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Blow Up

The filmmaking Robinson brothers debut their first feature China White

Michael Northrup
Rick (left) and Jonathan Robinson.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 6/10/2009

The only film school the Robinson brothers ever attended lasted all of 10 minutes.

While Jonathan, now 28, and Rick, now 24, had always loved watching movies and even fooled around with video cameras, the idea of becoming professional filmmakers seemed too daunting for two guys who grew up in East Baltimore. After graduating from Patterson High School, Jonathan channeled his creative energies into music and some computer graphics classes at MICA and Rick stuck with his fledgling rap career, but their aspirations to direct never entirely faded. Then the Robinsons rented Robert Rodriguez' Once Upon a Time in Mexico and, once the riotous feature presentation was over, they scrolled down to the special features menu.

"We watched [Rodriguez'] 'Ten Minute Flick School' at the end of the DVD," Jonathan recalls. "And I turned to Rick, and I said, 'Rick, the stuff he's doing, I can do that.'"

Not only had Jonathan's classes given him the know-how to attempt the kind of creative low-budget digital effects Rodriguez describes in the featurette, but Rodriguez' DIY ethic convinced the brothers that two guys who grew up in East Baltimore could do the rest, too. In 2004, they got a cheap digital-video camera and made an initial short, just to try it out.

Fast-forward a few years and the Robinsons are prepping for the world premiere of China White, their debut feature, at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson June 12. A twisty, Tarantino-esque tale crammed with multiple intersecting storylines, underworld characters, guns, and bags of cocaine, the hour-long digital video sports the kind of flashy homemade effects Rodriguez inspired, but it also boasts canny dialog, an ambitious story, a sophisticated structure, respectable performances, and a look and style that's more than mere veneer. In short, China White is the real deal. And so, it appears, are the Robinsons.

Sitting across a conference table at the Creative Alliance on a recent afternoon, the brothers' excitability makes them appear even younger than their years. Clad in jeans and loose shirts--a polo for Jonathan, a designer tee for Rick--they come off like any young men from around the way, and in many ways they are. But they grew up obsessed with movies, thanks in part to their father, Reginald Robinson, building assistant chief for the University of Maryland-Baltimore.

"Our dad is a big film buff," Rick says. "And everything that he liked, he'd have us watch--Chuckie . . .

"Predator, Aliens," Jonathan jumps in, laughing. "All that stuff that probably children shouldn't watch."

"But he also opened us up to, like, The Twilight Zone and old films that he liked," Rick continues. "He was molding us into directors but he didn't even know it."

Indeed, the Robinsons don't have to be prodded too much to answer the venerable interview staple, "What are your influences?" The touchstones tumble out. In addition to the action flicks and Twilight Zones their father turned them on to, they laud everything from what Rick calls "coke movies" ("I love Blow, I love Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights," he says) to contemporary Korean directors such as Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Kim Ji-woon (A Bittersweet Life), and, most essentially, the indie-action titans of their era, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The latter, specifically, provided an additional confidence boost for Rick, who comes up with the Robinsons' stories and writes the scripts.

"I didn't think I was going to get deep into it--I hated writing in school," he says with passion. "But I looked at, like, Quentin Tarantino, and I noticed he isn't the smartest man in the world--I think he dropped out of high school. And if he can write Pulp Fiction, and I graduated high school. . . ."

Like Tarantino, Rick Robinson struck lucky early. Based on a script and a quickly assembled "trailer" designed to sell the film and the filmmakers, the Robinsons' initial feature project, titled Preparation for a Murder, garnered some interest from Los Angeles-based Maya Entertainment in 2008. Reginald Robinson took out a loan to help fund nearly $15,000 worth of cameras and other equipment as Jonathan and Rick prepared for what appeared to be their big break.

Their first meeting with a professional line producer, who stressed working on time and on budget, inspired them to "do another film and see how fast can we film a movie," Rick says. The result was "Unscripted," a stylish, verve-y short about a woman, played by Gabriella Grey, who may or may not be getting ready to off her cheating boyfriend. (The short took the first runner-up prize in City Paper's recent short film contest; visit citypaper.com/go/shortfilmcontest to watch it.)

Meanwhile, inspired by actress Lauren Lakis, who the Robinsons had worked with in the initial Preparation for a Murder trailer, Rick came up with another idea. "I [wanted to do] a little coke short and I seen something in [Lakis]," he says. "Put that together and that's China White."

That project went on the back burner while the Robinsons prepped for their big break, but their big break fell apart, along with the deal for Preparation for a Murder. "They loved it, but . . ." Jonathan trails off. (Attempts to reach a representative for Maya Entertainment were unsuccessful as of press time.)

"Every time Preparation for a Murder got bigger, China White got pushed back more and more," Rick says with a resigned chuckle. "Once Preparation for a Murder stopped, China White started coming back."

One of China White's storylines involves three party girls, played by Lakis, Charley Stewart, and Nicole Paige, who bicker and overindulge in coke until they suddenly have to replace what they snorted because the sleazy dealer who gave it to them (Jonathan Donovan) wants--no, needs--it back. No streetwise hardasses, they make a dubious deal with local gangster Knockout Willie (the magnetic John Green) and everyone gets what they deserve, more or less. At the outset, that's all China White was supposed to be--a short centered on the three girls and Willie. But things got complicated. When it came time to shoot the last scene, several actors didn't show up, and the planned location--a loft meant to serve as Willie's lair--fell through.

"My sister said I could use her place, and I said, 'A girl's place? I dunno if people will buy it,'" Rick recalls. Low on options, he improvised: "I wrote around that and said that's Willie's girl's place, and he's hiding out." The scene--a guns-for-drugs deal across a dining room table--works wonderfully, not least because of its homey setting, and the character of Willie's girlfriend Jessica, played by Samantha Godfrey, wound up a larger role in a newly expanded hour-long version of China White. Godfrey makes a good try at stealing every scene she's in with her sardonically funny turn as a moll/enforcer with menstrual cramps and a skill for browbeating. "I gave her Willie lines," Rick explains.

Though they share directing credit, each Robinson had distinct responsibilities. Rick wrote the script, rehearsed the actors, and directed their performances. Jonathan worked with director of photography Antar Hanif on lighting and camera angles before moving on to post-production editing, effects, and writing and recording the impressively varied score. Once shooting wrapped in July 2008, Jonathan found himself with an unexpectedly expanded movie featuring nine fairly substantial characters spread across three different devised-on-the-fly plot lines.

"I'm like, 'I dunno what I'm gonna do Rick,'" Jonathan says. "'This stuff, it's good by itself, but it's got to flow together a certain way. I know it's there, but I can't see it right now.'"

Rick joined Jonathan in their home editing suite and helped puzzle out a way to make the pieces fit into a finished cut in December 2008. It helps that Jonathan and Hanif shot each of the story lines in a distinctive style. The girls' storyline was shot to look like an old video tape--"kinda like the coke movies [Rick] watches," Jonathan says--while flashbacks of Jessica talking to stick-up man Sammy Boy (Al Din) are shot in noirish black and white. Scenes of Sammy Boy plotting with crony Vincent (Omar Rice) were shot with a blue tint to "give it a cold feel," he adds.

Traffic used a similar scheme to differentiate its story lines, an influence the Robinsons acknowledge, and the twisty multiple storylines owe an obvious debt to Pulp Fiction. When asked about their use of text on the screen--characters are introduced with individual onscreen credits and each section of the movie begins with a title card featuring the first few lines of the script--they laugh and say, "Metal Gear." The detailed onscreen information of video games turns out to be another seminal Robinson influence.

But there's plenty here that's the Robinsons' alone, not least the ability to combine a kinetic, flashy visual style with convincing everyday grittiness and characters that wind up more interesting than just contrivances to move the story forward. China White's relatively unpolished moments merely help telegraph the kind of vitality that rarely makes it to multiplex screens these days.

The Robinsons say their next project is a feature-length collection of interlocking shorts, working title The Shadows of Strangers, with the idea that shorts are easier to shoot inexpensively with a minimum time commitment from their unpaid actors and that it can screen at feature length or be broken up into individual sections to submit to film festivals. Plus, as Jonathan puts it, they want to "test the range of [Rick's] writing."

"I know a lot of people can't get into China White--it's a coked-out movie," Rick says with a smile. "I want to put my style in [the various shorts], but mold it to make it appeal to other [types of] people."

But they're still aiming for those multiplex screens. "Rick's already rewritten China White," Jonathan says, in case a new producer comes calling, and practices his prospective pitch: "If you like that, we can show you something really good."

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Tags: Robinson brothers, Tarantino, MICA

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