It all started with a box of Tide.
"I remember when I was a kid, watching Tide commercials on my grandmother's TV because we didn't have one of our own," Darnell Martin says, New York and memory mixing in her voice. "It was the perfect kitchen, very clean, everyone was dressed up, like nothing I'd ever seen, and I wondered why my house, my family wasn't on TV too."
With "I Like It Like That," her debut film, writer-director Martin has changed all that. A hard-eyed comic romance set in the vivid and volatile Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Bronx where she grew up, "Like" has been one of the treats of this year's Cannes Film Festival. It also announces the arrival of Martin as a lively and passionate new film voice, a voice that definitely does not want to be pushed around.
"I love directing, but I hate the business end; hate's not even a strong enough word," she says with an engaging feistiness. "Studios are very important, they buy and sell films, but they're not filmmakers. If they were, they wouldn't need directors and they sure wouldn't hire them. I don't like it when executives tell me, 'I've made a number of successful films.' If they haven't made your film, they can't help you. And if I don't want to listen, no one can make me listen."
Martin doesn't just talk determined; she is determined. She vetoed an early script suggestion that changing the characters from Latino to black would make her film more commercial, and decided against a deal with New Line because she considered its $2-million budget insufficient. "And that was when I was totally broke, absolutely no money, not even food in the house, but it didn't seem right."
With her impatience with can't and evasion, Martin, who lives in New York's East Village, has had a hard time taking the kind of movie business meetings that have become necessary since "Like" was set up at Columbia with a $5-million-plus budget and a projected fall release.
"I guess I have to learn how to be more polite," she says as if she means it. "But people in L.A. are always telling you, 'I hear what you're saying.' As if that's enough! I'd ask friends of mine, 'What is that, some kind of est thing?' Just say, '(expletive) no' or tell me I can have what I want."
The 20ish director, who won't give her age because "I don't want to hear 'Entertainment Tonight' saying it," channeled all that conviction into her script about Lisette (Lauren Velez) and Chino (Jon Seda), married with children, whose lives and love take unexpected turns when he is arrested for looting during a blackout.
Recalling that Tide commercial, "I was so specific about the way I wanted Lisette and Chino's apartment to be, it was so important to me to show my house. I wanted the moldings chipped and the same amount of grease on the walls because the kitchen hadn't been painted in six years. And when I shot the scenes of Lisette going crazy in the bathroom because there's no privacy, nowhere else for her to go, I felt so emotional I had to watch myself so I didn't cry."
A lively woman who is as attractive as any of her stars, Martin also wanted "Like" to reflect the humor she saw around her. "I really hate characters who feel sorry for themselves," she says. "A lot of terrible things happened when I was growing up, but my mother's motto was always, 'Don't cry in your beer.' Once we were being evicted because we couldn't pay the rent, but my mother had a few dollars in her purse and said, 'Eh, what the hell, let's go to the movies.' "
The child of an interracial marriage whose father, one of the celebrated Tuskegee airmen, left the family early, Martin is especially passionate about her mother, who managed to get her daughter accepted as a scholarship student at a New York private school although she was often deep in poverty.
"My mom would've loved to give me everything in the world," Martin says quietly. "When she saw my movie, it hurt her that I ever had to suffer. When we were homeless, with nothing to eat, I was in private schools. That was her joy. When people would say, 'Get your priorities straight,' she would say, 'I am.' How do you have a better mother than that?"
Martin decided to be a filmmaker after reading William Faulkner's "Light in August" in school. "First I wanted to be a writer, but then I said, 'I can never do this, the only way I can do it is visually.' I still don't understand how people can not read and still be filmmakers. The first place you make films is in your head from what you're reading."
After college at Sarah Lawrence, Martin worked at film labs and camera rental establishments, where she met Ernest Dickerson, who was then Spike Lee's director of photography. She worked for him as an assistant cameraman on "Do the Right Thing" and several commercials, and she credits Lee, who at one time was involved with "Like" as executive producer, with getting her into New York University Film School.
"I was rejected three times, and the third was while I was working on 'Do the Right Thing,' " Martin says. "When Spike found out, he couldn't believe it. And the next day I got a call from the school saying, 'Oh, we made a mistake, you're in.' " She entered NYU as a cinematographer, "but I talked too much, I was too opinionated. People said, 'You really want to direct.' So I switched."
The money she has made as a director has changed Martin's life only in small ways. "It was very important for me to do this film because I got to pay my student loans and I had a tooth pulled that had been destroying my mouth for years," she says impishly, pulling down her lip to point out the spot.
With that out of the way, and with a recent legal victory over her Manhattan landlord that she feels will ensure her "free rent for the rest of my life," Martin feels especially impervious to the movie business's crasser lures. "I'm very happy now," she says, "and I'll take my name off my films before I let people change them."
You can bet on it.