Interview: Diwang Valdez
What got you interested in filmmaking?
When I was a kid, I watched a Woody Allen movie that I really liked, and I was like, “I think I wanna do that. That’s pretty cool... I don’t know how I’ll do it or what exactly I’ll do, but that’s what I wanna do.”
Do you remember which movie that was?
It was “Hannah And Her Sisters.” It’s kind of a complicated movie, but as a kid for some reason it just interested me. It was a look into a world I didn’t really know anything about and it seemed really interesting.
And how’d you get started?
I went to Georgia State and at the time it wasn’t very hands on – it was mostly just reading books and stuff like that. And I originally thought I wanted to do a documentary. I moved to New York and got an internship at a company that produces documentaries, then I started taking cameras home at night to teach myself about cameras and shooting... I stayed late to learn about editing, and then I just started shooting this basketball documentary in NYC. I didn’t even know what I was doing, at all. I had like 200 hours of footage I had to whittle down. I think the film wound up being about 70 minutes, and I kinda did everything myself. Admittedly, the film’s not very good, but it taught me how to make films.
So from there, how did you get to become a TV producer? Once I learned to shoot, I just started bugging everyone I knew in New York. But no one would hire me, because you need a TV credit in order to shoot a TV show. It’s sort of like a backwards thing. Well how do I get a TV credit if you’re not going to hire me? But I started getting little stuff. MTV took a chance on me and I started shooting for them a little bit, and then a friend asked if I wanted to shoot a TV show called “The First 48.” Once I got on, I really embraced it and I shot probably 50 episodes.
What was your role on “the First 48?”
With that show, there’s no director. It’s just two producers/shooters, an assistant, and that’s it. That’s the whole crew. It was a good thing because you could get called in anytime day or night to work... Sometimes you might do 15 or 16 hours of shooting. I’ve actually done full days, starting 10:00pm and shooting for 24 hours straight. I’d fall asleep every now and again in the back of a car or something like that, but you just keep shooting and shooting and shooting. Then you’re sending the tapes to New York, and they’re calling you like, “Yeah, this is shit.” And eventually you just learn how to cover a scene. It’s trial and error, but eventually I learned how to shoot that documentary style.
And also, I learned a lot about cops and criminals and got interested in that world. And then it worked out that Curtis Snow contacted me, and my skill set and his skill set just happened to be a match, and we ended up doing a movie together. That’s what got my name out there as a filmmaker, as the film started making its way around festivals.
So what were you doing when you first met Curtis?
I think I was actually shooting a show in Atlanta. It was a home renovation show or something, not really what I wanted to be doing. But he called me up in the middle of the night, drunk or high or whatever, and left me this long voicemail. And for whatever reason, I decided to call him back.
He was interesting on the phone, so I went down to The Bluff and I met him. We had some interesting conversations, it was pretty fun. And I started going down there after work just hanging out. We didn’t jump right into shooting or him showing me anything he had, it was more of a casual thing. Eventually we got to that, and we were like, “Well let’s shoot something together and see how it goes.” Pretty much from the moment we started, everything was flowing. It was very natural. We were on the same page as to how to do things. It took a long time, but the core of me and Curtis’ relationship was that we were very much creatively in sync.
How long was that period of time between meeting Curtis and finishing “Snow On Tha Bluff?”
It was about a year and a half. I shot for a while, and then I had to leave to go work on another show and I was gone for like six months. Then I came back and left again and we ended up shooting some more. Basically we shot for a short amount of time and then I edited together the first 40 minutes of the movie, and I gave that to Curtis like, “Here you can have a look at it.” He was antsy since I hadn’t shown him anything yet.
And then he took that and started replicating it, selling DVDs at gas stations and shit. I had left town and didn’t know anything about it. When I came back, everyone was like, “Oh yeah, I saw that movie.”
And I was like, “Really? How could you see that movie?” At that point he was like, “Listen, everyone loves this first 40 minutes, we gotta do more.” So that’s when we started shooting again. Finally, we put everything together as one movie.
When you saw the footage he already had, is that what got you interested? It was not professionally shot, it was just some kids fucking around. But everyone was so willing to just be on camera and didn’t really care about the consequences. So it definitely piqued my interest. I was like, “Well this is pretty incredible, but if we’re going to make this into something, we’re going to have to fill in some blanks.”
But it was kind of easy to do that. What makes it interesting is Curtis isn’t a rapper, he’s an actor. More like a filmmaker. Everyone in the hood for the last 20 years has aspired to be a rapper. Which is cool, but not everyone can do that. It’s about time there were some filmmakers and people using other creative outlets besides rap. Curtis wanted to do film, and I love that.
What are some of your influences as a director?
I wasn’t really all that versed in gangster movies. A lot of the gangster movies I watch are European. “La Haine,” “The Pusher Trilogy,” “A Prophet.” There’s a lot of those movies where the European style resonated with me more than the American movies.
I watched a lot of documentaries. I love a good doc, but I also loved narrative and wished there was a way I could do both. I wanted to combine the things I loved about those two genres together. Certain directors, like Werner Herzog for example, does some pretty interesting stuff in that space. Or Harmony Korine, I’ve really always loved his stuff. He’s a very brave and daring filmmaker.
There’s no guarantee with any of this stuff, but if you’re going to go and do stuff like that, like “Julien Donkey-Boy” or something? There’s really no guarantee that anyone will like it or that you’ll ever make money. I really respect people who put themselves out there like that.
When you look at the story in “Snow on Tha Bluff,” it’s actually a traditional story. Most movies are structured in that way. But as you’re watching it for the first time, you don’t realize you’re being told that same story you might’ve heard before.
What’s been the hardest part of the indie film process for you?
“Snow On Tha Bluff” was sort of a weird movie. It was polarizing. Certain people really loved it and thought it was amazing, and certain people hated it. A lot of people thought it was portraying black people in a negative light and that it was counter-productive for the culture. We had some interesting meetings with bigger distributors and studios that were like, “Hey look, we like the movie – we’re never gonna buy it – but we like it and wanted to meet you.” It was cool, but it was so frustrating. No one would give us money. No one really believed that anyone would want to watch it, but I thought those people were nuts. There was a clear market. Here are people who love this type of shit. But no one would get behind it.
It took a year of literally calling up distributors every day, like, “Hey did you check out the movie? Do you want to buy it?” And, “No. No. No. No...” Just dozens and dozens of passes. We finally found a company that would put it out. And once it got out, it took off. People embraced it. But it was so frustrating because people did not want to have their hands on it. I couldn’t understand it. Maybe I’m just desensitized and I don’t think this stuff is that scary. Anyone who lives in any major city in America knows that this is commonplace and happens every day. So I don’t see why it’s such a big deal to put it out. Maybe that will change, but it was very difficult to get that film out.
I think one reason the movie didn’t really sell because it’s all Atlanta people speaking in that accent. And that’s something that a lot of movies don’t have. They might take place in the south, but they get actors from LA or wherever. Sometimes they do a decent job, but they’re never going to speak that dialect like a real Atlanta person can. So people are like “I don’t understand it!” But that’s the point. If you were there right now, this is how they’d be talking. They’re not changing the way they talk so you can fucking understand it. I like that.
In order to get it out, we had to sign a very bad deal. We actually lost money on it, which is kind of crazy. So many people have seen it, it’s hard to imagine actually losing money on it. But as long as it’s out, that’s the main thing.
What would you do differently?
I don’t know. We tried everything. I think it was just meant to come out the way it came out. In this business, you can’t just be about one project. That was one film that we did, and probably at some point Curtis and I will do another film. But it got out there, and there are people out there who really like it. That’s what matters at the end of the day.
Has the film’s reactions surprised you at all?
I have to admit, I don’t really follow it. But I hear that people like it and it makes me feel good. But I don’t know to what extent. I’m kind of a shy person, so I don’t want to be in the spotlight. But Curtis has put himself out there and a lot of people respond to him. I think that’s better in a way.
But I’m surprised that some of the people who like it, I’d never guess they’d like it in a million years. So that’s nice.
Let’s get into Atlanta. How did growing up in Atlanta shape you? Yeah, I think Atlanta is an interesting place, and growing up... I didn’t grow up in the hood or anything like that. I grew up in Stone Mountain, in this middle class area, and my parents were educated and all that. But I always saw the hood stuff and listened to the music, so I felt like I had a connection to that world even though I didn’t run in those circles.
But I always felt like there was so much creativity, especially with the music. Atlanta was always doing things in a different way. There was so much character in the way people dressed and spoke. Being able to do “Snow On Tha Bluff.” I really wanted to show off. There’s been a lot of west coast gangster movies, and New York, puffy coat, Timberland gangster movies. But at the time I hadn’t seen Atlanta portrayed in that light.
You have ATL and stuff like that, but I feel like that represents one side of things. But it’s crazy, because you have so much hip-hop that came out of Atlanta, but you don’t have the movies to go with it. It’s weird. A lot of the music that came out of NY and LA had music that coincided with it. For some reason, Atlanta never had that, and I don’t know why.
So when I met Curtis, it was like, “Yeah. I wanna show people how it goes down in Atlanta.” Even though I don’t like guns or shit like that, there was something about it. Some of the most flavorful, interesting people I know have that hood Atlanta flavor. And it’s just fun. When people think Atlanta, they think about local landmarks or whatever. CNN. But there’s a whole world out here that’s incredible.
What was it like growing up in Stone Mountain?
Well, see, I guess Stone Mountain is a little different now. But when I lived there, you had a little bit of hood, and a little bit of middle class. But it was kind of changing. I think it was a good place to grow up. You’re close enough to the city, but you have a little bit of that suburban flavor. There’s fresh air. You can play outside.
I don’t know what it’s like now because I never go there. Now whenever I go to Atlanta I’m always downtown or whatever. It seems like there’s some interesting people coming out of there now. I just walked into that Tupac Museum that’s out there. There’s some cool things popping up there.
When I was a kid, there was just some really cool stuff, a nice mix of cultures. There’s that southern culture where everyone’s polite. The food’s good, the weather’s good... It’s home, you know? I hope I can make another Atlanta movie at some point.
So back to Tha Bluff would you say you kind of put it on the map?
I think it’s been on the map, but solely for drugs. But there’s a lot of smart people in the hood, they just might not have the same opportunities to do their thing. They’re no less smart or creative.