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It's a Different Dance Behind Camera : Movies: Gregory Hines is directing his first film, 'White Man's Burden,' about a relationship between a white man and a black girl.

August 13, 1993|JOHN ANDERSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — "Hey, Mr. Hines--is this your show?"

Gregory Hines, dancer, actor and now fledgling director, is in deep discussion with his lead actor, Mark Evan Jacobs. Hines' 10-year-old son, Zachary, stands at his side. The voice calling across the Brooklyn park comes from a man in dirty jeans, who with his own son, named Gregory, is collecting soda cans on the other side of the fence.

"Yeah," Hines calls back, not unfriendly, just distracted by the task at hand--as well as the noise, dust and 90-degree heat that have permeated his film set this August afternoon.

"See that man?" the father says to the son, before moving off with his plastic garbage bag. "He's a big star." Which is the last thing on Hines' mind today.

Forget "Jelly's Last Jam," the 1992 Broadway musical that earned him his Tony. Forget his big-budget films--quite a few of which are eminently forgettable. Forget the glitz, the glamour, the gloss, the tap shoes: Hines is jumping his own fences, making a low-budget, high-concept movie with a cast of unknowns, a breakneck schedule and enough thematic land mines to blow the Brooklyn waterfront over to Jersey.

Add to this the fact that the city where the 47-year-old Hines was born--and where he's experienced some of his greatest triumphs--seems to be venting its considerable spleen today: trucks from the Red Hook terminal, backed up and blowing their horns; uncooperative pedestrians trying to invade the shots; a filthy breeze bringing little but bad air off the East River.

And yet, he seems happy enough, considering a shooting schedule that will take him through the hottest month of the year. And eager to do it again.

"It's certainly a very different sense of satisfaction than being an actor," he says. "That's like being an outfielder. This is like being the catcher. Or actually, more like the manager. Everything that goes down, you're so aware of. You're in the game completely."

And, besides, "filming in the city is having to deal with the sound and the cars and the planes, and it's worth it in the long run," he says and smiles. "But it adds a few minutes to the day."

His attitude, loose and constantly encouraging, seems to have infected everyone working on "White Man's Burden." Despite the various aggravations, even the production assistants, who have to stop and direct the traffic that constantly threatens to clog Hamilton Avenue and Van Brunt Street--with its gorgeous vista of Manhattan's southeast tip--are stoic, if not chipper.

"No, this isn't the worst set of all times," says production assistant Sheila Waldron. "I've been in crack dens."

Being nice--to local businesses, local people and truck drivers--is the best way to deal with it all, she says. One old guy simply refused to move from behind a telephone pole that lay directly in front of Hines' camera. "But there's nothing I can do--besides tackling him."

Meanwhile, Hines is trying to tell an ambitious story that seems guaranteed to spark controversy on several levels: Lonny, a 30-year-old, white, liberal and spiritually stagnant Manhattan writer, finds his life given new meaning by Denise, a black Brooklynite who's only 17.

"At the most general level, it's about power in a relationship," says screenwriter Allison Burnett, who said he came up with the story after being asked by the producers to write a movie about race relations set in New York. He loves New York. So does his usual writing partner, Coney Island native Charlie Mattera, with whom he writes "family comedies" back in California.

"White Man's Burden," written solo by Burnett, is the first thing he or Mattera will have on the screen, and Burnett says it was something he wound up really wanting to do, although it was initially an elusive project.

"I liked 'Jungle Fever' more than most people," Burnett says. "I thought it covered a lot of ground. It wasn't until I thought about him being older and her younger that I found the story here."

Jacobs, whose last film role was in "Trusting Beatrice" and who helped develop "White Man's Burden," is also one of the film's three executive producers--the others are Ben Barenholtz, producer for the Coen brothers ("Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "Miller's Crossing"), and Ron Kastner ("Angels in America," "Oleanna"). The production company is City Films. Jacobs wanted to make a film in New York that dealt with racism and involved characters from all walks of life. Hines was looking to direct and, according to Barenholtz, wanted to start with a "quality, low-budget film." Hines' business manager read the script, brought it to him and, as Barenholtz says, "It's worked out very well."

"He's very instinctive," Barenholtz says. "A natural. You can't learn directing, you know."

"It's inspirational," says Jacobs. "There are people who are good directors and competent directors. But I think he's going to be much more than that. He has a real focus on what he wants."

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