If music is an international language, then Jazz perhaps is America’s gift to the world. The ability for jazz to bridge cultures is the heartbeat of Christina Kallas’ breathtaking new film, Paris is in Harlem, which premiered in Park City as part of only six films chosen in the breakout slate at the Slamdance Film Festival. It is the third of a trilogy of films Kallas has written and directed within the last six years. All feature her signature use of multi-protagonists and split screen editing. Her films explore their emotional core as a mosaic, where the audience experiences truth through many eyes, many perspectives. Who is right? Who is wrong? Her films don’t seek answers beyond “lead with love” and “all is possible”.
Assemble spoke with the prolific writer / director to break down her creative process by exploring three pivotal scenes in Paris is in Harlem, the logistics of getting something made in the shadow of a global pandemic and navigating the process of marketing and distribution.
The Creative Process
Paris is in Harlem takes place on the day in 2017 that the infamous “Cabaret or No Dancing Law” was repealed in NYC. It prohibited "musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other forms of amusement" without a license, presumably to minimize noise complaints. However, its true intention appeared to be combating race mingling in the diverse jazz clubs during the Harlem Renaissance.
Assemble: The film tackles elements that are dividing people such as identity wars, racism, sexism, nationalism and classism against the backdrop of the unifying power of music. You set up this tension beautifully in the opening sequence which drives toward a gunshot. There is an opening image of the man that unwittingly will set the violence in motion, then a Steadicam shot follows with two men leaving a bar in a heated debate. Your first cut doesn’t happen until 1:43, which is a lengthy time for a single take. There is important background action that is choreographed to match scenes we later see played out in the film. Can you take us through the planning and thought process in the storytelling of this opening sequence?
Kallas: My intention was to make a film that feels like a Jazz piece. So I decided to shoot it entirely with a Steadicam and alternate between fluid long takes, energetically cut fast paced passages and split screen compositions - where all these stories come together till one of them takes over the melody and passes it on to the next. But there’s also several stories inside one shot.
The beginning single take, in fact the whole beginning scene, was composed as a multilayered shot. The background action shows for the first part of the scene Marc, the cop who will (later in the film, earlier in the story) walk into the bar to fine and padlock it. We see and hear him as he leaves the bar having drunk one too many and as he makes friends with Sam now that the Cabaret Law nightmare is over. Once Marc departs we see Serenity entering the frame, always in the background. We see him looking into the trash in front of the bar and fishing something out of it. This is all happening in the background while Ike and Lorenzo are getting stoned in the foreground, talking about the Trafalmadorians and how time has no direction and death doesn’t exist - nor free will. Then Ike notices Serenity and he thinks he’s holding a gun. For some audience members it will be the first time that they will focus on the background. But the information is there for everyone who is able to perceive it, like you did.
In terms of shooting this scene it wasn’t easy, not only because of the choreography of the different layers: Long takes are challenging for performance as you cannot edit the actors, and combining the improvisational tone I am going for with such a controlled movement and a multi-layered shooting style to boot, felt at times impossible. It takes a lot of effort to make it feel effortless.
Assemble: The film is a tapestry of people in conflict. Around the 60 minute mark, you bring two unlikely people together, a well-meaning Uber driver and a woman on the brink of suicide. Here you use split screen and jump cuts to create urgency and suspense. When he does get her in the car, you use a french over which makes a conversation between strangers very intimate. Can you break down crafting that relationship and the choices you made in shooting this sequence?
Kallas: The particular split screen which makes it look as if they’re talking to each other in the same shot and the french over have both the same goal: the creation of intimacy. There is maybe nothing more intimate between two people than the effort to persuade the other to choose life over death.
I shot this in long takes in real time. I had Sila call Ike’s phone and stay on the phone while Arthur is trying to find out where she is and to get to her. He even had to drive in the NYC traffic while talking to her. I then used jump cuts to condense the time but also to create a sense of urgency, as you say. The suspense is actually built in the situation. And the awkwardness when he finally does get her in the car is also built into the situation. There’s shame involved in that moment. He just did something so big, he saved another human’s life, that he’s maybe a bit embarrassed, a bit in awe. And she feels shame, because she had to be saved. That stranger has been as close as anyone will ever be. I built that scene in the car with those emotions in mind. In a way there’s no words for what these two experienced. So they kind of pretend it didn’t happen. They talk about music and about the sounds of the city. But, she says thank you.
Assemble: Later in the film, there is a very powerful scene between a white academic who supplements her income as a professor by babysitting for a black family. The couple is divorced and the father, a jazz club owner, has an issue with a white woman looking after his children.
Here, the entire bar becomes a character as the music, the drumming of a talented troubled youth and the loud voices of her colleagues in the bar add to the tension of their discourse. The editing is very important here. The balance of the various shots of action in the bar with their cat and mouse conversation. Both actors are excellent. What kind of discussions did you have with the actors and how was this sequence created?
Kallas: This was a very precisely scripted scene because of what you say, the bar being a character and all that background choreography. It is indeed a cat and mouse game. As always, my guiding light was the characters’ emotional state of mind. Alis is a bit intimidated, maybe even guilty. She carries the guilt of the privileged. And she means well. She means so well that she is oblivious to how Sam might feel. In her eyes she is correcting a wrong. She is serving a black family by babysitting their kids the same way black women have babysat white kids forever.
Sam is angry. It looks as if he is angry at Alis but in actuality he is angry at his wife, Destiny. “Isn’t it sad how intimacy can turn into nothing”, he says. He feels ignored. His wife has made such an important decision without consulting him. He’s hurt. By attacking Alis he is attacking his wife. But Alis pushes back. She is good at setting boundaries. This is a privilege too. Sam calls her the personification of privilege. That’s not how she sees herself. She is a woke activist, as we will see in the next scene when she films the cop entering the bar. Her actions all come from that place. So when Sam asks her whether she thinks that it is possible for a white person to not be a racist, it feels like a slap in the face. In a way this is the worst thing one could accuse her of, racism. She wants to say, but I’m with you, I’m anti-racist. But she says nothing. Maybe deep down she knows he’s right.
My favorite moment is when the band starts playing again and she is not able to hear what he is saying. So she moves chairs and comes closer. That moment says it all, really. About how confident she feels, and how able to take control of any situation. That moment was not in the script. When the situation is truthful and the characters are truthful such moments will come up organically on set while you’re working with the actors. It’s intoxicating.
The Logistics of Filmmaking
Assemble: I know you have an unusual development process. You don’t start with a script, you start with a workshop period. Can you explain how that works?
Kallas: This is a common misconception of the filmmaking process which favors an improvisational tone. The opposite is the case. As said, it takes a lot of effort to make it seem effortless. As a matter of fact, I start with a fully developed script. Every little detail, down to the split screens is scripted. And then I workshop it like one would workshop a play. I personally do not give the actors the script while we workshop—they only get pages when we shoot and that very last minute, and only their own pages.
In the workshop I walk them through their characters’ previous lives in controlled improvisation setups, so that they slowly become one with the character and experience the character’s lives rather than process them intellectually. It is a method I have developed over the years and I have used it for all three films of my Love Letters to New York Trilogy. It also allows me to study the characters I created. There’s things they do I do not understand fully. I know instinctively that they are true but I do not understand where they’re coming from emotionally. For instance, to stay with the scene we’re talking about, in the workshop I had Alis apply for the babysitting job. It was his wife who interviewed her (the wife does not appear in the film) but that interview was fascinating as it was clear that she is doing it, at least partly, to hurt Sam. To show him that she’s the one who is calling the shots now. Alis realizes that and chooses to ignore it. So she’s not innocent. No one is innocent.
Assemble: How did you pull this off? Large cast, shooting in NYC and all during a global pandemic. What was the pre-production process like, from raising the budget to securing locations, crew, cast and most important to your film, the music?
Kallas: It was complicated. But we didn’t shoot during the pandemic. We actually finished shooting just a few weeks before it all started. For a moment there we had considered moving the shoot to the beginning of 2020 because it was all so difficult to coordinate. Thankfully we didn’t. The film wouldn’t exist if we had moved the shooting dates. Especially the bar interiors, with their lived-in, intimate, crowded quality would have been impossible to shoot. I think after two years of this we’re starting to forget how we used to live. Maybe the film will remind us. It is also a tribute, to my friend Sam Hargress Jr., the owner of the bar we shot the bar scenes in and the inspiration for the character of Sam, who died of Covid-19 in the first months of the pandemic.
As for the music: The musicians were for the most part also in the workshop. Antoine Roney - who is one of the most charismatic Jazz artists to have emerged out of the 90s and who was in charge of the music - and I spent a lot of time together figuring out which piece would be best for each moment in time. All the songs are original - written by the musicians either in the past or specifically for the film. They would then improvise while shooting. The biggest challenge was the weather. We shot a lot of exteriors, and during the coldest New York winter months. It was not easy on the cast, and even more so on the musicians who cannot play with frozen fingers.
Assemble: What can you say about shooting on Steadicam? It had to be a highly collaborative relationship with your DP and all department heads to pull it off.
Kallas: Yes, especially because I like a small crew to be able to concentrate on the cast. The longer takes were a challenge for all departments but especially for the camera department. And they did an awesome job. Our cinematographer is one of the most experienced directors of photography and operators working with a Steadicam in NYC. In the past he has collaborated with directors such as Volker Schloendorff, Stephen Daldry, Ken Burns and Oren Moverman, and his experience was a huge asset. I love the choreography of a Steadicam. It is so elegant and fluid, like a melody.
Assemble: Now, you have this incredible film done. We know you are premiering it at Slamdance Film Festival. Was a festival release always the strategic plan? What did you learn through distribution and marketing from 42 Seconds of Happiness and The Rainbow Experiment that drove the agenda with Paris is in Harlem?
Kallas: Thank you. I learned a lot but the game is now changing again so I do not know how much of my experience I can apply. In a way I was lucky. Both my films found distribution. 42 Seconds of Happiness is now on Fox-owned Tubi and The Rainbow Experiment is on Paramount+. They also both had wonderful international festival runs. With The Rainbow Experiment I went as far as Moscow and central China. I am not seeing myself being able to do that with Paris, and I will certainly miss that part of the journey. It’s painful to not be able to celebrate your film in person, and have the breathtaking experience of your first audience laughing, gasping, tearing up, and the conversations with audiences coming from different cultures and perceiving different things you didn’t even think they’d notice. Nothing will replace that, and I’m lucky I got to experience it so extensively with the two previous films of the trilogy. Maybe one day, when all this is over, we can screen our films in packed cinemas again and dance and sing in packed bars and hug total strangers like there’s no tomorrow. Maybe we will have a renaissance. Or maybe we’ve lost our childlike innocence forever, and we will always be careful from now on. Maybe the Trafalmadorians were right and the future has already happened. A year or two from now, when we will be reading this again, we will know.
On Set Remembrance
“This picture is on the set of Paris is in Harlem with two of my glorious cast of 22, the day we wrapped. It is December 2019. In a few weeks our lives will change for good. After taking this pic I will walk back into the bar and hug Sam, the owner of Paris Blues. He will say, ‘You did it, girl, you said you’d do it and you did it.’ I will laugh and say, ‘Now I only have to finish it.’ ‘See you at the premiere’ he will joke, knowing I always disappear when I’m editing. It will be the last time I hug him. In fact it will be the last time I will ever see him again. Only weeks later he will be one of the first victims of the pandemic in NY. Together with many other members of the Jazz community. In the next two years, every time I am that close to giving up, every time it feels like it’s impossible to continue, I will magically transfer myself to that moment with Sam in that dark and silent bar. I will keep on going because of that moment. And because of these guys and because of all the love I remember from the times we were still hugging in crowded bars.” - Christina Kallas
Slamdance Film Festival 2022 World Premiere Screening of Paris is in Harlem Tickets at slamdance.com/Festival/#passes. Available to pass holders from January 27th to February 6th