An Interview With Sunu Gonera
Director of "Pride"
Dallas, Texas, March 6, 2007, 1:45 p.m.
Outlook: The movie takes place in the Philadelphia of the 1970's, but you actually filmed it in New Orleans?
SG: Yes, New Orleans was very nice, very accommodating for the filming: weather, infrastructure, ease of movement, tax rebates, everything was great. And sad to say, post-Katrina made it even better: rough and gritty and in disrepair, exactly what I wanted. I felt like I was back in Africa. But it was a difficult move for me and my family. We'd just bought a new house, and my wife had just renovated it. But when they offered me the film, she's the one who said, "Come on. Let's sell everything and go." And so we packed up and moved to this country. It's been tough, without the family infrastructure, you know, grandparents to babysit the children, all your friends, but it's been worthwhile. At the premier my wife turned to me and said, "OK, this is why we came here." So it feels right now.
Outlook: Did you consider just coming over by yourself?
SG: Yes, but I don't do very well by myself. My children are 4 1/2 and 2 1/2, and without them and my wife, I really struggle. You're giving your all, emotionally, in filming, but that's not where you get anything back. When I'm with my family, I can relax and not think about work. They bring a sense of reality, and a balance to life, you know? And they give love back. Even when I'm shooting (on location), they come and visit, because I start going crazy apart from them.
Outlook: How did you arrive at some of the casting decisions for this film?
SG: Terence Howard was the first person I spoke to, when I came over in June of 2005. He was referred to me by an actress friend, Nia Long. We just kept talking to each other about the film, for the next several months, until I was able to make him an offer. You know, in a lot of sports movies, the coach is just rough and gruff. But I was a rugby player, and though my coach was tough on the outside, he could be completely emotional. He would cry. There's nothing more incredible for me than seeing men being vulnerable. And when you see (Terence Howard in) "Crash" and "Hustle and Flow", it just made sense. And then I met Jim Ellis (the real-life coach), who, when he's coaching, has a lot of fire. But then, when you're one-on-one with him, he's this incredibly gentle soul, a really caring human being. And Terence is all that. As you see in the film, he's very vulnerable, and he's not afraid to make mistakes. It was a big thing I learned from Jim, who made a lot of mistakes, when he started out. He has that vulnerability. And for Bernie Mac, it was going against convention. People don't realize that he's a very emotional human being, very deep, a lot of life experience, as well as being able to keep us all in stitches.! Sometim es the camera people were crying they were laughing so much. Great comedians make for great dramatic actors, because to stand up and put on a show, making people laugh, there must be so much stuff going on inside to be able to do that all the time. So to tap into that inner side makes it very interesting for me. Hopefully, people are going to realize now that he has incredible dramatic range, and appreciate all that he can do.
Outlook: What about the swimmers themselves? Were they champion athletes before?
SG: No, I basically just opened it up. I didn't want well-known actors, I wanted fresh and hungry, and I was looking for that authenticity. And it wasn't so much the reading, someone could have a bad day, but it's when you start talking to them one-on-one. You suddenly realize there's more here, you're asking questions, you're really prodding, and that, for me, is when the casting gets done. A couple of them really couldn't swim properly, which we found out when we put them all in the pool, and the truth came out. But that didn't deter me, because we put them all through four weeks of boot camp, which was a great bonding experience for them. My thing was, "They're the right kids, we can find swimming coaches." But I told the kids, "You're going to be competing against real swimmers. You gotta keep up. No body doubles." So when they arrived, they were ready, which was amazing to see. We also gave them movies and music and literature from the 70's, lectures on the civil rights history, and the kids just immersed themselves in it. And as the Director, that was a joyful experience, because I just had to get out of the way and let them be, because they were a team when they arrived. That was amazing to see. The difficult part for them was trying to look bad in the! pool.
Outlook: Was the film realistic from Jim Ellis' point of view?
SG: Yes, I spoke to him all the time during the shooting. Trying to condense a person's life is difficult, but even where I thought I might be making up stories, he would tell me about something that happened that was very similar. He knew what we were doing every step of the way. I didn't want to say "inspired by true events," and then there was only one event. I wanted everything as close to what really happened in his life as possible.
Outlook: It sounds like you're a man who relies on his own intuition about things.
SG: Yes, once you've done your homework, it's important to trust your gut. Technically, I was confident because of my experience with commercials. So on the set, when things started happening, I just let them go. And some of the things that happened after I was supposed to say "Cut!", but didn't, were some of the best scenes. Not in the script, just exploring. And both Terence and Bernie Mac were great for that.
Outlook: Well, it worked. It came together.
SG: Thank you so much.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas