Interview with "Sugar Hill" director Leon Ichaso and star Ernie Hudson
"Sugar Hill," a film about two brothers who control the heroin trade in a Harlem neighborhood which opens today, started life as a story about a trampy actress stuck in the world of drugs called "Skeezer."
Director Leon Ichaso told the story of the metamorphosis into the movie starring Wesley Snipes that opens today, in a meeting with reporters Feb. 15 in San Francisco.
The original story had too much going on, "but buried in it were gems," he said.
The girl from the original script became the main character's girlfriend (played by Theresa Randle) and was still a "bad girl" when shooting was finished, but when Ichaso edited the film he didn't like the way she came across.
He said he didn't think Snipes' character would fall for "a skeezer," so he took out all the "bad girl" scenes and through editing alone changed the character.
The story suffers slightly, since the woman who is supposed to be such an inspiration is hardly seen, but there are only two scenes in which Randle's actions seem out of character.
Changes were made to the setting of the film as well. Drug transactions and shootouts that are commonly associated with Harlem were deliberately minimized.
"I wanted to show Harlem in a new light. To show it like an old monument," Ichaso said. "Harlem beaten, not defeated."
So he shot most of the movie indoors and avoided going overboard with the gun play, although there is one shootout and one drive-by.
"Aside from the fact that its part of that world, it would have been dishonest to ignore the violence.
"I could have been more graphic, I could have shown more shootouts, but I wanted to show characters."
The characters do come through. The film gets inside the heads of both drug lord brothers, exposes their their personal demons and makes them human. Not quite honorable, yet not quite evil.
The movie begins with a flashback, and Wesley Snipes' character reflects throughout the story on events that lead up to his life as a drug lord, but Ichaso said the flashbacks were never in the script.
"I invented those flashbacks to make Wesley haunted," he said. He wanted the audience to understand that "no matter how tough and rough and macho they want to appear, they're just little boys."
Ichaso also talked about problems that the production team wanted to avoid during filming, and told a story about violence against the crew during the filming of "New Jack City."
"(By taking over a block to film on) we were interrupting business," he said, referring to the drug trade.
So the production team met in the back of a store with the local muscle to make a deal so no body would be in anybody's way.
"They just wanted to meet Wesley," he said. Snipes came in and people lined up to have their picture taken with him.
Ichaso said that he "lost two battles" in the making of "Sugar Hill." The rival drug lord was originally written as a latino, and ended up being played by Ernie Hudson ("Ghostbusters", "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle"), and the ending Ichaso shot bombed with test audiences, so an epilogue was added.
This interview appeared in The Advocate, the student newspaper at Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA.
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