“South of Stars” Tells a Tale of Young Musicians in Watts
January 22, 2015
Mae Ryan and Grant Slater intercut footage of their characters' parallel lives.
Carter and her girlfriend.
Ryan and Slater shot evocative footage of life in Watts that accompanies the voice-overs by their subjects.
Like many young people, Rosalind Carter and Rob Salazar dream of escaping their old neighborhood by succeeding in the music business. Carter, who records as Rozo, and Salazar, known as Galli, were born and raised in Watts, the south Los Angeles district with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the city and more public housing than any urban area west of the Mississippi. They began making music together at Locke, a charter high school, releasing some videos and EPs, but their lives have diverged as they strive in their own ways to get ahead. They tell their stories through their music and voice-overs in “South of Stars,” a video produced, directed and edited by Mae Ryan and Grant Slater for KPCC, a public radio station in southern California. Ryan and Slater followed Carter and Salazar periodically for four months, recording intimate interviews, video of their day-to-day lives and evocative imagery of people and places they live amongst in Watts. Says Slater, “The neighborhood is a really important character in the story.”
Ryan and Slater shot photographs and video for the KPCC’s website while on staff at the station. They produced short documentaries for an online program that Slater launched called Audio Vision, which presented films “that had the feel of public radio stories.” Ryan had long wanted to do a story about people in Watts, where jobs are scarce and crime remains among the highest in Los Angeles, even though the crime rate has improved in recent years. She found an article in LA Weekly about Rozo and Galli, who had won a competition for high school musicians. She looked up their YouTube videos, and liked Carter’s raps about her life. She also thought the friendship between Carter, who is African-American, and Salazar, whose family comes from Mexico, represented a microcosm of changes in Watts. The traditionally African-American neighborhood has in recent years become home to many Latinos. “They’re not just fighting each other,” Ryan says of the two groups. “If you come from a similar place, you do have a lot in common.”
The first time Ryan and Slater met with Carter and Salazar, they didn’t bring cameras. “We just had long talks with both of them, and got to know them,” Ryan recalls. They learned that Salazar was leaving Watts each day to commute to Santa Monica College, work, and record music, while Carter, who lives at her grandmother’s house with several other family members, was a neighborhood fixture, known to everyone on her block. They decided that Ryan would follow Carter, Slater would follow Salazar, and when the two subjects got together to record music, the filmmakers would be shooting at the same time. They planned to incorporate Rozo and Galli music into the story. They wanted the project to look cinematic, like a music video, Ryan says, “but provide a back story.”
Rather than shoot footage first and recording audio on the fly, Ryan and Slater recorded audio interviews and then used their subjects’ words and stories to guide what they would shoot. They recorded the interviews using only radio mics and Marantz recorders—no video. “Our goal was never to show the interview shot—ever,” says Slater. The typical talking-head interviews in documentaries “tend to take you out of the story,” Ryan says. They interviewed each of the subjects three times, and each time gained more useful insights. Ryan says the best quotes in the video came on her third interview when, needing a quiet place to record audio, she and Carter sat in Ryan’s car. Carter provided thoughtful reflections about the difficulties she had being accepted as a gay woman in the world of hip-hop.
“You get more intimate interviews without a camera,” Slater says. “Everyone in the ’hood feels like they have to be tough in public.” It’s easier to get past that, he says, “with just a mic and not a camera in their face.”
The interviews helped Ryan and Slater develop shot lists. One of the first times Ryan shot video, she accompanied Carter’s family to church, where she recorded Carter singing in front of the congregation. Both the family and the congregation appreciated the visit, and Ryan was invited into the home where Carter sleeps on the living room couch, amidst the comings and goings of other family members.
To show the parallels and contrasts in the two main characters’ lives, Ryan and Slater followed them in similar situations: Walking to a train, for example, that they took in different directions, or spending time with their girlfriends. In one evocative scene, Carter and her girlfriend sit in a diner while they talk about what Carter is striving to achieve.
Ryan and Slater also gathered atmospheric footage of neighborhood life: Salazar’s dog playing, desolate stretches of sidewalk near public housing, people walking and joking on the street. While shooting handheld with Canon 5D Mark IIIs, they recorded much of the footage in slow-motion. “If you do slow-mo, you don’t have to worry as much about being steady when you’re shooting,” Slater explains. “We wanted it to look like it was shot on a huge budget.” The slow motion also enhances the storytelling by letting the viewer linger on certain images: “There were a lot of tender moments, and I thought they were emphasized more in that way,” Ryan explains.
When it was time to edit, Ryan (who acted as the primary editor) says, “We went through and picked out the best quotes they gave us, and then decided what’s the best narrative arc.” She used the quotes to draft a script which Slater then revised. She edited individual scenes, then planned the sequencing.
She says the story began falling into place once she cut the opening. They tried different sequences, and originally had a long voice-over by Ryan giving statistics about the community’s problems, but scrapped it. Slater says, “It sounded like every other story about white people going to a black neighborhood and talking about crime.” Ryan came up with a new opening that set up the parallel structure for the video: Over a plaintive Rozo and Galli song, Salazar is heard to say, “It’s destiny that you’re born here, but it’s not destiny that you stay here,” then Carter says, “This place doesn’t dictate my destiny.”
Rozo and Galli’s recordings provide a soundtrack that sets the tone of different scenes. In the final stages of editing, Slater paid close attention to pacing the cuts to work with the beats of the music. Blending ambient recordings of Carter’s live rapping into more polished recordings was Slater’s favorite part of the editing, he says.
Slater and Ryan left KPCC in 2014; Slater is a freelance director, and Ryan moved to New York City to work on staff at The Guardian. They remain in touch with their subjects, who are continuing their studies—Salazar at community college, Carter in a program to get her high school diploma—and continuing to make music that expresses their desires to move forward.