Rel Gets Real
Rel Dowdell is a very gifted screenwriter and director. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he received his Bachelor’s degree in English with magna cum laude honors from Fisk University and a Master’s Degree in Film with highest distinction from Boston University.
Dowdell’s first feature film, Train Ride, was released to widespread critical acclaim. Produced with independent financing, the film was acquired and distributed by Sony Pictures in 2005 and was a tremendous financial success. The picture starred Wood Harris, MC Lyte, Russell Hornsby, and the late Esther Rolle in her last performance.
Train Ride was ranked as one of the best American movies that year as cited by veteran film critic Gerald Peary of The Boston Phoenix. It also garnered high praise in film historian Irv Slifkin’s book, “Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies.” And it won the honor of “Best Feature” at the American Theatre of Harlem Film Festival in 2005.
Rel Dowdell has been compared to John Singleton and Spike Lee in the way that he blends urban storytelling and suspense to tackle relevant and universal social issues intimately intertwined with a powerful moral message. Here, Rel discusses his new film, Changing the Game, a drama shot in his hometown and starring Sean Riggs, Irma P. Hall, Tony Todd, Dennis L.A. White and Sticky Fingaz.
Rel Dowdell: Absolutely! This is a great privilege of mine to be interviewed by you, Mr. Williams. I have been a great admirer of your work and writings for years. You reviewing my film, “Changing the Game” was an extremely significant honor for me and everyone involved with this landmark project.
KW: How did you come up with the idea of Changing the Game?
RD: I wanted to be daring and create a film with an African-American male protagonist that combined genres, kind of like a cross between “New Jack City” and “Wall Street.” The key was to make sure to show that the African-American male protagonist, when given the chance to escape his virulent, inner-city environment and become successful, would make sure not to get engulfed by it again, but at the same time, never lose his sense of self and appreciate the roots from which he originated, in order to make smart decisions in his life.
KW: To what extent is the story autobiographical?
RD: Wow! Good question. I think every screenwriter takes pieces of him or herself and integrates it into the fabric of some of the characters in the screenplay when it’s written. In life, you have to have street sense as well as book sense if you’re going to survive in this world. The main character, Darrell Barnes (played by Sean Riggs), uses spirituality and intelligence to guide him through some of the pitfalls in his life. I can fully relate to that. I had people pray for me continuously during the more arduous times in my life, just like the character of the grandmother (played by Irma P. Hall) did for Darrell. The part about adapting philosophies of Niccolo Machiavelli to deal with adversities and adversaries seemed like an interesting element to me since I had read texts such as Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu numerous times during my academic years.
KW: How much time did each part of the process take: the scriptwriting, raising money, casting, screen location, shooting, editing, and getting the final cut into theaters?
RD: It took me about 2 years to fully develop and write the script. After I conceived the idea for the story, I brought a friend of mine on named Aaron Astillero who had a lot of knowledge about the inner dealings of the stock market and Wall Street. I wanted the story to be accurate and authentic to what was going on at the time. Then, after I was happy with the script, I recruited a good friend of mine, veteran actor Tony Todd (“Candyman” and “Final Destination”) to be a part of the film. We had met back in 2005 when my first film, “Train Ride,” was showing at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles. He really liked the film and said he wanted to work with me in the future. That was a tremendous blessing. With “Changing the Game,” I figured attaching someone of his caliber would help me raise money for the film, which it definitely did. He was a big asset to my executive producers, Thomas Webster and Karen Isaac, because anyone who they got interested as a potential investor, Tony would speak to them, and even meet personally with them. It took three years to literally raise just enough money, complete casting, secure crew, locations, shoot, and do post-production for the film. I had a lot of other help from producers Alain Silver, Larry Weinberg, and Don Schneider along the way. It then took two years to get a final cut and then avidly seek theatrical distribution for the film. All in all, it took seven years from initial script to seeing the film finally on the big screen.
KW: What was the most challenging aspect of that filmmaking process?
RD: Trying to cover over 21 locations (national and international) over 3 decades of the main character’s life in only 21 days on a budget nowhere near Hollywood standards, or for that matter, most independent film standards nowadays. Most indies are now made in the millions. I wanted to show that a lot can get done with a little bit, if it’s planned and executed right. That’s where your skill as a filmmaker is greatly tested.
KW: What is your intended audience?
RD: Anyone who has had to struggle and overcome odds in their lives. Anyone who hasn’t had it easy in life. Anyone who has gotten up off their death bed through someone’s ardent prayer and been thankful to God for another chance in life. If you haven’t had to overcome strife and hardships to get to where you are today, this film may be like a foreign film with no subtitles to you.
KW: What message do you want people to take away from the movie?
RD: That life is a constant game of tests and struggles. Just when you think you’re in the clear, even tougher tests are ahead. Your opposition adapts to you just like you adapt to it. Some tests you are going to win, and some you are going to lose. However, with true faith, you will have a chance to get back in the game and win when facing the final and most consequential test to keep your soul intact.*
KW: Who is your favorite director?
RD: Alfred Hitchcock.
KW: What’s your favorite movie?
RD: Bugsy Malone (1976).
KW: Have you started to think about your next film?
RD: It’s just starting to come to me, Mr. Williams. After seven years of stress and strife to get this film released, I am finally feeling a sense of completion. I do have a wonderful idea in a completely different genre that I know would be a smash hit film if the right people got behind it.*
KW: Who would you like to star in it?
RD: I am one who loves to give the next great talent a break. I gave Wood Harris his first lead role in “Train Ride.” I had no doubt he could pull in off for an instant. Same goes for Sean Riggs in “Changing the Game.” I feel he has the potential to be the next Denzel Washington, who I hold in the highest regard as a real thespian. As a filmmaker, having the vision to say you helped to discover a breakout new talent is a great blessing.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
RD: On a date, would I ever bungee jump, hang glide, or go sky diving? The answer is a resounding “No!” However, I must admit, I think that “Point Break” is one of the coolest movies ever made, and that scene where they go skydiving is exhilarating. I couldn’t ever do it. I may try surfing, though. It looked like an incredible experience when Lori Petty was schooling Keanu Reeves on it in the film.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
RD: Definitely. Afraid of not trying.
RD: Definitely. For my family to see me reach my lifelong goal of making films after sacrificing so much of their own personal resources and time to get me to this point gives me a feeling of tremendous elation and satisfaction.*
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
RD: Mr. Williams, someone sent me a youtube clip of a news reporter from Augusta who had perfect speech and diction in his report until a fly flew into his mouth. After that, dude turned straight hood yelling every expletive in the book. That was one funny clip. I still watch it from time to time.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
RD: Watching marathons of “Unsung” on TV-One.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
RD: “Words of Wisdom” by Reverend Run. I was a big “Run’s House” fan when it was on TV.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music have you been listening to lately?
RD: “When You’re Near” by Guru from Jazzmatazz, Volume 1 and “Buck ’em Down” by Black Moon.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
RD: I can’t cook very well! But I try, and usually burn something new every day.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
RD: Hoping one day African-Americans will pull together in the film industry like The Harlem Renaissance did back in the day, and help and create opportunities for one another. There’s room for everyone to succeed if more of us would just give back. Fortunately, there are now some prominent African-Americans in the industry to try and do such things. Small risks can often pay big rewards.
KW: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets,” asks: What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
RD: The best business decision I made was to learn the craft of screenwriting and filmmaking in an academic environment because you need to learn all the nuances of the craft before embarking on making a film, especially an independent one where the margin of error is magnified exponentially. If you don’t learn the proper way to make films early, you’ll pay for that mistake later on when opportunity comes. The worst business decision I made was not signing a back-end deal on my first film, “Train Ride.” That film made a killing on DVD and rentals. The filmmaker should be rewarded for his or her efforts, which I was not.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
RD: Someone who never gives up.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
RD: My back end money for “Train Ride.” “Show me the money!” like Rod Tidwell said in “Jerry Maguire.”
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
RD: One of my uncles couldn’t believe I could read at a very young age, so he pulled out a love letter he wrote to a girlfriend thinking I couldn’t read it. When I started to read it and got to the good parts, he snatched it away.
KW: The Kerry Washington question: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
RD: Probably a dolphin, because they can plan ahead and communicate in very efficient ways.
KW: The Pastor Alex Kendrick question: When do you feel the most content?
RD: At home before I go to bed. I try to get everything done every day so when it’s time to turn in, I can relax and sleep hard.
KW: The Toure question: Who is the person who led you to become the person you are today?
RD: Good question. I have to give credit to two people, not one, because they both have different but very beneficial qualities that gave me a very strong foundation, and that is both of my parents.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
RD: Learn the craft of filmmaking like it’s a science, not a hobby. Take it very seriously. Know that others that paved the way before you have done it better than you and give them respect. When you do that, you can create your own voice.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
RD: As a filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to take risks, combine genres, and look at the African-American experience in film not just as the African-American experience, but as the human experience. It gives me a strong sense of pride looking at the diversity I integrated into the fabric of the cast of this film.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Rel, and best of luck with the film.
RD: Thanks so much again, Mr. Williams, for taking the time to interview me and for your review of “Changing the Game!” If anyone doesn’t get the chance to see the film in the theaters, make sure you look out for the DVD on August 28th. And please, no bootleg! Bootlegging hurts the potential success of African-American films worst of all.
To see a trailer for Changing the Game: