When Jason Zeldes first heard that one of his cousin’s poetry students was working on a spoken word adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, he flew out to Richmond, CA to investigate. The result: documentary feature Romeo Is Bleeding, which screens at Industry City this Saturday. With heart, Zeldes chronicles the development of Donté Clark’s production, affording us not only glimpses of the rehearsals but also an intimate portrait of the community itself. By transposing Verona’s feuding families to the conflicting districts of Richmond, Clark makes a vital argument for the power of art in the face of social and political strife. We spoke with Zeldes about his directorial approach and his own relationship with Richmond’s community.
Rooftop Films: You’ve mentioned that you “wanted to show the life and context that Donté is drawing from for this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, not just the social justice issues that exist in the neighborhood.” How did you consider structuring the film to achieve that goal?
Jason Zeldes: From very early on in the process Donté would impress upon me that it was most important to him to show the life, the hope, and the energy that exists in his city and in RAW Talent—not simply dwell on the violence. To do that, it became important to film at all the rehearsals, and film our characters in their homes and moving throughout the city—whether they’re in cars, buses, or BART. All of this verité footage allowed us to let life into our footage, which really showcases the energy of the place. Filming rehearsals in particular became valuable for us in post-production, because it showed these artists in the midst of their creative process. The rehearsal footage also impresses upon us that beneath it all, RAW Talent members are still kids, who have really hard circumstances thrust upon them.
You do a fantastic job balancing the film’s main narrative thread—the play—with supplemental exposition about Richmond, which never feels overly didactic. How did you approach this balanced tone while making the film?
We struck a nice balance for the film when we really committed to the structure of Romeo and Juliet carrying us all the way through. That meant that the entirety of the film lived within RAW Talent’s performance of the play. When we started to conceptualize how our verité footage layered on top of the Shakespearean structure unfolding on stage, then a lot of interesting opportunities were revealed. Donté’s life in Richmond fit organically into the Shakespearean framework, and that allowed us to strike a tone that feels straightforward and natural.
The film quickly falls into a rhythm where a verité rehearsal scene lends itself to a scene being performed on the stage, which speaks on a larger social justice issue, which we then explore in a “macro sequence”, using everything in our cinematic arsenal. These bigger picture scenes then settle back into a rehearsal scene and the cycle resets. This keeps everything evenly spaced, and when each element reappears, you’re really ready for its particular pace and energy.
How did you go about building the spoken word montages?
Oh man, I love RAW Talent’s poetry. It’s amazing source material: so visceral, raw, and very cinematic. My editor, Kevin Klauber, and I would think about each poem as the narration to scene—or string of scenes. Once we successfully matched a poem with a particular story, we would pull all of the footage relating to that particular story and begin to layer it. The poem would always be the spine, but on top of it we’d layer our interview soundbytes, next up were all of our verité, visuals, and then archival and graphics. We let the energy and natural rhythms of the performance guide the pace of the cutting, in an attempt to make a visual poem that matches the source material. But mostly Kevin just kicked ass on those crazy montages.
Can you talk a little bit about your interview process for this film? You’ve talked about how important it was to include interviews with the Richmond Police Department to make your depiction of the situation’s complexity as complete as it could be.
Richmond is a community facing difficult problems but doing so with real fortitude. Furthermore, Richmond is not my city. I am an outsider and the last thing I wanted to do was impose my perspective where it doesn’t belong. So early on I committed to the idea that the story would be told from Donté’s perspective, and adhere to his life’s experience in Richmond. Yet as we interviewed Donté and his peers, larger stories with a more sweeping, generational, and systematic narrative began to emerge, and it became clear that in order for us to maintain integrity and eliminate bias as filmmakers, our interviews needed to expand. We needed police officers, city officials, and community members of all ages to speak in order to speak to some of the larger narratives, and really round out the reality of a city striving to transform its violent identity.
This is your first documentary feature as a director—could you speak to the way your previous experience with editing and sound mixing informed your on-set approach?
Editing is a fantastic training ground for directors. Having worked as an editor for so many filmmakers I admire, I’ve had the opportunity to see all of their raw footage. I can see everything they do well, how they conduct interviews, what coverage they make sure to get, why they place the camera in a certain way. Because of my experience in the edit bay, I have an ingrained sense of what ingredients are required in order to build a scene in post-production. During a shoot I know, “OK the camera follows this action, and we get cutaways here, here, and here, and we at least have the bare bones for a scene.” This was a great safety net for me as a first time director.
As far as my sound-design studies are concerned, I value production sound over everything else that comes in from set. It has to be good or the audience cannot track the story—so I did production sound myself. I feel like being the boom guy is a great vantage point for the director—rather than being confined to the viewfinder I could be looking all over the space for what’s next while our cinematographer captured the moment. In post-production we had the opportunity to work with Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound. I had a sense of how much sound design could elevate the film from a powerful documentary to a truly cinematic experience. I approached Pete with some concepts, and he brought them to the next level.
**Meet Jason Zeldes and Donté Clark on the roof of Industry City this Saturday (7/11) after the screening of Romeo Is Bleeding.**