"The Darker the Berry. . .," a film by fledgling Buffalo filmmaker Rick Kleinsmith, begins with a jolt. "The Ghetto," the screen announces. And the camera zeroes in, unflinchingly, on a drab Buffalo house.
The house could be anywhere -- Broadway, say, or Walden Avenue, or even in the Fruit Belt. The movie never reveals where it is. The reason? Kleinsmith didn't have permission to film the house. He just used it.
Kleinsmith, a 23-year-old University at Buffalo grad, inhabits the world of guerrilla filmmaking, where the budget is slim and moviemaking is an adventure.
"Don't think I walk into this being a seasoned veteran," he declares. "I walked in not knowing what I was walking into. My script started out being a short film. But I wrote more, and added more. Then we started getting more funding. And we were able to expand it."
Considering that it was made on such a shoestring ($30,000, mostly maxed-out credit cards and UB grants), the hourlong film has done well. Half romance, half social commentary, it takes a look at rocky race relations in a high school. It has a gritty ambience that's not hurt by a low budget.
The Saguaro International Film Festival in Arizona warmed to "The Darker the Berry. . .," citing it as Best Breakthrough Feature. And it won two honorable mention awards at the Valleyfest Film Festival, held in Knoxville, Tenn.
"It was a very fine film. It was very well-received," says Donna Maxwell, the director of the Valleyfest Film Festival.
The story of racial strife, she points out, hit home in the South.
"A lot of people recognized that, especially the younger audience. They recognized the struggle going on there, and the personalities involved. And there was some fine acting in the movie."
Sneakers and loafers
Kleinsmith's movie has rough edges. The weather changes abruptly from scene to scene. (One minute, the characters are in short sleeves, and the next, they're in sweaters.) The landscape, which ranges from Leon's Lounge to the University Skating Rink, has a bargain-basement look.
The film was, however, an encouraging experience for its writer/director. "Buffalo's a great town to make films in," Kleinsmith beams. "Everybody, if you say, 'I'm making a film,' they are so enthused to help you."
Born and raised in South Buffalo, Kleinsmith now shares an apartment in the Elmwood area. Handsome and offbeat, he shows up for an interview on foot, wearing a vintage leather jacket over what looks like an undershirt.
His life, he points out, is far from perfect. He and his girlfriend just broke up. His parents don't like his career. He has just quit his most recent day job.
But he's full of sunny confidence, and the joy he takes in his art is obvious.
The racial themes behind "The Darker the Berry. . .," Kleinsmith says, have interested him since his days at City Honors High School. He played football for South Park High School and found himself visiting friends who lived in the Perry Projects.
"I started thinking -- and this is what this film was really about -- in this day and age, it's not so much black and white," he says. "There's so much cultural sharing and blending. White kids are listening to hip-hop, wearing black clothes. It's so hard to say what makes a black guy black and a white guy white. Is it the way they dress? What they listen to? Is it the way they think?
"So I came up with the idea of a second minority, someone who is prejudiced against because of their philosophy and not their physiognomy."
"The Darker the Berry. . ." focuses not on an interracial love affair, but on a romance between a white girl and a white boy. The boy, Jay, hangs out with a black crowd, likes R&B and emulates his black friends' style of dress. In contrast, the girl, Amy, could be called "white bread." Her brother, Matt, is aghast at her budding romance and keeps trying to beat Jay up.
Kleinsmith laughs as he relates how Tony White, who plays Jay's friend Cliff, was especially well cast in that he gave the lie to certain racial stereotypes.
"He's a lawyer. He went to law school," Kleinsmith says of White, a Buffalo actor now living in New York. "He was supposed to be playing a black guy with jerseys and sneakers and stuff. He did not own a pair of sneakers. He said, 'I only have penny loafers to wear.' He speaks the King's English. I have to tell him, 'Hey, man, you have to say this. . .'
"You talk about people playing a different character! He was the biggest stretch in the film."
Free music from the Waz
Cast and crew donated their time. Still, the longer "The Darker the Berry. . ." became, the more the costs rose.
"Once you start shooting, you can't stop," Kleinsmith says. "We couldn't say, 'Let's cut our losses,' and forget the money we spent."
Video would have been cheaper than film. But it's not a medium Kleinsmith likes.
"It lends an amateurish feel to a piece of work," he asserts. "Granted, you can tell great stories. You can do things with video you can't do with film," he adds. "Video is much easier to work in. And it's good for ad-libbing. If anyone ad-libbed in the film, I went crazy, like, 'What are you doing?' "
Sometimes, Kleinsmith admits, the high cost of the film medium contributed to the movie's occasionally slapdash feel.
"You only had four takes or three takes to do everything," he points out. "If they didn't do it in that amount of takes, I said, 'Forget it, we're going with it, I don't care.' Sometimes it was one take and it was 'OK, that looked good, and I hope it comes out good.' Because there was no monitor."
Happily, equipment rental was donated. So was space. "We didn't pay anyone to use any buildings or establishments," Kleinsmith says.
Music, too, was gratis. Kleinsmith met many helpful contacts while filming rap videos, and Deep Thinka Records in Lackawanna pitched in rap and hip-hop. Also donating time and music were the Waz, a Buffalo band, and Allentown's Wasteland Studios.
Now that the film is a wrap, Kleinsmith is pondering his next move.
Maxwell, the Valleyfest Film Festival director, thinks he should consider television writing. "For some of the edgier programming, he might do well," she muses.
Kleinsmith, though he keeps hoping to get "The Darker the Berry. . ." into video stores, wants to move forward. He is working on another script, a story about friendship. He hopes to start filming it next summer.
Meanwhile, he's satisfied with his first effort.
"There are so many films out there that are just for entertainment," he says. "If this is my 15 minutes of fame, then damn it, I'm going to use it for something. I'm not going to just make a film about college kids smoking weed. I want to do something that's going to talk to people."