By Vickram Singh
If you’re as tasteful as I think you are, I would imagine you picked up our latest BLACK issue and noticed the fabulous, full-page back cover. It features Overlay, a short film by up-and-coming filmmaker Samuel Clemens Long which debuted at the Cannes Court Métrage Short Film Corner. The film depicts the stories of a man who claims he’s been raped and the woman who says otherwise. The two contradicting accounts are told at the same time, with both characters overlay-ed, visually, on top of each other. It’s an amazing film that leaves the viewer with the uncomfortable question, “Who should I believe?”
I got to interview and tag along with Sam as he shot his next film, Planet New York. From the get-go, it was clear that I was dealing with a man who absolutely LOVES films. If you were to go on his website (www.samclong.com), he boasts about being a certifiable “cinephile.” He has years of experience in the movie and television industry, including credits on the Transformers film series, HBO’s Vinyl, and Instinct and FBI for CBS. Now Sam has his own filmography of shorts and upcoming projects in the works. Having already seen and enjoyed Overlay, it was interesting for me to see him work. His technical knowledge, thought process, and overall energy gave me context to how such a unique film came to be.
“[Making] films… they f-ing suck,” Sam says. “They take all of your money and time. You have to live and die for this kind of thing.”
I did get a sense of life and death from the half-awake, yet energized Sam when he arrived to shoot on a Saturday morning, so early that the streets of Manhattan hadn’t even started its usual racket of horns and people. Only three hours ago, he’d returned from his day job of working on-set of a brand-new television show, got some shut-eye, and then rose up to come shoot his beloved project. His gusto definitely set the pace for the rest of the crew, who quickly got ready.
It was a small skeleton crew with just the two lead actors, Rafael Jordan (best known for One Life to Live) and Jeanine Bartel (The Blacklist), who also happened to be the star of Overlay. What we were trying to shoot was easier said than done: a long take that would have our lead characters arguing each other as they walked the busy streets of Manhattan. Long takes aren’t easy, especially when you are dealing with mise en scène that comes in the form of huge swaths of rowdy New Yorkers and even rowdier New York drivers. Horns blaring, people walking in the way of the cameraman, even the adorable elderly had to get a word in (one especially cute old man commented on how much the director looked like Weird Al Yankovic). But this chaos didn’t dishearten Sam, whose flexibility was quite admirable. Original plans for the scene were quickly scrapped after consultation with the crew, and what followed was a director coping with elements that were actively going against him. Sam took every issue in stride, cracking jokes in between takes and commending people on how great they are doing. He was the premier director, charismatically taking charge and working with whatever he had to make his vision a reality.
“I am a really technically based filmmaker,” he comments. “I’d say like over half of the films I have ever done are based on an idea for a technique that I had. They are technically motivated. It was 100% what this one was. I found a story that would fit.”
Sam’s technical expertise was on full display at the shoot. Multiple takes, multiple redos, multiple group huddles to figure out how to get the perfect take. Everything was meticulously planned, even among the spontaneity when the crew was running around desperately to get a shot before daylight was spent. Sam was on top of all the day’s technical difficulties, his conviction as a serious leader so natural that his attitude almost could have been mistaken for cavalier.
His contemplations on the technical side of Overlay shed some light to his inner machinations on film: “I saw an ad for a production company that did music videos and they would show you a really cool image and be like ‘It’s only, like, 50 bucks.’ It was two videos on top of each other. I thought that was a super cool look. I was like, ‘Okay put that in the back of your mind… this is something I want to play with.’”
Sam understands that stories need to be especially engaging in order to fully utilize a unique mode of storytelling. Even the sci-fi Planet New York uses the chaotic backdrop of midday Manhattan to further its own story: Adam is the last living person in the universe and creates a machine version of New York with his own line of “Eves,” the latest of whom is the protagonist the audience follows in the film.
The plot of Overlay is especially notable since it tackles such a heavy subject matter. Sam explained why he decided on the story: “It’s like, okay, so you tell two stories that would make sense. What makes that most interesting? Well that would be when people are telling two different stories at the same time. So as each little bit falls together, and you hear one person say one thing and another person say another thing. Then I said, alright, where we find ourselves when people tell two, really different stories. And that is in the case of rape.”
In order to tell the story as intensely as he wanted, Sam had to cast people who would really go the extra mile: “As a filmmaker, I am meticulous in turning over every possible rock. I have worked with a lot of professional actors, I have worked with a lot of non-professional actors. I think the first person we decided on was Jeanine Bartel. And she is obviously fucking amazing. She came in and brought in this really strong energy. Then we were casting the guy and Leland came in, and he had this super raw emotionality.”
I had an intimate preview of Jeanine’s ability at the shoot, and let me tell you, she is every bit as good as Sam describes her. She brought so much energy to her performance that I couldn’t help but feel captivated whilst looking at the tiny screen replaying what the camera just recorded. There is no question why she was perfect for Overlay.
I asked Sam what he was looking for with the film’s male lead: “I wanted to create this story where you had a guy who had that happen to him and was really struggling with it. That you, as a big strong guy, why didn’t you just fight yourself out – like what we associate with rape: power by force. ‘Did it happen?’, ‘What part did I play in it?’ – that kind of survivor’s guilt. What people that survive sexual assault go through. So that was kind of his character, this really real, raw person who had something really terrible happen to them.”
Leland Taylor’s heartwrenching performance truly conveys the plight of the survivor. His being an African American man also brings race to the forefront of the film, and I asked Sam if that was a focus from the beginning. His response was a surprise to me: “That wasn’t intended. I cast Jeanine and Leland because they were fucking great. It was actually the same thing with Night of the Living Dead. They had just cast the best guy; it had nothing to do with [racial] politics [or] being provocative, it had nothing to do with being ‘cutting-edge independent filmmaking.’”
While not the original intention, race adds another complicated layer to this already charged film. Sam says it best himself: “It was a choice that he was a black guy. That was definitely another layer to what masculinity is and can make it more complicated. It’s not just a guy that got raped, it’s a black guy that got raped by a white woman. Once we had that, I knew we had something. I am not making any specific comments, but I think that there is something there that is another level of provocation. We are all used to [the imagery in] Birth of a Nation, like black men out to rape white women and how terrible that is. In this contrarian, flipping of the script- kind of the ultimate script flip-would be flipping that very strong, very strong, masculine black guy being raped by a petite white woman.”
There was another aspect to the film that Sam was itching to discuss: “The other thing that was super interesting about both the screenwriting process and the screening is that it ended up being a real Rorschach test of the people you are showing it too. So, in my mind, like the ‘Did Han Solo shoot first?’ kind of sense- she did rape him. But I love that sort of ambiguity to the story telling. I gave people that out, gave people the possibility to avoid the discomfort by saying that it didn’t happen.”
The film’s open-ended conclusion stayed with me after viewing it. Whose story should I believe? Am I inclined to side with one person over the other because of my own background? Interestingly enough, this was exactly the kind of contemplation Sam was aiming for: “The other thing I try to do as a filmmaker is make something that you play multiple times. Any great film is like that. It is what I wanted to create for this. Because there is such a cacophony at times, your brain makes you choose who you are listening to. You are either listening to him or listening to her. I think that ambiguity says something about who you are as the audience, and you as a person.”
As the shooting day came to an end, everyone finally slowed down and even Sam seemed to relax. I had a front-seat view to Sam’s process throughout the day and I was most surprised by the fact that after a long and arduous day of shooting, working himself almost to death, he had taken the time to shoot the breeze with me. There was a lot of tangential discussion on films, comics, manga, and even the “not-giving-a-damn” attitude of legacy actors on set. This is a person who was running on almost no sleep after a 14-plus-hour day at work and then an equally hard day following his own passion. All I can say is that I am in awe of his work ethic.
In light of all this, Sam’s point about his philosophy behind films is especially poignant: “[This] is what I think great art is. It says something about you, it reaches outside the canvas. Not only interact with your life, but it also says something about you. And I think the way that people ingest [Overlay] and digest it did just that. There was an interaction with who you are as a person.”
Based in New Jersey, Vickram Singh is a staff writer for The Medium. He currently studies at Rutgers University.