“Five Star” is a raw indie film shot in a very naturalistic style. Focused on gang life in Brooklyn, it was written, directed, and edited by Keith Miller and stars real-life member of the Bloods gang, James “Primo” Grant, alongside first-time actor John Diaz. “Five star” refers to a “general” in the gang who is free to manage rather than take a direct part in crime.
John Diaz landed the role out of nearly 40 young men who auditioned for it, and Primo had previously met director Miller. While still a part of the Bloods, Primo has re-dedicated his life to his family.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe there’s a trailer yet, but keep an eye out for the film. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17, 2014, after which I sat down with the director and his lead actors to talk about it. Distribution is one of the main points of film festivals, so they hope to get a distribution deal out of the Tribeca experience, besides just soaking up the “coolness” of it all. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Melanie: What’s it like for you as first-time actors to experience all of this?
Primo: It’s one of those overwhelming feelings of like, “Oh, my God, is this happening? Wow, is that me? Are we really doing this? Pinch me! Is this real?” My fiance said to me yesterday, “I’m so proud of you.” It’s a great feeling.
Melanie: Keith, why this subject matter?
Keith: The subject matter of the movie for me is the question of what it means to be a man and how one becomes a man, whether it’s a young person becoming a man or someone who’s a bit older who might be considered a man but then becoming a different kind of man.
Melanie: You have mixed documentary and fiction in this film. How did that unfold?
Keith: I think a lot of movies, if you’re shooting a scene in a park or in a backyard or a street or even in an apartment building, you lock down the area so no one can come in. What I do is pretty much the opposite. We shoot with two cameras, and they’re pretty agile. So, they can move almost 360 degrees a lot of the time, and if someone is coming by, I say, “Yeah, come.” I want reality to come in…. I just say, “Get a release from that person.”
I tell the cast this, and I tell the crew that my motto is, “Reality doesn’t stop, so we don’t stop.” It doesn’t matter what happens; just keep the cameras rolling. Don’t ever turn to me and say, “So, what should I do now?” There are times where I intentionally let the scene get boring as we’re shooting it because I feel like that’s a space that reality slips in, and then, the performance gets anxious in a way that feels very lived.
Melanie: So, how much of it was improvisational as opposed to what was on the page?
Keith: In the final edit, I think if I were to take the script – and I think I may have done this – a lot more than I would have thought [was not improvisational]. In terms of minutes, taking out the non-speaking parts, it’s surprisingly a lot, like 60-70 percent is scripted.
John: Most of the improvisation scenes, they’re not scripted; they’re structured. So, Keith is there, “All right, this is where you have to get to.”
Keith: The whole last 20 minutes is all scripted, but to me, that doesn’t feel scripted. People can play a kind of hide and seek game of, “Hmmm… I’m going to find the scripted part,” but the interesting thing is how people are only right half the time.
Melanie: Keith, I noticed in close-ups that you often don’t have the actors look at the camera.
Keith: That’s not a way I would shoot something. My hope is, as opposed to breaking the fourth wall by the actor looking at the camera, I want to try to break the fourth wall by having it feel so real that you don’t realize there is a separation. That confrontational gaze coming from the actor to the camera or to the viewer, that’s a very specific style. It’s a lot more self-conscious than I would want.
Melanie: Primo, how much does the film parallel what you’ve been through?
Primo: A lot. The opening scene – my son – is very true. My son was diagnosed as autistic. Doing deals on the street, being active in the life, getting physical with someone – a lot. Almost everything. I know it, I’ve lived through it, I’ve seen it. I am Five Star.
Melanie: When did you decide to change things in your life?
Primo: March 24, 2008 – the day that my son was born. I didn’t want to be the bad guy no more…. I perfected that role to the tee. It was time to start being who I knew I was destined to be, start being me instead of the billy bad ass. I had a son, I had a daughter. How much more pain am I going to continually put my parents through? How much more pain, how much more time of my life am I going to give away for free because I want to be a billy bad ass?
So, the day my son was born, I marked on that day [while] in jail, in prison – no more! And I haven’t been ever since. I’m proud of myself. I owe it to my children, my mentors on the way, Aaron Freeman, Keith, and even John at this moment – John, unbeknownst to him, he inspires me…. John shows me more so what I need to do for the latter years of my son’s coming and my daughter.
Melanie: If you’re in a gang – and I’m speaking from total stupidity – is it that easy to just decide that you’re no longer going to be involved with that?
Primo: It’s not a decision whether you decide to no longer be involved with them because it’s just not going to happen. It’s like being a cop – you pledge an oath. It’s like being a father – you pledge an oath. If you choose to walk away, there are consequences. But I didn’t walk away; I’m still active. But I just choose not to do it for the wrong reasons no more. I’m no longer ignorant; I’m no longer blinded. I know what I want. I know what kind of legacy I want to leave behind. I know who I am….
I’m still active, but I’m not the guy that you’ll find outside robbing purses or setting up shops. I’m the guy that’s home cooking meals for his kids, going to work, sitting down with my wife, watching TV. If there is ever a scenario where I have to get involved, I took an oath, and I stand by whatever oath I take. I’m a man of my word, but you won’t see me on TV for, “Primo goes crazy and bashes Crip for no reason.” No. “Enjoy your day, bro; my best friend is a Crip.” I’ve surpassed the ignorance, if I can say it like that.
Melanie: What do each of you hope is going to come out of this for you?
Primo: I love acting, so I’m really hoping this will jumpstart a new beginning for me…. I’m a movie connoisseur. I have over 1,000 DVDs in my house.
John: I’m also an artist, too, so I do music. I have a song in the movie.
Keith: The last song during the credits is his song.
John: I’ve been trying to entertain people forever, so I’m going to just keep on trying to do that. So, hopefully, it gets me in the right places. Right now, I’m just thankful because we might not have this tomorrow. This may not happen again, so if it doesn’t happen again, I’m just enjoying every moment I have right now. It’s really, really…