In a world where seemingly every aspiring director puts together a persona, a pitch, a press kit and a polished spiel before they’ve shot their first minute of footage, it’s downright refreshing to encounter Carl D. Brown and Erin Beach. The unassuming young director and producer, aided by associate producer Paul Morrill, spent five no-budget, trial-and-error years laboring on their feature-length debut, “2nd Verse — The Rebirth of Poetry.” The optimistic yet unsentimental doc spotlights four teenagers from the San Francisco-based Youth Speaks project who’ve discovered that writing and performing is a powerhouse way to express their identities. “2nd Verse,” which premiered this past weekend at SF Indiefest, reaches an exuberant climax at the annual Teen Poetry Slam competition, leaving audiences stirred and inspired. Needless to say, it’s the archetypal Indiefest selection, a DIY project produced on a shoestring and a half. Brown, who hails from Idaho and lives in West Oakland, and Beach, a Virginia native ensconced in San Francisco, screen their film this week at the Big Sky Documentary Festival in Missoula, Montana. I caught up with them before they had a chance to polish their spiel.
SF360: ‘2nd Verse’ works on everyone, but it speaks most powerfully to teenagers. Did you have that target audience in mind all along?
Carl D. Brown: I have a background as an educator. I first did experiential education in the woods with at-risk youth. When I got into video and filmmaking, I started doing video production workshops at middle schools through the Film Arts Foundation and Just Think. I don’t know if I thought about an audience, but I definitely feel like I wanted it to be a film that was fast and hip enough that young people could stand watching it.
Erin Beach: It’s about teenagers and showing that they are doing positive things other than what you see all the time on the news — that there’s good stuff going on.
SF360: Was that the impetus for making the film in the first place?
Brown: Erin and I were roommates, and she was working at CBS Marketwatch as a producer and I was an out-of-work caterer who wanted to get into film. I had a video camera that I’d bought, a three-chip camera, and I was looking for a first project. I went to a Youth Speaks performance, and I was just overwhelmed with emotion and joy and all these things, and I saw the power. Since the beginning of my short run as a filmmaker, I want to create stuff that educates, inspires and transforms people, and I was so transformed and inspired by these young people that I contacted — independently of Paul and Erin — Youth Speaks to try and get a project started. Meanwhile, they’d gotten one started.
Beach: ‘Cause we worked at CBS and had more of a background, I think Youth Speaks said, ‘OK, you’re a little more legit.’ (Laughs.)
Brown: They knew what they were doing. I didn’t know what I was doing. Erin had worked on a social-issue documentary around a similar culture — hip-hop dance. So we all had the same interest. I know Paul wanted to highlight Youth Speaks and what happened was that basically everybody [else], for some reason, stopped working on the project. It was Erin and I, and since I was trying to get my film career going I was able to spend the most [time] working on shooting, working on editing, I spent basically a year in my apartment editing. Erin would come over whenever she could work it into her busy schedule and help.
SF360: Since that first Youth Speaks show made such an impression on you, did you initially plan to make performance the heart of the film?
Brown: First we found the characters. Erin would have some ideas about folks that she really liked and she would start building a story around them. And then we realized we didn’t have enough. Or they were no longer available. But if we had a strong character we would have the footage, because we shot for like three years.
Beach: Which was kinda good because then we could go back three years before. ‘Oh my gosh, we have that.’ (laughs)
SF360: So, like a lot of documentaries, the events in ‘2nd Verse’ are presented in a different order than you shot them.
Brown: The story isn’t in order at all. The stuff that starts the film, with Yosimar [Reyes, a Mexican teenage poet who lives in San Jose], is the stuff that was shot last. We needed a beginning and an ending and we struggled with that a lot.
Beach: Yeah, we did it totally the wrong way.
Brown: Which was basically slogging through tapes, transcribing, Erin throwing something together, me throwing something together, we try to bring it together, realize it doesn’t go anywhere, do it again.
Beach: When we started out, we just shot like crazy. Shot like crazy and then had to build the story. Which is not the way to approach it. So we learned a lot.
SF360: What’s your background? Carl’s mother was telling me she just returned from volunteering in Kenya, so I gather you were raised with a heightened social awareness.
Brown: Yeah, maybe. My family’s fairly diverse. My mom’s lesbian and my sister’s black and I grew up in Boise, Idaho. I think 20 years ago it was a lot more liberal than it is now, but it has pretty conservative underpinnings. My mom’s also a social worker. I learned that we always leave a place better than when we found it. My mom’s also a Quaker. So that definitely instills some ideals at a young age.
Beach: I wanted to be a photojournalist. In your idealistic college days you want to save the world. So I always wanted to get people’s stories out there, for sure. Taking people places, as journalists do, so they can see things that they can’t see otherwise.
SF360: One way you do that in ‘2nd verse’ is by not employing a narrator, i.e., an intermediary. It makes perfect sense, but a lot of filmmakers are forced to use narration as a patch.
Brown: I really didn’t want a narrator and I didn’t even want to use any text cards. We ended up using four or five text cards, which we felt were necessary.
Beach: It’s about these teenagers finding their voice, right? That’s the whole Youth Speaks thing, and so it’s important that we let them speak for themselves, and not have narration.
Brown: And they’re such powerful orators, what could I add? As long as we could put it together in the right way — which we fumbled a lot at, and I still think it could be better — if we could weave their poetry with their interviews and the visuals in the right way, then it should tell the story without us. That was the attempt.
SF360: Given your constraints, how did you compile such a stellar soundtrack?
Brown: Music, when used properly, can be one of the most powerful forces in motivating a film and capturing somebody’s interest and pulling them in emotionally. We don’t have any money, we didn’t have any money, we couldn’t buy any music, so I started asking musicians I knew. Paul Sheffert, who runs San Francisco Event Music, organizes trios and plays jazz. He had all this original music he’d never done anything with. He gave me six tracks; we ended up using three. A producer in New York, Jason Snell, he does dark Detroit house music. I said, ‘Well, I need something emotional and uplifting and energetic,’ and he made music he had never made before. Damond Moodie, who does the closing track and one of the main tracks, he’s like, ‘Here, you can have these two songs off of my album.’
SF360: Where do you go from here with ‘2nd Verse?’
Brown: From the start there’s been no funding except what Erin, myself and Paul Morrill put in. We don’t have a publicist. When I have enough money, I submit to as many film festivals as I can afford. We have had a couple distributors knock on our door, but everybody’s a distributor nowadays, so we don’t know what will come of that. But right now we don’t have a plan. I would love to create a curriculum packet around the film. I think it has some potential in the education market. But without an infusion of some money, some capital, that’s going to be pretty hard for me to put together myself. We also have a small video production company [Corduroy Media], but we’re just freelance folks, so if we work on creating a large thing that we think can work, we have to pay ourselves while we’re doing it.
SF360: It sounds as if you managed to learn a whole lot about making movies without enduring that much discouragement and despair.
Brown: It was a grassroots project; it still is. I don’t know how other people do it but it was basically, ‘We just want to do this.’ It faltered several times but we were just determined at least to get it done. And if nothing else happens, at least we finished the film. I plan to continue to make films and we hope to not have to do it again with completely no money.
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