The National Guard Armory buzzed with activity on a cold day in January. Kids from around Jersey City gathered in every corner of the vast arena-sized place, putting on sports gear, before leaping into exercises or races around the indoor track.
But in one corner of the upper bleachers, kids and adults gathered not for a sporting event, but to make a film.
This would be one of a dozen or more locations used as a backdrop for a film called “Steps,” set in and inspired by life in Jersey City.
Written by local filmmaker Eddie Harris and directed by Jay Rodriguez and Rock Davis from Itchy House Films, “Steps” is a movie about redemption and recovery, forgiveness and love, set in a very gritty urban backdrop and dealing with many of the other issues urban kids face.
Although Harris wrote the script in three days, it has taken him three years to get it into production.
“This is something he held back and didn’t want to sell to someone else to make,” said Michael Baumgartner, executive producer.
A labor of love
Harris, a lifelong resident of Jersey City, has written more 50 screenplays for films, television, and documentaries, including films starring Oscar nominees Queen Latifah, Terrence Howard, and Oscar winner Peter Fonda. He said “Steps” was a labor of love, a film he didn’t merely want to write and sell to another filmmaker but to make himself.
Harris wanted to avoid the problems associated with Hollywood, where scripts change drastically by the time they are made into a film.
Inspired when Harris saw a man in a wheelchair in his neighborhood, “Steps’’ is about a man who is traumatized after an armed robbery, and suffers a number of emotional setbacks that eventually leave him homeless. Seeking help at a local church, he eventually finds himself being cared for by the same person who shot him during the robbery.
“This is not a preachy film, but there is a lot of hope in it.” – Phynjuar
Harris, 42, said he taught himself how to write scripts by reading other scripts. He eventually purchased a program that formats scripts and then started trying to sell them. Over the years, he said, he has made a number of important contacts that have helped him, many of whom are involved in the current film.
“I get high from writing scripts,” he said.
Victim and victimizer
Loaded with side stories of struggle and survival even among the minor characters, “Steps” deals with the unique relationship formed between a shooter and his shooting victim, including the struggle to overcome guilt, as well as issues of trust.
The film is also a showcase of regional talent that includes Tia Dionne Hodge (from “Crutch,” and the “Spiderman,” the series), Rob Morgan (from “Full Circle” “Pariah” and other films), Paulette P. Washington (from “Beloved” and other films), Eden Duncan-Smith (from “Annie” and “Lion King,”) Darius Kaleb (from “Motown” and “Raisin in the Son”), Robert G. McKay (“Law and Order”, “Hostages”) and Walter Fauntleroy (“Stephen King’s: The Mist”, “Note to Self”, “HEAVEN”, “The Young
& the Restless”, “Prison Break”, “NCIS: Los Angeles.”)
Brooklyn native Qaasim Middleton plays the role of an aspiring gangster, but someone who has an ethical center that eventually steers the character in the right direction.
Like many in the cast, Middleton, who is expected to be one of the semi-finalists in “American Idol” this year, has a musical background, but will not perform in this film.
“I’m not a hero, but I’m not bad either,” he said. “My heart tells me what I should not be doing.”
He said the film gives off “a good vibe,” a common statement among those involved in the production.
Baumgartner is an ex-Merrill Lynch executive and residential/corporate real estate investor. He said he knows Harris from the neighborhood.
A resident of Jersey City for about 18 years, Baumgartner said Harris, a tenant in one of his buildings, is a very good friend who often talked about his various projects.
“I was always very impressed and thought he should be out in Hollywood with the big boys,” he said. “But there is a lot of politics out there.”
Harris nonetheless has made progress and met some very important people in the industry.
“When he asked me to finance this after going through the casting call, I was very impressed with the talent and the crew. I decided this was a winning situation for all of us.”
After reading the script, he decided finance the film.
Executive producers for the film include Shaquille O’Neal, the actor/producer/former NBA star; Mike Parris, Shaquille O’Neal’s manager/executive producer; Greg Ferguson, award-winning producer/director/writer; and Itchy House Films, known for working with popular artists like John Legend, Puff Daddy, Rick Ross, DJ Khaled, Jadakiss, Akon, and Scarface.
There’s a lot of hope in it
Associate Producer Phynjuar is an actress/comedian/singer/radio personality/music producer who has appeared in “Meet the Browns” and “Family Matters.”
She said she’s been performing since she was 7 years old, and serves as a kind of mentor in the film, dealing a variety of issues from casting director to coach for the younger kids.
“I help them with everything from wardrobe to lines,” she said.
She plays the minor role of secretary at a Baptist church.
She said unlike some feel good films, “Steps” is very real.
“Eddie has a way of capturing truth,” she said. “This is a film about spirit and it has a cast of people from age 8 to 80.”
She arrived at the armory from a meeting with Kool and the Gang, who she would like to see involved with the film.
“They’re from Jersey City, and this film is based in Jersey City. It seems right,” she said.
She also said the film comes at the right time, when racial tensions are acute, and urban areas need hope.
“This is not a preachy film” she said. “But there is a lot of hope in it.”
Using the backdrop of the armory and ongoing sporting events, the film crew and actors attempted to inject into the film a sense of the real Jersey City.
The co-directors Jay Rodriguez and Rock Davis said they have a common vision for the film, and that they aim to translate Harris’ vision into a visual experience. This involves use of some of the latest technology in digital film work, but also a sense of the environment they are trying to create.
“We’re trying to express how a person who feels hopeless, finds redemption, and gets back a lot of his hope,” Davis said.
“This is all real,” Rodriguez said.
The film will retain some of the gritty visual elements of the inner city out of which the concept of redemption and hope will emerge.
“There is redemption for all of the characters. All of them are at some point not happy with their lives, and they find some resolution. This is a film about people finding hope. And we see some of the character at the extreme who manage to make it back.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.