ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Before principal photography began on Freedomland in late March, 2005, director Roth, producer Rudin and their production team scouted every low-income housing project in the New York/New Jersey area to find the right location for the film's Armstrong Houses, where much of story takes place. (Price's model for Armstrong, the Jersey City housing complex Curry's Woods, had been demolished several years previous). They finally settled on Mulford Gardens in Yonkers, New York state's fourth largest city just across the Hudson River from New Jersey. Built in 1939 as one of the nation's first low-income housing projects, Mulford Gardens consists of more than 550 apartments in 17 groupings of three and four-story buildings that sprawl over a Yonkers hillside. Itself scheduled for demolition in the fall of 2005, Mulford Gardens was still 75 percent occupied when the production filmed there for almost four weeks, close to half the total shooting schedule.
Freedomland production designer David Wasco was born in New Jersey not far from the location in Richard Price's story. Although it's a universal story that could have taken place in any American city, Wasco and director Roth felt it important to maintain the fictional New Jersey world described in Price's novel and script. Wasco extensively researched New Jersey neighborhoods, police stations, hospitals, low-income housing, parks and city streets, as well as the people who lived in those communities. And that is reflected in the production design and the costumes in the movie.
Wasco describes Mulford Gardens as "labyrinthine, cascading down a hill with steps that evoke Escher engravings, unlike many such projects, which are on a flat landscape with vertical buildings. It had a trapped feeling but wasn't your cliché ridden, graffiti strewn, drug -riddled world," he says. "It sort of had a real sense of family and community that was very strong." (It also mirrored Price's script in that it had a park across the street as well as other elements that were pivotal to the action of the story).
Mindful of the fact that hundreds of families lived at Mulford Gardens, the filmmakers met with the residents early on about how best to avoid any potential disruptions to their daily lives during filming. "People live here and we had to be respectful of that," says Roth.
More than 50 residents worked as extras in the film. Others were hired by the locations department, or rented out rooms in their apartments to the production company. At the same time, the film company did some reconstruction work on several of Mulford's more decayed sections. Wasco was surprised at the residents' response to some of the smallest details. "I remember that as soon as we had finished putting up one of the backboards with a basketball hoop on it, it was swamped with kids," he says.
Mulford Gardens was also happy to have Jackson as a visitor. "The neighborhood loved him," says Eldard. "People on the street just dug Sam Jackson."
The production later hosted a large barbeque for all the Mulford residents to celebrate the completion of filming and to thank them for their patience and cooperation. "The community came to feel that the movie was theirs, and rightly so," observes Roth.
The city of Yonkers offered the filmmakers several other locations, including Ashburton Avenue, which stood in for Dempsy's Martin Luther King Boulevard. "Yonkers is similar to Northern New Jersey in that it has a kind of small town feel," says Roth. Other Yonkers locations included the Yonkers Community Action Program building on Ashburton, which supplied the setting for several interiors, as well as the exterior for the Dempsy Police Department.
"Freedomland," the abandoned children's home where Lorenzo leads the search for Brenda's son, was filmed in the actual location that inspired Price. In his research for the book, Price visited the desolate remains of Staten Island's abandoned New York Farm Colony along with Donna Cutugno. Not only had Cutugno's group found the body of an abducted child adjacent to the thickly forested area, on the grounds of the former Willowbrook State School, but Cutugno suspects several other missing children are still buried there.
During pre-production, Price brought Roth to the Staten Island locations, which contain what Price describes as "these giant, overgrown ruins covered with titanic vines." Roth made up his mind on the spot, according to Price. "He looked around, had his hands in his pockets, and said, 'all right, we'll shoot here,'" Price recalls. "'We can't possibly recreate this.'"
For part of the sequence, the actors go inside the derelict buildings of New York Farm Colony. In contrast to the inner city activity of the Armstrong Houses, this location was a desolate and ghostly place. It was another maze, this time in the ruins of a 19th century work farm. Set decorators, painters, greens and construction crews worked to heighten the horror of the derelict structures.
Many of the other built sets and practical locations were designed or chosen to create a monochromatic, "real world" world vision to support the simplicity of Freedomland's powerful story, observes Wasco.
The film's director of photography, Anastas Michos, ASC, who shot Mona Lisa Smile and The Forgotten for Roth's Revolution Studios, also recalls early discussions with the director about how the film would look. "We wanted to treat it like a thriller, or a mystery," says Michos, "since the issues the movie deals with are very dark and personal."
One of Michos' most difficult tasks was to render the beautiful Moore into the pale cipher that is her character Brenda Martin. "Julianne did come to me in the hair and make-up test and told me she wanted to let it go on this one," says Michos, who also photographed Moore in The Forgotten. "One of the boldest choices was to take Moore, who's a stunning woman, and truly let her character deteriorate during the course of the film," says Michos, who went so far as to light the actress with a parabolic light, which is used for rock 'n' roll concerts. "It's so much easier to make Julianne look stunning, so we had to work at it. I hope we succeeded, even though it sounds like an odd thing to say."
Similarly, Academy Awardâ-winning costume designer Ann Roth (The English Patient) was attracted to Freedomland specifically because it's not the type of project that would normally attract a costume designer. The film's characters lives are simple and tough, and their clothes, Roth explains, "are a non-event, (and) that's exactly what I wanted them to be." Moore's Brenda, for example, wears pale tones of beige and brown, clothes she purchased at a mall near the Holland Tunnel, says Roth. "She doesn't want to be seen, she doesn't want to be noticed," Roth explains. "She basically looks like dust, a ghost, a shadow, a negative, a feather floating in the air -- someone without a center."
For Jackson's Lorenzo, Roth researched the Jersey City police department and also the city's projects, where, she learned, the mode of dress varies from one complex to the next. "I wanted Lorenzo to have the respect of the guys and they're all into visuals," she says. "But I also wanted him to be hipper than hip just by his non-participation in the clothing contest." For the film, Roth put Lorenzo in jeans and T-shirts and a jacket with graffiti-inspired, Asian influenced designs.
To maintain accuracy throughout filming, Calvin E. Hart, a detective from Jersey City, and Cutugno, who aided Price and the filmmakers in their research, were on the set throughout production and were also given acting roles in the film. Hart plays Boris, a black cop in Gannon, or as Hart describes him, "basically, Uncle Tom, as they would call him in the ghetto."
Cutugno, who plays Elaine, a member of Friends of Kent, especially wanted to participate in the film because Freedomland would accurately portray how the searches are done. "People often imitate what they see in the movies, and we want people to know how you do it and that this is how you support a family," she says.
Not having acted before, Cutugno is grateful to Jackson for making her feel at ease. "He was kind of coaching me through it. We were talking and telling jokes and kidding around, but he was also guiding us through it," she remembers. "Sam's my hero. I told him he should be an acting coach."
Moore also relished working with Jackson, describing their collaboration as a very happy one. "He's a tremendous actor and a wonderful human being," she says. "He's so funny and smart and makes everything so effortless. Sam's acting is like breathing. You don't even see it."
Jackson is similarly complimentary about working with Moore, who between takes, did not remain in the depths of Brenda's anguish. "Her preparation is such that when Joe says 'action,' she can go right there, and when he says 'cut,' she can come right out of it," Jackson attests. "And that's how I work. I don't live in that moment all day long."
Roth was similarly impressed by the breadth of Moore's preparation. "She'd have 15 minutes of dialogue memorized so that we'd run out of film and she'd still be speaking," he says. "She's able, within the bounds of the movie, to come up with all different kinds of colors to her performance. It's fantastic to watch."
"My favorite part of working with both Sam and Julianne is not just their personalities," adds Falco, "but the fact that they're so good. I really do feel that you can only be as good as the people you're working with and both of them make it so easy."
Falco adds that the tone of the set came directly from Roth. "He knew what he wanted, he was prepared, and everything was just stress-free. And that means the world to me," she says. "It makes it 50 times easier to do our job."
"Joe was wonderful," agrees Jackson. "He gave us a lot of freedom to create stuff on the inside of the story, and during the rehearsal period we worked out our relationships in various ways. Also, Joe worked pretty quickly. He believed in what we were doing and gave us positive encouragement on the set. Consequently we didn't have to do a lot of takes."
Adds Rudin: "Having known Joe for almost 20 years, I was thrilled that he wanted to direct Freedomland. I thought he had a fantastic take on the material and brought tremendous specificity and authenticity to it. He was a great collaborator with Richard and myself and I'm incredibly proud of the job he did on the film."
Roth believes it was the strength of Price's script that enabled him to attract the most talented people in front of and behind the camera. "I've learned after all these years that it's always all about the material," he explains. "Freedomland is terrific both for its sense of story and the fact that it is contrary to the kind of popcorn films of today. It contains themes that we can all relate to."
Jackson concurs: "It's fraught with human drama. There are racial issues, social issues and mental health issues in this particular film," he explains. "There are father/son relationships, mother/son, brother/sister and community relations. "
Cutugno's hope for the film is that "audiences see the energy that a community can generate. There's a strong message here that people can make it if they help one another."
Agrees Calvin Hart: "I always tell kids, let's dwell on the things that make us the same. It's what makes us the same that's important, not what makes us different."
"I'm hoping that the staying power of the film is such that the next day when you think about it, is not just about who did what and how you found out, or how compelling the acting was," concludes Roth. "I hope it can inspire people to think that it's never too late to gain insight and to change the course of your life."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
JOE ROTH (Director) formed Revolution Studios in May 2000. Revolution Studios is partnered with three of the premier media companies in the world - Sony Pictures Entertainment, Starz Entertainment Group and Fox Entertainment Group - as both investors and distributors.
In its fifth year of operation, Revolution Studios has released 28 films, including America's Sweethearts, which Roth directed, Black Hawk Down, XXX, Anger Management, Daddy Day Care, Hellboy, 13 Going On 30, White Chicks, The Forgotten, Christmas with the Kranks, which Roth also directed and was based on John Grisham's best-seller Skipping Christmas, and the hit family comedy Are We There Yet? starring Ice Cube.
Revolution Studios' slate for 2005 included XXX: State of the Union, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube, a remake of the classic horror film The Fog and the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning hit Broadway musical Rent.
In 2004, Roth produced the 76th Annual Academy Awards© telecast, which was nominated for nine Emmy Awards.
From August 1994 through January 2000, Roth ran Walt Disney Studios, first as Chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, then from April 1996 as Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. He led the studio to worldwide market dominance over the five years with an industry-leading 18 films grossing over $100 million domestically, three of which -- The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2 and Armageddon -- grossing more than $200 million in the United States alone. Roth helped build Buena Vista International into the market leader, finishing first in market share five times in six years, the only company to gross over one billion dollars in each of those years. The studio's 1999 Best Picture nominees, The Insider and The Sixth Sense, led Disney to an industry-leading 17 Academy Award® nominations.
From 1992 to 1994, Roth, with Roger Birnbaum, headed Caravan Pictures, which produced such hits as While You Were Sleeping, Angels in the Outfield and The Three Musketeers for Disney.
Before establishing Caravan Pictures, Roth served as Chairman of Twentieth Century Fox from July 1989 until November 1992. During his tenure at the studio, the company made such successful films as Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Die Hard 2, Sleeping with the Enemy, Mrs. Doubtfire, My Cousin Vinny, White Men Can't Jump, Edward Scissorhands, The Commitments and The Last of the Mohicans.
Prior to Twentieth Century Fox, Roth was a highly successful independent producer/director, co-founding Morgan Creek Pictures, for which he produced such films as Young Guns, Dead Ringers, Major League and Bachelor Party. Roth directed both Streets of Gold and Revenge of the Nerds II for Twentieth Century Fox, and Coupe De Ville for Universal Pictures.
Equally noted for his diverse civic and charitable activities, Roth has received various awards such as the 1991 Variety Clubs Man of the Year award, the 1996 Humanitarian Award from the NCCJ, the 1997 American Museum of Moving Image Award and was honored in 1998 by APLA and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Roth was also the recipient of the 2004 Dorothy and Sherrill C. Corwin Human Relations Award from the American Jewish Committee, and is an active supporter of the SIDS Alliance.
Roth is a graduate school instructor on the faculty at UCLA's independent film and television program and is a member of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television Dean's Executive Board. He also serves on the board of Pixar.
A New York City native, Roth is a 1970 graduate of Boston University.
RICHARD PRICE (Screenplay by, Based upon the novel by) adapts his highly acclaimed, best-selling novel Freedomland (1998). One of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters, Price was nominated for an Academy Awardâ for his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. He also wrote the "Life Lessons" segment of New York Stories for Scorsese. Price's additional screenwriting credits include the recent Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson and Ransom starring Mel Gibson, both of which were produced by Scott Rudin. He also wrote the screenplays for Sea of Love, Clockers, Mad Dog and Glory, Night and the City and Kiss of Death.
Price grew up in the Bronx. He published his first novel, The Wanderers, in 1974, to critical and popular acclaim. Four other novels followed including Bloodbrothers and Clockers, which debuted in 1992 to rave reviews and earned a nomination for the National Book Critics Award. In 1999, he received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Price's most recent novel is the acclaimed Samaritan, which Entertainment Weekly named as the Best Book of 2003.
Price's fiction, articles, and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. His piece on New York in the wake of 9/11 for The New York Times was included in Best American Essays of 2002. Price has taught fiction writing at Yale, New York University and Columbia University.