In remembrance of a young filmmaker

This is a post that I shared with the Facebook Universe back on July 15 of 2009, before I had this forum available to me.  I repurpose it here mostly as a reminder to myself of an important life lesson. I hope it hits the spot emotionally for you, as well.

When I received the email Sunday morning, July 12, 2009, I felt a little tear in the universe.  Just two weeks earlier, I had spent hours on the phone with my friend, Kerry Brown, going scene by scene through his director’s cut of his first independent film, “Leaders.”  We talked about pacing and how to cut around some not insignificant sound and continuity problems and moments where his actors felt they knew better than him how to play those moments — which clearly they didn’t.  But mostly I told him how proud of him for not giving up on his 9-year dream to direct a film he first conceived in Act One as a member of the Class of 2000.  It was a script I mentored him through way back then, and then again a year ago when he found an angel to put up enough money for him to make it more than a student film.

Kerry was a frail young man physically. He had suffered from a relentless pulmonary condition and congestive heart failure for a long time. But he was not frail of spirit or optimism. He was a spiritual lion. A devourer of scripture. Conan the Interceder. Because of his physical condition, he was not always able to work, so during his sick days and all those midnight oil hours, he wrote scripts. Several completed screenplays. Epics like his script about the rise and fall of Atlantis, and another battle royale between heaven and hell after the fall of Lucifer to earth. He learned the challenges of trying break through the iron gates of Hollywood from a Chicago vantage point. Sometimes his dream dimmed during his post-Act One years because nothing seemed to be working for him. He experienced what we all experience no matter what our level of achievement. That Hollywood is not called “Show Friendship,” it’s called “Show Business.” That it is junior high with money. That you have to start out with the understanding that getting a film made is nearly always impossible. And that the only way anybody ever gets one made is by chipping away little by little at the impossibility until one day they wake up and they are saying, “Action.”

“Leaders” is not a perfect film. Kerry was beset by all the problems any filmmaker is hit with, no matter what the budget. Production issues. Location issues. Weather issues. Actor issues. But there is a raw power to this little film because it bubbled up out of his heart as a young African-American man raised in marginal circumstances in a big American city. He had an unmistakably good eye for composing his shots and moving the camera. And there is an autobiographical thread here as his hero, “Hope,” tries to survive the tides of sex, drugs and violence of life in the projects while clinging precariously to his faith in God. He did not shy away from the profane, or the sacred, so this is not a vanilla film. It’s red. Red on white.

I told Kerry I wasn’t sure if there would be a buyer for his film because it’s a little too raw for a faith-based church marketing campaign. And it’s a little too faithful for the schizophrenic home video distributors who can’t decide whether they are in or out of the faith business. But I told him I would try to help him find somebody to take “Leaders” to market when it was ready for prime time. He didn’t flinch at my long list of notes or that there was still a lot of impossibility at which we would have to chip away.

However, he did tell me that he might have to work with his editor, Joel Kapity, from a hospital bed. He was never quite sure when the lungs would fill or the fluid would build up around his heart. He said it with such a gleam in his voice, I thought he was joking. And then I received the email from his mother, Jayne Johnson, on Sunday, with the very sad news that Kerry had passed away on Thursday. His heart had finally given out at just days after his 29th birthday.

I don’t know now how to compute why God takes some, and leaves others who don’t deserve to stick around. Or exactly how to resolve the idea of a young man who fought great odds in his life to reach a dream that at least by the world’s measure of success he didn’t live to see finished. Or what becomes of his very personal little film. Perhaps the digital age will preserve Kerry Brown’s eye in democratic cyberspace for a thousand years. But I do know this. He blessed my life more than I’m sure I blessed his. And I’ll always be thankful for the way he signed off all our calls or emails: “I love you, Mentor.”

Perhaps it is Show Friendship after all.

About Brian Bird

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