ He said. “I try to write scenes that actors will like in ways that they can dig in. Green also wanted to use a visual style that depicts the Bronx realistically.
As for the electrifying central performance by Harmony Santana. “Actually, I didn’t have very many choices. I wasn’t able to find anybody through a casting director. I hit the streets of New York and it took about two months. I went to over-18 clubs, I went to LGBT organizations, dance workshops, Christopher Street on the pier…to find her. And I found her at Queer Pride parade, and found out she had never acted in a film before. Harmony was the right age, type, everything. She wasn’t even going by Harmony at the time. I went up to a young Latino male asking if he knew anyone who fit the description of the character and she said that she wanted to audition. Then she took off her sunglasses and I saw this beautiful, angelic face and it took me aback. And then she told me she was at the beginning of her transition, that she was Puerto Rican and Dominican.
“I told he to come back, as part of the audition, dressed as a girl. She did and she was so beautiful. One thing that added to it was that Harmony was simultaneously going through a phase of her transition. By the time production ended, only three weeks later, she was dressing as a girl all the time…I think it helped her go through it. Pretty great stuff.” He said.