One of cinema’s greatest powers is that it can make us care deeply about the plight of entirely invented characters, even when we’re more than aware of their fictitious nature. So when a film comes around which doesn’t use the term ‘based on a true story’ as a thinly veiled marketing ploy – throwing into stark relief the wrongs people are more than willing to do to one another for the love of drugs and money – it has the power hold an emotionally devastating mirror up to the ills of humanity. DN invited Director Floyd Russ to share how he brought the harrowing story of Jennifer Kempton’s experiences as a sex trafficking survivor in the USA to screen in his music video for Scott McFarnon’s Crazy Heart.
Crazy Heart deals with some very dark, true life material. How did you come to depict such an unrelenting series of events in a music video?
The idea is based off a Guardian piece on Jennifer Kempton. Jack Howard, EP at Mission Media, approached me about the video with the idea of basing it on Jennifer’s real life. He mentioned making it a documentary about her but I felt the Guardian piece already did that and I naturally gravitate towards the emotional heartbreak of how she was sold by someone she thought she loved. After two long and detailed calls with Jennifer herself I wrote a script that is based on actual events. The details in the video itself are all factual as she was a point of contact throughout our production. We had to sensor a few of the events and scale back as some of the horrific details were too strong to depict in a short video like this, perhaps even in any video.
We moved extremely fast because of Scott’s impending EP release date so we only had one week of pre-production. We were extraordinarily lucky to find all of our locations and cast in such a short time. Due to a tight budget, we could not travel to Columbus, Ohio so we shot the video on a Red Dragon with Lomo Anamorphic Lenses, using a variety of filters in two days near Coney Island and Brooklyn. However it was important that most of the locations look like they could be in any major US city. We recreated the Ganghouse in an empty brownstone in Bed Stuy.
Given the strong nature of the material were you concerned about not being able to fill the roles?
Absolutely, I really can’t stress enough how lucky I consider myself in regards to how fast the cast fell into place. It had to, due to our deadline, and it could have gone horribly wrong and we would have had to tweak the script and edit. But because it didn’t, the raw chemistry between Helen Stevens and William Joussett really shows – they’re amazing actors that deserve to be cast in bigger roles. I had them meet for coffee the night before the shoot and the next day I was shouting directions at them. The side-characters were pivotal as well, it was important to find actors with striking looks and faces, that are quick reads, but not caricatures – they had to feel real. Doug is the only one that stands out of course, to me, he embodies the devil himself actually, he’s more than just a tattoo gun for hire – he’s Jennifer’s nightmare.
During post how did you find the correct level of intensity for the abusive scenes to be both true to Jennifer’s ordeals but not result in something too challenging for audiences to watch?
Jennifer’s real story is filled with harrowing details we couldn’t shoot for this video so it was important to me to hint at these details and push the limits but at the same time not get to red band rating. Sometimes hinting at violence or showing the beginning and conclusion of it can be much more powerful as well – it has a stronger psychological effect on the viewer. It was very important that the film and edit would be non-linear, since this is basically a short film of the memories she is covering up and destroying by getting her Tattoo covered up. Adam Bazadona at Cut + Run was able to play with this a lot during the edit and did a fantastic job at using the song’s tempo changes to build emotional energy. Flash-cuts and non-linear editing help a lot with this, you have to balance these hard to watch moments and scenes with quick breaths of her alone on the street and back in the motel – these are not just for the viewer but also narrative hints about how every bad decision along the way led to the next.
What would you like audiences to take away from the Crazy Heart?
My goal for every piece I make is to have the viewer walk away from it wanting to talk about it. To inspire someone to tell others about what they saw means it struck a chord, whether good or bad even, to me the discourse itself is very important. Everything starts with discourse. I think if that happens, they will ultimately check out survivorsink.org and other important non-profits to help raise awareness and maybe even donate funds.
What new projects do you have coming up?
I’m currently writing a new feature and finishing a couple commercial projects for Volvo and Gillette. As well as pitching a docu-series always pitching…And most importantly, deciding what presents to get people for Christmas – that’s a lot of work.