Big vision, small budget

'Guerrilla filmmaker' ALvin Gray set out to make a movie about Baltimore street life for $100_ and nearly succeeded

April 24, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

It appeared that another body was about to turn cold on a hot summer night in East Baltimore. A middle-aged man stood tense as three dozen young men surrounded him in a back alley. He recognized a handful of them as the group he had earlier shooed away from loitering. They had returned for revenge - with reinforcements.

"We'll shoot you in the face!" they shouted as some seemed to reach for concealed weapons.

Just then, two patrol cars showed up. Everyone froze while police stared at the confrontation - and also at a track of spotlights on a nearby rooftop, loads of cable wire and someone barbecuing a few feet away.

"Hey Al!" one of the menacing young men hollered. "You need to get over here!"

A thin, young man in braids walked over and wondered why everything had stopped. After all, he hadn't yelled "Cut!" or "Take Five!"

That's when police met ALvin Gray, 21, an aspiring screenwriter and indie filmmaker from Baltimore. He was shooting a movie about the perils of urban teen life on a $100 budget (that later ballooned to $252). To make his film so cheaply, he borrowed equipment, found actors mostly on the networking Web site MySpace and ignored the need to secure permits to shoot on city property.

For some aspiring filmmakers, the project would have ended right there, off Cardenas Avenue. But as he has done often, Gray conveyed to the officers his cinematic vision - exploring residents' frustrations with gripping poverty and gangs gone wild. The officers gave a cautious nod before moving on.

Gray often wins over people with his passion, sometimes securing equipment and services for free, other times cutting deals for future payments once a project turns a profit. A video producer and editor, Gray is among a group of young artists who use the Internet for everything from casting to marketing to carry out "guerrilla filming."

"He's a rare breed," said Jerome "Ro" Brooks, maybe the most talented actor in Gray's latest project, having had roles in the television shows ER and The Practice. "He has the knowledge of how to put a film together without the direction of a school. He's so focused. Most people don't know what they want to do with their lives at 21."

Relatively inexpensive technology now enables those with no ties to Hollywood to make motion pictures. It's a dream pursued by many: Next month, for example, Fox launches a new reality show with Steven Spielberg, On the Lot, that will cull films from 12,000 people to select one for a $1 million deal from Dream- Works.

As always, fledgling filmmakers still need creativity, ingenuity, a gift of persuasion and a knack for risk taking - attributes of which Gray has plenty.

He traversed much of the Baltimore-Washington area to make his 81-minute film Torture, which he filmed from last June through January. During the process, he discovered that the region has a host of talented artists willing to lend their skills for the work and exposure. He said, even some gang members offered to help with the gunplay scenes, eager to show "how it's really done."

And when law enforcement officers weren't asking for cameo shots in the film, they were giving him the OK to shoot impromptu scenes, including one where he momentarily stopped traffic on Key Highway to shoot a scene where drug dealers are pulled over by police. In another, he filmed a scene of him walking around Fells Point with a sword, prompting residents to call police.

"That's what happened throughout Baltimore," said Gray, who now lives in Rosedale. He capitalizes the first two letters of his first name as a play on his nickname, Al. "People just took to me. Baltimore kind of carried me and let me do what I wanted to do, even though I shouldn't have been doing it."

A soft smile forms beneath Gray's trimmed mustache as his flowing braids frame his face. Before selling people on his vision, he was bent on making the film even if it meant doing so, he said, "with a camcorder and a lamp."

Torture is quality work, particularly considering that Gray never finished college. He attended the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex for half a semester before dropping out. His previous movie experience consisted of working as an extra on the sets of HBO's The Wire and the film Step Up, both filmed locally.

Gray's passion for filmmaking emerged during an audio-video class at Overlea High School, where he and friends learned to make commercials. That led to internships at local community access channels, where he got more hands-on experience.

That paved the way for Torture, named after a 1984 R&B song by the Jacksons, the grown-up version of the Jackson 5. The plot centers on a Baltimore teenager named Leon Fields Jr., an aspiring, introverted artist who seeks revenge against drug dealers who murdered his father. The film moves from a thought-provoking drama about how senseless violence can derail young dreams to a martial-arts display of fight scenes.

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