Author - Gabrielle Alexandra Smith

Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote On The Open House

Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote are the Directors, Writers, and Actors for the newly released Netflix film “The Open House”. The film stars “13 Reasons Why” star Dylan Minnette. Dylan plays a young male named Logan who tries to handle grief after losing a close family member. While trying to close with his lose, he experiences episodes of paranoia, anxiety, and other issues. His mother tries to help him in this hard time as she too has lost someone. Both characters work together in efforts to strengthen their bond


ATM: What was your reason for writing and directing this film?

Matt: Suzanne and I have always wanted to be filmmakers. A few years back I had started writing screenplays. I decided rather than send the screenplays off to people that I wanted to wake up to myself every day. I have learned from years of acting you cannot wake up to choose to go on set. Whereas, in writing you can wake up and choose to work. I had this idea that until I get this break, that I want to be making content. When I met Suzanne, she was the same way. We decided to do this together. We had it out to a lot of investors but figured out that was not the best route.

ATM: How long did it take for the filming process of The Open House?

Matthew and Suzanne: We prepped for three weeks. We divided the shooting schedule in two parts. Everything was a total of four months.

ATM: What personality traits did you imagine the main characters to possess?

Suzanne: The characters are going through loss and grief in the entire movie. This is a big theme we wanted to carry throughout the movie. One thing we talked about before writing it was that people deal with grief differently. For Logan, we felt a lot of the grief came out in paranoia and anxiety. Also, blaming his mother for issues. For Naomi, we really wanted to portray a sense of denial, but also loneliness.

Matt: Yes, loneliness is a good one. I think loneliness in an awkward mind can be projected as selfishness if it is not handled correctly. We wanted to see that side of a human dealing with grief where it does not look all pretty.

Suzanne: Especially when you have a son. She lost a husband and he lost a father. We wanted to show how they both supported each other with grief.

ATM: Describe how both of you brainstormed and wrote the screenplay for this film?

Matt: We were both working full time. We would go to our day jobs. We would come home at night to watch all scary movies: thrillers, horrors, and psychology thrillers. We were trying to figure out the type of movie we wanted to make. I had a concept that already creeps me out about open houses. We both decided we wanted to ground it. We would go to our jobs full time, come home watch movies, drink wine, and work through things. It was a magical process. To come home and do what you love to do.

ATM: How come the killer{s} face was never really revealed? Was it the handyman?

Matt: We want the audience to really see how two people experience grief through their point of view. Everyone is kind of a suspect in your life and everyone wants to be close with you, but you don’t want to be close. There is a lot of that paranoia. Logan’s paranoia comes from that grief. We wanted to leave it to the audience for suspense.

Suzanne: In filmmaking, a person should walk out of the theater or living room feeling angry, sad, happy, scared, frustrated, and hopefully talk about it. We purposely did not want to tell anyone who the killer was, but we wanted people to make up who the killer was for themselves. We have gotten some amazing fans writing to us about their own ideas and plots about who the killer could have been.

Matt: To answer your question more about why we did not expose the killer is because we wanted to make a film about death, which something that was very fascinating to us. We have both experienced loss in our lives. This man could be a killer that goes from open house to open house killing people. He is also represented as death.

ATM: Why did you decide to kill the dad off? How do you think it would have been if the mother died off instead?

Suzanne: The dad dying shows how death moves into the lives of the characters. This is the reason their lives had changed. For us this had to happen. I have never thought about that. Really good question about if the mother would have died.

Matt: I think there are a lot of tests on psychological relationship between mother and son. Also, between father and daughter. Originally, this was a mother and daughter story. As we talked more about the psychological angle of the story, we wanted to break the bond of the father and son. If it does not exist anymore, then it is destroyed. Putting a mother and a son together who love each in a hard situation but making it even harder because the son does not have a father to go to. The mother does not have her husband to go to. You kind of turn these two people against each other.

ATM: What scenes do you feel you did the best in as the directors and writers in the film?

Matt: Hard question.

Suzanne: That’s a very hard question. Our cinematographer brought our vision to life. I think we accomplished it.

Matt: There was one day when we did not have our crew with us because everyone had the day off. We had to get a hand full of people to help on set. We had about five people for the scene where the guy gets into bed with the mother. We were not only directing, but we were doing a lot.

ATM: In most horror films, we are expected to know what happens next, but this film keeps a person on their feet to wonder what happens next? How did you do this?

Matt: We really love films that connect the audience. A lot of it came from the research we did and the films we watched.

This film challenges the relationship norms between mother and son, which is not common in horror films. Also, this film allows people to reimage how a mother lives without her husband and how a son continues to grow as a male without with a father. The end of “The Open House” will leave you confused about the killer, but in the mist of this confusion an individual should walk away from the film sad, relieved, and scared.

ATM Talks With Hollywood Costume Designer Betsy Heimann

Betsy Heimann explains her role as the costume designer on 2018 film “The Commuter.” She served as the costume designer for Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee Liam Neeson. The film is about an insurance salesman, Michael played by Liam Neeson, who takes a daily commute home. A random and suspicious stranger contacts him. Neeson plays an insurance salesman forced to uncover the identity of a hidden passenger that rides the train with him to the last stop. Heimann takes us through the process and preparation of working as Liam Neeson’s costume designer. Aside from Heimann working as the costume designer on this film, she has worked on Oscar Winning and Golden Globe winning movie “Pulp Fiction” and Netflix’s T.V. series “Godless.”

ATM: How did you think to create the costumes on the film “The Commuter” for Liam Neeson?

Betsy Heimann: I have a long-standing relationship with Mr. Neeson. This is our 4th or 5th movie together. With any film, I read the script. I think about who his character is and who was he yesterday. Also, I contemplate what his life is like. I built a closet for him. He has to sleep in things and wake up. You help the actor get on his journey the film takes him on you do that by reading the script.

ATM: Has there ever been a time when you crafted a piece of clothing and went back to make any additions to it?

Betsy Heimann: Oh, you are always doing that. It is not a special thing. Things change all the time in the film business. You must be flexible and be ready for anything at all time.

ATM: As a costume designer for Liam in this film, how long did it take you?

Betsy Heimann: It is different for every movie. In this case, it was about six weeks total to get everything together and get it made. I had to ship it to London. I would go to New York it fit him to get our ideas together, then I’ll come back to Los Angeles to put it into motion.

ATM: What helped you brainstorm for “The Commuter?”

Betsy Heimann: I do a lot of research. I research stuff like who rides the trains in New Jersey and the appearance of the different commuters. I research everything on the internet, books, and libraries. Just the lifestyle of the character am dealing with any story.

ATM: What was the strategic process of preparing as Liam’s costume designer for “The Commuter?”

Betsy Heimann: You take where any character lives and you take his economic status. What can he afford? What kind of a suit would he wear? This is how you brainstorm stuff. You break it down. In a film like “The Commuter” there is not much research. I work with the production designer to figure out what colors and what made I want to create.

ATM: After you were done with this film was there any new knowledge you learned?

Betsy Heimann: I think you learn new things every time. You learn how a cinematographer photographs. You learn about the person that does a whole shot. I learn from every job. While you are watching the film you might learn that you do not like green on an actor (chuckles). For me, I don’t learn until it is over, and I see the result.

ATM: Are you more analytical when you watch the film compared to a normal moviegoer?

Betsy Heimann: I think you cannot help but be. For me I feel you are definitely going to watch your work but when it is a good story. I am an avid movie goer. I love movies and going to the movies. I think that when the story is good you start to forget about the costumes and just get stuck into the story.

Den of Thieves’ Christian Gudegast

Director and Writer of “Den of Thieves” Christian Gudegast talks with ATM about the reality of being a director and writer. “Den of Thieves” is a newly released film that stars Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and 50 Cent; Curtis Jackson. The film is a gritty crime sage that follows a superior unit of LA County Sheriff Department and Los Angeles’ most notorious and successful bank robbery crew. “Den of Thieves” is circled around this notorious bank robbery crew’s mission to plan a heist on the Federal Reserve Bank. Gudegast discusses with ATM the brainstorming and rough cuts dealing with the making of the film.

ATM: Take it back to the beginning of the making of Den of Thieves.

Writing Process

Christian Gudegast: I first started writing the script in 2004. Most of the characters are based on people I already knew. I wanted to make a film based in Los Angeles, a crime saga revolving around these criminals and police that I knew. I saw a photograph in the Los Angeles Times of a Federal Reserve Bank money tub that had 30 million dollars of cash. This image fascinated me. I started researching this Federal Reserve Bank. I decided to write this story about the intersecting lives of cops and criminals around a heist of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Pre-Production Process

We went into pre-production in September of 2016 in Atlanta. The movie is set in Los Angeles, the big challenge was finding locations to somehow make a movie that is about LA in Atlanta. The weather is 200 miles inland from the coast. It is 1200 feet, basically a city in the forest. That was very difficult. After driving through the city for six months we were able to find all the few locations that did look similar to Los Angeles. I think we pulled it off. We shot the movie in Atlanta from February through May and in the end, we shot for a week in Los Angeles.

ATM: Before production, what were your prefigured thoughts from the beginning? How did you think the movie was going to end up? Did it change along the way?

Christian Gudegast: Yes and no. The look and style of the film were established long before production. I am a photographer, so I went out to photograph the entire script in still photographs. I went to the actual locations with the actual characters the movie is based on. I photographed them in their environment with the same lens we shot the film with. The same look and the same angles. So, the look, feel, music, and soundscape was all sort of pre-planned. What changed was the realities of production. You must think on your feet because you are not able to do certain things for many reasons. So, we had to adjust along the way here and there. That obviously did change the way we shot scenes. Some scenes we could not shoot, or we had to alter how we were shooting certain sequences.

For example, the Federal Reserve Bank sequence, we are first introduced to it by Merrimen when he is talking about it.  We cut certain shots of the Federal Reserve while Merrimen is in the warehouse explaining to his fellow criminal how the Federal Reserve works. That used to be one long steady camera shot that floated through the entire Federal Reserve. One week before we were going to shoot that, the Federal Building in Atlanta had an active shooting situation. It was canceled days before we were able to shoot there.

ATM: What inspired you to write “Den of Thieves?”

Christian Gudegast: What really inspired me were the people that I knew and their personal stories about their lives in the role of cops and robbers. I wanted to set a film in Los Angeles that was real and based on the stories of these real people that I knew.

ATM: When you sat down and saw the finished product of this film. In what ways did you self-critique yourself?

Christian Gudegast: In an endless number of ways. I’ll say it is about 80 percent of the initial vision. The challenge as a filmmaker is to bridge the gap between the initial vision and the final product. There are so many challenges in production and post-production with budget and locations. It’s just the realities of production and schedules of actors. You must make changes along the way. That is just the reality of the film business. I am my own harshest critic but knowing the challenges of making this film we are all very happy with the outcome.

ATM: There have been many heist thriller movies. In this film, were you trying to re-invent or create a new way for us to perceive these types of films?

Christian Gudegast: Create a new way. We wanted it to be original to ourselves. We did tons and tons of research about the Federal Reserve. We worked with armies and consulting tech advisors to figure out the most possible to pull this out.

ATM: Do you think you reached the goal of showing us a new way?

Christian Gudegast: I do.

ATM: Describe the preparation for the Alameda Corridor scene.

Christian Gudegast: We prepped that months in advance. WE trained all the actors in a facility and on land about 40 minutes outside of Atlanta. They trained there ass off for months. Merrimen and all the criminals were training on one side. The cops were training on the other side. We kept the two crews separate. During training, we had them do that action over and over again. When we got to go to the location in the middle of a city, we took over three city blocks and we blocked all off. We put in 250 cars. By the time we got to the set, all the actors did all the stunts because they knew what we were doing.

ATM: Why did you feel 50 Cent; Curtis Jackson was the right one to play Enson?

Curtis Jackson “50 Cent”

Christian Gudegast: Enson, the character as written on the page was very tough and very intimidated. He was the muscle and strength around Merrimen. When I met Curtis, he was exactly that person from the streets. He is a big tough dude who is absolutely totally real. He had a certain presence and energy to him that was like the character written on the page.

ATM: Not for just 50 Cent, how do you know for sure O’Shea Jackson Jr., Pablo Schreiber, Gerard Butler were the right fit to play the main characters? 

Gerard Butler

Christian Gudegast: We spent a long time casting for the film and we went through ever actor and character very carefully. When I met Gerard, he was the first to become attached to the film. We went to dinner several times to talk about the movie and the character. As we sat there to talk about the character, he would start to behave in certain ways that I envisioned him to.

Oshea Jackson Jr.

Oshea’s character Donnie  on the script was a difficult role to play. He had to be streets, tough, very intelligence, but at the same time he had to have an incident quality to him. He has all of these things. Oshea is funny, younger, and very very bright and cool. He is from LA and the streets. His dad is from NWA. He has that street cool kind of vibe to him. He checked all the boxes.

Pablo Schreiber

Pablo, who plays Merrimen is hyper intelligent and very intimidating. Pablo was all of these things. He was a D1 athlete and played basketball in college. He is very fit and strong. He has a piercing stare. He has great authority, which is exactly Merrimen’s character. That was the second I knew he was the guy.

ATM: Many people might not understand exactly what a director goes through. Take us through a full week of what you did as the director “Den of Thieves?”


Christian Gudegast: A week of being a director for pre-production is the following:  you’re up every day at about anywhere between the hours of 5am and 6:30am in the morning. Then you get to the production office. The production office is broken down into departments. You have the props, arts, stunts, hair, and makeup departments. We would have meetings with all the heads of departments to have updates to discuss the status of locations. We went over location scouts, finding where we were going to shoot the film. Once we found the location we would talk to the art departments about their sets. Sometimes we would have to built the sets and figure how to dress the location. We would paint and add props. We would cast every day. The casting roles deals with the speaker roles all the way down to the extras. For example, in the Rivera Bank scene, there were several extras there and there were people like bank tellers, customers, and security guard. All these roles the director selects. People come in to meet with you and it takes a long time for every role. You are sitting in with 10 to 20 to 200 people. You slowly meet all of them and choose the people that are going to be in the film.


When you get into production, depending if you are shooting at night or day, usually we are shooting during the day. You are up at about 5am and you are on set at about 6:30am-7am. You quickly grab a bite to eat on the set. I always walk the set to check it for the art department. I check how the set looks and to see if it is dressed properly. If it is all correct and if all the details are there. Then I talk to the DP and view the shoots for the day for this set. Then, I go to the actors who are at hair and makeup currently. We talk about the scenes we are about to shoot. When they are ready, they come onto the set at 8:30am. Then we start blocking the set and walk and talking in the scenes. The crew is watching us do this. While we are rehearsing the camera team makes marks on the ground. They mark where the actors are and will be as they go through the dialogue and scene. That is for the camera teams focus polar.

Post Production

During post production, I would get up later at 9am to 9:30am. I would get to the office at about 11:30am. We would review everything we shot with my team of editors. We review all the different shots, angles, and performances. Then we start selecting our favorite shots and performances, and line readings from certain characters. We start to assemble the scenes. Then we go to about 7pm or 8pm at night. When I get home at night I take with me a lot of the footage and I am constantly reviewing everything. The coverage of the scenes and the actor’s performances. I make selections of what I like. I send my notes to the editors in the morning. It goes like this for about six months. When we are done with picture editing, we move to sound. We bring in the sound music and sound effects. If any dialogue from the production sound is unclear, then mix together all the dialogue, sound effects, background sound, and the music. Then we do the DI, which is when you color the film.  Finally, you do a final pass of the photography of the movie.






Writer Quinn Wilson And His New Film Company

The previous Chicagoan filmmaker Quinn Wilson talks with ATM about his new non-profit film production company What Matters Productions. Wilson’s film company’s goal is to connect with brands to fund productions and focuses on global issues that need more attention. Wilson takes us on a journey about the how, why, and what involving What Matter’s Productions. In addition to running to a non-profit film company, Wilson recently earned a television writing job with Comedy Central. Wilson discusses how he received the job and working as a CEO.

ATM: Tell us about your new non-profit company What Matters Productions.

QW: What Matters Production Incorporated goal is to match sponsors and brands to help tell their stories. For example, I was at a refugee camp in Greece February 2017. We made a four-minute documentary about the refugees in the camp and we told their story. There are companies that share our video content online with their audience. We have done work all around Chicago. The brand is getting two pieces of viral exposure.

 ATM: How did you get the vision for this company?

QW: It took a while. It was not instant. Originally, the very first piece we did was called “Calvin’s Story.” This documentary focused on my friend who was surviving homelessness in Chicago. He was a black gay male living in America. We did the film to highlight what he went through. We distributed online and raised eight thousand dollars for him to attend school. He ended up finding a stable house. We ended up giving the rest to a homeless shelter. We discovered awesomeness about making these types of films. We are good at making these types of films. We raised 20 thousand dollars for the film in Greece. We love telling these stories through film. We are looking for sponsors and brand partners to make a taxable donation.

ATM: How do you feel What Matters Production can change the world?

QW:  We all want to take our skills and use it in a way to inspire the world. We can be a small piece of this larger ripple. There are so much amazing non-profits out in this world doing amazing things. The business world in many ways is broken. The government has found ways to continue spending money on the military to control the power. We want to help them tell their stories. We want to highlight these other institutions and organizations work.

ATM: Name some accomplishments that your company has already received?

QW: We have raised over 25 thousand dollars for homelessness in Chicago. This made homelessness history. These are monetary achievement. We made a project urgings government to keep antibiotics away from farm animals. Antibiotics are inside the cows. When kids eat the cow meat, they to get the antibiotics inside them. The bacteria become resistant. Two million are getting sick and 23 thousand people are dying because of this. We made this film with the US Pirg and they used this PSA film to lobby to the government and private businesses. Since this film, businesses like Chick Fil La, Burger King, KFC, Subway, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut have resolved antibiotics in our meat. We saved lives.

ATM: Any upcoming projects?

QW: We just signed a project for Family Matters, a non-profit on the Northside. A lower income neighborhood in Chicago located in Rogers Park. An afterschool program in a hotel talking about micro issues with racial inequality. This film will come out at the end of February 2018. We are about this embark on a trip to Europe. Also, we are planning to do work in Sierra Leone. We will do work in Kenya, working with Africans. We plan to do work in India, in efforts to help domestic abuse by teaching woman to drive. We teach them how to drive so they can get out of their abusive relationships.

ATM: Since the first moment you picked up a camera to film, did you ever think your film career would reach this level?

QW: That is a good question. No one has asked me that. No, I did not. I started in 8th grade, I did a rock cycle science project. Instead of writing a paper, I decided to turn it into a made. At this moment I decided I wanted to do this the rest of my life. This was so fun. I thought features and comedy would be in my film career.

 ATM: Discuss your Comedy Central writing job?

QW: IO Comedy Network was co-hosting an event the New York Television Festival. At this event was Comedy Central, ICS, TruTV, Mosaic, and a lot more. I pitched to these companies at this event. Comedy Central said my work was great and asked me to write for them. They signed me to a contract, wanting me to pitch them stories. If they like it, then they’ll pay me.

 ATM: Thanks for letting ATM interview you.

QW: You are welcome.

Bolivian filmmaker Violeta Ayala

Bolivian filmmaker Violeta Ayala fears for her life after she exposes the truth of the Bolivian government and society.

Bolivian filmmaker Violeta Ayala talks with ATM about two of her latest documentaries, “The Fight” and “Cocaine Prison.” Her first film highlights the harsh and discriminations of people with disabilities in Bolivia. Ayala follows a group of protestors travelling to La Paz in efforts to speak with President Evo Morales about this issue. While on their travels, they were faced with riot police and physical beatings by Bolivian police officers. In “Cocaine Prison” a brother, Hernan and his young sister, Daisy are forced to be succumbed in an environment filled with drugs. A brother lives his life as a drug mule and gets caught up into this lifestyle. Daisy fights to help me get free from one of Bolivia’s most notorious prison, San Sebastian. While her brother is in prison trying to get free, the sister is faced with a lot of temptations to join the cocaine trafficking industry. Both films unleash the truth about the Bolivian government and society.

ATM: Take us back to when you first got the idea for this project.

Violeta Ayala: It was a film that was not planned. We were in Bolivia also working on my other film “Cocaine Prison.” I remember a friend of mine told me about people were hanging on the bridges. I said to myself “why are they doing this?” What’s going on?” It was a striking image seeing people hanging in their wheel chairs. They had been protesting for months in La Paz, not far from my house. I saw them, but I only put money in their cups. When I started talking to them about hanging on buildings, I realized it was a problem. They said they are going to go to La Paz to protest. People in wheel chairs with no arms and no legs going all the way to La Paz. I did not think this was possible.

The press started to accuse me as being someone from the United States who financed this protest, paying 100 dollars per person to protest. If that was truth, then I would have the whole country protesting. We walked with them for 35 days. We believed that when we got to La Paz the President Morales would speak with them to make peace. It was a physical wall for them not to enter. For 110 days they slept on the streets of La Paz and fought against the government for their rights. It was unbelievable. They took pictures of my partner and I and saying we were CIA agents. I am an indigenous woman from Bolivia with only a little of privilege. The government could not stop the protest by force. The harder they tried, the harder they fought. I came in the protest with pity, and I came out seeing they had so much pride and humility. These were the strongest people I had met in my life. It was an eye opener as a human being.

ATM: What emotions stirred in you when you witnessed how the disabled people were treated?

Violeta Ayala: It let me see how discrimination started. I realized the government started using a lot of the media. The Bolivian media is pretty much in the hands of the government. They say people with disabilities have free houses and they are working with the Americans. Then you see people on the streets. I made this film to show how people with disabilities were living one thing and how the media was influencing other things. Police officers were shouting “Go back home. You all are worse than animals!” In this moment, I realized you hate what is different than you. No one ever thinks you can be in this position. Also, that the day you could become a person with disabilities. It was sad to me to see how police were hitting people with disabilities.

It is disgusting to witness this sort of treatment toward people who are at a physical disadvantage. The violence in the film is only ten percent of what really happens. I put the camera down shooting how a police officer was kicking a man in a wheel chair, who was paraplegic, saying “Get up, I know you can run.” We all know they cannot run. The police want to provoke us. For me as a woman you are subjected to sexual violence. The policeman grabs them by their asses and their shirts. It is about showing your power over people you think you can oppress. People fail on supporting people with disabilities, not just the government, everyone should be there protesting. We are all guilty for this moment in history for Bolivia.

ATM: How do you think the Bolivian police, media, and government can stop abusing their power?

Violeta Ayala: This is happening all over the world. People who are black and have a disability are treated the worse. We are in the world where everything is shaking. I made this film, so the police officers can reflect on themselves, to see who the animals really are. A lot of people question me in my work. They ask why I talk about racism and why I talk about this. I say because it hardens my life today. If we do not challenge the police or challenge the power, then we will not see change. The children of the police can look at these policemen and say, “This is the kind of father I have.” I do not believe in being politically correct. I do not care about the power because it does not care about me.

ATM: In the film, there is scene with a disability man crawling on his bare hands and knees in front of police barricades, what was your thought process when you directed this scene? Did you at any moment wanted to put down your camera to stop filming and help?

Violeta Ayala: No, because on this day, they all were naked as a way of protest. They showed the reality of them. This is a way they are using mechanisms to make attention. I must tell what is happening. I am not there to stop what is happening.

ATM: If you were in the same position as the Bolivian disability people, do you think you could be courageous in protesting as they did?       

Violeta Ayala: I am getting a lot of threats to my life saying I am ruining President Morales government and giving him a bad face by making this public. They say they are going to kill my daughter. I found out through investigations that there were Facebooks accounts from the government palace. This is very scary. I would have the strength to protest because I have the strength to document it. If I knew it in the end maybe I would not because when you must give so much. I cannot put them in my shoes because I am not a (pause) well I also have a disability. I have a muscle thing. I cannot tie shoes. It took me a while to dress myself when I was little. I do not think they even knew what they were getting into when they started this protest. They in a way made the government of Bolivia naked. They took all their clothes of the government of Bolivia.

ATM: Why do you think “Cocaine Prison” is the first film that combines cocaine and poverty together? Why do you think other filmmakers have not yet explored this idea?

Violeta Ayala: I think that war on drugs is a global problem. We talk a lot about drug addiction because it mostly effects the white population. We do not talk about the rest. It is nice to talk about Pablo Escobar and that kind of glamorization of the drug trade, yet we do not talk about who are in the middle. It was very important for me to tell the point of view of the ants, which is where it started. I did to not try to explain everything without saying what happened to Nixon and how he affected what happened in Bolivia. He declared the war on drugs. I wanted to focus on the problem in my country. I wanted to show how Mario and Daisy are like the little ants in this business, they are replaceable.

People have this imagination about the drug world, but we are dehumanized. We have lost our humanity in the eyes of the mainstream media. I wanted to show we have families and this is a global business that effects everyone. I would like to see a film like this made in the United States about the key to drug trafficking. I wanted to show the big complex problem through their eyes. The war on drugs is about control, racism, colonization, and slavery.

ATM: While shooting “Cocaine Prison” were their new things you learned about your hometown Bolivia?

Violeta Ayala: I learned the prison was like a microcosm of the country. Inside the prison you have the worst and best parts of humanity. I learned that corruption is much more serious. I do not believe we will have democracies in Latin America until the war on drugs is over in countries like Bolivia, Columbia, and Peru. Cocaine money founds our economics and underground economy. It is inheritably corrupted and so everything will be based on that. Everything is a hypocrisy. The war on drug is not just harming the Latino and black population in the United States, but it is harming all the Americas. We cannot see a future. The rich just become richer. The ones who are benefiting are politicians, bikers, and the economy. Only the one percent.

ATM: Honestly, do you ever think the fight against the war on drugs will ever end? At least in your lifetime?

Violeta Ayala: Maybe not in my lifetime. People take drugs and don’t even know why or what they are taking. In 100 years, we will look at people and ask what we have done to our children. Everyone is suffering. I deeply believe the good is always better than the bad. In the past alcohol was prohibited and it did not make any sense. We can fight this. We need to stop making people of color and minorities guilty of everything. They cannot keep paying this price. You will go do these things to have opportunities to live life. Think about crack, you go to jail. Whereas if you were caught with cocaine you did not. Most of the people with crack were black. This cycle of violence, control, and power keeps reciprocates to all the Americas. I have not seen white people in Bolivian prisons. They never got caught. They are the ones doing it and benefiting. It is not about catching anyone. It is about control and pretending to stop war on drugs.

Interview with City of Trees Producer Lance Kramer

Lance Kramer was the producer of “City of Trees,” a documentary about three men working in Washington, D.C. to help make this city’s urban forestry and environment become better. The film also follows the life of the directors and how they helped capture the transformation. After the three workers lost their jobs, they must find ways to support themselves. Additionally, this film circles around a time where there was a lot of needs for the community environmentally and socially, and explores how people dealt with the needs.

ATM: Take a moment to tell us about your film ‘City of Trees.’

City of Trees is a documentary that follows the stories of three men who were employed through a job training program for people who have been out of work. The job training involves them helping DC’s urban forestry in certain neighborhoods and planting. The film follows the directors of the program and community leaders as everyone tries to navigate this moment where there were a lot of profound needs to make a change in the community.

ATM: In the film, Michael seemed to hesitate when applying for the federal government job because he knew because of his past it would not get looked at. Do you think it is unfair for society to limit ex-convicts who honestly want a second chance at earning government or federal jobs?

Lance Kramer: Yes, and I do not think it is just a concern. I think it is stupid. You see someone like Michael who is attractive, smart, hardworking, and has a resume. Michael did something in which he did not wish he did. He paid his debt, he did all the things by society standards, yet he still carries his prison self each day. The society or economy cannot benefit from this kind of behavior. He challenges the stereotype of ex-cons or returning residents. The stereotype of ex-convicts being tagged as lazy, not willing to work, bad people, wanting handouts and not trustworthy. These are institutional barriers that Michael faces. Additionally, his arrest becomes an asset.

ATM: If you had to put yourself in one of Charles’ or Michael’s life after finding out your pay stopped, what effect do you think it would have on you personally?

Lance Kramer: Good Question. I had that type of situation happen to me where I had a job that was funded by a grant and the grant ended and there wasn’t a continuation. When that happened to me I did not feel good about it, but I had the means to move forward and go on to take a positive next step. So, in some parts, on a personal level for making a film, my brother Brandon Kramer and I have both been in situations that had some similarities to that predicament. It ended up being the type that was not catastrophic to navigate because of the socio-economic system we have. We are respected by many people in our lives and that makes us unaware of just how hard it could have been. But I think if it was me in their shoes I would not do as well as they did because they are very much stronger than me.

ATM: Your film City of Trees also subverts the stigma that a black male that dresses in baggy clothes or chooses to wear a snapback, durag, or has braids is a threat to society. Also, that because he dresses like this he is expected to be violent and insubordinate against authority. Charles attire can make him get viewed as a thug, which he is not, but for so long society has put this idea in people’s heads. This film overturns these cultural norms and stigmas against black males in society and in America. What is your perspective?

Lance Kramer: I really appreciate that the film resonated with you in this way. To us, Charles is a hero. He is someone who wakes up every day fighting for his daughter to have a better life than he did. He’s trying to be a responsible leader in his workplace, and he’s doing everything in his power to be a positive, productive, and peaceful member of his community. When you see someone on the Metro, you never know all the things that person has going on in their life. Perhaps, based on stereotypes that exist in our society, we may draw assumptions about the people we encounter, which may or may not be true. I hope the film challenges or even subverts these stereotypes and helps remind us to see and get to know each person as an individual. That’s something I love about documentaries. Rather than generalize or stereotype, documentaries allow us to get to know someone on an intimate level and have a personal window into the complexities of their lives.

ATM: What were ways through which you did not let your white privilege get in the way of the ideal message of the film?

Lance Kramer: We tried to allow ourselves to be challenged by a lot of different people. Along the way, we had 85 rough screenings. We brought in all kinds of people, filmmakers, activists, friends, family, community members, and workshops in other cities. We had a lot of different people watching while in progress. We never wanted people to tell us about how to make the film, but we were curious in trying to understand our blind spot. A lot of times we get feedback, it was hard because you would think you had done this already and realize if there was something you missed.

ATM: Before you gained a relationship with the members in the film seeing how they lived, did you self-consciously for any moment feel lucky because of your white privilege. Almost like you dodged a bullet because of your life. Did you feel lucky or grateful about having grown up in a more privileged family or lifestyle?

Lance Kramer: That’s a good question. I can say a lot about that. I could not ask for better parents. Every day I feel grateful for my family. My grandfathers are still alive. I have a large extended family, food on the table, car to drive, safe community to live in, good friends, books, cute dog, all the good things of life. I took these things for granted while growing up. Today, I am little more conscious, but I still take it for granted. Does it make me feel guilty, well, that’s another question.

ATM: Well, does it?

Lance Kramer: Yes, because I think that sometimes you feel guilty. Sometimes you are like that’s not right, I don’t deserve this, this is my own attitude toward that type of dynamics if given more certain privileges in this world. Listen, I am not a multi-millionaire lying in a mega mansion, I am not a Wall Street executive but the privileges I do have make me feel guilty.

ATM: Do you think the bad effects of D.C. will stop overshadowing the parts and the people in this city that try to do better?

Lance Kramer: Good Question. I hope the positive story helps. We were going through a really hard time. If I had an answer to shift this paradigm, I would be spending every living minute to solve it. I don’t have an answer. I’m curious now that we have talked for a long time, what are your impressions of the film?

ATM: Usually in documentaries when they are filming about struggles we always prefigure the ending. For example, mostly in films in Charles’ situation, we would say “Oh, Charles is going to be okay.” You and your brother let us see the reality of it. There is a stigma in D.C. and other parts of black neighborhoods in America that police do not come to these places, whereas, in a white neighborhood they would come faster. So, Michael not wanting to call the police because there is a disconnect between whites and blacks.

Lance Kramer: Yes.

ATM: When you and your brother got the opportunity to have your film aired on PBS and streamed on Netflix, did you become sensitive to how people would view it?

Lance Kramer: It’s kind of a wild feeling to know someone halfway across the country might be channel-surfing and come across the film and we’d never know about it. As the film had wider exposure on PBS/WORLD, and then eventually on places like Netflix, we wanted to make sure that everyone in the film would be comfortable with the release.

ATM: How did you feel about letting a project you were passionate about become a part of mainstream television?

Lance Kramer: City of Trees was a challenging film to distribute. It’s a movie that attempts to dive deeply into hard aspects of life. We tried to let the film represent complicated and complex issues without forcing the story to tie a bow around every loose end. The film doesn’t have any famous people in it or any stories ripped from the headlines. We were extremely grateful that a film like City of Trees was able to make its way into more mainstream media platforms — like PBS and Netflix.

ATM: Thanks for talking with ATM.

Lance: You are welcome.

Empire’s Rekkhan Talks About His Starring Role in the Fox Hit Show

A look into how the star landed his breakout gig.


Rekkhan got his start on Empire as an extra, and worked hard to prove his worthiness of a speaking role. Aside from acting, Rekkhan works as a music artist and producer, making him a natural fit for the Empire aesthetic. A treat for fans of the show—in this interview with ATM, Rekkhan details his experience with Bryshere Gray (Hakeem) and their special connection on set.

Rekkhan’s latest single, “Rise Up,” (also known as Chitown Anthem) is up for four nominations in next year’s Grammy Awards. 2018 looks to be a busy year for the starlet—as a few movie roles are also in the works. His main goal, though—to make a positive impact on those around him.


ATM: Tell me about your experience on Empire, which is shaping up to be one the network’s hottest shows.

Rekkhan: Last season, I was restricted to working with certain individuals. I was working with Nessa and Xzibit. I’m Xzibit’s right-hand man, and our job was to infiltrate the company. Now, I work with more artists on the show. This is my third season—I came in on the end of the second season. Xzibit and I did a lot of stuff last year; we created a lot of chaos. I’m a music producer and an artist, and making a transition to acting is the reason they like me—because it comes natural [to me].


ATM: Take me back to your first day on working on set. What was it like?

Rekkhan: My first day on set, I was an extra. We were setting this grand scene—I was playing a security guard. [There were] so many extras and people. I was super nervous. In my first official scene that day, I was standing next to Taraji (Henson), and Terrence (Howard) next to her. While I was trying to have my game face on, they were making jokes like a married couple. They’re joking, and I was trying to keep a straight face. Terrence was like, “You can laugh,” but I was like, “No, I’m trying to keep my job.” It was a 2-day shoot, [but] it was so long, it [felt] like a 14-hour shoot.


ATM: Did you ever think you were going to be a part of the past season?

Rekkhan: I got a call from my casting company at my warehouse job, and I see the number—it’s restricted. So, my dodging lifts, and I’m trying to get to the bathroom. The founder of the casting company says, “Your name came up in the production meeting of Empire. The executive producer wants you to play this role.” I’m still in awe in the bathroom, and I am trying to keep it to a minimal [level] because people are in there. The executive producer, the one next to Lee Daniels, said, “She wants you.” I wanted to ask questions—but at this moment, I just didn’t ask. It [made for] an awkward moment for the rest of the day—I was happy and smiling. My casting company helped me out a lot, and even to this day I’m still taking it in. There were over 100 extras, and now I have a role. We talked for a while, and I came in the next day. For the first scene, I came in with Xzibit’s character. I didn’t know the executive producer personally; I had only heard her name. I still don’t know how [it happened]. I was pursuing Empire since season one. Then, when I found out they were shooting in my season, I had to figure out how to get on it.


ATM: Now that you’re part of the cast, do you laugh at Taraji’s and Terrence’s jokes?

Rekkhan: Yes, I laugh a little. Terrence plays a lot of pranks on set.  One prank was when he wanted a lighter for a cigarette, and he asked me [for one]. I didn’t have one, and he said “You are fired,” and he never followed up to say if it was a joke. And I was like, “Now, I’m finally here and I get fired?” He was so serious with the joke.


ATM: Is it hard for you to distinguish your character from your personality when you’re off set?

Rekkhan: I have people approach me thinking I’m a demon because of my role. Last season, I was still [nervous] with my job because I didn’t know if I was going to be around [long]. I was getting approached at the store. Everybody went crazy because I didn’t want anybody following me home—they think I have gold bricks in my home. I had to manhandle Nessa on a couple of scenes. I went back to work, and people were asking questions about why I did it. I was handling guns and a lot of material, and people said I looked great. For someone to look at my scene and say it looks authentic says a lot about my acting.


ATM: How is it working as Xzibit’s right-hand man?

Rekkhan: We have fun. Xzibit is a fool; he is joking the entire time between takes. After they say “cut,” it’s back to laughing. I look at Xzibit for inspiration [on transitioning from] a music artist to [having] an actor’s perspective. He is a good man, and being his guy is good. Last season, I was like, “I’m going to mess around and get killed.”  Every time I went on set, I had to look at the script to see if it was my last day. I was bad. Then, on the season finale, I was like, “This is going to be it. If something happens, it’s going to happen to me and not him.” It has been a stressful couple of seasons.


ATM: What has been your favorite moment on set?

Rekkhan: Me and Hakeem have one of the best scenes on camera. Performance-wise, me and Yaz just click. The best scenes are with me and Xzibit and me and Hakeem. The performance scenes are great. I want to pinpoint a certain scene, but I cannot. Every time I go, it’s like a new adventure. [Most] recently—the Hakeem scene. He brings in so much energy, and every time we interact, it gives me that moment. He would either shake my hand or say “Give me a pound” to include me in the moment. I was in so many scenes that they had to take me out some. They had to figure out where to place me, so that’s when they started writing me in the script.


ATM: Aside from acting on ‘Empire,’ you also rap. Can you explain this lyric from “Rise Up”: ‘It was about us protecting ours against them?’ Who is “them?”

Rekkhan: Establishment. I do not want to go to a dividing line. Everything comes at us a lot—everyone had a problem with us blacks for some reason. You can blame slavery. No, it’s also us against us. No one wants to work with each other. Once you divide the people up, you can do anything you want. Everyone has the problems with us as a people; we are the most imitated people on this planet. People don’t want us shine or survive. You can even see this with the constant interactions with the police—I have never gotten pulled over without the police having his hand on his gun. As long as I have been on the earth, I have never been around when there has been a nice interaction with a police officer. They are always on guard when it comes to us. I have a lot of friends and family that are police officers, but there are police that are giving the good police a bad name. Today, there aren’t feelings or shame. It’s all about trying to capture the attention. People are trying to get people to notice them, [but] they use the wrong idea or method to get notice. In the beginning, it was us against them—now, it’s us against us.