By Anita Malhotra
Dennis Dortch is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose debut feature – A Good Day to be Black & Sexy – is a series of vignettes that aim to portray Black sexuality realistically. Screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the film has aired on Showtime and The Movie Channel and is also available on DVD and by Netflix video streaming. Anita Malhotra spoke with Dortch, who was at his L.A. home, via Skype video on September 2, 2011.
AM: How did you get into filmmaking?
Dortch: It was at college – Loyola Marymount. I was a recording arts major and shared some of the same classes as the film majors, so I took the “intro to film” class and I liked it so much I decided to change my major and try it out.
AM: As a child, did you have an interest in film?
Dortch: I wrote a lot of short stories and made up characters, but I didn’t really think about it as film. It never really occurred to me.
AM: Did you grow up in L.A.?
Dortch: No, I grew up all over the place. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, of all places, up until the age of 10. And my mother remarried a military man, so we travelled the world and went all over the United States and the world from there.
AM: Tell me about your earliest films.
AM: I’ve read that you used Super 8 to shoot Honey. Why did you use that format?
Dortch: At the time the school was still using Super 8 and my girlfriend and partner uses Super 8 a lot because she likes that look, but it’s a lost art. I still would use Super 8 now for different things because you can’t really beat that look. You don’t really want to fake it either.
AM: How did A Good Day to be Black & Sexy come about?
Dortch: My short film, Honey, was at Slamdance, and one of the questions I got was, “What is your next project?” I didn’t have one, so I made up something. “A Good Day to be Black and Sexy” sounded like a catchy title. After that, I wrote a story, which was really short stories in a short film.
And then I decided to have family and kids, and from there I had to support them and get a job. After a while I ended up taking it out and developing it into a feature. But I liked the idea of having vignettes and not having one full story – not having to commit to one thing. I thought it was easier to shoot, too. Instead of having to go for an entire six or seven weeks for one story, I could just do a weekend of shooting, go a couple of months, then do another weekend of shooting. So that’s how it developed into that format.
AM: What was your day job?
Dortch: When I had the short film I was working at Sony Pictures Interactive – I was a producer for the website for movies and TV. And then I got fired from that. So I ended up working at night with delinquent kids who were in the system. That freed me up to be able to write at night and have my days free for meetings. So I had that job for a long time all the way up to while developing and shooting and editing Black & Sexy.
AM: Is sexuality and relationships the topic that most interests you, or is it just one topic of many that you’re interested in?
Dortch: That’s the only topic. My girlfriend was just saying that about me this morning. It seems to be the topic I gravitate towards the most. There are other ones – race is a big one – but I haven’t hit it completely as far as shooting anything yet.
AM: How is Black sexuality portrayed in the mainstream media, and how is your film a departure from that?
Dortch: It’s not always across the board, but we’re usually portrayed as raping, or there’s something to be feared about our sexuality, or as oversexed. You know, Black people just want to be regular human beings – same issues, same concerns, same pleasures as other people portrayed in the media. So it wasn’t really a mission of mine, but I knew that I wanted to express that we’re regular people.
Some people thought that we put too much sex in one film. I thought I was doing something that made perfect sense and was a lot about our humanity. But others – even Black people, especially very conservative ones – felt like it was just too much. You really can’t win. Any social-political purpose I had was always skewed by the perception of what I was doing.
AM: What about other reactions to the film?
Dortch: This happened to me at every major screening – it started at Sundance. People would ask, “Why do they have to be just black people?” “Why did it have to be about sex?” That’s kind of the other side of the coin.
AM: Can you give me a quick rundown of the short films within the film?
Dortch: “Reciprocity” is about a college girl who likes to receive but not give. “Her Man” is a married man’s affair with his mistress, and his mistress realizing that he’s not really her man – that he belongs to someone else. “Tonight – Part I” is about a 17-year-old girl on her birthday who wants something special to happen to her, and the guy she’s kind of with comes on to her strong and they ended up having an issue.
“Reprise” wasn’t in the original script, but because I liked the actress who auditioned for “Reciprocity” so much I made something for her. And then there’s “Tonight – Part II,” which is a play between the same young girl in Part I and an older guy, a sort of familiar story that happens almost every day. “American Boyfriend” is last, and that is a Black dude who’s stuck in the house because his Chinese girlfriend’s parents and family came over and he wasn’t able to get out in time.
AM: What I found really interesting about the film was how close you get in to the actors and how intimate the film is. How did you work with the actors?
Dortch: By being as hands-off as possible. I had a cinematographer who went to school with me, whose style is very much that. His camera work is very handheld, very intimate. He’s a documentary filmmaker himself. When we get into a room with the actors, we see where they want to be. We don’t say, “Actors, go there, and stand there, and do this.” We see what naturally comes to them and then we shoot around that. We figure out how to capture whatever they’re giving off.
AM: What about the dialogue? Was there some improvisation?
Dortch: Yes, about half of it is improvised.
AM: How do you get your actors to improvise?
Dortch: The first vignette we shot was “American Boyfriend,” and that’s the one where we stuck to script completely. And then from there I got bored, so after shooting two or three, I took a chance. We really started improvising with “Tonight – Part II.” It was half script, half winging it. So I would have certain set pieces that I really wanted to have in there, and then I would sit down and talk about it with the actors: “This is what the scene is about. What are your experiences that bring you to being familiar with this, something in your life that happened like this?” The right actors would love to be able to not be held back by a script. It’s nice to have something to fall back on in case you don’t know what to do, but a lot of times you can capture some things that you can’t write when you bring in actors.
When we got to “Her Man,” which was the last part I shot, I said, “Let’s just throw it away.” So that’s kind of how we approached it – it was kind of gradual.
AM: Was it hard for you to get distribution for this film?
Dortch: The first couple of months you think it’s going to be impossible, so I had times when I didn’t know what was going to happen. But once I got into Sundance, people were there to see it and the buyers were there, so it wasn’t really that hard. But I can’t say that I was trying. I was just making a film. So I think nine times out of ten people try and figure out what they can get into Sundance with or what they can sell, but you really you just have to make the film you want to make.
AM: What was the budget of the film and how did you finance it?
Dortch: The original budget that I went to Sundance with was $65,000, and by the time I finished, it was $100,000 with music licensing samples, paying for everything else, post-production. And I pulled the money out of my house at the time. The market was really great and I just pulled the equity out of the house to make the film.
AM: Who are some of your filmic influences?
AM: How did Fellini influence you?
Dortch: He took personal stories, which is what Black & Sexy is to me, and really expanded upon them and put his personal life and his feelings and his fears and what he observed of other people into his films. He wasn’t afraid to be creative, and his whole genre was surreal. And Melvin Van Peebles. I saw Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song at a Blaxpoitation film fest, and I was amazed that this film was done in 1970 and self-financed, or financed by his friends – Bill Cosby and others. It wasn’t the first Black independent film, but for me it was my sensibility. It’s very musical, very melodic, very surreal, very message-oriented, but not really a narrative per se. So those things always attract me – something that’s not normal or straightforward.
AM: Will you be making any other films on the same theme?
Dortch: We have some people who are looking into making a film in Atlanta. I want to make an international one, too. The African diaspora is huge, and I think it is a niche that’s not really being served. This will involve different writers, because I don’t know international stories enough to be able to correctly come up with something.
AM: Are you working on anything else right now?
Dortch: I have a TV pilot that we are just getting out this week. We decided to take a leap into TV, and it feels very freeing because you can develop characters over time and don’t have to tidy up in 90 or 120 minutes. It’s something we’re looking to sell.
AM: How is the distribution of the film going?
Dortch: Rarely does an independent filmmaker make any money, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the black now. So it’s travelled. I’m not huge, I’m not rich. Will I ever make all the money back? I doubt it, but it’s not really why most filmmakers make films, and I didn’t make it for that reason. It would be nice if I was making a living off that film, but I think for the most part I am lucky to be in the black. But distribution is very tricky. It’s really skewed in their favour. They hold all the cards, they have all the numbers, you know. You just play the game so you can get in the game.
For more information about Dennis Dortch and A Good Day to be Black & Sexy, please visit the website theblackandsexymovie.com.