“Let me tell you something young bull, ain’t no one chose to live out here.”
Director Ricky Staub’s gripping, real film “The Cage,” a Filmsupply Original, tells the story of survival in the streets of Philadelphia, following one boy as he finds himself stuck in a cycle of betrayal, anger, violence and death, and his struggle to break free from it. The performances in this film are genuine, emotional and Staub’s story is one many audience members can connect with. There is one thing, however, that makes Staub’s film unique: all the actors portraying these characters have no prior training in acting.
We caught up with Staub to talk about his overall vision for his piece and why he decided to have non-actors play in his film.
Hey Ricky, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. First off, what inspired you to create this film?
I lived in the neighborhood where we filmed “The Cage” for a little over five years, it’s where I started my company. I’ve always wanted to tell a story there, so I was really inspired by a lot of the people in the film; the actors are friends of mine. The story itself was derived from the stories I had heard or I had seen or witnessed. One of my close friends in the neighborhood, a basketball coach named Andre, would tell me stories about what kids went through just to be a part of the team in the neighborhood. Whether it was the violence or the drugs or the home life, there were so many hurdles they had to get over just to play basketball.
Why did you choose to work with non-actors?
I wanted a raw portrait of the way I viewed both the good and the bad of this story, and I felt like an A-list actor, worth tons of money, would be needed to pull off the performances I imagined. I knew it would be really hard to capture the essence of North Philly, but I had a gut feeling that I could get the right type of people in my life to convey these performances. I didn’t want anything that felt false.
Do you prefer working with non-actors?
If I could work with an A-list actor that would be great (laughs). It depends on what type of non actor, what type of trained actor, and the level of training they have. I think when it comes to non-actors, if you can work with someone who closely identifies with the type of character they’re playing, I think that’s a better fit at times.
With “The Cage,” not everyone was playing their exact selves, but they knew they could closely relate to that type of person. The gentleman that plays the father who’s in jail actually spent 11 and a half years at the prison that we shot at. It wasn’t hard for me to teleport him to this time, space and moment, and say ‘this is what it feels like to talk to your son.’ He was able to identify the nuances of what that would be like.
How did you get these non-actors to adjust to being in a film and being on a film set?
I just kept telling them to be honest and listen to each other, to not try to do anything, just be. I think typically it’s hard for actors and non-actors to not be aware of the fact that there is a camera and all these lights, so I just kept equating to that we were just playing pretend. The other thing I did was not cut a lot. So once we got everything set up and we were rolling, we would just go and keep doing take after take. It would get to the point where we would get to a rhythm where I felt we forgot the camera was present. I also tried to limit the presence of people on set as much as I could, but they did a lot of exceptional work in general. I think a lot of them were naturally talented.
When I was watching the film, I noticed a lot of scenes required a lot of emotion and authenticity. Can you tell me about how you were able to channel those emotions?
What works for me, which I recognized when I decided to go this direction, is that I was going to have to act with them to give them the sense of comfort-ability. I think a lot of what acting is is overcoming your insecurities of feeling stupid, because you’re basically playing pretend. You’re taking chances and you’re screaming, pretending to be arrested or pretending to shoot each other. The more I stayed in it with them, giving them the image of intensity, I felt like it really brought their guard down. Basically, they saw that I was making a fool of myself which kind of invited everyone into it. It makes me cringe when I watch the behind the scenes… oh my god I’m so intense. But I really think my biggest take anyway was that it invited everyone to be that intense as well.
What has the response been like for the film?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Not that it surprised me necessarily, but I never put out a personal film or story, so it was a little uncomfortable to process because I was scared of how it would be received. The most affirming and exciting part of it is that I told a story that was near and dear to my heart, but a lot of the surprise to people is that I’m not a black filmmaker, I’m white. Some people have asked me why I’m telling a story that’s inherently a black story and I say two things: I don’t necessarily know if you have to be black to tell a black story or white to tell a white story, but I also wrote a story out of affection and love for people and a place. I think the thing that’s been most evident to people is how apparent that is. To me, it’s a celebration of painting something I was familiar with, so there’s this honesty to it that a lot of people I have picked up on.
I feel affirmed by a lot of the community of North Philly who feel really proud of the piece. Andre, who is a friend of mine, said something really profound; he said a lot of people’s binoculars into the hood are typically shows like “The Wire,” which usually just show the negative side of this culture. He said what “The Cage” did really well was that it was very edifying and didn’t shy away from anything, but also showed what’s powerful and beautiful about living here. I really did want to make a film that gave people a lens into how I saw this neighborhood and people.
Can you tell more about some of the initial challenges you faced when casting non-actors?
One of the largest challenges is you don’t have a conventional way of going about casting it. I didn’t work with a casting director, put out a casting call, and have them all come to an audition. I thought about how maybe a casting director could help me round up people once I exhausted my list of close friends, but I realized that for non-actors it wouldn’t be right to bring them into an unfamiliar, uncomfortable cold room with lights and a camera with strange dudes sitting behind a table who say your name and slating. What I did was work with one of our producers, and some of the other talent I cast, to help me make connections with people within their circle who they thought would be a good fit. Then I would go either to their house, sit on the stoop, or meet them wherever they were and read with them on the street. I would explain the story to them, give them a taste of what it was, and basically role play right there. I was always conscious of making the actors, my friends, feel comfortable first because that would give me their most authentic performance.
The woman who plays Zeke’s mom, her name is Iesha in real life, was my neighbor when I lived there. She and I had actually gone through some hard stuff when we were neighbors, and I had seen her in some really desperate places. So I knew when I had seen her in a similar type of moment, it was very much me recalling that for her. It was obviously pretty challenging, but I think because we had a safe space as friends, it allowed me push her to that level and to those thoughts. Those are some barriers that don’t traditionally exist when you work with paid actors, who have gone to college for this or have studied for this for years.
What was the process like making the film? Walk me through the rest of casting process and the week you were all on set.
I did work with a casting director for Zeke who plays the main kid. I worked with her previously on a bunch of commercials, so I felt comfortable asking for a favor, but said I’m looking for a 15 to 17 year old black kid who has to be amazing at basketball, but also amazing at acting. About three minutes later, she wrote back in an e-mail and said ‘oh my gosh, this is so bizarre, but I just finished casting a street ball feature and we auditioned thousands of kids across the country. There was one who plays basketball at a school in Brooklyn who was absolutely a natural talent. He didn’t get a part in the film, but I held onto him because I was so enamored with his audition.’
I was actually on a job in New York in a couple weeks, so I convinced them to drive to my hotel, where I auditioned William in my hotel room. There was a longer version of the scene between him and his mom when they fight at the steps. We were basically screaming at each other in the hotel room, but I was really impressed with how he was able to take direction from me. I mean, talk about intimidating, granted I was a crazy white guy he had never met. But he totally rolled with it and I pretty much knew when he left that I had found my guy.
Most of the time I would talk to him about acting on set, it was always in athletic terms, because he’s an athlete first. One of the first scenes was that bathroom scene, where he’s screaming at his mom on the other side of the door, and we had these blood capsules he had to put in his mouth. He hated the taste and kept telling me he thought he was going to throw up. He said ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ so I asked him if he ever got to tell his coach how to run practices or play the game? He like, ‘never,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s the same deal here, this is my set. If you get it right, I won’t make you do it anymore, but you have to give it everything you got.’ We always had this relationship where I was constantly pushing him, which he seemed to really respond to.
There were a lot of intense scenes, but it was a pretty fun and joyous environment. What was most exciting was everyone in the film felt very connected to the story we were telling. It always spurred conversations of real life stories from the actors, ones that they thought would help educate the scene and changed its dynamic. It’s fun to watch it come alive through their voices.