The Road To Production Is Paved With Good Intentions


It seemed only days ago, when my creative partner and Producer, Gregory Smith and I birthed the concept for what would become our first feature-length film, the docu-drama, “Dear Detroit: A Love Letter.”

After a long, somewhat grueling pre-production meeting for our short film “The 1st Time I Committed Suicide,”  we found ourselves at a local bar {the birthplace of many of our creative ideas}. Well into our second or fourth round of single malt scotches he began to express, quite colorfully, his utter disdain for the negative media exposure of our city which once proudly boasted the moniker of “Motown.” Clueless of where this slightly inebriated discussion was headed, my quasi genius friend had a revelation; “We should make a documentary that shows the positive side of Detroit.”

Producer Gregory K. Smith

Immediately, what followed was a series of brainstorming notes scribbled on cocktail napkins and celebratory high fives. And in a brief moment of sobriety, the extinguished light bulb hovering above my head illuminated; “Instead of a traditional documentary, why not an eclectic mix of narrative short films intertwined with testimonials from real Detroiters sharing a single moment–an intimate experience that caused them to fall in love with the city. It was at that very moment, “Dear Detroit: A Love Letter” was born.

The next couple of months found our concept simmering on the back burner as we persevered the typical trials and tribulations of our short film production starring a brilliant local actress, Carmen Adolphus.

After some much needed R&R and the footage from our short film patiently awaiting post-production, it was time to turn the heat up on “Dear Detroit: A Love Letter.” The foundation was laid and the stories scribed that we felt would embody the true essence of Detroit:

The struggling artist forced to choose between his emasculating girlfriend and his own ambitions; A man forced to undergo court-ordered therapy after a psychotic breakdown; A young girl comes to the aid of a boy being harassed by schoolyard bullies;  The carjacker stricken with a conscience after a startling revelation; The mother and her two sons scramble to get the affairs of her dying husband in order; Love at 1st sight on the people mover.

Crew of the restaurant scene for Dear Detroit: A Love Letter
Next came location scouting for what would become “The Psychiatrist Office.”; Fortunately I had the perfect location in mind.  I am reminded of an old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you have planned for your life {or your production}.”

The ‘perfect’ location we had selected for the film proved to be ‘not-so-perfect’ at the cost of $2,500 per day {for a four day production}. This was approximately $9,999 more than we were realistically able to spend at the time. I must confess, the whole ordeal of “The Psychiatrist Office” nearly forced me to seek therapy. However, just as quickly as that door closed {slammed} in our face, another quickly opened.

A dear friend and fellow Director, Tinisha Brugnone, put me in touch with a colleague of hers who just so happened to be a restaurant owner and supporter of the Michigan Film Industry. He was more than willing to allow us unlimited access to his establishment for our short “The Restaurant Scene” for the Indie Film special price of: FREE.

Now came the  always tedious task of casting the talent. The role of Elizabeth was reserved for the phenomenal star of our short film “The 1st Time I Committed Suicide,” Carmen Adolphus. {She is after all, the DiCaprio to my Scorsese}. The role of Malik was earned by my brilliant Detroit, by way of New York, Casting/Art Director Devin Laster; ironically, a struggling artist himself.

Actor Devin Laster with Actress Deborah Claybaugh
Perhaps the most difficult task was finding the actress who would fill the shoes of Donna, the sassy restaurant waitress. After days of sifting through countless head shots, failed impromptu casting calls, and weeping into my pillow, I discovered an inexperienced, yet talented, diamond in the rough, Deborah Claybaugh.

Fast forward past several months of: production meetings, script reads/rewrites, camera tests, blocking rehearsals, wardrobe fittings, production, and mini-strokes,”The Restaurant Scene” was finally a wrap and patiently awaiting post-production.

With imported beers in hand, my Editor and I spent countless hours cutting, trimming, yelling, and debating as we pieced together the trailer for our anxiously awaited fundraising campaign on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo; with the intention of completing production of the film over the summer.

Now comes the moment of truth. Our fundraising campaign was launched with the the optimistic and admittedly aggressive goal of $25,000 in order to secure the locations, permits, and equipment rentals for finishing production. Two weeks and endless days/nights of non-stop promoting and soliciting later, we are far from our goal. Ironically, our largest contributor thus far does not even reside in Detroit.

However, if there is one lesson my past experiences have taught me, it’s that faith and perseverance are two of the most important attributes an Indie film-maker must posses in order to survive in this industry {that and a massive stockpile of coffee and five hour energy drinks}.  Luckily, I have been blessed with all of the above.

Director Malcolm X. Johnson with DP Jeremy Brockman

I refuse to allow the possibility of failure to hinder my success.


Malcolm X. Johnson is a military veteran and owner of New Harlem Renaissance Productions, L.L.C.  His first film “The 1st Time I Committed Suicide” was awarded “Best Short Film” & “Emerging Filmmaker” honors at the Trinity Film Coalition’s 5th Annual Film Festival in Detroit, MI.

He is the published author of 3 collections of poetry: “Ghetto Verse 1:19:The Written Confessions of My Soul,” “The Road to (K)nowhere;” & “Forgotten Scripture:The Lost Teachings of Love.”

Malcolm is currently fundraising to complete production of his first feature-length film, a docu-drama, “Dear Detroit: A Love Letter.”

Indiegogo Link to fundraiser

You Tube link to film trailer