A reverie of images and sound, ‘Below Dreams‘ loosely follows the narratives of three very different people—Elliott, newly arrived from New York, single mother Leann, and unemployed father Jamaine—as they negotiate New Orleans’ streets, neighborhoods, and residents in search of an upward path to fulfilling their dreams. But as each character experiences the city’s (and life’s) realities, it becomes clear these hopes and dreams are no longer possible, and that with change must also come sacrifice. Garrett Bradley’s impressive debut feature is shot verité documentary style to provide an unpolished, affecting realness as we become immersed in the characters’ individual challenges and quests amid the relaxed, yet demanding urban backdrop of the Crescent City.
‘Below Dreams‘ screens as part of the Viewpoints Selections at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 in New York City. We sat down with the films Director Garrett Bradley and spoke about the changing nature of the city of New Orleans, opportunity for todays 20-somethings, filmmaking influences and more.
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Below Dreams’ at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival – HERE
This film was largely inspired by your conversations with fellow travelers while traveling to and from New Orleans. Speaking specifically as an objective person and not a filmmaker, what did you find to be the primary concern amongst those with whom you were speaking ?
Everybody wanted to be successful. Success is quantified in ways we can see but how we get to those things and what specifically they are to each individual is something people have issues with. Not everyone knows how to use their individualism to create personal success. Success has become this solid block centered around money or whatever else pop culture throws at us. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where the emphasis was on who you are, personally; how can your individual traits bring you your own success.
Did you see this concern transcend age?
I was speaking mostly with people who were my age, their early-mid 20’s. This was a very specific choice.
As a Director, how did you approach the non-professional members of the cast?
The way I was able to work with these actors bottom line dealt with who I am as an individual. I am a woman; I am a black person; I also come from New York City and got a good education here. If you look at the three different characters (a single mother, an entitled floater kid and a young man trying to find a job in Louisiana where his race and class act against him), I was able to pull parts of myself in order to relate to each. This also enabled a certain amount of trust while we worked together. It was about 1/2 a year of spending time with each other and hanging out while we worked on a script and the dialogue.
I am not too familiar with New Orleans (although I am very keen on getting to know the city in the near future), but I have read about artists and filmmakers migrating down there a lot recently. In your opinion and experiences, what is it about the city that is such a draw to the artistic community?
It is twofold. The migratory patterns moving down there, and cities around the South, have to do with the economy. We see this happen every 10 years or so, where certain places get too expensive and people, like myself, have to find new ones to live in order to do their work. That is not why I am in New Orleans, though. I am there because it is the South. It is the kernel of American history and the kernel of my history. All of the issues are right there in front of you. They are very visible and have not changed much. I see it as this unchanged genesis of our culture.
Much of the post Katrina development of New Orleans has ultimately caused significant displacement of the New Orleans native population in that the city has (and is) being rebuilt in a way to cater to the high end crowd as opposed to helping those with roots within the community. We see this all around the country, albeit in most cases not by way of natural disaster or tragedy, in places like Brooklyn and Austin (for example) How do you see the current trajectory of New Orleans? Do you see it as a sustainable environment for the artistic community?
I cannot speak for whom the city of New Orleans wants to become, but I think that sustainability from an artists perspective does, and always should, come from the work an artist does as an individual. I do not see us as being a collective group. All of us have different causes and motivations to do the work we do. If someone is in New Orleans as an artist I would hope they were there because they were interested in the subject matter that exists in New Orleans and not because of a need to pay rent.
What was your strategy is presenting and maintaining the strong sense of place that exists in ‘Below Dreams’?
We had 2 cinematographers. With Milena Pastreich, who did most of the city shooting, we worked together, taking many photos and video on my phone showing where the eye needs to be. With Brian C. Miller Richard, we did more of the controlled and traditional setups.
Conceptually, what was important to me, was the personal space and public space that ultimately creates the on-screen world and allowing these two things to really feel like they are one. What led me from place to place is where the characters need to be; where the space is these characters naturally inhabit. This is a reflection of the city and that is what keeps people divided.
Technically, what kind of camera setups were you using?
We shot on two Canon 7D hand held rigs. Everything was wireless. No monitors or anything. We had Zeiss CP2 lenses which are really beautiful glass. My friend was booming and we had a lot of lavs.
How big was the crew?
In a few places you utilized long, uninterrupted takes. Did this come organically specific to this film or do you draw influence from the long take approach to filmmaking?
The story and the message are what drives the technique. The idea is that we have people who are saying things that are important and we need to listen to them. When someone is finished getting their point across that is when we cut away. There are times when you are standing on the corner and someone may just start talking to you. Even if you do not want to talk you should be mindful of what is being said. In the bus station scene, the man talking is discussing important things like how rent has tripled since Katrina and introducing us to a lot of the issues occurring in New Orleans. As a filmmaker I felt this was an opportunity to not let people walk away.
In general my filmmaking influences come from 1970s American Cinema and the likes of Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Costa, John Cassavettes and Antonioni. The spirit of these filmmakers speaks to me. This no nonsense, no bullshit approach has always drawn me. Working with people within your community and within natural environments with a not-going-to-wait mentality.
How has the experience of making ‘Below Dreams’ influenced your own outlook toward the nature of opportunity in America? Did you find yourself believing one thing when you started and something different upon completion?
What has always stuck with me is that this film is not providing answers. It is adding to a pre-existing conversation about people in their 20’s. History is subjective in the way we perceive what happens. My generation is going to be based on the iconography and imagery that exists. I am simply trying to diversify that space.
About The Filmmaker
Garrett Bradley lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is the recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award, The Lynn Weston Fellowship, The Motion Picture Association of America Award, The Mary Pickford Award, and several academic fellowships. From 2003–2004, Bradley worked as the post-production assistant to filmmakers Laura Poitras and Linda Goode Bryant on the Emmy Nominated-film, Flag Wars. Her first feature length film, Below Dreams, was selected as one of ten for the 2013 IFP Narrative Lab. Bradley has made 24 short films and one feature.