The Black Harvest Film Fest Part 4 of 8
Photos Courtesy of Wilkie Cornelius Jr.
“Single Hills” is a romantic drama about a young Brooklyn writer, fearful of serious commitment, who sends his longtime girlfriend ambivalent messages about the status of their future. When she distances herself from their relationship, he realizes his loss and fanatically pursues her until his life spirals out of control. It stars J. Kyle Manzay (“American Gangsters”) and Krystal Hill, who starred in the stage play of the same name.
Brooklyn native Wilkie Cornelius Jr., filmed “Single Hills” in some of his hometown’s most colorful neighborhoods. “Single Hills” the smash hit play premiered to standing room only audiences in June 2004. Cornelius took eight years to complete the film from the time he made the first draft up until its first screening earlier this year. “Single Hills” will be shown at the 18th Annual Black Harvest Film on Friday August 17 at 6:30PM and Saturday August 18 at 8:30PM. Cornelius talked to PrideIndex about when he first got bitten by the filmmaking bug, his influences and the transition of “Single Hills” from the stage to big screen.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): Briefly tell us a little bit about your professional background, where did you attend film and/or acting school, etc?
WILKIE CORNELIUS (WC): My story is all over the place. Went to college at SUNY Old Westbury where I majored in accounting, which I struggled with somewhat. Graduating with a “C+” average and a lack of enthusiasm for the field, I never really pursued it and took the first stable (“rent paying”) job I could find which was working as a token booth clerk with the NYC MTA. During that time I was still “searching” for myself professionally and “artistically.” Fort Greene was a haven for musicians, poets, and writers of all sorts. Inspired by encouraging friends who were actors and writers, I sought out to rekindle my childhood passion for writing and took a series of workshops which ultimately led me to writing and directing sketch comedy and theatre. In addition to writing my interest of politics led me to direct a small doc about a local election called “The last 15 hours” in 2006.
PI: Describe for us the very first time you were bitten by the filmmaking bug, and knew that you wanted to be a filmmaker.
WC: Here’s another long winded answer: When things happen, I don’t think we realize they happen. I think watching “Cooley High” (which for years has been my all time favorite film) subconsciously made me a “story teller.” That film took me on an emotional and inspirational journey with a character (Preach) who dared to dream. It made me believe in dreams and understand what passion is at an early age.
PI: Any influences?
WC: From a writing standpoint; August Wilson and Walter Moseley. I love the way these two writers gave life to the “every man.” I also love the absolute brilliance of Lyn Nottage and of course the amazing work of Eric Monte. From a film standpoint; Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, George Shultz, Theodore Witcher and Tanya Hamilton were some directors that greatly inspired and impressed me.
PI: “Single Hills” is based on your stage play of the same name; did you stay true to the play?
WC: Emotionally I did, but logistically I didn’t. In the play Jay was kind of a stay at home writer and Lisa was a stay at home “Princess” and their romantic interaction was all that mattered. In the film, I had to give my beloved characters jobs and one or two more friends.
PI: Did you always have intentions to make a movie based off the hit play?
WC: Not at first. At the time I had Broadway dreams, but one day sitting in the theater this enthusiastic patron blurted out something that would forever change my life. After an evening of talking to the stage at every given opportunity, he blurts out “This shit should be a movie.” I’m sure the people next to him were annoyed, but I think his analysis was on point.
PI: Talk about the casting process, when did you know that actors J. Kyle Manzay and Krystal Hill were the right people to play the lead roles in this film?
WC: I knew J. Kyle and Krystal Hill and had seen their work, so the audition wasn’t really much of an audition, it was more of a question of could I see them together. From the first introduction it was magic. I also knew Victor Williams, which helped a great deal, in being able to get an actor from a hit sitcom to read my script and agree to do the part. It’s who you know!
PI: How come you did not use the same lead actors from the stage version of “Single Hills?”
WC: Krystal was actually in the play, and it wasn’t so much that I chose not to use the male actor from the play, it was more; I thought J. Kyle had a presence and a “smoothness” that would work well on screen.
PI: While watching the trailer for “Single Hills” I was reminded of romantic comedies such as “Love & Basketball,” “Love Jones” and “Jason’s Lyric.” Was that your intention to revive the black romantic comedy genre?
WC: I love those films, but I really think of all of those films as romantic dramas more than comedies. True, they all have funny parts, as did the incredible love story “Claudine,” but at the core I feel they’re all dramas as is “Single Hills,” in my opinion. As far as looking at those films, they are all films that I subconsciously use more as a reference of good storytelling, but “Single Hills” was just a personal story that was loosely based or inspired by real events in my life and environment.
PI: Would your wife/girlfriend/baby mama say that you’re secretly a hopeless romantic?
WC: No baby mama or wife, but all of the girlfriends I’ve had might say that. I’m always talking about relationships. I’m a self-proclaimed “relationship expert.”
PI: Why did you make this film?
WC: It was a cathartic exercise for me after I made some bad decisions in my “romantic life.”
PI: “Securing adequate financing” is one of the biggest hurdles that independent filmmakers must overcome to produce their films, what did you do to overcome this hindrance?
WC: I don’t know if I overcame it, I think I’m still paying for stuff. It’s hard, very, very, hard, but for me, it was, working overtime, having fundraisers, begging family, having fundraisers, begging friends, having fundraisers, working overtime, and did I say having fundraisers.
PI: How long did it take to make this film from the moment the script was completed to the day that post production was done?
WC: I finished the first draft of the film in 2005 and was making editing changes two weeks before I had my world premiere in Feb 2012. It took a minute!
PI: What film festivals has “Single Hills” played in and how has audiences responded to it?
WC: The Pan African Film Fest in LA, The New Voices in Black Cinema Fest at BAM in NYC, The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Fest, and more to come. The response has been incredible. People continually tell me they personally relate to it. We’ve all been in and out of love.
PI: I heard that you were planning on attending the screening “Single Hills” in Chicago, is this first time visiting the Windy City? Do you have family or friends here?
WC: Yes, I’m coming. Super excited! This is my first time, and I don’t know anyone in Chicago but I’ve met so many awesome people from Chicago that relocated to New York. New York has crazy love for Chicago! Not to mention, two of my favorite films, “Love Jones” and “Cooley High” were made in Chicago.
PI: If a major broadcast or cable network were to approach you with an offer to make “Single Hills” into a series what items must be included for you to accept their offer?
WC: Hmm, never thought about a TV series for “Single Hills,” but I guess I would want as much creative control and casting input as possible.
PI: What’s next for you professionally?
WC: Getting international distribution for “Single Hills” is first and foremost. In addition to that I wrote another feature script that I’m looking to direct, this time with less financial obstacles. Maybe I can send a screener of “Single Hills” to Oprah or Gail – you never know.
For more information on visit singlehills.com.