Today’s Guests: Jeremy Mitchell, indie film producer, Sheaun McKinney, actor, Know Thy Enemy
Producer Jeremy Mitchell and actor Sheaun McKinney were my guests on the very first episode of Mr. Media Radio broadcast on the BlogTalkRadio Network on November 30, 2007. They were promoting a new Miami-based independent feature film called Nemesis that tells the story of an idealistic young rap star fighting for his own voice against the corrupting influence of the hip-hop industry. A record label discovers him, and he is forced to promote violence and materialism in exchange for fame.
The movie dramatizes the hypocrisies of a multi-billion dollar industry that encourages its fans to stay true to the streets.
It took 18 months, but Mitchell finally succeeding in landing a DVD distribution deal for his film, now known as Know Thy Enemy. I’m delighted to re-present this interview with Mitchell and McKinney, who plays the unlikely gangster rap star, Nemesis. The soundtrack features original music from fresh and new artists such as Messiah, a Mr. Cheeks protégé, and Suzie Abromeit, already known for her number one single duet with hip-hop star Fat Joe.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Jeremy, you’re an actor and if you don’t mind me saying, a white guy to boot. How did you wind up producing a movie about the hip-hop scene?
MITCHELL: That’s funny. It’s the question that seems to pop up over and over. Well, as far as being an actor, I can answer that pretty easily. It’s just sort of been a process that’s kind of evolved. Like you said, I’ve been working in the industry, and those films you named were, as an actor, but through doing that, you start to work and meet people. And with Lee, the director, he directed Harder They Fall as his first feature, and we met on that project and just started to develop sort of a working, collaborative relationship and did a couple other little projects together and then did a competition where I wrote the script, and he directed it.
Then this project, Nemesis, started to germinate. It actually began with a trailer that he made, an original idea. We have a third writer that had created the idea for it, and they put together a trailer, but it was a completely different type of movie at that point. It was more of an urban thriller. And over a period of time, some opportunities arose for major locations, such as a concert venue, that we thought we’d be able to shoot in. We thought, “Hey, this would be a great idea.” And really, we’re looking to get started. I’m early in my career as is the director, Lee, so we’re looking for a vehicle that’ll push us out there and to be able to do bigger and bigger projects. This presented itself, and it was an amazing opportunity.
Most films in this genre, typically, are not done with a lot of integrity or a lot of art. They’re really just commercial vehicles. We saw Nemesis as a vehicle that could be commercial, but we could do it our way and bring our integrity to the project and try to expand the limitations of the genre and make it in something that had quality to it. So that’s how we got involved in the project.
And as far as being white and being in it, it all has to do with the philosophy of the movie against stereotypes. The main star himself, Nemesis, is your typical black hip-hop star in every way. He’s just a cliché. That’s what the executives are trying to tell him. They’re trying to teach him to be what the industry and what the fans expect him to be, but that’s not him at all. He’s a lot more than that. And the film, in many ways, is about defying people’s expectations and being true to yourself, not true to what people want you to be. So I think that goes hand in hand with us making the movie. You probably wouldn’t expect us to make the movie like this or me, as a white guy, being able to come in and say something about a life that I don’t really live. But I think that’s the job of all writers and artists is be able to have more voice than just their own, to be able to empathize with other aspects of society and culture and look at things from the outside in, which is certainly, in this situation, we were just looking at it with an outside perspective and trying to look at it objectively.
ANDELMAN: Do you have a background in or knowledge of the whole hip-hop scene? Are you a hip-hop music fan?
MITCHELL: A fan, yeah. I’m not the industry insider. None of us are. We have worked with some hip-hop stars. I won’t mention any of them, but being on set down in Florida doing music videos we’ve been exposed to how they’re really like a lot of times when they’re not performing, when they’re not in character, when you don’t see them on a music video or in an interview. And a lot of that was the inspiration for the movie. The persona, many times, is completely different than what you see and what’s commercialized. And a lot of them are just really articulate, really intelligent. They’re business people, and they’re putting on a character and making money and being successful at it, and they’re really good at what they do. But the image that they portray and project is nothing like what they are themselves and certainly not what they believe you should act like. The funny thing is that the people, the fans, the public, buys into the image, and they think it’s real, and then they start trying to portray it themselves and act like it cause they are taught through propaganda that artists are marketing, cultural marketing, that that’s the way we’re all supposed to be. We had a point to make about that about conformism and what’s going on right now in pop culture.
ANDELMAN: I’m thinking I’m probably a generation removed from today’s hip-hop scene, but I did cover pop and rock in the 1980s and maybe early ‘90s. And it seemed to me that the story could easily have been about the pop or rock scene at any time as well as hip-hop, that the storylines are basically the same. It seems like, in hip-hop, there’s a lot more drama. There’s a lot more violence, perhaps, a lot more urgency.
MITCHELL: Absolutely. It’s just a natural dramatic form, hip-hop, because the whole pressure of the music itself is geared toward violence and competitiveness and rivalries. So it makes for a really dramatic story, but it could even be this today now in pop or in rock. Go outside in any major city, on the streets, and you’ll see, especially with kids, teenagers, they’re usually trying to label themselves, categorize themselves. They’re in some type of sub-genre, whether it’s hip-hop or they’re into being surfer types or prep types or goth. You see a lot of different groups. Kids, especially, are searching for an identity, and through music and through advertising, we give them this characterization that they can portray and sort of fit in with a type. And it could’ve applied to any scene in music. Absolutely. I think that’s one of our big issues, big points. It’s not really about hip-hop. It is. Hip-hop is the route we took to express the point, but certainly, it can stand for any of the other genres of music and just trying to totally contain yourself into what people’s expectations of you are. But, yeah, with hip-hop, obviously, there’s a lot more at stake. So it was a perfect avenue for us to tell the story in something that the stakes could escalate and a lot could happen.
ANDELMAN: What can you tell me about the film’s stars, Sheaun McKinney as Nemesis and Marlon Taylor as Razor Ric?
MITCHELL: Sheaun is an amazing actor. He’s a major theater actor, and he’s out in L.A. now, but he’s done a ton of work in Florida and Miami. And everybody in the theater world knows him there. He’s won a Carbonell Award — which is sort of the Florida equivalent of the Tonys — for his stage work. And you don’t expect that in a hip-hop film because pretty much any one you see out there will have real hip-hop stars and not actors, sorry to say. Some of them are adequate, but they’re not actors. They’re rappers. Our intention with the film going in was we’re gonna cast actors, and what thing we’re gonna do to make this stand out is just have a really good story to tell. We needed people that can really, really act and portray the character. So that was our mindset going in. We weren’t just going to cast rappers. And we came in, and we had the auditions. I had already known Sheaun cause, like I said before, I’m an actor, too, so I knew how good he was. I didn’t know what he could do as a rapper, and that came as a total shock. But he came in to audition, and he’s just really talented, just really natural and genuine and has a lot of different complexity that he can pull off. And to be able to play your stereotypical rapper and to be able to pull off that cartoonish, cliché aspect of a character, which is what they do, and then his other half too, which is the introverted, deeply-talented artistic side, showed a lot. But it totally surprised us because he had also been a rapper in his past. When we were doing the film, he ended up contributing music to the movie. He hadn’t rapped or anything and was able to pull it off. But, yeah, Sheaun did and did a really admirable job.
As for Marlon, it’s funny. He auditioned right afterwards and so did Bechir Sylvain, who plays Jason. Three of our main cast came one right after another and just knocked us away. But Marlon is a real rapper himself, and we didn’t know that coming in. We just cast him on his acting abilities alone, and he has such a sharp presence, just in his face and in his mannerisms and his persona. You can tell he’s had a lot going on in his life, and he has a lot going on inside of him, and it just comes out in the character. Everybody who sees the movie will just always make a kind of “Wow.” He has presence. “Wow, who is that guy?” And he just hits you with so much so quickly. He’s just very, very, very sharp, and he did an amazing job as an actor. And he’s a great musician as well, and we’re telling everybody, “Why isn’t this guy out there? Why isn’t he famous right now? Why is he the best-kept secret?” Only us know about him. So we’re hoping that this gives him a platform to get his music out there as well and become a star in his own right, as well as an actor.
ANDELMAN: And they’re all fine and good, but tell me about Suzie.
MITCHELL: Suzie, yeah, of course you want to know.
ANDELMAN: I know guys are going to see her, and they’re going to want to know more about her so we’re going to have to fill in around the edges here.
MITCHELL: I’m sure they will. And I think a lot more people will be wanting to know about her soon, as soon as this gets out there. Suzie is a developing star as well. It’s funny. Suzie and me actually have a long background because we’re both tennis players, originally, and we knew each other from way back then. And the role she played was by far the most difficult to cast in the movie because, again, going back to the whole stereotypes concept, we were trying to play with them, and the opposite of the black male gangster rapper is the white female rapper, which you don’t see ‘cause nobody will accept it. And so we said, “Okay, they won’t accept it. Let’s see if we can put a character in there in the movie that’s actually, in reality, a lot more hard-edge in her attitude and her upbringing than the main guy really is, even though he’s pretending to be what she really is.” So that was sort of the intention of the character, but to cast that was a real mission because we actually had to find somebody that could pull it off. I never even thought of Suzie even though I’d known her and knew she was in the music industry because I didn’t know her music that well, and what I had heard of it was more R & B, sort of Nelly Furtado-ish, Black-Eyed Peas girl, Fergie, something more along those lines. I knew how attractive she was, and you obviously don’t mind having an attractive girl in the role, but we had seen it more as sort of a thuggish, hard-edge type as a girl. But another friend of mine who was helping cast the movie knew we were having trouble casting the role and had seen this girl, Suzie, on MySpace, and she mentioned her to me, didn’t even mention the name, said, “I know this girl on MySpace who’s amazing, fits the role perfectly.” And the power of new medium or whatever, artists being able to get out there, and this had reached the friend of mine so I checked it out, and boom, it was Suzie. I was like wow, I didn’t even think of her, and there was a rap song up on her myspace page, and I was like I guess I’ll have to bring her in. And I did, and she was able to pull off both aspects of the character really well. And, yeah, she’s going a lot of places. She’s gotten a role on “Burn Notice” recently. I know she has a lot of commercials out there. So she’s up and coming. She’s done a duet with Fat Joe that was a number one hit. I think you mentioned that in the intro. She’s really taking off. Again, we’re hoping it’s a platform here for her to take further steps, but yeah, I know she’s got the commitment cause of her past and the talent and the star quality, obviously.
MITCHELL: You can probably see that.
ANDELMAN: No disrespect to your male co-stars, but I think a lot of the guys are gonna be very interested in Suzie. And I don’t want to give anything away from the movie. And she keeps her clothes on. I don’t want to be misleading here, but I think guys would be very interested to check her out.
MITCHELL: Yeah, I think so, too. And no, she doesn’t have to take her clothes off to…She’ll steal the show in a lot of ways.
ANDELMAN This is your first producing role, I’m assuming, for doing a feature.
MITCHELL: It is my first feature producing role, yeah. I’ve produced a couple of short films and such.
ANDELMAN: The question that anyone in my position would have to ask is where did you find the money? How did you guys ante up to produce this, and what was the budget?
MITCHELL: I can’t give exact details, amounts on that, but I’ll just put it at it was under $1 million, so it was a low-budget affair. We don’t have any huge names in it, but hopefully, they will be soon. We were able to fall into an investor. We had one investor, private investor, locally in Florida, that we were able to approach with the film, and we actually already knew him. And he had seen what we had done in the past, a few of the projects, the short films, and the success we were starting to have and recognition with the different projects. He had seen the trailer for this and the script and bought into the concept of where we were going and got on board.
The D.P. helped out a tremendous amount. He was really, really well connected in the Florida area. He’d been working for ten years, not as a D.P., as an assistant camera. Just like us, he was looking to step up and take the next step in his career and do something bigger and become a D.P. This was the project he’d been looking for cause he’d had the opportunity to be in different stuff, but he wanted something that he could really show off in, I guess, for lack of a better word. He loved it when he read the script, got in.
Once he got in, a ton of things started to happen because, like I said, it’s Florida. There’s a lot more opportunities than if you’re shooting in L.A., and it’s a smaller community. He knew everyone and was able to pull a lot of really important people in the Florida film industry, into the project and just raised our expectations a ton. Our philosophy was hey, let’s just make something. We’re not gonna sit around for five years trying to put together a project at the highest level because if we start working now, put something together, by the time five years comes around, it’ll be our third project. And when we finally get there to that big one, we’ll be so ready from all this that it’s gonna pay off a lot more. Just doing stuff, we think, just helps you get there, not just waiting. We had expectations to make it as good as possible, but we didn’t know it was gonna blow up like it did and things would start to fall into place and just bring the production value at a way higher level and raise our expectations and make us come with more of an A game. And bringing Justin Marx, the D.P., in, changed everything as far as that went, our whole mentality. It was just really exciting to be involved and watch it grow, and it’s scary, too, to have to meet a lot of responsibility. We didn’t expect to at the start of it.
ANDELMAN: Actors and responsibility are not supposed to cross, right?
MITCHELL: Actors and responsibility, right? That’s typical of us, but luckily, once you take on a different role, you assume a different name. So when you’re on set, you’re the producer, and you try to portray that, and it just happens cause you believe it cause you are. You have it so, yeah, responsibility comes with the territory, and it changes you. It, definitely for me, it gave me a ton more discipline, absolutely, and it still is.
ANDELMAN: This is still kind of a new format for me. I understand we may have some live listeners. As a matter of fact, we do have a call. Jeremy, let’s see who’s calling you. Hi, is there a caller there?
ANDELMAN: Hi. You have a question for Jeremy?
Caller: This is actually Sheaun McKinney. I’m in the movie Nemesis.
ANDELMAN: Oh, Sheaun, thanks for joining us.
SHEAUN McKINNEY: Of course. How you doing, Jeremy?
MITCHELL: I’m doing great. Now, I’m glad you were able to get on. This is our star right here. This is “Nemesis” everybody.
ANDELMAN: Appreciate you calling. Sheaun, tell me about taking this role. It’s a small-budget film…
ANDELMAN: …but a big opportunity for you, I guess.
McKINNEY: Yeah, definitely. Just like Jeremy had said, when I first got a post about the audition, my initial reaction was I didn’t want to go and just play another rapper because that happens all the time, and it’s kind of not the route I wanted to go with with my career. But then reading the script and seeing that it had a real storyline and seeing that the character, Nemesis, definitely had some substance to it and all the supporting characters were real, real people and the storyline itself, to me, is tremendous, I thought this is great, and I have an amazing opportunity to not only tell a great story but to, as an actor, play a complete character.
ANDELMAN: Your character, it really is complete because, through flashbacks, we see you as a boy, we see you growing up, we see you with your father, and then, even as an adult, we get to see these two very different sides of Nemesis.
McKINNEY: Right. And like Jeremy had mentioned, when I first started out back in the day, I used to rap, and it just hit me that that wasn’t the career I wanted to follow. And being an African-American coming from a place — I didn’t grow up in the ghetto, per se — but I grew up in I guess what we call the ‘hood. And there’s a couple of routes you can take to try to get out of there, and one of those routes for a lot of people is rapping. And most of the kids that grow up around there, we see rappers, and that’s what we want to emulate. We want what they have, but we don’t know what goes in between those steps they took to get there. And I’m a huge hip-hop fan. I grew up on hip-hop. I love hip-hop. And it’s been exploited so much, and it’s been manipulated so much. And I think the movie shows a great, great, great part of what happens to these people cause I think we forget that when we see these huge stars that are people first. And Nemesis is a prime example. You see what happens to this kid who’s an artist at heart, and the industry says we want to take you and make you this. And the movie, to me, is about decisions. In a minute, you have to make a choice of what do you want to do with your life and what do you want to sacrifice. And, to me, it does a great job without saying this kid, he has to make a choice. Do you want the fame and fortune, but what is it going to cost you? And, to me, that was a standout reason for me to take that role and try to portray that.
MITCHELL: I think that’s an important point, too, is that hip-hop didn’t start out being what it is now. It started out as an act of rebellion. It was a celebration of life even though times were tough, and obviously in the area that it came out of in New York, it was lean streets, and there were a lot of negatives, but the music itself was positive. And it was trying to be uplifting, and it was a movement. It was a different movement from everything that was around it. It had its own identity, and over time, it’s sort of been morphed into what it is now. And for the most part, at least commercially on the radio and the big music that makes a lot of money, it’s just an agent of propaganda. And like Sheaun said, I think his character has a similar arc in itself. He starts out as a really truthful, true-to-himself, genuine artist and gets manipulated into being something that he isn’t really.
ANDELMAN: Sheaun, let me ask you this: I kind of teased Jeremy about this when we started the conversation about being the white guy doing the hip-hop film. And, of course, he plays a record producer in the film. It seems to me that he’s taken on a dual risk here. One is that he is a white guy producing a film about hip-hop, but he’s got money on the line. And he’s in the film. How do you think that’ll stand up in the community?
McKINNEY: To some people, that may be a double-edged sword, but I think it’s a great thing because the one thing we have to improve in this country, because it’s still an issue today, is race relations. And I think, as an artist, as a writer, your job is always gonna try to be to capture the story from all angles. I think hip-hop is a black commodity in its creation, but it’s not exclusive at all. Hip-hop is open to everybody. And I was shocked, and I told Bechir, who was my best friend who was in the film, that they really captured the essence of hip-hop in this film. They also captured the essence of the industry, which you see now, but there’s millions of people rapping now. Whether you think they’re good or not, there’s millions of people rapping: black, white, Latino, what-have-you. And I don’t think that only black people can talk about hip-hop just like I don’t think only white people can write certain types of films. Do you know what I mean? It’s open to everybody. If I honestly would have read the script and thought, “These white dudes don’t know what they’re talking about,” I wouldn’t have did the film. But I read it, and I was like, “Wow, they know what they’re talking about.” And they were also very open. Jeremy and Lee were very open to whatever input that we had. If we were like, “Oh, I don’t like the way this sounds, I don’t like seeing it this way,” they were just like, “Hey, try it this way.” And it was a great collaboration. And I think that anybody that sees the film within any community is gonna realize that. They might not even realize who wrote it or who produced it or what have you. I have to give kudos to Jeremy because I know, as an artist, I’m coming from a theater background, it’s tremendously hard to try to act and try to direct at the same time. It’ll drive you insane. And he did a great job keeping it together so I commend him, and I love the idea that it was written by somebody outside the black community.
ANDELMAN: And how do you think he did at portraying a white producer?
McKINNEY: He was the most amazing sleazebag on camera that I’ve ever been around! That’s a good one. He just has that presence of just like, “Wow, we really don’t like this guy on camera.” But I think he did a heck of a job, and I think everybody in the film, not just trying to sound cheesy, but it was one of those projects where it was an amazing collaboration of just backgrounds clashing together and coming out with something beautiful or a really great piece of art, I think.
ANDELMAN: One of the things I liked was, I went to school at the University of Miami, just for a year, and it’s been a while, but I felt like, watching the film, that it really, both the cinematography and the atmospherics that were in the film, it really kind of captured the feel of being in Miami.
McKINNEY: Yeah, it did. It did, and it was great. Being out here in L.A., I just came back from Miami yesterday, actually, and I’m like, “Wow, I really miss home.” And the film does capture Miami great from everywhere we perform to the language to just the vibe of the people. Miami has a certain vibe that I think it stands out like anywhere else. Just like New Yorkers have that vibe. L.A. people have that vibe. Miami has that vibe and that culture to it, and I think the film really, really captures that.
ANDELMAN: What do each of you have on the line here as you wait for this film to find distribution and get out? What do you hope the film will do for each of you?
McKINNEY: Speaking personally, as an actor, you hope that somebody will see it, and it leads to something else. I hope people can see the film and take it for what it is. And any aspiring rapper or artist can be like, “I want to go into maybe a contract situation and say I’m gonna make my own choices.” That’s what I hope somebody can be touched by. As an actor, I just hope like anybody else that watched and be like, “Hey, let me call this guy in for an audition.
MITCHELL: Like Sheaun said, I want the movie to stand up on its own cause I think it’s an important piece. Going into this, our expectations were to make something good. They were also to grow, to get somewhere else, use it as a platform. The most viable way we saw was to make something in a genre that a lot of people were interested in, and hip-hop certainly captured that. It’s one of the biggest pop cultural movements there is in America. We said, “Let’s make a film about something that’s important and current and now and has a point.” At the same time, let’s make something good out of it, and we tried to do that and tried to give what we felt and how we really perceived everything. After it’s been done, I really want it to get out there and people to see it and maybe think about it a little bit. I want it to stand on its own. At the same time, I want to use it as a platform to make bigger and bigger projects and reach more people with each successive work. So, yeah, I’m really hoping it does as well as possible.
ANDELMAN: And Jeremy, I should ask you what is the status of the film? Where are you at on the business side of things?
MITCHELL: We’re working on getting a distribution deal. We’re actually looking to try to get into a big festival and get a little more worldwide exposure just to up the status of the project, the awareness of it, and be able to sell for a deal that will make the film circulate more and reach more people. It’s complete, and we recently finished post and got everything done, put the soundtrack in. We’re shopping it around and trying to seek it out, getting it out there into the marketplace.