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'Love Jones' director Theodore Witcher hopes his departure film of the black experience opens Hollywood's eyes

'Love Jones' director Theodore Witcher hopes his departure film of the black experience opens Hollywood's eyes
Theodore Witcher, writer-director of the movie "Love Jones", which won the audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. (Patrick Downs / Los Angeles Times)

When Harrison Ford demonstrated with casual nonchalance that the gun was mightier than the sword in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," 11-year-old Theodore Witcher was inspired to pick up a camera. Fifteen years later, the rookie writer-director is trying to show that romance can be mightier than the gun.

Witcher wrote and directed "love jones," which stars Larenz Tate and Nia Long in the first of what producers hope is a series of revisionist films about the modern young African American experience.

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Set in contemporary Chicago, the story follows the mercurial relationship between a twentysomething poet-novelist (Tate) and a Gordon Parks-influenced photographer as they fall in and out of love, following insightful yet misleading advice about their liaisons in the process.

The R-rated "love jones" features romance instead of bump-and-grind sex, sensitivity instead of hardness, hope instead of nihilism. None of the characters goes to jail, throws up a gang sign or, unlike "Booty Call," stretches a 20-minute condom joke into a full-length feature, but all are identifiably black, intellectual without being condescending, and extremely hip. It's a novel concept that some in Hollywood might consider a risky box-office proposition, but one that director Witcher believes serves a much more important function than profit margin.

"There's a humanity that's been missing from a lot of these black films, despite their realness," Witcher, 26, says between bites of a hamburger at the Westside power diner Kate Mantilini. "I've seen a lot of types, and a lot of caricatures, but none of the people I've ever known, hung out or partied with. Nothing that has reflected my experiences as a young, black man in America."

Impressed that he's only sitting a few seats down from legendary writer and director Billy Wilder, Witcher is low-key and laid-back, and laughs easily. His movie tied for the Audience Award at the latest Sundance Film Festival, and critics have praised the film as being smart, perceptive and hip. He may not be Wilder yet, but Witcher, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, has come a long way from his days as a production assistant on "The Jerry Springer Show" and a hotel waiter at McDonald's Hamburger University.

This film is my reality. I don't live in a castle on top of a hill, so if it's realistic to me, it has to seem realistic to some other people out there."


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When asked if the film's young urban target audience might find the characters too upscale or intellectually pretentious, Witcher scoffs, "This film is my reality. I don't live in a castle on top of a hill, so if it's realistic to me, it has to seem realistic to some other people out there.

"The black community is hurting so much, from so many different directions that no one film can solve all of these problems. My ego isn't such that I feel the need to be the spokesperson for all black people at large, I just have my opinion."

Nick Wechsler, who was a producer on the film, puts Witcher in a league with Stephen Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant, two other onetime directing wunderkinds whose Sundance-winning films he also produced.

"This is a guy with a really distinct vision that's going to be on the scene for years to come, and make equally distinctive films," Wechsler says.

Witcher knew he had to make films after seeing Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" at age 11.

"The scene where Indiana Jones shoots the saber-wielding swordsman instead of fighting him is the moment that really got me," Witcher says, smiling at the memory. "That scene was a total throwaway, but everyone in the audience erupted into the loudest laughter. It was brilliant. I remember being interested in how something so simple could galvanize an audience. I thought, 'How did they do that?' "

After resisting weeks of begging that they finance his newfound obsession, Witcher's parents relented and purchased equipment for young Theodore when they realized this wasn't just a passing interest. They helped him get a Super-8 camera and editing equipment from the Sears catalog, and set him to work.

"I filmed action scenes with friends, takeoffs from other movies, you name it," Witcher says. "If I spent more than $40 on a movie, that was major budget. I had a lot of ambitious ideas, but could never save up enough money to do that massive Super-8 opus.

"When I used to tell teachers and friends what it is I wanted to do with my life, they thought I was nuts. How many people, let alone young black kids, ever actually have the opportunity to direct feature films?"

Attending the University of Iowa and later Chicago's Columbia College Film School, where he graduated in 1991, Witcher kept pursuing his dream. He served food and worked on the Springer show until one of his script ideas landed with Albert and Allen Hughes at Caravan Pictures. By early 1994 he had moved to Koreatown to begin work on a movie, "Public Enemies," that was to have been the follow-up to the twin brothers' popular "Menace II Society."

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The movie was never made, but it got him to Hollywood. Soon after, he was introduced to both Wechsler and then-New Line executive Helena Echegoyen by his then-manager Spencer Baumgarten. He pitched her a few action ideas that she liked, but when he told her about a romantic comedy based on his own life and the experiences of a few close friends, the seed for "love jones" was planted.

By early 1995 the script was done, Echegoyen was the executive producer (one of four listed in the credits), and New Line Cinema's Michael DeLuca agreed to a $7-million budget, with Witcher directing.

"I'm ecstatic about the film," says Echegoyen, now senior vice president of development at Miramax Films. "I think it captures a world that we've never seen before cinematically, but also features great performances, all while looking artistic and more expensive than it really was.

"Even if it doesn't make a ton of money, it's up for other filmmakers of color to push the envelope with their work. They have to make mass entertainment, but also expand the possibilities for the audience that's expecting a certain product."

Witcher, who's also a tenor saxophonist and jazz aficionado, perks up as much about the "love jones" soundtrack as he does when talking about the film. In his mind the music, which includes songs by members of the Fugees, Dionne Ferris, Cassandra Wilson, John Coltrane and Billy Eckstine, demonstrates a stylistic change that's just as profound as many of the characters featured in his film.

"I told Larenz that if there's a kid who picks up a book just because he sees him do it in the movie, then it will have been a great success," he says. "In that same vein, there will be a number of {fans} who will pick up the soundtrack for the Fugees, but they'll also be adding some John Coltrane to their collection. That was a significant agenda of mine."

Nia Long, who made her debut in "Boyz N the Hood" and is a native of South-Central Los Angeles, sees "lovejones" as being an important film without being an attack on grittier fare from John Singleton or the Hughes Brothers. The full spectrum, she contends, is what's most important.

" 'Boyz' was the most responsible of the 'hood' movies that I've seen, but I think that if black Hollywood is going to move forward, that we need to magnify so many elements about our culture that haven't been seen yet on the screen," Long says. "We've been stuck in the mud with hood stories. For me as an artist, if I can have some kind of influence to change things, then I'm going to do that."

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But for Witcher, it all comes back to romance. Love conquers all.

"A whole generation of brothers has felt that their masculinity was attacked by so many of the forces around them, both real and imagined, that they felt they had to go down a path of exaggerated, stereotypical machismo to make themselves feel good," he says.

" 'love jones' shows that in order to have a meaningful relationship, you have to deal with, on both sides emotional nakedness and vulnerability. You have to drop the shield at some point. That's what 'keeping it real' really is."

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