Director Wes Miller Tells Us Why the ‘River Runs Red’

ATM: Did you go through any struggles with getting this movie out as it depicts what is happening now in society?

WM: We did not have problems of getting it out per se. We were able to partner with a distributor who saw the potential and message in what we were trying to convey through the piece. But there is always a struggle getting an independent film off the ground. This was probably one of the most challenging things that I’ve undertaken in my life. We had a great cast and crew who believed in the piece. We prayed hard and worked hard. But it was tough.

ATM: Why was it the most challenging part of your life so far?

WM: I am a minority filmmaker and our leads are a part of the minority. There is still a stigma in Hollywood that films with minority leads do not sell well. This makes getting financing challenges. We had some issues during the shoot where financing fell out. This made it extremely difficult. Brought me to tears. You know, you have a team and crew who rely on you. In this, you still have to make sure you maintain the artistic vision and your goal through the outside challenges. We had producers on board who were able to make things happen. Anything that is worth anything is worth working hard for. We really worked hard for this one.

ATM: I have never seen a red river. Explain the metaphoric notes and symbolism of the title.

WM: The film does not have a happy ending. While writing it, I saw so many divisions in our society as far as race, class, and gender. Often we forget that we all flow from the river of life. This river is the constant that we have, which is our blood. The river runs red because the river of life runs with the blood of all of us. It does not matter your skin color. At the end of the day, we all swim in this same river.

ATM: In this film, and in our society, a traffic stop has taken on the meaning of life or death. From the moment a black person stops at a traffic light, they are in between life and death. For some people, they are just usually waiting at a traffic stop. For a minority, it is, “While stopping at this traffic stop, it is wondering if my life is going to end? Will I make it back home? Will I make it back home to my kids? Also, how does this film redefine or restructure the meaning of a traffic stop?

WM: This is a really insightful question. Let me tackle this from a number of perspectives as a black male. I went to law school and practiced law before becoming a filmmaker. Still to this day, when I get pulled over, my heart begins to beat a little faster, and I start to check everything. I remind myself on this stop, I am a black guy out here. We cannot win out here.

This is something I tell my son. “This is not the place to do the battle.” We can never win here. It is best to reserve the real fight for lawyers in courtroom regardless of our rights. This fear is real. It is heightened for our younger generation. We protect our kids from a lot of stuff our parents went through. As a child, I remembered seeing images from the civil rights struggle. I saw there was violence any time that someone wanted real change. Our kids are not taught about that or its, not in a heavy part of what we teach, I included.

Your question is insightful because a “traffic stop” does have symbolism. You are right. That stop, that little moment can be a difference between going home to your parents or your parents visiting you in the morgue. Very insightful question.

ATM: In the scene where Luke Hemsworth’s character is pleading for the Taye Diggs’ character and George Lopez’s character not to shoot him, Luke’s character says, “I have a son who is six years old.” The black fathers say in unison, “I had a son” also. What does this show you about the oblivious nature that a white person could have?

WM: What is your name again? You’re asking some really great questions that are really insightful. This is the whole purpose of this scene. You have a Caucasian guy with a son and you have these two guys who had a son. We are getting back to the premise of the River Runs Red. They are all fathers. The unique things are when Luke is out there with Taye’s son, he is trying to do what is right so he can come home to his son, which is trying to continue to protect and provide for his family. Taye and George are at a point where they still want to defend their sons but do not have an option to protect. In this scene, they are all motivated. Luke is motivated in trying to live for his kid. Taye and George are motivated to do whatever they decide to do for their kid. How easy is it for Luke to ask for his son? He did not have this same consideration for theirs. This is one the many subtexts are in this scene. I am really impressed that you picked up on it.

ATM: Gabrielle. Also, in this scene, Luke’s character has the nerve to ask about his son. Taye and George faces are like, “What? You took my son away from me. Or your race took it away from me. So, no.” Who exactly was Taye’s son to the white officer in the movie? In hindsight, who and what were these minorities boys to Luke’s character?

WM: Good question. If I had to dive in the character psyche a little, then I would say he was not seen as a son. He was seen as a danger. No important consideration was given to what he was about to do. That kid was about to go to the police academy to be like his father. They do not consider anything. This often happens. We are often not considered “people.” They rarely see past our skin color. Taking in that he was, a young African American did not happen.

ATM: The transformation and perspective of how the son get seen changes. This is also with people in general. Once you walk out of your home, you take on a different identity. Some people forget this or are subconsciously unaware. To Taye’s character, this was his son; he was his baby. He helped bring him into this world. This identify form stops as he walks out the door. He is perceived in other contrasting ways outside of what his father sees him. As the director and writer, did this make you think back to how the “black body” has gotten treated through history in this society?

WM: Yes it does. There are a few things we wanted people to consider. Taye’s character is an African American who is in the system. The same system designed to protect everybody. Society has enacted this system to separate us from our essential nature in the world. We should trust this system, so we do not take guns and do for ourselves. The questions you are raising, the film does not really try to answer this. What happens when a person in the system, who is also African American, would the system work for him? We see the system does not work for Taye’s character? If this system fails us, then what are we left to do? Do we sit there as George’s character did for a while? As a father, do you say, “I am not going to take this?” The film does not sensationalize. I do not think a man has to break his psyche to take a path that is not necessarily the best path. These fathers are hurting, and they are trying to get true justice. The system failed. What happens when you take the system out? We revert back to the wild wild west. That’s why we need the system to work.

ATM: Similarly, to George’s character, what happens when a parent sits down and does nothing?

WM: This is a good question. A parent came up to me after the screening who said she was very touched. She felt we had captured the feeling that the child’s mother goes through when their child gets killed due to police brutality. In this scenario, if someone took my sons, then I would feel defeated as I go through my day knowing that someone who took my son is walking the street. This would just eat at me.

Society says you just have to take it. Why do we have to take it? We take it because we trust the system. We need to make sure this system works for everyone.

ATM: About this situation, do you believe in our lifetime we will ever see 100% justice?

WM: 100% is hard to say. The justice system is made up of men and men who are inherently flawed. So, I do not know if we can get 100% justice. We are not even at 50/50. The system has so many inherent biases. People electing the right officials will assure people will work hard to know that decisions are going made. And to make sure people in uniforms are not getting by because they wear a badge. We have a long way to go.

ATM: Express your exploration while writing Taye’s character.

WM: Primarily as a writer, I wanted to explore a person who was inside the system. Also, who lost something and show how the system fails them. I wanted to explore the beats of what justice alludes really. What is justice? What should we do if we lose somebody? This judge who fought for something and believed in it was failed by the same system that he was a part of. We see him go through disbelief. Even he cannot get justice. We do not want to answer questions but raise questions. With an independent film, you have to make sacrifices because you do not have enough time, money, or resources. But, also in the independent world, you work to make sure what you set out to accomplish in the beginning is actually there. For me, this was a great tragedy. At the end of the film, you are left to wonder if certain decisions made earlier would have stopped people from sliding down a razor blade into a pool of alcohol.

ATM: What were some sacrifices you had to make?

WM: I’m really happy and proud of the film. Always looking back to reflect, I realize we did not have enough time. We did not get the big cranes, the dollies, and a lot of these nice tools to open the cinematic grammar up a little. I would have wanted less pressure and more time to work with the actors to go deeper with a couple of spots. It is little things like this. Oh, it got really cold. So, we had to make some changes with shooting locations. It was unsafely cold outside.  But truth is, you need more time and money with any film.

ATM: Do you believe the media hypes up the process of an industry professional?

WM: Give me an example.

ATM: Someone coming into this industry or had the aspiration do not see the emotional hard work aspect of the people they admire. They do not know the self-reliance you must gain even to be considered, they do not see the blood, sweat, and tears. They do not see how some cry after auditions. They do not see how some at 2 am, or 3 am feeling like they are the worst person, etc. We do not see their tears after some did not win an Oscar, Emmy, or Grammy, etc. If this is shown in a non-exploitative or non-embarrassing way, then the “starstruck” energy will turn into a more “appreciative” energy. People will realize these are just people who just happen to have a hardened desire and passion. Their passion happens to consist of a camera in their face.

WM: The short answer is yes. The long answer is that the media does put a lot of spotlight on people after they already reached their certain level. What is not seen often is that 99% of everyone in this industry has been told “no” more times than they have been told yes. We do not see this.

We only see them after. It is a very difficult and tough industry. “No” is the norm. It can wear on you, but you have to have confidence and have faith in God. You have to persevere. Social media does not help. It only highlights what you are doing now. Yet, there is a lot of hard work happening that we never see. I admire the actors and producers I have worked with. It is a miracle to get a film out there and to have it as a limited release. I am so driven in this “no” industry, I take a step back and keep pushing forward. The media does not show the quiet times. It is like, “Oh, they made it. Let’s give them camera time.”

ATM: We do not see the emotional effect of the no. We do not see the hard work of an Oscar winner, or Emmy winner. We just look at the results, but NEVER the process. If about 99% of people in entertainment are hearing “no,” then wouldn’t this mean that the people who are looking for a “yes” are also apart of the group saying the “no’s?”

WM: Good question. Yes actually. But it’s like this, those who are trying to make it are told no and then when they do make it, they become part of the no’s. A lot of people will argue that the no’s are necessary to weed out people who say they want it from the people that actually want it and who have talent. That may be 50/50 truth. The other part of that truth is that people don’t want to take the risk of losing what they have gained, so the easy answer is no.

ATM: Do you remember when you were considered a “no?’ Express this moment.

WM:  I am still considered a no. I hear it all the time. Of course its hard to hear no. But I know I have a lot to prove, and I work hard on my craft so one day the no’s will not be as many and as loud.

ATM: See people need to realize a “no” in entertainment regardless of the entity has a different effect than a “no” in the “normal” world. Same word but a massive difference meaning and feeling. It has more of an effect than the word “yes.” Who knew two letters could have a more powerful effect than the three letter “yes.” It’s more powerful than a “yes” because a “no” in this industry will challenge you to the highest degree, make you a mature and disciplined human being. You become in competition with your internal self and external self.