Home OtherInterview Interview: Director Jason Zeldes on Romeo Is Bleeding

Interview: Director Jason Zeldes on Romeo Is Bleeding

written by rick December 29, 2015
Interview: Director Jason Zeldes on Romeo Is Bleeding

Jason Zeldes’ directorial debut Romeo Is Bleeding is one of the year’s best and most powerful films.

The film deftly tells multiple stories. The story of poet Donté Clark,  the story of kids countering violence with art, the story of Richmond, California. We’re introduced to a program known as RAW Talent, and we follow Donté and others as they launch Te’s Harmony, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, to address issues in their lives and community.

The documentary is in many ways designed to teach Te’s Harmony alongside Shakespeare’s perennial favorite in classrooms, with other uses in social studies, history, theater, and media classes. It’s also slated for eventual broadcast and streaming.

JasonZeldes_Director-240x300 As an editor, Zeldes has turned in memorable work on films like 2014’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, but he’s taken a more immersive approach for his first feature-length directing credit.

Zeldes — who emphasized his appreciation to Michael Klein, Rajiv-Smith Mahabir, Katey Zouck, and Kevin Klauber for taking this journey with him — was kind enough to chat for a while about the film, about the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of storytelling, about the prospects for aspiring filmmakers these days, and, briefly, about hula dancing grandfathers.

Rick Kelley: There are a lot of compelling aspects about Romeo Is Bleeding – the performance footage, Donté’s sheer talent, the intricacies and drama of these kids’ lives, the past and present conditions in Richmond, and on and on. You pack a lot of stuff in there. Did you have a sense of all that going into the project, or how did you tease out the narrative strands?

Jason Zeldes: Well, it all kind of started with Donté. My cousin [Molly Raynor], who’d been teaching poetry for years, was telling me about how incredible he was, and so she told me he was doing this play that was autobiographical. It sounded like a good start, or at least a good short, you know? I went up [to Richmond] originally thinking, ‘Ok, it’s about an artist doing an autobiographical piece.’ But once I actually arrived, I got to see that he really was an amazing artist, and this autobiographical story and his artwork draw on this much bigger narrative, which is about post-industrial America, and the systematic injustices that exist in a lot of minority communities.

That, I think, was the big revelation when I was actually in Richmond: that Donté’s story was representative of an entire community. And that by telling it, or by following him telling his own story, I would have the opportunity to tell a very big story from a personal, intimate perspective, which is something I’m always looking for. I’m also really interested in making films about artists who are facing bigger forces or impossible circumstances. Donté certainly checked off all those boxes. Once I figured out it was kind of all part of the same narrative, I just had to figure out how to prove it [laughs] with my footage and, you know, we’re in pretty good shape.

RK: Was there a particular moment, once you started shooting, when you thought, ‘Oh, ok. There is actually something really important going on out here’? Or is that something that built up over time?

JZ: No, there is a very visceral reminder of that right off the bat. My very first day filming in a RAW Talent classroom was the day the Chevron refinery caught fire.


RK: Wow.

JZ: So that was, you know, like I said, visceral. I mean, we’re filming a writing workshop with high school students and all of a sudden there’s air raid sirens and a mushroom cloud on the edge of town. And it’s just obvious that there are bigger stories in the community, and the play they were producing was wrestling with all these issues. Chevron was already written into the script. So [it was] a perfect jumping-off point to talk about everything happening in the community.

RK: Was there a temptation to lead the film with the Chevron explosion, since that actually was the first experience that you had up there shooting it? The way it plays out, it comes somewhat organically in the telling, but I could see there being an impulse to focus on that.

JZ: That’s actually a pretty good idea, because we have to cut it down to 52 minutes for broadcast. [Laughter] Maybe I’ll think about that.

But, yeah, that was actually really tricky footage to figure out how to use. A lot of advisors were telling me to cut that scene out of the movie. For a long time, it was really tangential. But I worked with our editors for a long time making sure that it wasn’t tangential. And it ended up being this launching-off point to this big, crucial ‘historical context’ scene.

RK: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. I think it does a good job of bringing things back towards the larger structures.

JZ: Thank you. That one was a scene that we spent an enormous amount of time on before we got it right.


RK: In previous interviews, you’ve also spoken about having to build trust with the kids to get them to open up a bit more, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that. And how did those personal relationships you developed affect the final film?

JZ: We did spend a lot of time without the cameras rolling to just become friends with everybody and develop the comfort level. So when the cameras were rolling, they didn’t think of us so much as the ‘camera crew’ as ‘oh, Jason and Mike and Jeeves are back.’

And I think all of that starts with the fact that my cousin Molly has done such a great job building this program, and is so close to all her students, that the mere fact that she could vouch for me – and say, ‘Jason’s cool’ – was a really good starting point in the classroom. And once we’re in the classroom, I started to make friends with a lot of students individually. And they became more comfortable with us – so, you know, ‘Can we come with you to your home? Can we shoot at your home?’ And some said yes.

So next thing you know, we’re out in the community, we’re visiting homes and meeting community members. And we tell them what we’re doing, and now the community members want to talk with us. It all starts with having that relationship with my cousin, but then, you’re in the heart of North Richmond talking to three generations, and everyone’s getting excited, saying, “Oh! You got to talk to this guy next.” And so we’re talking to just about everybody.

RK: Do you feel like people were particularly excited to have the opportunity to tell their stories? I’m thinking of the older folks in particular – maybe people don’t ask those questions so much.

JZ: Oh, for sure! I mean, when we went and did kind of man-on-the-street interviews in North Richmond, people were really excited to tell their stories. It’s not every day that someone is out at Shields-Reid Park asking, “Hey, what’s it like growing up here?” So every day that we did that – we did maybe three man-on-the-street days in North Richmond – we would draw a crowd. And it was great, because we had Donté with us, who, again, would vouch for us. We always made sure, wherever we were going, we were welcomed there. We had a member of the community with us saying, ‘This is what’s happening and this is why it’s important.’ And Donté’s such a leader in the community anyway that having him along with us kind of opened up a lot of doors.


RK: Totally. So Donté’s obviously such a central figure in the film, but he’s not the only one by a large margin. The scope widens as the film goes on, and these other stories get told. I’m curious how much of that was part of the plan and how much of it made itself clear on the ground, or in the edit bay?

JZ: Donté was always going to be the main guy in the film. But we did film with a lot of other students; we actually filmed with far more students than actually ended up in the movie. What ended up happening is we filmed with everybody, but then ended up focusing on Donté. And then, in the process of editing, the more that we focused on Donté, the better and more focused the film became. So lots of characters, all the other RAW Talent interns, kind of fell to the cutting room floor.

But the relationships that helped to focus Donté’s story the most were the ones that ended up sticking, [like] Deandre Evans. And then D’Neise [Robinson], because she was playing the role of Juliet, and because she had such a strong narrative in her own right and went on such a journey as a character … she was great. And she was funny, because, you know, in the film you see, at this time in her life, she was pretty guarded. And the same applies to the film crew. I mean, she invited us to her house and everything, but she really only filmed with us a couple of days.


RK: Oh wow, really?

JZ: Yeah. So we had these opposite problems to solve as filmmakers or in the edit bay: We have mountains of footage with Donté and we have to figure out the best parts to use, and with D’Neise we have such a finite amount of footage, we got to stretch it and make it as effective as possible. And we used almost every bit of footage we have with D’Neise.

RK: That’s interesting. I was going to say that I was struck by the focus on young women’s experiences. People have mentioned this to me as well, largely female viewers: D’Neise and the other girls talking about the different pressures and expectations they deal with as women. In a film that’s largely about male violence, that stands out.

JZ: It was always our goal to have a comprehensive view of what it’s like growing up in Richmond. And that’s why we talked to every generation. That’s why we talked to police, that’s why we talked to city officials. And a big part of that is what it’s like growing up as a woman in Richmond. And all the voices that were a part of that. We did sit-down interviews with all the students at RAW Talent, and we followed several of them home to film their personal lives. So it was sad to see them fall to the cutting room floor, because it’s a film and not a TV show. But that [sequence] was a really nice way to let their voices, their experiences shine.

And it would be disingenuous to just show the male perspective, because there are a lot of young women who are there, and struggling, and their voices matter. D’Neise ends up being representative for a lot of them. But there’s some amazing women artists coming out of Richmond right now. Like Nya, who does the Chevron poem in the film. She’s like a super Slam champion now. She’s the coolest.

RK: Can we talk about documentary filmmaking in general for a minute? You’ve been involved, in different capacities, with a string of documentaries now over the last 7 years, I think?

JZ: Yep, sounds about right.

RK: – directing Romeo, but also editing 20 Feet From Stardom and others. What’s your take on the genre and its different possibilities right now? For instance, Romeo is far more immersive than 20 Feet, but there are certain similarities in the shooting and editing, like in the performance sequences, I’d say.

JZ: Alright!

RK: Yeah, I mean – the ‘Gimme Shelter’ sequence in 20 Feet From Stardom is amazing, and I sort of see links between that and certain things in Romeo, but I also see certain differences. So I’m wondering about your take on documentaries at this moment in time.

20 feet

JZ: Well, good read on that one. Because I think a lot of the DNA of 20 Feet is alive in how we treat performance footage. I think in 20 Feet we let the performances speak for themselves and structure entire scenes. And then in Romeo, we would pick a poem and let that structure an entire sequence, and kind of pepper in some recorded sounds, so yeah, we did treat the performances almost the same. And actually, the Romeo post-production crew was almost identical to the 20 Feet post-production crew …

RK: What do you know!

JZ: I mean, yeah. Documentaries as a genre right now are pretty fun, especially if you are kind of new to the scene, like I am. In that, there’s a lot of experimentation going on in the form that is being accepted by the community at large. So basically, that means there are very few rules right now, and experimentation is encouraged and often celebrated. You can push the form.

I’d like to think that Romeo is pushing the form, in that it’s vérité meets archival meets theater, dance, and poetry. It’s a mixture of a million different art forms pushed down into a documentary. Which I think is cool, and try to bring to a lot of other projects. Like, I’m in Honolulu right now working on a hula dancing prison documentary, starring a bunch of men who want to be grandfathers. That’s pretty juicy.

RK: A hula dancing prison documentary, about people figuring out how to be grandfathers?

JZ: Yeah.

RK: Ok.

JZ: [Laughing] Yeah. It’s a lot of different stuff happening all at once. And it takes a lot of experimentation to be able to integrate all these different elements. I think documentaries in general are exciting because there are very few rules that govern the space, and you’re allowed to be creative. And I always feel like I’m giving back a little bit to the communities that are being documented on these projects.

And yeah, it’s fun. There’s always … ‘stranger than fiction’ is the lamest trope to fall back on. But life is really weird, man.

RK: That actually leads me to another thing, which is the responsibility or ethics of documentary filmmaking. To me, one of Romeo’s central themes is the kids finding their voices, right? And expressing themselves in the midst of all this madness. And you do a great job of showing this on screen. But as a documentarian, and as an editor, you’re shaping their story for presentation, for audiences to encounter and process. Do you feel like that confers a kind of responsibility on you to that community? Does it impact the kinds of narrative or aesthetic choices you make?

JZ: I think it’s a huge responsibility when someone trusts you to tell their story. I felt a big responsibility to be true to Donté’s spirit, and to the spirit of Richmond and the community. But as far as filmmaking, you do run into moments when you might, you know, change the chronology of something, or you might change a specific reaction to something…

RK: Sure, or even just practically, your first day of shooting doesn’t show up until the middle of the film. That’s just a fact.

JZ: Yeah, exactly. But I think that there comes this larger question which I love to geek out about with other filmmakers: where is that ethical line? You’re not a journalist, you’re a filmmaker. And I think that’s pretty upfront – these things are consumed in a movie theater, not a news broadcast. So where does that line come, as far as filmmaking versus being disingenuous or unethical?

I think what guides a lot of my decisions on that front is: you can change the chronology of something, or you can change little, tiny details about something, if it still serves the larger truth of the people you are documenting, the community that you’re documenting. And if it supports the larger truth, or makes the larger truth ring far more true, than you’re in great shape, because you’re telling the story in a heightened reality, as opposed to changing the reality. As soon as you start to change the reality, or change the larger truth of the situation, you’ve crossed the line and you need to reexamine what you’re doing.

RK: Could you see yourself making an Errol Morris film, or something like Joshua Oppenheimer with The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence?

JZ: Oh man, I’d hope so. I love The Act of Killing. I thought that was a great film. But also, that takes a very particular topic to warrant that sort of treatment. Like, imagine if I were to go to Richmond and trick Donté into participating or something! [Laughter] It has to fit the topic. But yeah, that’s another example of pushing the form. I don’t think anything has pushed the form more than The Act of Killing did, and that’s why I love that film so much.

RK: And then on the other hand, there are folks working like Frederick Wiseman, with a sort of fly-on-the-wall, ‘this is what’s happening on the ground in real time’ kind of vibe.

JZ: Yeah. Another filmmaker I love and respect. I haven’t tried to make a Frederick Wiseman film yet. [Laughter] I think that takes a very particular eye. That’d be something I’d have to develop over time. I’m not there yet!

RK: Speaking of your eye, you’re an editor by trade, so I’m sure that guided you in a number of ways.

JZ: I think that being an editor is the best training ground for directing, because if I walk into a room to cover a vérité scene for example, I can take a look around and say, ‘Well, ok, we should cover the scene from these two angles, with these three cutaways, and … GO.’ You know? And that’s kind of how we would operate on set. I was actually the production sound recordist on set, so I’d have my two cameramen with me and they’d be looking through the lens, following the action, and I’d be linked into the action but also looking around the space, figuring out, ‘Well, they’re talking about this, so let’s get these five shots to support that idea.’ I could kind of be editing on the fly, and that results in pretty solid coverage for the most part.

As far as conducting interviews, I’ve had the really good fortune to be able to edit the footage of a lot of great directors. So I know how they go about conducting interviews – I know what they do well, I know all the questions that you ask in the moment and all the questions you wait to ask until you’re more comfortable, in a better headspace with your subject. I felt like that editing experience really came in handy. Suddenly, it’s you sitting in that chair, and you’re drawing on experience you weren’t totally even aware you had.

RK: So, you folks hustled for money to get Romeo made – there was an initial Kickstarter to get through principal photography, you borrowed equipment from filmmaker friends, you sought grants and other more traditional funding sources to get it finished. On the one hand, that seems to imply that barriers of access are in some ways being lowered, because there are a number of different avenues you can take to get it done, but at the same time, that seems like a lot of work, with no real assurance that you will get it done. How do you deal with that on the day to day when you’re shooting? And what does it mean more generally for aspiring filmmakers?

JZ: You know, making a film is really hard. One of the many things that I learned. [Laughter]

It was fun, it was a little scary, and I don’t think I’ll be able to make a film exactly this way ever again. It was kind of something that lined up perfectly in that moment of my life.

RK: How so? In terms of access to being able to do it or in terms of the subject matter?

JZ: In terms of just about everything. You know – Molly introduced me to Donté, who’s starting a big project that’s compelling to me. But I am also very young at the moment we started this film. I did the Kickstarter, and the Kickstarter got a number of my friends excited about it. And basically all the Kickstarter paid for was rent to move a couple of my friends up to the Bay with me.

RK: Well, it’s fucking expensive up here.

JZ: Yeah, exactly! And that’s what it paid for. I mean, I just convinced three of my friends to move to the Bay Area for a couple of months, and spend every day following these kids. And then we bought a microphone. And then the Kickstarter money was gone.

But that got us enough really good footage that we were then able to start putting together really serious grant proposals. I completely ran out of money, and I moved to Colorado and worked on Racing Extinction for seven months in the middle of Romeo. And in that time, we started to get some grant responses back, so we now officially had enough money between me saving up and a couple of grants to just say, ‘Alright, I’m going to work on Romeo and just Romeo for the next six months.’ And I did. And then I needed to take another job, so I did. But then we got some more grants.

I mean, you really have to be hustling and working on several projects at any given moment. But Romeo was always kind of my baby and my number one priority, so I would carve out six months here, four months here, and always writing grants. It wasn’t until very late in the day that we officially were fully funded. We were pretty close to heading up our final mix when we got our finishing funds. It’s a never-ending process. And we’re still fundraising, for outreach.

RK: So I first saw Romeo at the SF International Film Fest, where I also first saw Tangerine, which is shot on iPhones. I’m wondering what sort of technical shifts you’ve seen since you’ve started doing this, and what sort of new possibilities might be emerging.


JZ: Camera technology is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up with. Principal photography for Romeo was done on a pair of 5Ds. And I remember when 5Ds came out, they were like beautiful machines and everyone was using them. By the time I shot Romeo in 2012, 2013, 5Ds were like a dirty word. But you know what? They look great for what we were doing, so it was the right camera for the job.

Now what’s happening with camera technology is you’re getting these 4K images – or more, they’re now doing 6K cameras, 8K cameras – that come basically in the size of a 5D. And I think that the more affordable, and the more sort of undercover these things can be, the more access documentarians can get to certain places. It’s just a different beast than working on a narrative film – sometimes you need to be mobile and quick and dirty, and that’s definitely becoming possible at the highest resolution. That’s interesting.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what camera you’re working with. It’s all about the story. That’s what’s been drilled into my head for the last 15 years of my life. Just get the story. And make sure you have really good sound, because no one is going to sit through a movie that sounds terrible. [Laughter]

The answer to your question, I guess, is that yes, there’s a million new points of access, because of enhanced technology. And I think that because of the enhanced technology, the barrier to entry is a lot lower than it ever was. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of having a good story. Because if you don’t, then you’re just a guy with a really nice camera who is filming stuff that doesn’t add up to much.


RK: What do you hope for Romeo? In some ways, it’s an appeal for arts education, or at least a spirited defense of it, but it’s also not really a polemic or, thankfully, a sort of artless call to social action, with a URL at the end and a number to call. What do you hope people take home?

JZ: Yeah. I mean, if it was more your classic social advocacy doc, with a URL at the end, it would be a lot easier to market. [Laughter]

But being what it is, which is the movie I wanted to make, it’s … you know, Dan Riley, who runs the RYSE Center where Molly and Donté work now, I was talking to him on the phone a couple of weeks ago, and we’re talking about educational uses. And he was saying, ‘It’s so hard to inspire people.’ And he’s someone who puts on poetry shows all the time. He’s like, ‘People come to the poetry shows, and they get inspired. And then they go home, and it kind of wears off sooner than something like a film can.’ You make a film like this that has a lot of heart, I hope, and it can really stick with you, and kind of be this bug in your ear for a long time.

So, in this particular instance, it’s about encouraging people to find their voice, right? So we’re doing a big push to get it into schools, and we’re writing curricula around the movie, to get it to students, at-risk youth, community centers, juvenile justice centers. And really encourage the youth that, regardless of where you’re coming from, sharing your experiences and letting your voice be heard is a valuable thing, and could open up some pretty surprising and unexpected doors if you’re persistent with it. So that’s our big push. And then, there are your more traditional things, like, we’re going to have a broadcast, and we’re going to be on Netflix and iTunes eventually.

So yeah. I’m very pleased with how this whole journey has gone, especially when you consider that my initial goal was just to finish the damn thing. Now that it’s finished, it’s really exciting to see such a diverse group of people respond so positively.

romeo awards

RK: That’s really exciting. So what’s next for you?

JZ: What’s next is an interesting question that I’m actively working on. I really did enjoy being a director, and I think that I will do it again. But I also get a lot of great opportunities to work on other people’s stories in the editing chair, which is a skill set I’ve been refining for a lot longer than my directing skills. Right now, I’m working on a really great project, and then after that, I have more opportunities to work on other great projects in a number of different roles. So I’m just kind of letting my gut lead me toward stories that I find most inspiring. And some of those stories I would direct, some of those stories I would edit, some of those stories I would produce, but I think the important thing is telling stories I connect with, and stories that could be really powerful or meaningful for people.

So all of that is to say … I’m not really sure what I’m going to do. [Laughter] But there are some cool things on the horizon.

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