A film with a social conscience, Romeo will be submitted to next year’s Way Down Film Festival in October 2018. The short film is based on true events from the life of Kenny Gray, a photographer and visual artist, and touches on important themes that are relevant today.
By KALEIGH BLESSARD Photos by S. SAXON
Many Columbus natives recognize the name Kenny Gray for his astounding commercial and fine art photography career (which was recently archived by Columbus State University), but few are familiar with his budding film career. What began with an underground film entry at last year’s Way Down Film Festival has blossomed into a new passion for Gray. Kenny sat down with us at SVM to talk art, film, and his upcoming project Romeo.
Tell us about the movie in general. Where did you get the idea? What inspired you to tell this story? Well, all of my work is autobiographical in nature, and when I say all my work I mean basically forty years of fine art photography. It comes directly from my life. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like a self-portrait, sometimes it’s not, but my best ideas are things that I know and experience. So the idea for Romeo—I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about it, because it’s kind of personal—but it came directly from something that happened within my immediate family. And that grew into Romeo over a period of a year, just the idea gestating and forming into something that started to become a story.
Your cast and crew are pretty much all from Columbus. Was that your intention from the beginning? Why did you make that decision? Yes, it was my intention. I’m not sure when I made that conscious decision. I knew at CSU’s Riverside Theatre there were a lot of really talented people there, and I had several roles that I needed young people for. So that was in the back of my mind, that that was a resource for me, a pool of talent that I could draw on. Of course, I’ve known about the Springer—so I think it was really just knowing that we had the resources here, knowing that I had no budget whatsoever—so that was really it. I didn’t want to go out of Columbus. Just about the time I was thinking that I might want to make [Romeo], the Columbus State Magazine was in my mailbox, and I opened it up and there was an article on the Georgia Film Academy and Ginger Steele [Romeo's assistant director] was prominently featured in the article, and I read about her and what she was doing and was like, she could really help me do this, she could really be helpful. So once she said yes, things snowballed, and she had just been working on the Bo Bartlett film, and she started contacting other people that had worked on it. The core of our crew came directly from Bo Bartlett’s film.
There was a good bit of local support in terms of location shooting and things like that. How did that feel, to have the community support you in that way? It felt great. Because I needed all the help I could get, first of all. I wrote the film knowing there were going to be two locations: we wanted to have the first few scenes at Country’s on Broad. It was so important to me, to be able to shoot at Country’s. I started asking people if they knew Jim Morpeth, and finally I just sent him a message and he said sure! The other location had to be an impressive Victorian home, and I’ve got a friend, Gloria Sampson, a very notable local artist, and she and her husband restored the Bullard-Hart-Sampson House on Third Avenue. It occurred to me that she had this incredible house—and I’d never even seen the house except just driving by—so I asked her if she would be willing to let us shoot a short film in her home and she said sure! It was just perfect for what we needed.
We got support from property owners, business owners—I needed a Classic Alpha Romeo, and Stan Murray, a local musician, got in touch with me and he ended up lending us his car for two shoots. So quite a bit of support and encouragement from the community.
You have a very extensive and impressive career in photography and visual arts. What made you take this venture into film? [Film] is something that’s always kind of been in the back of my mind. The reason that I ended up writing was really the Way Down Film Festival. When they announced Way Down in early 2016, I thought, “I’m gonna try this.” I had just reached an agreement with the CSU Archives: they were going to take basically all my fine art work and archive it, so that was kind of a capstone on my career. It was like, whoa, it’s going to be saved somewhere, and I’ve been doing it for a real long time, and why don’t I go ahead and try this other thing? I love narrative, I’m fascinated with narrative and stories; it’s always been a part of my work.
For my 2016 Way Down Film Festival entry, I shot video on my iPhone, I used some of my recent work, I used some of my wife Brenda’s watercolors, and just did this kind of kinetic multimedia thing. Very personal, very autobiographical, with some really evocative music. I had a lot of fun, and just kind of got the bug. It was such a great experience and I got so much encouragement that I decided that I was going to make some kind of film for this year’s Way Down. I started working on a documentary and got pretty far into it…and realized that it was too big. I wasn’t going to be able to get it done for this year’s Festival. So that’s when I started writing screenplays early in 2017, thinking “I need something really short that I can write and shoot in a weekend and get in this year’s Festival.” And so I immediately took this germ of an idea that I mentioned previously—something that had happened in my family—and that’s when I wrote Romeo.
Do you have any plans to release Romeo to a larger audience? I want to see Romeo. I’m waiting now to meet Romeo. Until I see at least a rough cut and see what we’ve got, I’m not making any plans for it. I’m hoping it’s going to be really, really good…there are indications that it will be, but I just don’t know! If it’s not great, it won’t be because of my cast and crew! It’ll be because I didn’t do my job, or because we really didn’t have enough time to get it ready to shoot. I’d like for anything I do that’s worthwhile to reach a wide audience, that’s what film festivals are for, that’s what online platforms are for, is to get it out there so a lot of people can see it. Romeo has a social conscience. It’s about some important things, and it deserves a wider audience. Not just because it’s a good film—there’s a message there. Because of the times we’re living in, I think the message is especially relevant. So we’ll see!
What kind of challenges or unexpected hardships did you find in the process? There were a lot of challenges. I didn’t know very much. I knew I had a good script because so many people told me I had a good script, so I had that going for me. My background is visual arts, so I haven’t had a lot of experience collaborating with other people, so that was both a challenge for me and a great pleasure. I knew that I had to do it, I knew that it was healthy, I knew it was going to give me a better film if I invited all these people to have creative input and to help me and that was a challenge. But it worked out really well. I’d never worked with actors before, I found that to be challenging, exhilarating, frustrating…because I had such great help, such a great cast and crew, the biggest challenge we all faced was a lack of rehearsal time.
The biggest challenge was trying to get the actors rehearsed so that I was comfortable going into filming. If we’d had six months to rehearse it, I would’ve felt more comfortable going in to the one weekend we had for shooting.
What else would you like to say to the audience of Romeo? There are two things that I want to emphasize. One is that we’ve got a lot of talent in Columbus, from the CSU theatre, to the Springer, to the Georgia Film Academy, just a lot of talent. We’ve got so many resources that somebody like me can draw on, and when you add in the Way Down Film Festival and all the excitement about that…without Way Down, none of this would have happened. SVM
Romeo needs an executive producer. If you are interested or want to make a tax deductible donation, contact Kenny at email@example.com, for more information. Learn more about Romeo on its Facebook page: Romeo: A Film by Kenny Gray.