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Big vision, small budget

The Baltimore Sun

It appeared that another body was about to turn cold on a hot summer night in East Baltimore. A middle-aged man stood tense as three dozen young men surrounded him in a back alley. He recognized a handful of them as the group he had earlier shooed away from loitering. They had returned for revenge - with reinforcements.

"We'll shoot you in the face!" they shouted as some seemed to reach for concealed weapons.

Just then, two patrol cars showed up. Everyone froze while police stared at the confrontation - and also at a track of spotlights on a nearby rooftop, loads of cable wire and someone barbecuing a few feet away.

"Hey Al!" one of the menacing young men hollered. "You need to get over here!"

A thin, young man in braids walked over and wondered why everything had stopped. After all, he hadn't yelled "Cut!" or "Take Five!"

That's when police met ALvin Gray, 21, an aspiring screenwriter and indie filmmaker from Baltimore. He was shooting a movie about the perils of urban teen life on a $100 budget (that later ballooned to $252). To make his film so cheaply, he borrowed equipment, found actors mostly on the networking Web site MySpace and ignored the need to secure permits to shoot on city property.

For some aspiring filmmakers, the project would have ended right there, off Cardenas Avenue. But as he has done often, Gray conveyed to the officers his cinematic vision - exploring residents' frustrations with gripping poverty and gangs gone wild. The officers gave a cautious nod before moving on.

Gray often wins over people with his passion, sometimes securing equipment and services for free, other times cutting deals for future payments once a project turns a profit. A video producer and editor, Gray is among a group of young artists who use the Internet for everything from casting to marketing to carry out "guerrilla filming."

"He's a rare breed," said Jerome "Ro" Brooks, maybe the most talented actor in Gray's latest project, having had roles in the television shows ER and The Practice. "He has the knowledge of how to put a film together without the direction of a school. He's so focused. Most people don't know what they want to do with their lives at 21."

Relatively inexpensive technology now enables those with no ties to Hollywood to make motion pictures. It's a dream pursued by many: Next month, for example, Fox launches a new reality show with Steven Spielberg, On the Lot, that will cull films from 12,000 people to select one for a $1 million deal from Dream- Works.

As always, fledgling filmmakers still need creativity, ingenuity, a gift of persuasion and a knack for risk taking - attributes of which Gray has plenty.

He traversed much of the Baltimore-Washington area to make his 81-minute film Torture, which he filmed from last June through January. During the process, he discovered that the region has a host of talented artists willing to lend their skills for the work and exposure. He said, even some gang members offered to help with the gunplay scenes, eager to show "how it's really done."

And when law enforcement officers weren't asking for cameo shots in the film, they were giving him the OK to shoot impromptu scenes, including one where he momentarily stopped traffic on Key Highway to shoot a scene where drug dealers are pulled over by police. In another, he filmed a scene of him walking around Fells Point with a sword, prompting residents to call police.

"That's what happened throughout Baltimore," said Gray, who now lives in Rosedale. He capitalizes the first two letters of his first name as a play on his nickname, Al. "People just took to me. Baltimore kind of carried me and let me do what I wanted to do, even though I shouldn't have been doing it."

A soft smile forms beneath Gray's trimmed mustache as his flowing braids frame his face. Before selling people on his vision, he was bent on making the film even if it meant doing so, he said, "with a camcorder and a lamp."

Torture is quality work, particularly considering that Gray never finished college. He attended the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex for half a semester before dropping out. His previous movie experience consisted of working as an extra on the sets of HBO's The Wire and the film Step Up, both filmed locally.

Gray's passion for filmmaking emerged during an audio-video class at Overlea High School, where he and friends learned to make commercials. That led to internships at local community access channels, where he got more hands-on experience.

That paved the way for Torture, named after a 1984 R&B; song by the Jacksons, the grown-up version of the Jackson 5. The plot centers on a Baltimore teenager named Leon Fields Jr., an aspiring, introverted artist who seeks revenge against drug dealers who murdered his father. The film moves from a thought-provoking drama about how senseless violence can derail young dreams to a martial-arts display of fight scenes.

The film begins with a reporter covering a murder scene. Shortly afterward, Fields' story unfolds: He is a typical teenager, withdrawn and moody. His innate talents often must be prodded from him. He has a strained relationship with his father, who doesn't accept his son's passion for art.

In one of the most powerful scenes, drug dealers shoot Fields' father outside his home days after he chided them about doing business on his block. The filmmaker does an exceptional job of relaying the grief, anger and confusion of a teen who loses a parent to gang violence. Leon becomes enraged to the point that he cannot communicate with anyone without hostility, ultimately leading to an obsession to avenge his father's death.

Gray wrote the 160-page screenplay in three weeks and shot it in some of Baltimore's seediest neighborhoods, including the scene on Cardenas Avenue where his own parents once lived. He has already begun working on the sequel.

"The first line in the song 'Torture' is 'It was on a street so evil, so bad that even hell disowned it.' That's Baltimore to me," Gray said. "The point of the movie was to say the whole gang activity has to stop. I don't want to give it away, but I don't want the story to end on a happy note, because, unfortunately, Baltimore never ends on a happy note. Every day, the same situation goes on and on."

Gray says the film is loosely based on his life, except for the martial arts. His parents, Lynette and Alvin Gray Sr., endured drug addictions when he was younger, he said, forcing him to make several moves across town to live with both grandmothers.

"My father didn't get killed by gangs," Gray said, "but the streets did take my father to drug activity."

Both of Gray's parents have been clean for seven years. Lynette Gray, who currently helps other women battle addiction, said she doesn't mind her son putting a slice of her life on film as long as he tells the full story.

"I didn't realize how he was feeling about me and his dad not being there for about five years of his life when we had a bad fall," Lynette Gray said. She and her husband have since moved to Baltimore County. "We got involved with the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time, but it was only part of our life, not our full life," she said. "There's no shame in my game. Now, I can save someone else's life."

Their son hopes his film brings about similar change. He seems to have struck a chord with others in the area who are fed up with the city's ills and were willing to help him make his movie.

"I was impressed with his organizational skills, his tenacity and persistence and completing his project," said Gerald Brown, a Baltimore-area video producer who lent a camera (and his own film skills on some days), lighting, tapes and cranes free of charge, something he's seldom done.

Chris Pollard, president of local feature film and video producing company 56k Films, loaned a camera (which he operated) and accessories for three months. He also put Torture ads on 56k's Web site. Pollard said he typically rents the camera, accessories and operator for $1,500 a day.

"ALvin pulls you in immediately with his energy," said Pollard, who met Gray on the set of Step Up. "He's not just talking to be talking. He's putting everything in order."

Artist and model Melissa Rollo of Nottingham in Baltimore County not only is an actress in the film but also drew the art for the DVD cover, ad poster and all of the paintings in the film. Martial arts instructor June Daguiso of Washington plays an instructor in the film and also served as choreographer. Gray persuaded a friend who owns a martial arts studio in Laurel to allow him to shoot scenes there.

A friend of Gray's who works at the Belvedere arranged for him to shoot Baltimore skyline scenes from the top floor.

Local music producer JT Tha Sorce, who also worked with Gray on Step Up, is an actor in the film and produced a soundtrack for it. When Gray was caught filming in an abandoned warehouse by the building's owner, the music producer helped persuade the owner to allow Gray to shoot so long as he didn't break anything or sue if one of the actors got hurt.

That's how he was able to pull off his venture with just $250, some of which he borrowed from his girlfriend. Among his expenses: $25 to convert Torture from a Quicktime file to tape, $20 for a sword and about $100 for gas. When he filmed until the early morning hours, his actors slept on the floor in his apartment, then he made them breakfast the next morning before they resumed shooting.

Gray follows a long line of aspiring artists who have used guerrilla filmmaking to get projects off the ground. Among the most notable: Spike Lee, who employed the practice to film She's Gotta Have It, his first feature-length film.

James Arnett, filmmaker and author of The Guide Book For Guerrilla Filmmakers, said among the advantages of guerrilla filmmaking are "independence of content, low production costs and enthusiastic community involvement - in most towns." The disadvantages, he said, include lack of production capital, limited distribution options and "lack of community involvement in 'movie' towns, e.g. Los Angeles."

Gray laughs heartily when he reflects on all he endured to make Torture. When he shot scenes in a Baltimore public housing complex, drug dealers told him they wouldn't interfere - so long as he didn't disrupt their real-life drug trade. When he filmed downtown, homeless people kept interrupting scenes to ask for spare change. Several of the volunteer actors dropped out midway, so Gray had to replace almost every role at least twice.

Still, he got it done, and after showing the film locally, Gray is now shopping for distributors. He hopes to shed light on a city problem and to expose local talent, including many who are as passionate about their dreams as he is about his.

'The thing in Baltimore is that I think a lot of people want to work, but they don't know the people to go to," Gray said. "They want to show their talent, but they don't know how to. My thing is I wanted to get to know as many people as possible and help them out and then they can help me."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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