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Director Jessy Terrero almost began his filmmaking career out of necessity. The Dominican born, New York raised Terrero initially started out as an actor, but the dearth of what he felt were quality roles for Latin actors guided his decision to start working behind the camera instead of in front of it.
Terrero’s latest film, “Freelancers,” had its premiere earlier this month in limited release, in addition to using the new multi-platform method of distribution—online, Video on Demand, and DVD. The film, written by L. Philippe Casseus, stars Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Forest Whitaker, and tells the story of Malo (50 Cent), a young cop who joins the police force to follow in the footsteps of his slain father. He finds himself working with his father’s former partner and a group of shady cops led by Sarcone (De Niro). The taut story builds on deception, violence, and the backroom deals made by the lawless cops until the truth comes out about how Malo’s father died.
Terrero cut his teeth working on music videos, which is where he met 50 Cent, forging a personal and professional relationship that has grown as both man have furthered their careers. His feature film directorial debut was 2004’s “Soul Plane,” followed by directing more music videos (working several times with 50 Cent and others such as Angie Martinez and Chris Brown) and the 2010 feature “Brooklyn to Manhattan,” which starred Terrero’s wife, Dania Ramirez (“Sopranos,” “Heroes,” “Entourage”). When 50 Cent turned his attention towards a career in acting as well as producing his own films, Terrero was a natural choice to helm his first feature, “Gun,” which co-starred Val Kilmer.
“Freelancers” was shot in a very quick 18 days on the typical mid-range indie budget, with none of the energy from the cast and crew wasted. While this may be a familiar set up to a story, Terrero hopes that there is an authenticity to it, given his New York background and feel for the locations and characters that he recognized instantly in Casseus’ script.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Terrero as “Freelancers” was being released, and the director shared his thoughts on the new distribution model and what it was like working with Forest Whitaker and Robert De Niro.
Film Slate Magazine: ‘Freelancers’ is being released on multiple platforms using the new distribution model. How do you like the new model? Is it helping filmmakers out?
Jessy Terrero: I think when they line things up properly…some films have found success in it, some films haven’t. I think these days just based on the whole digital platform and this whole new generation of people wanting things instantly—people are just accustomed to pulling up things on their laptop and being able to have access to things right away. It ends up doing well for some films because they end up in hotels, they end up on Netflix, they end up on In Demand. Some people, based on their schedules, that’s how they watch it.
FSM: Does the new model change the way you make films now? For that matter, does the instant communication, how fans will post things on Facebook or even contact you through Twitter, does that change your approach?
JT: You feel the effects of it. I think for me, I don’t think I make the movie any different. I think that going into any film just because the system is different from the past--you look at theatrical as the ultimate goal. I think you try and make the best movie possible. It’s sort of out of your hands at that point. It’s interesting. I’ve been getting a lot of Tweets today, and people talking about seeing the movie; people have already started to go and check it out.
FSM: What attracted you to this project? How did that line up?
JT: Well, 50 was one of my biggest clients in the music video space and I worked with him for many years. When he started his production company I actually worked with him on the first film which was going to set up the fund which was going to finance the rest of the movies. And I did a small movie with him called ‘Gun’ which also had Val Kilmer and that sort of led to the bigger distribution deal. And when that happened, this was one of the movies that 50 felt that I was going to respond to, since it took place in New York, since it took place in Queens, in the neighborhood that I knew and grew up in. And it just so happened that the writer of the movie is someone that I came up with in the music video world. He was a grip when I was working on set as well. And it was interesting because some of the characters in the movie were named after crew guys that I came up with.
I wanted to do something different with it. And coming off my first movie being ‘Soul Plane,’ sometimes they want to put you into one box and that you can only do comedy…I felt that this was an opportunity for me to show a different side of myself, and that will hopefully open other doors in other arenas, whether it’s episodic television or other types of things.
FSM: And for you, how do you put a different spin on a crime thriller or an action movie? The set up for this movie may be familiar, so how do you keep that fresh?
JT: I think every director has their own perspective and their own sort of deal in life and culture, and I think for me being Dominican-American and sort of growing up in one of those neighborhoods I just try to keep it as real for me as possible. And I think that there are elements in it when you watch it with the characters in it that it feels real and there’s something in the dialogue, something in the delivery that feels like people that you know. I think a lot of my work, even in the music video space has an organic feel to it, and there’s a reality in the point of view, and I think that’s all you can sort of try and do to it. And I try to make the movie more about choices and the consequences for your actions. I think that’s what the movie is about when you get to the core. It’s about every choice you make has a consequence.
FSM: Obviously, with your relationship with 50 Cent, he’s in the cast, but Forest Whitaker and Robert De Niro, how did that line up? That’s a pretty big get.
JT: Originally, we went after Robert De Niro and his schedule was an issue. And the movie ended up pushing a couple of weeks and finally got to a place where we could accommodate his schedule. So I went to New York and I had a one on one with him, and it was very nerve wracking—sitting opposite Robert De Niro—and Forest Whitaker, who, both guys are directors as well. So, you’re not sitting with an actor who’s just an actor. You’re sitting with guys that know about making movies.
So for me, I’ve just learned to express my passion and my point of view for the film and I think that me and Bob and Forest connected on that level. And I think that’s what sort of allowed us to be able to work. I think they embraced me as a younger filmmaker and sort of helped the process go smooth for me. And I think that sometimes you hear horror stories with these kinds of guys and everything went really smooth and I’m blessed that they respected me and showed me the love that they did.
FSM: And what did you learn? Watching these guys act, watching them prepare. Did you learn anything crucial from your standpoint that would affect your directing?
JT: One of the things that I learned from Bob was that he respects the process. Him being one of the best actors in the world, he respects the process of being an actor and listening to the director. And I think—there’s a freedom in the way that he acted in the film. As I watched him in different takes, he gave me enough variations within the takes…he gave me enough color in every take that it allows me to be the composer, and I can play his performance however I feel. Sometimes he went big, sometimes he went small. Sometimes he went right in the middle, and sometimes he gave me different levels within the take. He was like, it’s really about me seeing it the way I wanted to see it. Instead of playing it all one note, he sort of allows me to play the chords I decide to later.
FSM: From a filmmaking standpoint, what were some of the biggest challenges in making this movie, and not even the fundraising or the budget part? Did anything change in the shooting script when you were on set?
JT: Yeah, it was a very aggressive shoot; we shot the film in 18 days. And that in itself--people take vacations that are longer than that (laughs). It was a very difficult process…this isn’t the type of movie that you try and shoot in one house. And trying to shoot an action movie in 18 days really took a lot of preparation. It really put me to the test in the sense of coverage and how to deliver a movie that felt big. And I think that was my biggest challenge. And when people see the movie I don’t think that they think the movie feels small. I think that when I look at it, I feel like I did my part. And this is a studio setting, right, where the movie is ninety-something minutes. It could have been two hours and change; there are so many other scenes that are not in the movie, so it was an accomplishment to pull it off in 18 days.
FSM: Any final thoughts?
JT: Hopefully people watch it and enjoy it, that’s all you can ask for. I did what I could with what I was given and hopefully people will respond right to it. The one thing about filmmaking is that the movie is going to live on forever. So people will watch it for many, many years from big screen to TV to reruns and cable, and hopefully they always enjoy it.