Chris Browne: third world filmmaker

Jamaican director Chirs Browne (Third World Cop) tells Araya Crosskill about the milestone he’s achieved with his second feature, Ghett’a Life

Browne behind the camera. Photograph by Annabella ToddBrowne used Jamaica’s spectacular scenery as a backdropMovie posterThe movie is not just a boxing film but also a human drama

With behind-the-camera work on Hollywood feature films that include Cool Runnings (1992) and A Perfect Getaway (2009), Christopher Browne (pronounced Brown-ee) may be Jamaica’s most experienced filmmaker, but tonight the man needs my help.

Laid out in front of me are three movie posters.

“Which one do you like?”

“Um, that one,” I say, pointing to the one that stands out. “These guys are facing off in the ring, so that tells me the movie is about boxing. And underneath that, the detail with the soldiers in the streets lets me know there is some social turmoil going on.”

“Cool,” says a languid Browne.

And, as easy as that, a key marketing decision for the 52-year-old Browne’s latest movie comes down to my opinion.

Well, probably not.

Time and again, Browne, who lives and works in Jamaica – he grew up in St Elizabeth, but lives in Kingston (where he was born) with his wife and two daughters – makes decisions about the numerous details of moviemaking. Usually he gets them right, as he did more than a decade ago with the action thriller Third World Cop.

Before Browne, the script of Third World Cop bounced around the offices of Palm Pictures, a company owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Palm was eager to make the film, but its British/French screenwriters struggled with developing the storyline. When Browne took over, he made a decision that brought the story together.

“One of the problems with the crime aspect of the script was the focus on counterfeiting,” says Browne, who, although white, films in inner-city communities where few others dare to go. “One of the first changes I made was to switch that focus to gun-smuggling, which was more relevant.”

Other good decisions included working his contacts and getting well-placed friends to persuade Kingston’s most feared crimefighters to talk. Meetings went so well he was allowed to ride with police patrols to get details first-hand. Once he was in charge (as part of the deal with Palm, he wouldn’t just do rewrites but would also direct) the script finally had the genuine street elements it needed.

Third World Cop was released in 1999, and its success confirmed Browne’s instincts. Shot in only 21 days, it drew crowds six days a week for four months, and generated over Ja$21 million, a box-office record. That kind of success should have won him enough leverage to shoot a Third World Cop 2, and maybe even a Part Three, but Jamaica isn’t Hollywood, and it has taken Browne this long to complete his next film.

That takes us back to the three movie posters laid out on the floor. One of them will herald the release of Browne’s newest film, Ghett’a Life (the movie will be out by the time you read this), a Rocky-style feel-good action drama about an inner-city teenage boy whose potential to become boxing’s Usain Bolt is threatened by the violence and divisiveness of Jamaica’s election-time politics.

Early viewers offered nothing but praise. Andrew Young, VP of Special Projects at New York’s DuArt Film and Video Company, was enthusiastic: “I got completely caught up in the story and was taken by its emotional power,” said Young.

It’s that kind of feedback Browne was hoping for when he wrote the script.

“You can never predict the future, but I am hoping Ghett’a Life will upstage TWC,” he says, “TWC had action, humour, and music, which is what the Jamaican audience gravitates towards. It’s the same with Ghett’a Life. But this time the production value is much higher; the story is much stronger and has a meaning that the audience can identify with.”

Hollywood veteran Bobby Bukowski, Ghett’a Life’s director of photography and a friend of Browne’s since film-school days – first at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later Columbia College in Chicago – also thinks highly of the story.

“I would not call this a boxing film per se,” says Bukowski, who agreed to work on the project in part because of his love for Jamaica, but mainly because he believed in the quality of the script. “I would rather say it is a human drama of the imaginary borders that are created around people, due to institutions such as government, religion, and ethnicity, that is framed in a story of boxing.

The human drama is what drives the film, not the boxing.”

Inspiration for Ghett’a Life came to Browne after he accepted an invitation from American Peace Corps workers to attend a “Fight Club”-style boxing match in a depressed Kingston community.

“It was amazing. You had to pay to go in. There was a bar and a car park – it was fenced off and there was a ring in the middle. The under-card was a 70-year-old and a 20-year-old going at it to settle a dispute over a girl. A whole lot of people were there and the fighters were really getting into it. Most of them were just beating the crap out of each other. I mean, they had no boxing experience. They were just whaling away on one another. But it was such a spectacle and I was like, ‘Wow, I could build a story around this vibe’.”

Finding that story meant visiting broken-down gyms and interviewing the fighters who frequented them. The most promising anecdotes came from former world-rated boxer Richard Clarke, who in 1990 fought for, and lost, the world flyweight boxing title. Clarke, better known as Shrimpy because of his tiny frame, started boxing as a pre-teen, but never let on that fact to his parents until an invitation to a Caribbean championship meant confessing his secret to them.

The story had potential. But when Browne asked Shrimpy why the secrecy, the deadpan boxer would only say: “No reason.” Without conflict, Browne’s protagonist had nothing to resolve. “That’s when I came up with the twist of the hero wanting to box but only being able to do it in a gym situated on one side of the political fence.”

If Ghett’a Life lives up to expectations, its success will likely attract funds for more local investment in quality film projects. Nothing would please Browne more. In between movies he busies himself with commercials and music videos (for musicians who include Rihanna, Willie Nelson, and Shaggy), but making one movie a decade requires an unnatural single-mindedness that can be challenging to maintain. Luckily Browne, who was raised on a farm in rural Jamaica with no telephones, a generator for electricity, and no television until he was 12, has patience in abundance. It’s a quality that was tested in 2004, when a partnership with English producers who had a UK Film Council development deal fell through. But the disappointment only made Browne more determined, and with time his doggedness began to pay off.

First, in 2006, at France’s Cannes film festival, he won the Hartley Merrill International Screenwriting Award, a competition for writers whose work includes not more than one full-length feature-film script, which encourages universal subjects, including cultural threads associated with the region of the author’s origins.

“I entered the script on a whim,” admits Browne, whose reputation as a filmmaker outside Jamaica may yet surpass Perry Henzell’s. (Henzell directed the cult classic The Harder They Come, and was Browne’s uncle.) “When I heard the news that I had won here in Kingston I must admit I was very emotional. But I still don’t consider myself a writer.”

The influence of the Cannes award laid the platform for Browne’s next breakthrough, but that didn’t come until three years later, when, fed up with the glacial pace of winning financing, he took US$8,000 in hand, went out with a small crew, and – in one day – shot the trailer for Ghett’a Life. Convinced he had what he needed, he then invited potential investors to a local theatre for a make-or-break screening.

“I sent out 200 invitations to prominent Jamaican businessmen. Only half came out, but what was shown was enough for a merchant bank (Pan Caribbean) to get involved. Within six months of the screening, they put together the small budget needed to do the production, all the way to 35mm prints.”

Donovan Perkins, the president and CEO of Pan Caribbean Financial Services, hosted the private screening because he believed in the project. He got on board “when I saw the passion in Chris’s eyes and after I read the script,” says Perkins, whose investment bank helped to raise the film’s US$1.2 million budget. “It’s a very powerful story. When we had the private viewing for the trailer, I can tell you a lot of big men walked out of that theatre crying.”

If the movie surpasses expectations, Browne may cry too.

Says Browne, “A good friend of mine, who’s been in the film business for some time, said to me after Cop: ‘It’s all good and well that you made one film – but nobody in Jamaica has ever made two.’”


Ghett’a Life
will be screened at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. For dates and times see
www.ttfilmfestival.com