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Interview: Director Trevor White talks ‘Jamesy Boy’

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For his first feature film, director Trevor White took on a story that he knew very well. “Jamesy Boy” tells the true story of a teenager named James Burns (portrayed by newcomer Spencer Lofranco), who went from the suburban street gangs to a maximum-security prison cell. While in prison, he formed a friendship with a convicted killer (Ving Rhames), who became his mentor and would help James turn his life around.

Jamesy Boy” will release to VOD on Jan. 3, 2014 before opening in limited theaters on Jan. 17. Lofranco and Rhames star in the film, along with James Woods (“White House Down”); Taissa Farmiga (TV’s “American Horror Story”); and Mary-Louise Parker (Showtime’s “Weeds”). This also marks the final film for Robert F. Chew (HBO’s “The Wire”), who died from heart failure earlier this year.

The Chico Movie Examiner recently conducted an over-the-phone interview with White about his debut feature and how it was like to bring this story to life. Check it out below.

David Wangberg: There’s a scene in “Jamesy Boy,” where Roc gives James some money and says, “Don’t take it unless you want what comes with it.” And I know that this is your first feature film, and you were the writer and director of it. Was there ever a point where you thought to yourself, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this unless I know what making it fully entails.”?

Trevor White: You know, it’s funny, because since I was 10 years old, I wanted to make movies; I wanted to tell stories; I wanted to be a movie director. As you get older, you realize how much harder and harder that goal is actually going to be. And I think, with this story, being so close to it and having it be such a personal story and a part of my life, I never had that thought. I always thought, “This is a story I believe in; this is a character I want to share with the world.” So, it’s nothing but pure excitement. And I think if I over-thought too hard about all of the negative that could come out of it, I probably would have never gotten it made. I’m typically a half glass full kind of guy.

DW: You had James [Burns] as a co-producer. Was there ever a time when he told his story that he said, “You can keep this part in, but for this part, I want you to either not have it in or fictionalize it.”?

TW: James was incredibly collaborative with us from the beginning, [so was] writer Lane Shadgett as well, when he came on reworked my original script. James was really there for all of it, to see the various drafts; to kind of weigh in; and know what was going in the film and what wasn’t. We had all these conversations long before we ever got to set. James was on set with us as well, and I actually loved having him there. By this point, James has become like a brother to me. And we were very honest with each other, and there was a clear openness to share any and all opinions that I had and he had. It was a good, working relationship for us, and we wanted to be respectful, and he understood that we were making a movie.

DW: And you didn’t know about him before this project?

TW: No, I did. My mother had worked on a project back in the 80s. My mother’s a documentarian, and she had done a film with CBS News at the time that James’ mother had been a part of. So, we’ve known James’ family and James since he was incredibly young – since I was young. The story’s been in our family for a long time.

DW: In the film, whenever he wants to escape from the world, he goes and does his poetry or he writes in his journal, but he kind of keeps it hidden from people. Whenever you want to break away from the world and just go do something, what is the one thing that you do but not a lot of people know about it?

TW: That’s a good question. I actually write; I write as well, or listen to music. I usually do the two simultaneously. For me, if I want to break away, it’s trying to create new characters and new stories. I’ll get my notebook and try to come up with some new ideas.

DW: Do you do all sorts of genres, or do you have one in particular?

TW: It’s a funny question you ask, and I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. For me, there is no genre that I instantly strike off the list. It ultimately is about the stories and the characters and do I relate and do I find it compelling and something that I need to tell. I’m drawn to certain stories over others, but I find myself looking at romantic comedies and wishing I had been able to do that, or to gangster films and wishing I could do that. It’s a wide array here.

DW: What I like about the film is that we don’t just see him in prison and get his story from flashbacks. We actually see it played out throughout the film, so we see him before he went to prison. If you could take another character from the “Jamesy Boy” story and have it show their life before they met James and then their life when they interact with James, which character would you pick?

TW: Another good question. I think there are a lot of interesting ones there. I think the Sarah character – the one played by Taissa Farmiga – might be an interesting one to examine, to understand why she is the way she is. She’s this beautiful girl with no self-confidence, doesn’t come from an ideal world as well, and trying to understand what’s happened in her life to make her who she is. And, obviously, I think the Roc character would be fun, because he’s kind of a badass and to understand how he got to where he got and how he was able to instill fear in people – you’re always wondering about that. Same with the Ving Rhames character – I think that would be interesting.

DW: Now, this is your first film, and you were able to get this all-star cast, write it, and direct it. Tell me about the struggles that you saw along the way to get it financed, finished, and distributed.

TW: Making a film – at least a first film – it’s nothing but struggles. I think you always have that double-edged sword of wanting to get the attachments to get the money, and the money wants the attachments, so there’s always that challenge. But we were very fortunate to have collaborators along this whole process that really believed in the project and with each little attachment that we gained, there was nothing but full momentum and a push from all parties involved. The project just got significantly better every time we made a change to it. I wrote the first draft or two of the project, but Lane Shadgett really came on, and he’s a brilliant writer, and he helped get this thing to become the script it actually is. He really did some fantastic work on this.

DW: There’s a part in the film where Sarah tells James, and I’m paraphrasing it, “If a man came from the future and showed you your future, would you be scared?” Now, if someone came up to you and showed you your future, and you see that you have a couple Oscars, and people are praising your work, calling you the next Spielberg; Scorsese; or someone else, would you embrace it, or would you try to find a way to make that not happen?

TW: Oh, I think I would embrace that, happily. I think that would be amazing. At the end of the day, I think anyone that goes through the process of getting a movie made and distributed really, really wants to make movies for their life. That’s the case with me. It’s all I dream about; it’s all I want to do, so, hopefully, I’ll be fortunate enough to get another opportunity.

DW: I know that this is the last film for Robert Chew before he unfortunately passed away. I’m pretty sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but what was it like to work with him and have him on the set?

TW: He was such a great guy. He only spent one day on the set, but he was a real pleasure to work with. [He was] the nicest, nicest, sweetest man and he had his own ideas and thoughts and really took something and gave it a lot of life. I feel so privileged to have had an opportunity to work with him.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Trevor White for taking the time to talk about “Jamesy Boy.”

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