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Chi Lives: local boy makes movie

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Darryl Roberts got hooked on the movies as a kid growing up on the south side, in the days when blaxploitation and kung fu were the rage among black audiences. By the time he was 12 he had decided that making movies was his calling in life; his hero was not the pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, or the incendiary Melvin Van Peebles, but Bruce Lee.

Today Roberts is 27, the producer, director, and cowriter of the improbable low-budget feature The Perfect Model, which was shot and edited in Chicago over 18 months on an initial budget of $31,000. "For what I had to work with," Roberts says, "I was pleased." And he's not the only one. Reader movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum paraphrased Edmund Wilson in his critique of the film: "this movie commits almost every error that a movie can possibly commit (at least on a purely technical level), but it does not commit the unpardonable error--it does not fail to live. . . . if you can put up with dialogue scenes out of sync and other technical flaws, you may find that the sincerity, energy, and personality of this movie make it a lot more watchable and enjoyable than the technically more accomplished releases that have no good reasons for existing; I certainly felt that way."

The Perfect Model is a romantic comedy: a black movie star returns to his hometown and falls for a woman whose life is still in the ghetto. Like Spike Lee's School Daze, Roberts's film essentially deals with the class warfare between middle-class and ghetto blacks. And with Lee's work and that of other black independent artists such as Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans, The Perfect Model offers a welcome, successor to the films of Roberts's youth; since blaxploitation died its (perhaps deserved) ignominious death, few filmmakers have attempted to produce movies for and about blacks.

After a promising opening night at the Fine Arts Theatre in April, The Perfect Model received mostly unsympathetic reviews, and the box office at local theaters was sluggish. That didn't seem to faze Roberts, however, or the film's distributor, Lange and Associates, which plans to reopen the film in Chicago and to open it in four other cities in September, to avoid having to compete with the major studios' highly publicized summer fare.

The Perfect Model is a Chicago film, steeped in a rich urban milieu. At various points Lake Shore Drive, the New York apartments, Catfish Digby's, and the Lincoln Park Zoo play their parts in the story. What's more, Roberts has given promising local talent a rare opportunity in front of the camera. With the exception of male leads Stoney Jackson and Anthony Norman McKay, and cameo turns from former Bulls star Reggie Theus and rock-video icon Tatiana, Roberts employed local actors.

Roberts wrote the screenplay with Ivory Ocean and executive producer Theresa McDade in March 1987, and targeted July of '87 as a starting date. Their projected budget was $100,000, and they began courting powerful black-owned corporations for funding. The corporations passed, and Roberts says he can't blame them. He bad no formal training to speak of--he learned about directing, he says, by reading Christopher Lucas's book How to Direct three times.

They decided to pool their resources and borrow from friends and relatives. "After all the people we knew kicked in, we had $31,000," Roberts says. He still hoped to raise $100,000 but admits that as September approached, "I couldn't take no more and finally said, 'Let's go with what we've got.'"

The production was a logistical nightmare. The city wouldn't authorize a permit to shoot on city locations unless the company took out a $1 million policy for liability insurance. "The policy cost $5,000, or one-sixth of our budget; so I shot without the permit," says Roberts.

The movie was made surreptitiously, literally on the run and one step ahead of the cops. During a critical sequence filmed near the Point (the lakefront at 55th Street), a patrol car approached and officers asked the crew to disperse. When they refused, the police returned with a paddy wagon. "They told us if we weren't out of there in ten minutes," Roberts says, "whoever was left they were just going to throw in the back of the wagon." Roberts and his crew left.

Money affected every decision. When Roberts hired his crew, he took "the first ones who said they'd do it for 50 bucks." The principal photography took two weeks. "We bought enough film stock to last the shoot, but we could only shoot each scene one time," Roberts said. "It either came out or it didn't." Scenes that didn't work were discarded. "Fortunately the film still makes sense without the lost scenes."

On September 25, 1987, with 90 percent of the film in the can, the company ran out of money Roberts and his editor, Tom Miller, assembled a rough cut to show four LA distributors, in hopes of getting some badly needed cash. The screening was a disaster--two of the reps walked out after 15 minutes. Roberts says that they "pretty much laughed us back to Chicago." At this point he made a fateful decision. Where others might have admitted failure, he junked 70 percent of the footage and essentially began again from scratch.

Over the next year, Roberts and his vagabond cast and crew did nine extensive reshoots, filming on weekends and at night, using whatever money they could scrape together. Shooting was completed last fall. At the urging of a friend, Roberts met with the influential Chicago marketing/promotions specialist John Iltis, who in turn brought the film to the attention of independent producer John Lange. Lange agreed to handle a limited regional release.

Roberts's dream had been realized, or so he thought. But he ran afoul of the thought police, the powerful Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which Roberts says took offense at a provocative sex scene and returned an X rating that made the film unreleasable in major theaters. Roberts says he was left "choiceless"--he eventually cut 200 feet, or about six minutes. The X rating, Roberts says, may lend credence to Spike Lee's contention that the MPAA isn't prepared to deal with black sexuality in American movies.

At the world premiere in April at the Fine Arts, 1,000 or so viewers saw the film in its 89-minute, R-rated form; 300 people were turned away. And a European distributor, Double Helix, has purchased the European and Japanese rights and will screen the film (but not as a competitor) at the current Cannes festival. Still, its economic prospects are difficult to assess. "The real acid test," says Variety analyst Bruce Ingram, "is: Are people going to be willing to spend six dollars in markets where Darryl is a complete unknown?"

Roberts is currently working on a couple of filmmaking projects, despite the toll of the last two years. He's a persistent young man. He says, "According to my mother, this wasn't the first time I went out and did something like this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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