Writer-director Rob Hardy and producer Will Packer learned that the hard way during the 13-day shoot of their film Trois in 1998. In the low-budget erotic thriller, a married African-American lawyer in Atlanta fulfills his fantasy of a menage a trois, then sees it turn into a nightmare a la Fatal Attraction.
Filming at night in a downtown Atlanta office building, Hardy and Packer were all set to shoot a crucial boardroom meeting. They wanted a roomful of white executives but lacked the extras to play the corporate-looking men.
Thus the young black filmmakers, both in their 20s, found themselves on Peachtree Street near the Hard Rock Cafe, approaching conventioneers in business suits and asking them to be in their movie.
"We'd been in production all day, so we were looking real grimy," Packer recalls with a laugh. "We weren't received that well when we walked up to them -- at 10 o'clock at night -- and said, 'Hey man, follow me and my buddy up into this building for a couple of hours.' They would say things like, 'I have no money. I will call the police.' Black people weren't stopping to talk to us, let alone whites."
The filmmakers ultimately got the extras they needed by asking their comely operations manager Veronica Nichols to do the approach.
Finding creative solutions to obstacles big and small has been a hallmark of Hardy and Packer's Atlanta-based production company, Rainforest Films. Their second feature film, Trois proved an under-the-radar success story, financed and released entirely outside the structure of mainstream American films. In 2000, Rainforest Films was 34th in the Hollywood Reporter's Top 500 Film Distributors list, with Trois proving to be the second highest-grossing independently distributed black film ever, and the fastest to earn $1 million.
That may not sound like much compared to the fortunes earned by big studio blockbusters, or even the grosses of an indie hit like Memento, which made around $25 million. But it's an impressive achievement for a two-man, shoestring operation like Rainforest Films, which hopes to repeat its success with its newest film, Pandora's Box. Rainforest Films offers an object lesson on skirting the Hollywood system and making and releasing movies on the retail level.
Whether in person or on their audio commentary for the Trois DVD, Hardy and Packer take pleasure in giving each other good-natured grief. Hardy teases Packer for the multiple takes it required to shoot the producer's brief cameo in Trois. Packer retaliates with tales of Hardy overspending to get a slow-motion shot.
But they have a classic working partnership. Hardy, 29 and single, is the artistic one, describing himself as a "free-spirited dreamer" driven by ideals and creative ambitions. Packer, 27 and married with a baby daughter, came up with the idea for Trois (he has the "story" credit under the name "Willpower"), but he maintains that he has the head for business and the appetite for the deal.
"I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and this allowed me to be one in a twisted, roundabout, entertainment industry- oriented sort of way." Nevertheless, Packer asserts, "The impetus behind us being filmmakers lies with Rob."
Hardy's interest in filmmaking began when he was growing up in Philadelphia. "I had a friend who set up battle sequences in his back yard with his toys, took pictures of them with a Polaroid camera, and put them on his refrigerator," Hardy recalls. "Seeing those Polaroid images really stuck with me, and that was kind of my introduction to film."
He attended The George School, a predominantly white prep school outside Philly, but took inspiration from Spike Lee, who inaugurated a new movement of African-American filmmaking in 1986 with She's Gotta Have It. Resolving to "make a film with black people in it," Hardy shot a short superhero spoof called "G-Man" while he was a high school senior. Just as Lee calls his films "A Spike Lee Joint," Hardy calls his "A Rob Hardy Move."
After graduation, Hardy took the advice of his late father and pursued a degree that he could fall back on if filmmaking didn't pan out. (Trois is dedicated to Hardy's father.) Hardy took up mechanical engineering at Florida A&M University, and that's where he met electrical engineering student William Packer. While still students, they shot a feature film about campus life called Chocolate City, a $20,000 production financed by money donated from other campus organizations and services from local businesses.
"Our lives consisted of Chocolate City, engineering and the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity -- in that order," Hardy says.
They screened Chocolate City in Tallahassee in September 1994 and shopped the film around among distributors in Los Angeles during their spring break the following year. They were fortunate enough to land a direct-to-video deal for the film, but very nearly lost it. Hoping to get a better offer, they continued to shop it around until the original offer was withdrawn.
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