Talented actor-turned-director, Mtume Gant, talks about making his short film, “Spit,” his ties with the music scene in New York City, and how it influenced his film
Mtume Gant is a triple threat. Writer, director and actor, he made his film debut with the short film titled Spit. Gant grew up in New York City where his mother enrolled him in children’s theater. In middle school, he met Ann Ratray, renowned acting teacher who became Gant’s gateway into the professional acting world. He used to tour as a hip hop artist and still produces music, but it’s cinema where his passions lie.
Spit, a short film about an unsung artist in New York City and his struggle in finding his voice in music or abandoning his talents, has made its way around the festival circuit and garnered several awards this year. Gant, who is in the process of making his feature film debut later next year, took some time out to talk about Spit, how he transitioned from actor to director, and how the messages in the film have affected him in his own life.
You can read the entire interview below! And make sure to keep an eye out for Mtume Gant in the near future, a multi-talented artist who has already made a strong and impactful short film.
Very excited to talk to you about this. Before talking about the film though, tell me how you got into the acting business.
I have a really long history as an actor. When I was a kid my mother put me in a children’s theater and when I became a teenager I met a woman named Ann Ratray, she’s an acting teacher. She trained a few actors and actresses, and so Ann was very good with young actors. I met her in my middle school days and she kind of got me into professional acting. She was kind of like my first manager and I studied professional acting through her. It led to high school and college and auditioning and doing roles in theater, TV, and movies.
When you began to write “Spit,” what was your thought process behind it? I know you mentioned before to me the New York art scene.
A lot of it was personal experience. Another connection I had was maybe in high school, I got into the hip hop community of New York. So while I was in this very formal theater and film community and business, as a teenager and young adult, I was friends and a part of this underground hip hop thing. It comes a lot from my experiences with that, but also experiences I know people have in the community and things that I saw. And also as New York began to change and the kind of culture of art began to change.
So a lot of it was coming from a really personal place and a lot of it was adapting from the experience I was seeing directly outside. People that I knew who were artists and all they were ever known as were artists. The one day no, like, “What are you doing?” And they were like, “I don’t make music anymore. I don’t dance anymore. I don’t act.” Well what do you do? “Nothing. I work in an office.” And this person who used to be so lively acting or dancing or singing. Now when they think about acting or dancing or singing, it makes them the saddest person on the planet. And I saw this a lot and it happened to me also. Because the circumstances of pressure and success, and what do those things mean. It became personal.
What was the most challenging aspect in writing, directing and starring in your own film?[laughs]As far as the trifecta, I think the directing and writing directly flow. I’m into the director/writer thing. It always made sense to me. As far as film is concerned, they kind of share an idea. The acting part of it, I don’t know how difficult it was. But what was interesting about and what I was able to do, which is why it wasn’t so troublesome, was because it helped me approach the actors I was working with in a much more collaborative, communicative way rather than the cliché of a director telling them to go this way or that way. It became more of a conversation betweem me and the actors. Almost every actor I cast I’ve known for a long time.
They’re people I’ve worked with or went to school with and so I know very well. They weren’t foreign people to me. It definitely was a lot of brain juggling. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t have a great relationship with my director of photography (DP) or sound person. I felt that I could rely on them to… you know, like my DP are on the same page talking about shots. He knows what I’m talking about so I don’t have to double check him. The hardest thing about it is making sure you’re doing all your jobs. Before you wrap that shot, have you checked it as a director, have you felt you’ve been giving everything as an actor, has the writing been done? Have you checked the script? So that’s the most challenging is crossing all your t’s and dotting all your i’s. But I also like it. I think it works.
The opening scene really draws you in completely and makes sure you’re paying attention. Since that first scene is so important and it flows through the soul of the entire film. Was it the most difficult scene to shoot in terms of setting up the tone of the film?
No. Because the actor, he was really, really good. And I’ve known him for a long time and he knew what to do. It was a hard scene to write. That’s what it was, actually. That particular scene went through more rewrites than any other scene. Initially I had the kid older with him, and it didn’t work. It went through four or five rewrites, so writing-wise it was the most difficult. Once I got it written, it all flowed. I knew what had to happen. We rehearsed a few times before shoot day, had discussions about it and how to go about it. We did four or five different versions and we kept one version that stuck. Chey [Ayende] is a theater actor and he’s someone who’s used to doing the beginning, middle and end without cut and that’s the kind of actor I hired. That’s the kind of cinema I’m interested in in general, with people who don’t have to rely on the cut or the edit room to create their performance.
You have a lot of background in acting, but when did the transition to wanting to become a director happen?
I had always thought about being a director. The thing that scared me wasn’t the directing, but the money. Raising money and things like that scared me. So I always wanted to do it. I was in a lot of films in my 20s and I was eating everything up. But I talked to the directors and peeking into what they were doing and look around. But then I wanted to get back into the acting business, but I didn’t want to go back and be an actor auditioning for movies that I didn’t really believe in. And it became a conflict for me and so I had to do my own work.
So initially, my producer and friend Conchita Campos, she’s a musician, we came up with a couple of concepts for narrative music videos and I did those first. Those were my first inaugural sail into directing. I had confidence that I could do it, but there’s confidence and then there’s actually [laughs], you know, doing it. And so I did and I was like, “Ok, cool.” And I shot those videos four or five months before I did Spit. I’d done a lot of theater directing and put together shows and a lot of work with young actors. With working with actors, I’m very comfortable. It’s something I feel I know very well.
The main quotes I took away from the film are these: “Honor your gifts or they’ll leave you,” and “Feed or be eaten.” They’re both so strong and powerful in the film and true in a world that loves art but is constantly hindered by cuts for funding and a general difficulty to raise money for films such as these. How have these messages affected you in your work?
As far as the “honor your gifts” line, it’s something I hold very dear and very important. This is where I differ from Monk in the film. I wouldn’t go to the office. Personally it’s a haunting thing for me, that I do it no matter what. Every time I’ve been so broken by something, that though lingers in my head and I don’t stop myself. The “feed or be eaten” is the more complicated thing for me because I believe that’s true with capitalism. And with capitalism, it has infected the art world and when I see a lot of my peers and a lot of people that I know who are art entertainers, they react to that and it makes them into a bit of a shark. And they become no different from people on Wall Street. And they move and create art that way, but I don’t believe in that. I don’t operate that way.
When I deal with people, I deal with them in an honest way but I also acknowledge that that’s how some people operate and I have to act accordingly. But also let people know that that’s not the situation I want to be involved in. It’s hard though, it’s a hard thing to speak about because these are the people who are giving you funding, so it’s a dodgy thing. It’s something I don’t have an answer to. How to get around it, I’m still figuring that out. But it’s something I know that’s very present.
Any plans to direct a feature film?
That’s the next step! I’m writing my feature script and trying to get that done so I can go into the long haul to try and get this funded and supported and then shot. I would love to shoot it next year, around the fall of next year. That’s my plan. I want to keep shooting and features is what I want to do. I like the short form, but it’s funny because I thought, “It’d be nice to a short. One short after a feature.” Feature film narrative is where it’s at for me.