Keith Miller’s latest film grew out of his 2011 short, “Gang Bangin’ 101.” In that two-minute doc, James “Primo” Grant – a burly, bearded Brooklyn native who works as a bouncer at a Bed-Stuy nightclub – spoke frankly about joining the East New York Bloods when he was 12 and eventually becoming a five-star general in what he calls the “brotherhood.”
Five Star, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight, is a work of fiction – but, true to life, 29-year-old Grant plays a gang leader and drug dealer named Primo who can transform from a growling grizzly bear to a doting family man. (Grant’s real-life fiancé and four children play the same roles in the film; his son is autistic both on screen and off).
Inspired by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Miller put elements from Grant’s life into what’s ultimately a coming-of-age story. John Diaz, a 21-year-old Lower East Sider, plays John, a fatherless 15-year-old deciding whether to pursue gang life.
As they struggle with what it is to be a man, both protagonists come uncomfortably close to reality. “People have difficulty wrapping their head around this idea that the story is fictional because they think Primo and John are playing themselves. But they are acting,” Miller insists.
Landon Van Soest, founder of the Williamsburg-based Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective and one of the film’s co-producers, likens Miller’s brand of experiential cinema to his own approach to documentary. “We are both dedicated to tell a story that’s very true emotionally,” he says.
Born in 1965 in Roslyn, a mostly upper-middle class town in Long Island, Miller went on to study art at Purchase College (SUNY). After college, he lived in a warehouse in gritty West Oakland, where he started painting portraits of his neighbors. “The neighborhood children would come to my warehouse and they wouldn’t notice the abstract paintings I slaved over,” Miller recalls. “I started doing portraits because I want people who are not trained in this type of looking to appreciate.”
One day, a homeless man who had posed for a painting became angry because some kids were making fun of it. Miller explained, “They are making fun of the painting, not you.” But the man was unable to differentiate between himself and the representation.
That incident, Miller says, prompted him to explore the real, first through art – realism and photorealism – and later through film.
In 1992, Miller took his guitar and drove across Mexico. He stayed in Puebla for four years, returning to New York in 2001 for a masters program at Stony Brook University, where he learned how to shoot and edit. His first feature film, Welcome to Pine Hill, received awards from several film festivals, including the Grand Jury Prize from Slamdance Film Festival.
Miller challenges his actors to find emotional relevance in their personal lives. When he discovered that Diaz’s father had left his mother when he was two, Miller rewrote the character accordingly.
As a director, he encourages improvisation, and he favors long takes of 45 minutes or more, so actors forget the presence of cameras. At the same time, most of his scenes are highly scripted. When filming Five Star, he gave actors their lines for the day and nothing more. “I don’t want them to think Oh, I have to feel angry right now because later I will hit him,” Miller says. “There is not next. There is only now. I want them to feel the reality of that moment – real emotion in real time.”
Diaz, for one, appreciates the approach. “Most directors would be like, ‘You got a line, you got a part, you got a facial expression,’” he says. “And you have to get it done within this time. Keith is more like, ‘This is the scenario but I am not going to tell you the exact lines. I want you to feel your lines.’”
Miller welcomes the organic and spontaneous. If someone walks on set, he doesn’t say “Cut! Who’s this guy?” Instead, he’ll wait for something interesting to happen. While shooting at Fort Greene Park, he didn’t secure the area.
“Keith loves the ambience that this is a real park,” Grant remembers. “There are people walking; there are kids scootering; there are kids throwing basketballs. These scenes play into the film because this is real, this really happened.”
“Five Star” plays at the Tribeca Film Festival April 17, 18, 21 and 26. Click here for locations and showtimes.