“Purple Dreams” started as feel-good promotional fodder for Northwest School of the Arts. It ended as a drama powerful enough to command center stage at two major film festivals.
It was supposed to be a breeze, shot in four weeks. It became a whirlwind that took four years to finish, four years of comedy, craziness, tragedy, triumph and self-discovery. It became more timely than anyone imagined, making an emotional case for the value of the arts just as funding cuts loom at every level.
That’s why Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, one of the three major documentary fests in North America, invited producer Robin Grey and director Joanne Hock to present “Dreams” in Durham April 7. (Also there: “May It Last,” about the Avett Brothers co-directed by Judd Apatow.) “Dreams” also landed a spot at RiverRun International Film Festival April 8-9 in Winston-Salem.
Grey and Hock, the team running GreyHawk Films, chose the movie’s title because NWSA produced the first high school version of the musical “The Color Purple” in 2012. And purple suits royalty: NWSA took the show to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., to be honored as one of the strongest ensembles in America.
Along the way, lives changed.
Introverted Danielle Hopkins, who had to be talked into playing extroverted singer Shug Avery – partly because Shug’s lesbian affair with Celie ran against Hopkins’ upbringing – blossomed into a self-aware young woman studying theater at UNC Greensboro. “I was driven then by a sense of duty,” she says. “Now I can just make mistakes and love others in a way that doesn’t hurt, and say the truth.”
Javontré Booker, who felt comfortable in the “Purple” ensemble, lost his brother to a gang shooting during the process. (“Dreams” movingly depicts his candlelight vigil.) The musical helped him push through, and the kid too frightened to take ballet in high school now studies modern dance on a scholarship to UNC School of the Arts. “My brother got the short end of the stick, but his death has reminded me not to be scared or worried,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, and I am OK with that.”
Grey and Hock have operated under that philosophy for a long time. They first thought their project might become a TV series, but BET and Oprah Winfrey Network told them it didn’t follow traditional templates for reality shows.
“We were told, ‘It’s too earnest,’ ” says Grey. “We didn’t want to create false drama. The emotions were spontaneous and genuine.”
“These kids were not just in the play, they were becoming the characters in the play,” says Hock. “They could look us in the eye with confidence. They were growing up.”
Hock would drop by the production when she had time, eventually shooting on a total of 70 days. “Purple” director Corey Mitchell (who had not yet won the first Tony Award given for Excellence in Theatre Education) drove students forward with exasperation, humor and affection.
“I hope they are able to access the euphoria they’re feeling (now) when they’re in their dark places,” he says in the movie. “Because dark times will come.”
Those times had already come for some young actors. One slept with his family on the floor of a garage. Another lived with her folks in a boxy hotel room. Danielle Hopkins, who was 12 when her 16-year-old sister got pregnant, was helping to raise the child. “That’s just what we do in our family, the four of us,” she says. “We take care of each other when things get hard.”
The students all went gamely to rehearsals, and they got used to the presence of Hock’s respectful camera. The director focused on six “hero kids,” as she calls them, strong personalities who were not necessarily leads in “The Color Purple.”
“They came to trust us,” says the director. “They knew that, if they gave us access to them, they had the opportunity to affect other kids like them.”
Adds Grey, “I was talking to producers at a conference (where she showed early footage), and people asked, ‘Those aren’t the homeless kids, are they? They speak so beautifully.’ These are not the images you see on the news.”
Hock had one special asset: She’d known Javontré Booker, who calls her “my godmother,” since he was a boy who came by GreyHawk’s office years before to nab candy. She’d helped him get a scholarship to N.C. Dance Theatre and, after he won a small role in the 2008 movie “Gospel Hill,” urged officials at Northwest to consider him. His fondness for her showed classmates they could relax around her camera.
And they did, in moments of confessed fear and skyscraping joy.
“The movie looks like a time capsule now, because I am so far removed from that person,” says Hopkins. “I was afraid to dig deeper, to be vulnerable, to embrace my insecurities. I took myself so seriously and didn’t allow myself to get closer to other people in the way I wanted to.”
Says Booker, being part of the movie “helped show me that I am supposed to be doing what I am doing. That junior year (at Northwest) was the year that my life changed for the better.”
That’s why he had the strength to inform his family he would make a living as a professional dancer, either in musicals or a troupe such as Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. (He took a summer intensive with Ailey.) That’s why Hopkins shed doubts about acting midway through one major at UNCG and switched to theater, though she’ll have to stay five years to get her degree.
Long after the students had graduated from high school, Hock worked with editor John Disher to shape 200 hours of raw footage. Spencer Averick, editor of the Oscar-nominated “Selma,” stopped by to give notes on what worked and what didn’t. Grant money helped Hock and Grey pay for that, among other things – both Wells Fargo and Foundation for the Carolinas supported the making of the documentary. Hock and Disher even brought students back for a music video to play before the end credits.
“John and I closed the editing room door,” she says, “and I told people, ‘Bring us pancakes and fried flounder and anything else that can slide under that door, because we are not coming out.’ ”
Now Grey and Hock seek distribution. Viewers get teary over “Dreams,” Grey says, but buyers remain leery. She’s talked to The Weinstein Company and Sony Pictures Classics, who both told her they want to see how audiences react. (Hence the festival tour.)
Grey hopes interest leads to backing for “Wednesdays at the Gem,” a fictional period feature Hock wants to make for $5 million to $12 million. Says Grey, “ ‘Dreams’ showcases Joanne’s talents. It’s my job to get her exposure, to get her to the next step in her career.”
But however far “Purple Dreams” goes, says Danielle Hopkins, it has served its purpose.
“It shows how arts education (changed) our lives,” she declares. “The opportunity to experience theater in middle and high school shaped who we are. I wouldn’t be able to step back five years later and be myself without that, because the arts train us to be human beings.”