“In TOMORROW’S HOPE you’ll get to know real people making a real difference on the South Side of Chicago. This is an experience that leads you heart-first into some of our most talked-about issues today, including systemic racism and the importance of providing access to education. It’s a journey with passionate educators and kids and their families who are finding a way to carve out the future, despite a sea of intense challenges. There’s the contrast of what it looks like when promises are finally kept – and how that stands out against a backdrop of promises that have been broken, time and time again. Yet, even with naysayers and obstacles at every turn – this is a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit.” Producer Tamra Raven on TOMORROW’S HOPE which screens at SxSW 2022. Also contributing to this interview are director Thomas Morgan, producer and composer Aaron Steinberg and director of photography Doug Clevenger.
Welcome to SxSW! Is this your first SxSW experience? Are you attending in person or doing the virtual fest?
Aaron Steinberg: So cool! In-person, and happy to say, it’s actually not our first SXSW rodeo! I had performed at SXSW previously as a musician with my band Captain Danger and it is so great to be back in Austin! It’s really like being in a playpen of creativity and never-ending surprises…with barbecue.
How did this whole project come together?
Tamra Raven: I was approached by the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation because they had been interested for a while in exploring the possibility of making a documentary about this amazing school community on the South Side of Chicago. They asked if I could make it happen and if so, how. Well, needless to say, I was all over it; it was such a fit for what matters to me and the kinds of stories I hope to bring to the world. I began getting the team together right away. Soon we were off and running with fellow producer Trevor Hall, director Thomas Morgan, cinematographer Doug Clevenger, editors Micho (Mohamed El Manasterly) and Oren Castro, and also music composer / co-producer Aaron Steinberg.
While working on a project, what’s your creative process?
Tamra: For a documentary project of this kind, as a first step, you really have to build a foundation of trust with the people whose stories you’re telling. And Thomas honed in on that need immediately and made it happen in such a great way. They all really let us into their world.
Thomas Morgan: Yeah, and the structure of the story seemed obvious as they all pushed toward graduation. What I was most interested in is the personal stories of where that fit in their lives. I wanted to let them tell their story – not through the filter of having an education but what was afforded them because of it. Was it going to take them further than their parents or was it just going to mark an accomplishment that brought them back to the same place? How did they see it and see themselves because of it?
What was your biggest challenge with creating this feature, and what was the moment where you realized “Yes, this is IT!”?
Tamra: Because the documentary has a fair amount of Chicago history in it, particularly relating to the Chicago’s housing projects and the city’s “Plan For Transformation” when they began demolishing the projects, getting everything set with the archival footage was really a major challenge! First off, there’s not a great deal of footage in existence anywhere, of course – since we were focusing on a dramatically underserved community. Secondly, tracking down the rights for the historical content we’d found was also really quite an adventure. But separate from any of that we believe we all felt “Yes, this is it!” pretty early on because the story and the personalities are just so undeniable. Once we were fully underway, we all felt super-energized about forging ahead.
I am a tech person, so I would love to know about the visual design of the movie from the cameras to the formats used and how it was made from a technical standpoint!
Doug Clevenger: When I first met with Thomas it was clear that his connection with the film’s subject matter was important to him and he didn’t want an arbitrary visual approach that would get in the way with connecting with our subjects and also that we needed very small footprint. We opted to shoot primarily using the Canon C300, which we’d both used before with Thomas on his documentary SOUFRA and me on several TV projects). Canon color science is excellent and yields a natural-looking image while maintaining a warmth and saturation with wonderful blacks. Much of the film was handheld, so I employed a custom-built shoulder mount called the Ergocine Lion. Also the Canon C300 has a Super35mm CMOS sensor that performs very well in low light situations. In documentary production, this can allow us to keep our lighting package small and remain quick and nimble. We maintained a small crew and relied heavily on natural light. We traveled with several battery-operated LED kits that were always color-dimmable, since in documentary filmmaking you often find yourself in mixed source situations, including subjects’ homes. Still, our minimal approach also involved supplementing the natural light and boosting ambient levels enough for filming without overpowering the existing mood. We traveled with both daylight and tungsten bulbs, so depending on the prevailing color temperature, we could switch out practical sources to match. For interviews and more stylized sections, we allowed ourselves to stretch a bit in order to achieve a more stylized look. For example, when introducing our characters like student and drummer Jamal Poindexter, Thomas chose an industrial location, and we went for stylized lighting and incorporated a small drone for a more dramatic and textural look. For interviews we relied on Prime lenses, in order to take advantage of the Super 35mm sensor and achieve separation with background, employing shallow depth of field. We also had a second, slowly-moving camera angle using a Dana Dolly. Also we did use some other drones here and there in TOMORROW’S HOPE. We went with a Mavic Pro 2, primarily because its one-inch sensor allows for an excellent picture while being very small and inconspicuous. Drones were great to provide some additional context for neighborhoods and connecting the areas we were filming in relative to downtown Chicago.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?
Aaron: First, it’s just great to be back enjoying films in a group setting, after what we’ve all been through with covid! Recently we have been fortunate to screen TOMORROW’S HOPE in-person at some other festivals, and it’s a different experience than has been possible for much of the pandemic. We’re really looking forward to connecting with audiences about the themes in the film since these issues are much more in the news cycle now than ever before, and there’s just so much to dig into. We really enjoy these kinds of conversations. Also viewers so far have really enjoyed the drumline performance sequences in the film and how those weave into and support the narrative; it’s always great to get everyone’s take on the fabric of this project.
Where is this title going next? More festivals or a theatrical or streaming release?
Tamra: There are more festivals on the horizon and we’re really excited about it all. Of course we’re pursuing other future avenues as well, so we’re very much looking forward to what’s ahead.
What is the one thing that you would say to someone who is wishing to get into making movies, especially now as the world is changing at such a fast pace?
Tamra: We would say “you can do it!” And also that you should do it. The world needs to hear from you! Also we’d say factor in that the whole process could take a wee bit longer and be more intense than you likely anticipate from the start. But yes, please do it! And we think the fact that the world is changing at such a fast pace is actually a big plus, especially if you’re prepared to look at it that way.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival or favourite movie?
Tamra: The documentary A HEALTHY BABY GIRL.
Aaron: The music documentary SOUL POWER.
Doug: Well, since you’ve also left the door open for our all-time favorites, I’d like to mention MY LIFE AS A DOG and THE TIME OF THE GYPSIES.
This film and many others like it will be showing at South By Southwest taking place March 11-20. For more information point your browser to www.sxsw.com!