MIAMI Holding a movie slate and wearing the same prison blues he had worn for the past 16 years, the assistant director waited patiently for the actors to stand on their assigned marks.
“Quiet on the set! Scene one, take the roll camera,” he said.
With the snap of the slate, Anthony Scrimma, an imprisoned resident, begins filming inside the Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) for a groundbreaking production.
Director Larry Fordham Jr., 49, is due to go on parole next spring. He stopped and looked around the room, where 20 men stood anxiously. Then he shouted the magic word: “Action!”
In the winter of 2021, a class of imprisoned students pursuing an associate degree in arts at Miami Dade College (MDC) wrote and directed the nearly 14-minute short film “No Place Like Home”—reflecting on the challenges of making a An incredible feat to film behind bars. With the exception of post-production on the MDC campus, every aspect of the film was done by the students: writing, directing, acting, camera, sound, lighting and storyboard art. A few other films have also been made inside the prison, but this may be the first to use imprisoned residents for almost every part of the filmmaking process.
Professor Adrian Garcia, an assistant professor in the MDC School of Entertainment and Design Technology, led the project. He spent the first eight weeks of the semester teaching screenwriting fundamentals, during which time each student wrote a short script for consideration. What she finally chose by Fordham Jr. is reminiscent of a reality inside: After four decades in prison, the man on his way home has to face his fear of leaving behind the family he’d built over the years. .
“We weren’t making a quintessential prison movie,” Garcia said. “We wanted a good story that would show humanity behind bars.”
With the script approved, each student was assigned a role in the filmmaking process, and the class began training with cameras, lighting, and sound equipment. Retired members of the gang, ex-con and recovering drug addicts passed the lens carefully around the room. The students practiced holding a light reflector while someone rapped a Jay-Z song into the mic boom for a sound check.
During the excitement of the last day of training, someone slipped on a tripod and the class fell into silence – before everyone started laughing.
Fade In: Inner Prison Chapel
Filming inside a correctional institution has its difficulties.
“Reserving free space and staying on time was a recurring problem,” Garcia admitted, but the prison administration was very supportive of the process. Security concerns on the part of the administration, however, forbid cameras from showing any fences, cells or secure areas. This meant that the entire film had to be shot in the prison chapel and visitation centre.
As the class moved into the chapel on the first day on set, Garcia pinpointed the best places for the cameras, and the crew got to work. Gripp Thomas Dougherty, 32, shoved the pulpit and replaced it with a fake coffin. A boom operator found a place to lie on the floor behind a pew, while two cameramen were set up on opposite sides of the room.
“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes,” Dougherty said. “This experience will change the way I watch movies.”
When everyone was in place, Fordham Jr. instructed the actors on last-minute script changes and “Action!” Told. A small group of men sat on a chapel bench, paying tribute to an elderly acquaintance who had just died. “You gave your time, and now you’re free, Old Dog,” said lead actor Stanley Stovall, 64.
Soon, Fordham Jr. cut the scene and gave instructions for another take. García gave some subtle instructions to his class, but during most of the day, the prison chapel was viewed as an actual film set.
“For the first few hours, I was doing too much,” Garcia said. “But people got me out of the way and took charge.”
The group had just five days to complete the shoot, with only a few hours of filming each day. The task was to be set around a number of time-consuming security calculations, and the class had to be careful about sharing spaces with other programs. The shocks were expensive. On the third day, production halted for three hours when prison workers could not find an SSD sound card that had been kept in someone’s office overnight.
The final chapel scene was a quiet conversation with Thomas March, 44, and a nervous Stovall talking about going home to an unfamiliar world. While the cameras rolled, Fordham Jr. positioned the actors with hand signals.
March, who is serving a 30-year sentence for robbery, said, “The acting was tougher than I thought.” “My adrenaline was going, and I was trying to remember my lines while still feeling natural. After six takes it started to feel like real work.”
He said he found this scene particularly resonant: being released from prison after a long time is a real concern for a lot of people.
Miami Dade College has been offering programs at ECI for nearly a decade, but it was only able to introduce credit-bearing courses in 2020 thanks to a second Chance Pell grant from the US Department of Education. The initiative focuses on helping jailed students work towards an associate’s degree and acquire professional skills that can prove useful upon their release.
The film category, which was first introduced in 2021, may not seem like an obvious choice. And given how many constraints educational programs meet at the prison, the idea of making a short film inside seemed almost fanciful.
However, García emphasized its practical value. “Film is more of a business than an art form,” he said. “We wanted to offer this class because the industry is progressive, and my students are gaining valuable skills that can land them jobs when they are released.”
This is not the only reason for jailed students to study film. Changing the story about what the prisoners could and could not do was also important to the professor and his class. They want “No Place Like Home”, which is currently set to be presented at film festivals or shown on TV, to see people in society not as uneducated criminals, but as productive members of their communities. to help change the way. The team is working on the distribution plan of the film.
“My students are fast learners and highly respected. Not every stereotype about prison could be further from the truth,” said Garcia, who said he would be teaching the course again this fall. “He took a lot of initiative.”
Fordham Jr. said that there is so much talent inside that no one gets to see. “One of the missions of this film was to raise awareness of what goes on behind bars,” he said. “If people realized how much creativity there is, they might see us differently.”
When the class went to the meeting center on the last day of filming, there was nothing. Without any prompting, the crew began shaking desks and arranging the set while the actors continued in their line. Grips helped the assistant directors find the chairs, and the boom mic operator volunteered to find a prop bag.
The mood was bitter during rehearsals: The crew prepared to film the final scene, but everyone knew the ride was about to end.
“Let’s have a lot of fun here today,” said Garcia.
As the cameras rolled, Stovall portrayed the man who was about to be released, waiting impatiently for an uncle who never comes. As her prison family watches with kindness, a stranger comes to her rescue and escorts her out to freedom for the first time in 40 years.
Then someone forgot his line.
After the scene ended, the whole room erupted in applause. The students shook hands with their professor and laughed about the blooper reel of the future.
At the start of the semester, 67-year-old lighting assistant Melvin Brinson had no idea what movie 101 would be like, but it turned out to be his favorite class. “I’ve been laid off for a long time, and I finally felt like I was a part of something that matters,” he said.
While Gripps packed all the delicate equipment into padded boxes, Garcia unplugged the portable hard drive from the digital camera and stored it in his pocket for safekeeping, and took his unique four-month experience on a high note. terminated.
“We need to reward good behavior with a second chance,” Garcia said. “It makes it so much easier for people to make it into society. I’m really proud of the students and their work.”
As everyone stood at the rap party, telling stories about their favorite moments, I asked Brinson to describe the best part of his lighting work.
He looked at me with the glassy eyes of a man who had been sentenced to life in prison. “When I highlighted the actors, it was like they became stars,” Brinson said. “For once we were special. It’s a great feeling for people like us.”