Jim McKay is screening his film Our Song at the Hostos Lincoln Academy in the Bronx, where he’s serving as Principal for a Day, and he’s understandably nervous—there’s probably no tougher crowd for a teen coming-of-age movie than a roomful of high school seniors. As it turns out, the remarks that follow are not only warm (first question: “Can I be in one of your movies?”) but lively and perceptive. McKay says he’s been flummoxed by the odd hostile viewer in the past—most memorably when the film had its local premiere at MOMA’s New Directors/New Films series last spring. “We had a great screening, a standing ovation, and the very first question was from a young black woman who got up and basically said, You have no right to be making this movie.” As a 39-year-old white man whose two films to date have featured working-class teenage girls (a multiracial group in his debut feature, Girls Town; black and Latina in Our Song), McKay admits he often finds himself in a defensive position. “On one level, I’m creating work that is somewhat outside my experience, and I’m aware of my obligation to get it right. I think there have been examples of white filmmakers entering territory that’s not theirs and being exploitative and irresponsible. The most well intended movies can be the worst ones in exoticizing their subjects. I check myself constantly, though, and I do feel secure about having done my homework and having been responsible to the characters I’m putting on film. I happen to feel the work speaks for itself. I mean, go yell at Quentin Tarantino.”
Girls Town, an earnest, semi-improvised account of teen female empowerment, won McKay the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance in 1996. “I feel I got better with my second film,” he says. “Girls Town was an in-your-face, didactic, statement movie, but with Our Song, I was trying to bury the politics beneath the story.” McKay wanted to be a high school English teacher, but his part-time job at a repertory house in the early ’80s led him to filmmaking. His first efforts were documentaries, and the organic narrative accretion of verité style remains a reference point. “I watched a lot of Frederick Wiseman when I was writing Our Song, and I got to a point where I was trying to create something with literally zero plot,” he says. “It became impossible, but I did whatever I could not to let any one big story take over the whole thing.”
Though its vernacular is primarily one of offhand gesture and meandering banter, Our Song in fact seldom deviates from a tightly written script. This was partly intended, according to McKay, as a safety net for the three teenage leads, who had no prior experience before a camera. “They also had completely different techniques,” he notes. “Kerry Washington had been auditioning like a pro, Anna Simpson had never even been to an acting class, and Melissa Martinez was somewhere between the two. A big part of it was trying to figure out how they each needed to be treated.” That Simpson was the hardest casting choice had nothing to do with talent. “Anna was 15 when she came in to audition, and she was five or six months pregnant at the time.” Impressed as he was, McKay had serious reservations. “But she kept coming in, on time, gradually dispelling all the preconceptions you’d have about a teen, and she just kept getting better. By the time we shot, the baby was a month and a half. Anna would arrive on set, having slept two hours, and would bring the baby sometimes. That somehow provided a context for the film.”
Our Song was shot on location in Crown Heights during the sweltering dog days of summer, and McKay says he and cinematographer Jim Denault were aiming for a look that was “gorgeous in its realness” (models included La Promesse, The Dreamlife of Angels, and Wiseman’s Public Housing). In postproduction, McKay and his editor, Alex Hall, shaped their raw material with rigorous economy. “We ended up giving in on a couple of things, but when we started cutting, we set ourselves a few rules: no fades, no dissolves, no jump cuts, no score.”
McKay heads the production company C-Hundred Films (with celebrity partner Michael Stipe, for whom he used to make music videos) and has worked with directors like Chris Smith, Christopher Munch, Cheryl Dunye, and Tom Gilroy, but he expresses a growing discomfort with what passes for the indie-film community. Sundance 2000, where Our Song premiered, was particularly eye-opening: “Since Our Song was, in a way, even smaller than my first movie, I thought, let’s just go show it, no publicists, no parties, no bullshit. And we had empty seats in all our screenings. Everybody was running off to take a photograph of Heather Graham, or get to some acoustic performance or some dotcom thing. That’s just the wrong place to be the little guy; I’m sure the smaller films got even more lost.”
McKay’s next directorial project is likely to be an HBO production titled Across the Great Divide. “The idea is to get people to send in stories about race—incidents that have made a mark on their lives. But we’re not actually re-creating these stories, just using them as the backstories for the characters in our film and we’ll develop it in an improv workshop.”
IFC Films, which is releasing Our Song, stepped in with finishing funds, but McKay says he got the movie in the can for a mere $120,000. “In the middle of it you always say, I’ll never put my own money into a movie again, and then when you’re done you’re kinda like, Well, that was a great experience, no one told me what to do.” McKay delayed production for a year so he could rewrite the script to accommodate the 60-piece Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band. “A lot of times the shoot was interrupted by real-life problems. You know, you’re dealing with all these kids, there’s a mini-tragedy every day. It just continually put things in perspective.”
Jessica Winter reviews Our Song.