Independent filmmaker Damon Russell didn't originally set out to make his captivating 2011 docudrama Snow on tha Bluff. The Atlanta native and Georgia State University alumnus insists that the story found him.
Russell is referring to Curtis Snow, the English Avenue resident on whom the film's crack peddler/armed robber is based. Snow approached the director near the end of 2008 about making a documentary about his life living in the blighted west Atlanta community commonly referred to as "The Bluff."
After spending much of the past four years producing and promoting Snow on tha Bluff, Russell thinks he has found his niche — working with real people, whom he says, "no one else is interested in."
"It's risky because you don't always know what's going to happen, but when you get it, it's really genuine," he says. "You can always cast somebody to be a crackhead, but there's nothing like just having a crackhead or someone who robs people."
Despite his talent in capturing the Bluff's frontlines, Russell hasn't found a way to make a living entirely off of his own projects. Over the past six years, he's worked with various reality TV shows, including "Flip This House" and "Made." These freelance gigs, which aren't necessarily his own creations, have allowed him to earn a paycheck while honing his craft.
"I'm lucky, working in TV lets me get paid to do stuff like this," Russell says. "I learn and work with a lot of great producers and editors, but at the end of the day I wish I was in control and say what we shot."
His freelance jobs, especially his work as a producer on A&E's cinéma vérité investigative series "The First 48," have helped him to create his first noteworthy film, one that he's truly "proud of." Although Russell doesn't hand his subjects any kind of script, he constantly collaborates with them about what they're doing and saying on camera. Russell thinks Snow was a "natural" at being himself during filming, but admits that he may not always "find somebody exactly like that."
As Russell finalizes casting for his next full-length feature, an "unofficial sequel" to Snow on tha Bluff, he's looking to Atlanta's suburbs for his next Curtis Snow. One possibility is a recent college graduate with a fierce drug habit who's dealt painkillers to everyone from lawyers to soccer moms.
"It's another tale of how drugs — in this case prescription pills — rip a person's life and family apart," Russell says. "It deals with the underworld of Atlanta and such, but a different subculture. Snow on tha Bluff is about Curtis. This one has a little more of a suburban slant to it. It's just as hardcore out in the suburbs, actually, in certain parts."
Russell, who hopes to start filming in early 2013, was initially hesitant about making another film on a similar subject matter, but someone unexpectedly offered to fund a sequel. That helped, along with the fact that he felt like there was an untold story to be explored that entwined with the first film's themes.
"It's rare that you can have money in place, so I figured out a way that it would be interesting for me," he says. "People who start on prescription pills end up on heroin because it becomes cheaper than their very expensive habit. It's people from these affluent areas out of the city that end up down in the Bluff searching for heroin. It's all connected in a really fascinating way."