Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Peace Sign" (Barry Michael Cooper's 1990 Directorial Debut)

By Barry Michael Cooper

"The Peace Sign" was the first film I ever directed. Watching Mario Van Peebles--who was not only gracious enough to invite me to the set of "New Jack City," the screenplay I wrote for Warner Brothers in 1987, which became a hit film in 1991 and ignited the careers of Van Peebles, Wesley Snipes, Ice T, Allen Payne, and Chris Rock--but he allowed me to watch him work as he set up shots with the DP Francis Kenny, block scenes with the actors, and masterfully helm a movie that became a classic. 
photo still of David Mills, "The Peace Sign," 1990
After "New Jack City" wrapped production in early June 1990, I took a two-week crash course in filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street in Manhattan. I began to read books like Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema: Directors and Directions. I also picked the brain of a man who I consider a cinematic mentor, the prolific director and TV producer Stan Lathan, in addition to devouring up to three films a day.
photo still of Eric Daniels, "The Peace Sign," 1990
"The Peace Sign" was the result of this intense celluloid immersion. Visually, I was influenced by a lot of the British New Wave's "Angry Young Man" cinema. Two films come to mind during this time; Jack Clayton's powerful "Room at the Top" (starring Lawrence Harvey and Simone Signoret; I am going to post a more in-depth essay on this film at a later date, GOD Willing), and the legendary Sidney Lumet's striking "The Hill" (an American director's take on the British New Wave), underscored by the knockout performances by the late, great Ossie Davis and a very un-James Bond-ish Sean Connery. 
photo still of Derrick Roberts, "The Peace Sign," 1990
I loved the iconic camera artistry of the UK DP's like Oswald Morris ("The Hill"), and Freddie Francis ("Room at the Top"). Thclinical beauty of their B&W photography, in tandem with their use of E.C.U's (extreme close-ups) turned their coverage of the actors, into a psychic X-Ray of their souls. The work of these filmmakers--then and now--had a great impact on me.
photo still of Brent J. Cooper, "The Peace Sign," 1990
I had a lot of help on "The Peace Sign". I am forever grateful to a group of amazing first-time actors--David Mills, Derrick Roberts, Eric Daniels, and Brent J. Cooper--who effortlessly brought the characters I scripted on the page to life in ways I never dreamed possible. I learned a lot from my cinematographer, Tim Naylor, who is one of the most sought-after DP's in the business. Working as my tenacious assistant director, was a super- talented Spike Lee protege named Jeff Byrd--who kept the shooting schedule of "The Peace Sign" on time and within the budget--who would later go on to become a great director and filmmaker in his own right. Tracy Daniels, my co-producer, did a phenomenal job of turning a $5,000 investment (the entire budget of "The Peace Sign") from Steven Starr (who was my first agent at William Morris), into an ambitious, seven minute film about how different people can bring radically different points-of-view to a single object. I had a great time creating "The Peace Sign." It was and still is, a project very close to me.

Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.