As you’ll read in this interview I first found out about Snow On Da Bluff lat last year when I interviewed DJ Burn One for the bloglin. But, up until a few weeks ago it was still just a film that Burn One did the song for. I had been seeing a few people talking about it, and had tried to track it down myself, but to no avail. Then, I finally restarted my Netflix subscription, and the first thing I watch was Snow On Tha Bluff. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I was gonna really enjoy the movie. The first few minutes are pretty telling, and after the conclusion I was more than satisfied. But I also had a lot of questions, and thankfully for me I was able to get in touch with Damon Russell, the film’s director.
We talked about the movie, but also about some more grand implications. While my background is pretty diverse, the majority of the creative work I do these days is music, and the majority of my thought and writing is similarly focused. But, it didn’t take much to find a very potent overlap between the music I cover for Mishka, and what Damon managed to do with his film. So, take a few minutes and read on to find out how technology, and social behaviors are shaping the coming age of filmmaking, and see why Damon Russell is at the forefront of some very exciting changes.
Damon Russell: Hey Zach what’s up this is Damon how are you?
Ay Damon I’m good how are you?
DR: Pretty good.
Yeah, so what’s happenin?
DR: Oh not much…not much at all, what about you?
Same, you know just runnin around doin errands and shit. Gotta go to my regular job tonight so…
DR: You said you’re in California?
Yeah, I’m up in San Francisco.
DR: Oh that’s cool I was just there a few days ago.
Yeah, what were you up to?
DR: Oh just visiting man, cold as fuck up there always.
Yeah man it stays cold, always.
DR: But it’s a cool city though.
So, I found out about the movie originally when I interviewed Burn One at the beginning of the year some time. I had asked him, “What are you workin on,” and he told me, “Oh I’m doin the soundtrack for this movie.” And then, when did it come out, fairly recently, right?
DR: It came out in June.
Yeah, so it hit in June and I started hearin people talking about it, and I had been tryin to get it at best buy, looking around for it, and wound up I just watched it recently on Netflix.
DR: Yeah, that’s how a lot of people have seen it.
After I talked to Burn One I didn’t know if it was gonna be a long time, or soon, and I guess it kinda snuck up much sooner than I had anticipated.
DR: You mean the release?
DR: It actually took us forever to get it out there cause of legal shit. Honestly, no distributors wanted to touch it. Which was weird. To me, maybe I’m desensitized, but it didn’t seem that crazy. There’s plenty of crazy shit out there, I mean come on…
Oh yeah, totally.
DR: But, they were like, “Look we love the movie, but we’re not gonna put it out there, We’re not gonna release it.” Like, fuck, I mean that was a struggle. It took over a year just to get it released.
So, you finished it up in 2011, around June?
DR: No, it was playing at festivals in 2011. And, it really got finished technically the beginning of 2011. Technically I guess it took about a year and a half to get it out.
Ok, so when did yall finish up shooting?
DR: Well, 09 and 2010 were the years we shot pretty much.
And then you got it out and started showing it at festivals. Were the reactions pretty good at the festivals?
DR: Yeah, I mean the festivals were great. We won awards, always had great discussions.
Domestic, or were you outside of the US as well?
DR: A little bit overseas, but mostly in the US. But it plays really well, so we felt like, “This is great, we should be able to put it out.” The festivals were a great reaction. I mean we always get a good reaction from people who see the movie, but the gatekeepers, the distributors…even like Best Buy and Walmart won’t carry the DVD in their store. They refuse.
And, so is that an ethical call, or a legal call? Is it because of the content in the movie, or is it because it’s unclear if the content is documentary or drama?
DR: They were very clear about that. And it’s fine. We would have made more money, but I don’t know if we’ll ever make any money on it really. I don’t know yet. It’s just cool that a lot of people are seeing it.
Yeah, it seems to really be gaining some steam right now. It seems like it’s more and more people talking about it. It seems like a small amount of folks have found their way to it, and really been affected by it, and have begun to talk about it.
DR: Yeah, and sometimes it’s kinda better that it doesn’t get out and hit the mainstream. It’s not on every TV channel or whatever. It’s not that kind of movie. People find it, the people who will be interested in seeing it can find it. That’s cool. That’s good enough for me.
I feel like it defies the institution in ways that are not necessarily a flying fuck you middle finger to the institution, but what you’re saying, not using more traditional and expected avenues. People come to a movie like that like, “Ok I’m gonna sit down and watch this movie, and there’s gonna be a plot, and maybe I’ll figure it out, and maybe I’ll be affected by how the characters are.” But, they wind up comin in with a very determined mindset. Whereas, I feel like your film really leaves the viewer asking a lot of questions in the end. It calls the whole process itelf into question. You have to stop and think, “Ok, were they documenting that, or was it acting?”
DR: I notice sometimes online that people get really pissed off about that. Like, “OH IT’S ALL FAKE,” or, “NO IT’S ALL REAL!” I don’t know it’s cool that people debate that at all, that’s a compliment. But, all that stuff really happens. All that stuff is what really goes on in Curt’s life, and what really happens to those people, you know? So, I think it’s all truth and life for the most part. You know what I mean?
Entirely, one of the reasons why this has really appealed to me, and why I’ve been thinking about it so much is because this bares a lot of resemblance to what’s going on in rap music that we cover on Mishka right now. You have people that aren’t characters per-se, but they’re also not 100% documentarian. But they’re doing something in between. It really calls a lot of attention to the amount of artifice that’s in the artform. And it really makes you ask and look back at other artists and question, well, “What’s going on in their movie?” It’s almost like what Werner Herzog does.
DR: Yeah, I’m a Herzog fan. I love that stuff. And I think it’s cool. Personally I think it’s great when you can hit that balance where you entertain people—people seem to be entertained by the movie—and then you can also say something. Or at least spark a conversation. That’s the thing about the movie is that it generally sparks conversation. Whenever we showed it at festivals it would be very extended discussions about the movie afterwards with people. And a lot of people would bring in something like, “I grew up like that, I have family like that, I never knew, I lived in a bad neighborhood and the guy’s on the corner seemed to be like this but I never knew what was going on in their lives…” It’s cool when people connect. In the US, the worst thing you can be is poor. If you don’t have a job, you live in the worst areas, people just don’t wanna think about you. They wanna lock you up.
Right, and the entirety of your identity in this country is based around how much money you have.
Love it or not, as much as you may wanna deny it, or say it’s not true, that you exist in this alternate societies, it’s always money giving you agency and allowing you to be somebody. But, sorry, not to cut you off…
DR: And that’s kinda the point I was getting at. People are totally dismissive of the people in the Bluff, the people like Curtis, because they don’t see them as real citizens. Or real people who have real rights. People don’t really see them as humans with a real struggle. It’s cool when we can show that Curtis has his own problems, he might seem all bad but he has a good side. It’s not so black and white, good and bad. It’s way more nuanced than that.
For sure, and I really liked that. You guys seemed to portray without doing it heavy-handedly. It was a very subtle way that you pulled it off. It really came through, here’s this guy who has a son who he loves unconditionally. He’s not some tough guy who can’t hug and kiss his son, and tell him he loves him and comfort him. And then at the same time we get insight into his own tortured situation that he deals with. His mother didn’t raise him right and make him feel loved. And his father is not in the picture. And at a young age, his son’s mother dies. It really did something to humanize a charcter that is not otherwise being humanized in the depictions we get in contemporary society. If you were to look to someone like Young Jeezy. Young Jeezy isn’t really doing anything that puts himself in a position as vulnerable as we see Curt in.
It’s just refreshing to know it’s not all this artifice, statue, blanket individual. It is a person with gradations.
DR: Yeah, I personally find that interesting. For me too, cause I didn’t grow up in that area, it was a good introduction. Like, “Wow, I gotta really see how they live.” For example, with the police. There’s two separate laws in this country. There’s the laws for the middle class and upper class, and then there’s the laws for the poor people. And it’s flat out, the way police treat everyone in that neighborhood it’s as if they’re subhuman. They’ll just lock you up for anything if they feel like it. They would never do that in a more affluent area because people would say, “Hey you know what, I know my rights you can’t do this,” or, “Hey you know what, my lawyer’s gonna be calling you.” But they don’t have that kind of power, and it’s unfair.
DR: I think we should change. You see it in the sentencing. Some rich kid in the suburbs gets caught with a gram of cocaine, and it’s like, “Ok whatever, slap on the wrist, a fine, blah blah blah it’s a pain to get out of it.” Kids down in the hood get caught with a couple bags of rocks and they go down the road for three years. It shouldn’t be that way.
DR: It should be fair. This is America. You know what I mean?
Right, of course it should be. We’re told that the way these laws are enforced is about upholding a moral standard, and creating a safe society, but really once you get in there and start to look at it, and start to get exposed to it, you realize that our laws are about putting young black males in jail. Or young Hispanic males in jail, because there’s just an endless stream of them that will have whatever you want them to have in order to say it’s illegal, because you’ve put them in a position where they have no other means.
DR: And even, I think it’s disproportionately black and Hispanic, but more than that I think it’s just poor people. Poor people continue to get targeted in this country, and it’s completely acceptable and I think that’s sad.
I agree. You’re right. If you look at it in the most basic terms. If you’re black and you have more money, or you’re Hispanic and you have more money you’re not gonna be subjected to these kinds of treatments from the institution. So, was there any particular moment that stood out when you look back on making the film where you had a profound realization in that sense? Or did it happen slowly?
DR: Definitely, the point where the movie changed for me, and everyone involved was when Curtis and I got arrested together. It’s funny cause we did so much illegal shit, when I watch the movie I’m like, “We could really be in trouble for this, this, and this if people knew.” Although actually, most of the really bad stuff’s not in the movie. So I feel safe, I feel comfortable. But, we weren’t even doing anything. We were sitting in a park with some beers and the cops pulled up and arrested us, and they took us to jail. You know I’m from the suburbs of Atlanta, where I’m from if you get caught the cops will just say, “Pour the beer out and get outta here.” But they pulled their guns on us, put us down on the ground, told us we were going away for however long just threatening us.
Like, “You gotta be fuckin kidding me.” I couldn’t believe it was happening. We got out the next day and it was fine, but I couldn’t believe that people had to live like that and be treated by the police like that. It really opened my eyes because before that I hadn’t had that kind of experience with the police. If you’re just doing anything even remotely wrong on that side of town, you’re fair game to get arrested. The fact that 6 guys surrounded us with their guns pulled because we had beer in the park is fucking insane. The good thing was after that, when we got out that night, everyone in the neighborhood knew that I wasn’t police. They knew I was real deal, there to make a movie, and I was on there side, it kind of created a bond between us all that definitely made shooting the rest of the movie better.
And how was your time in jail?
DR: Shitty. Curt had warrants, so he thought he was gone be done. But somehow he got out. I mean I bailed us both out, and it was fine. I had never been handcuffed, never been in the back of a patty wagon, I’ve never seen any of that. It opened up my mind like, “Wow. Ok. This is what it’s like.” This is what someone like Curtis goes through. When they put you in the patty wagon, and they shut the door, there’s no lights in there. Just you and whoever else they’ve arrested on this run that they’re on. And Curt’s like, “You said you wanted it to be real! This is what you wanted!” I was like, “Man (chuckles) fuck you!” But it was true. We set out to do that, and that was the cost of doing business I guess. It could have been way worse. We weren’t even necessarily doing anything wrong, but we were doing a lot of things that could have been misconstrued as wrong. And we could have gotten in a lot of trouble for it. It could have been way worse, but luckily we made it.
Read the rest after the jump!
Of course. It’s always a gamble when you get caught up in the judicial system, and you gotta go through there. Are you gonna catch the wrong judge on the wrong day or the right judge on the right day. And you know, endless other complications too.
DR: And the legal system is set up to where, if you have money it works differently for you.
Oh, most definitely. And then beyond that if you know how to get the right lawyers, as opposed to just a lawyer…
DR: Exaclty. That’s what Curtis is going through now. He’s locked up, and he had some old stuff going on. We don’t know if because of how the movie is placed if it’s complicating things. They seem to be going after him for the more minor of his charges. We don’t understand. I hope they’re not unfairly targeting him. It’s tough to say. Every officer in West Atlanta, at least in Zone 1, and all of the COs at Wright Street where he’s locked up, they know the movie. They’ve seen the movie. They know who he is. A lot fo them I would actually say are probably fans of the movie. But, are they gonna try to make an example out of him? It’s tough to say. But, hopefully now we’ve been able to get him some resources to get him a decent lawyer, so hopefully he’ll be ok.
Was Michael Williams involved in that? Or was he more just on the periphery?
DR: He’s been involved in helping us get the movie out there, and get it seen. Adding his name helps get a little more legitimacy. I think it’s a great movie, but I think some people are like, “This isn’t shot on a Red camera,” or whatever. They just don’t see the content as…just not everybody gets this movie, that’s just what it is. So it’s been great to have someone like him involved to help us.
I feel like what you guys are doing, it’s really a poor term to describe the situation aptly, but you’re ahead of your time. People are still fixated on the idea that a movie is a book that you turn into something on screen. They’ve failed to see the way in which we’ve moved into a new time where the means for creating visual media are very dispersed. Everyone can do it. It seems like what you guys have done, is refigure the idea of creating a movie in the present. What are the contemporary ways in which you can make a movie? And it’s not so much dependant on having the most high-quality image, or having the best props and lighting. It’s moreso dependant on in the end, what comes out?
DR: Well thanks for that compliment. That’s definitely something that I would like to achieve. There’s these old school documentarians the Maysles brothers. They did these movies in the early 60s, some of the first documentaries with synced-sound, vérité sort of documentaries. Real life. They’re old now in their 80s, and I went to go hear them speak one time. One of them was like, “I don’t know what you guys are doing! You should be out there right now! You should get a camera, and go out there right now, you should be in Iraq, on the streets, wherever, you should be telling these stories. Right now, there’s these incredible stories going on.”
To see him talking to a bunch of young documenatrians, saying, “Get out there and start filming. There’s incredible shit going on if you are willing to go capture it.” I think you’re right that not everybody sees that yet. There’s still a traditional idea of how movies are made, like, “You have to have these actors that have done this, and you have to have this amount of money, and you have to have this, and that.” But, we’ve evolved beyond that. That’s still great, but there’s so many ways to get your story out there.
Right, and there’s so many more gradations to what a story is. It’s not just like, og either you make a documentary or you have a drama. The lives we lead are so much more intricate, and complicated because of technology and contemporary circumstances. So it only makes sense that our entertainment would reflect that. It’s about blurring the lines and bringing all these things together moreso than saying, “That goes in that box.”
DR: Yeah, I think you’re spot on. This is something, like you said, people like Herzog have been doing this. This is not a brand new style or anything. But I think, maybe now it more people will work in that space. Which I think would be cool, because a lot of times things go wrong is you take someone from Wisconsin and you cast them as Cleopatra, or you take someone from Orange County and you have them portraying someone from Iran or whatever. Which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, great actors can do that. But, sometimes I think it’s ok to say, “We’re looking for a junkie. Let’s cast a real junkie. Let’s cast someone who knows this world. It’s ok to be that.
And to just go down to skid row, and start filming and maybe see what happens. There’s so many ways that it unfolds when you stop dividing it and saying, “This is reality, this is drama, and drama goes in the movie OR reality goes in the movie.”
DR: Exactly, they have to be separate. These two things cannot exist simultaneously. People get really annoyed when genres and stuff mix like that. But that’s the most exciting stuff to me. For example we had a lot of people in the movie. Growing up in Atlanta, to me a crackhead was a crackhead. They’re just a crackhead you avoid em. But, in the Bluff there’s so many people that are smoking crack hanging around, and you start to get to know them. And a lot of them are regular people, cool people who just happen to have a drug problem. And once I came to that realization. You know Curt is really good about treating everybody as equal.
Like, ok they may have a drug problem but they generally all have something else that is redeeming. We used a lot of them in the movie and they’re great. You give them a line, or you tell them, “I need you to do this at that time,” and they did it really well actually. It was funny, because before that I had totally dismissed people like that. They really impressed me with what they could do. It’s funny because back in the old days, you could only use actors because they were the only one who knew what to do. Now, you can pull any 16 year old kid from just about anywhere in America and they know how TV and movies work. There’s no mystery there. From watching reality TV and stuff they know, at this point we need this to happen, and they understand this stuff. You can use real people in your movies, and a lot of them could be really good.
Totally. It’s just a whole other way to approach it. Which, as I continue to say, is one of the great things that you guys have done here. It continues to take account of what’s available, and says, “Alright, let’s use this and make a movie.” And the movie came out really good.
DR: I appreciate that. When we were doing it I just thought, “Ok. This is a cool exercise. This will be a DVD I can pass out to some friends or something. I didn’t think anyone would really have any interest in it. So, it’s very nice to hear when people appreciate the movie. I though only people who live that life would appreciate that move. Seeing that it’s people outside of that world actually like it. It’s great.
And how did you wind up linking up with Burn One to do the soundtrack?
DR: Well, the producer Chris Knittel he’s a big fan of Burn One, and he kinda turned me onto him. Burn just had a good vision, and Curt’s a big fan of his work. He has a cool little crew of people that he hangs around, so we all just kinda got along. It was fun, the stuff we did together was always a good time. It’s nice when you don’t even know somebody but you link up, and work you know?
I think that’s one of the great things about being able to make art with other people. It’s like business, but more personally satisfying. You call come into the rooms, and you all have these terms that maybe you haven’t discussed before, but you all know what they mean, and you all know how it works, and you just put everything on the table and see how it all fits together.
DR: Yeah, that’s a great feeling when that happens.
I don’t wanna take up any more of your time, is there anything you wanna add at all?
DR: Just tell people to buy the movie. It’s cool because it’s out there and people have seen it, but we haven’t really made any money. So if people like the movie, they should buy it. Like Curt definitely needs that money for legal fees and stuff. And I’d like the break even on it. It’s not a super expensive movie, but I did put my whole life savings into it. And I’d like to get that back. So, if people wanna buy it on Amazon, or iTunes, orXBox, or Playstation that would be greatly appreciated.- Zachg