Saturday, April 25, 2020

Director Jean-Cosme Delaloye talks about his films HARLEY and STRAY BULLET Tribeca 2020

When I saw Jean-Cosme Delaloye's HARLEY, the story of defense attorney Harley Briete, I fell in love with its off beat subject. Harley was a charming man who was struggling for love and to win a murder case.  As much as I liked the film I still had questions because I simply wanted to know more about Harley and his life.  When I finish a film and want to talk to a director about what I just saw it is always a good sign that I like a film. 

Before I had a chance to run down Mr Delaloye, we met up on Twitter when he retweeted a link to my review of the film. I then, impulsively, asked him if I could ask him a couple of quick questions. He graciously said yes. He then asked me if I had seen his first feature film STRAY BULLET, the story of a shooting where Harley plays a large role. I said I hadn't, but I would take a look.

I then immediately went to Netflix and watched STRAY BULLET....

...and I ended up with a hell of a lot more questions, but in the best possible way. I contacted Mr Delaloye saying that I saw STAY BULLET and I really liked it, however the couple of of quick questions had become a longer list because of how the two films played off each other. I asked if I could send not the couple of questions I first indicated,but a whole bunch. He again said yes.

Because Mr Delaloye is in the middle of a time sensitive project  I thought it would be best if I emailed him the questions and let him answer them when he could. To make it easier I chopped down list of questions I had to the fourteen I really wanted answers to and sent them along. 

What follows are my questions and Mr Delaloye's answers. I need to warn you that the questions and answers cover both HARLEY and STRAY BULLET and contain potential spoilers.  

Before I get to the interview I need to once more thank Jean-Cosme Delaloye for two wonderful films and for taking time out his business schedule to talk about them.

STEVE:  Was Harley on your radar before you made Stray Bullet?

JEAN-COSME: No. I met him while shooting STRAY BULLET. He was representing one of the 3 defendants in the Genesis Rincon case I was filming. But it was clear, he was the most interesting protagonist on the defense side. And that is why we progressively got in touch with him. The story we found there made it a challenge to keep the balance of the film because I could easily have covered the case from his perspective as a defense attorney. But it is not what I had set out to do, when I started filming STRAY BULLET so that is why I stuck to the original idea.

STEVE: Why did Harley allow coverage of the murder trial in Stray Bullet? What did he think it would do for his case?

JEAN-COSME: Harley is a local media celebrity. He likes to say that every time his mom sees a picture of him in the Record, the local NJ newspaper, she is happy because she sees he has a "real job”. Beyond this family story, Harley thrives thanks to the local coverage of his cases. He knows he is different from other lawyers and that difference will either put off people or attract them. He just needs to make sure people know of his difference. So hence the his interest in local coverage. Harley has become the go-to attorney in Paterson, NJ, for difficult cases. He likes to say, he will win some cases and lose some but he stresses he wins enough of these seemingly desperate cases for prosecutors to take him seriously. Media coverage is at the heart of his business model.

We talked after a hearing during STRAY BULLET. We would usually be filming from the jurors box so literally next to the defendants and their lawyers. It creates a bond, especially because these monthly hearings are mostly devoid of any substance. So it creates a routine and a relationship. AS a European, the first time I saw Harley at his home full of weapons, I was taken aback. Harley and I were and still are very different. But Harley grows on you and overtime I got to understand how to navigate his world and appreciate all he is doing for others.

Harley took the case for free well before he knew would do a film on the case. I think he thought he could prove a point that there is never a slam-dunk case.

STEVE: Working in the legal field I know how prickly the courts can be about filming the proceedings. How did you get permission to shoot for both films?

JEAN-COSME:In NJ, you can film in court if you get a permit. I am a journalist and we were shooting this for a news program on Swiss national TV so we could get the permit.

STEVE: You seemed to be very involved with both the families of the alleged shooters and Genesis. Did the fact that you were talking to both sides cause you any problems?

JEAN-COSME:No. Not all, because both sides knew what I was trying to do. But none of this would have been possible without Alexis, Genesis’ father. Alexis came from the same streets as his daughter’s alleged killers. He understood where they were coming from and even identified with them at some point. And that understanding on his part was key to allow me do this film. I wanted to keep it as journalistic as possible. I just wanted to show, how a family, the streets, a city, a court system and society as a whole were dealing with a stray bullet that has by definitely no name. This bullet not only destroyed a bright girl’s life and create unending pain and havoc in her family. It broke the rules of the gangs that specify “no women, no children” and it created a very difficult situation for the DA because no gun was found.I am really proud of what we achieved with STRAY BULLET because when the film came out, we did a screening for all the protagonists in a cinema in Paterson. We had Harley and his mom, Genesis’ family, cops, gang members, family members of the defendants. At the end of the screening, Harley hugged Genesis’ father. The 2 remain in contact to this days. That tells me that we did something right.

STEVE:.In STRAY BULLET Harley shows us his guns and talking about being shot at. How often does that happen?

JEAN-COSME: I don’t know, I have never seen it happen. I have heard and read some of the threats he receives. Harley has created a support system in the streets of Paterson. He has eyes and ears there. He also has some very loyal friends from the streets who give him street credibility. Talking about street cred, he has plenty because he is the only lawyer you will find at night in the dark streets of the 4th Ward. People respect that, rightfully. So even if plenty of people are angry when he loses a case, there plenty who love him to death literally because he saved them from prison. And Harley has a big heart. People know that.

STEVE: At what point did you know you had to make a film that just focused on Harley?

JEAN-COSME: I knew I had incredible material from STRAY BULLET but I was exhausted after that film. I thought I was done with that story until the day Harley gave me a call and told me “Jean. I’ve got a story for you”. I thought it was another case but when I met him to discuss that story, he told me it was his own. He had been trying to make a film with his friend Eddie, a high school teacher. The film focused heavily on Harley and 2 of his friends to try to get in shape. It was called Redemption. At first, I declined but Harley kept calling and when he told me he wanted to to a MMA fight in Brazil for a woman, I accepted. I saw some Rocky and some Don Quixote in that story. And if you read Don Quixote, you see that Cervantes, the writer, keeps mentioning he is just a messenger. And he emphasizes also the role of Don Quixote who tried to write the story of his quest. I felt exactly the same thing. At the core of the film, was Harley’s determination to shape his quest, to write the story of his life. That made for a fascinating shoot.

STEVE: Was HARLEY made with the intention of following the romance story or did that just evolve?

JEAN-COSME: The romance was key, because Harley is obsessed with the romance. He is a passionate man and if he gives you his heart he will try to reach pure love until he runs out of options. Harley is a man who is always on a quest. And romance was the “engine” of his quest exactly like Dulcinea was the driver of Don Quixote’s quest in Cervantes’ book. I read the book before shooting HARLEY. Because I knew Harley’s quest had a similar narrative arc as Don Quixote's. HARLEY is my take on Don Quixote, one of my favorite books. But instead of taking place in 1600’s Spain, it takes place in New Jersey in 2019.

STEVE: How long did you follow Harley around when you were making the portrait of him? How did that go? What I mean is did you just hang around or did you just go say when he was looking for witnesses or when his client turned himself in on the warrant? Did you shoot any footage for STRAY BULLET that ended up in HARLEY? Did you get shot at?

JEAN-COSME: The shoot for Harley lasted 8 months as opposed to 2,5 years for Stray Bullet. The film started the day Harley decided to get in shape for the fight, about 6 months ahead of the fight. We shot some footage after the fight but we started editing a month after the fight. As we were shooting during a trial, we just hung around Harley, who was especially active during the trial. He would also tell us when he would go on errands so it was a combination of both. No material form STRAY BULLET was used for HARLEY. I wanted to make an entirely new film. If STRAY BULLET was like an “article” - very journalistic -, HARLEY was more like a book and way closer to fiction in terms of character development. It was my biggest challenge as a filmmaker.

I was never shot at. It took me 1.5 years to get really deep in the streets of Paterson and get to a point where I did not believe I would get shot at. In these streets, respect is earned and I wanted to show that the camera was not an enemy.

STEVE: Because most defense attorneys that I know spent time as a prosecutor, I was wondering if Harley was ever a prosecutor himself?

JEAN-COSME: Yes he was for a brief period of time. But because of his affinity to defend the down-trodden and the defenseless, he did not last long as a prosecutor. Being a criminal defense lawyer is in his blood. It is actually fascinating to see him at work during a trial. His cross-examinations are usually really short but really to the point. If he were in a ring, you would not expect him to throw dozens of jabs. Harley goes straight for the right hook. And everything he does is for his summation.

STEVE: HARLEY almost exclusively focuses on on the man. I think the only person who talks about him is his mother. Was there a conscious effort not to include interviews about Harley or did it just happen?

JEAN-COSME: Good point. To me the mom was like Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. She enables his quest and at the same time she worries about the quest. She knew what the film meant for her son and in the sit-down interviews she would often have that in mind. We felt it would be way better to have her interacting with Harley. You get more information about their close relationship that way.

STEVE:  How is Harley viewed by prosecutors and his clients?

JEAN-COSME: I think prosecutors respect him even if they find totally extravagant. After all, Harley wears a flamboyant bow ties in a court where anonymous ties are the norm. As for his clients, most of them absolutely adore him and respect him because they know what he can do for them. Like Big Red, a former client of Harley says in HARLEY, when you walk into court with Harley, "you feel like you’re the man”. But when Harley loses a case, clients can get angry at him. Nobody is indifferent with him.

STEVE: Is Harley dating anyone now?

JEAN-COSME: Not that I know.

STEVE: With most film festivals in limbo I was wondering what the next step is for HARLEY?

JEAN-COSME: No idea. We are lucky to have a great agent, Andrew Herwitz, and I am convinced he will find a good home for HARLEY. But first and foremost, I hope that Tribeca will be able to do something in the fall. Tribeca was a dream come true for me. I moved to NYC in 2002, the year the festival was created. I discovered some of my favorite films there. This festival always symbolized the resilience of New Yorkers for me and it meant a lot to me to be able to screen one for my films at Tribeca. I think people will want to watch stories like HARLEY when this is over, especially in NYC. So hopefully, we will be there if Tribeca can organize something.

STEVEL Lastly since both HARLEY and STRAY BULLET focus on murders I am curious to know if you think that his clients committed the crimes of which they were accused?

JEAN-COSME: I am torn and I really don’t know. I am not sure the people involved in the case - the prosecutor, the defense lawyers, the judge, the respective families - can be 100% sure whether they did it. I don’t think they were picked up at random and there were part of a social infrastructure that often gives young people like them no other choice than end up in the streets. But in the end, my goal was to do justice to Genesis and make sure she exists among us. Genesis is not statistic. She was a bright, creative, young girl. My goal was to try to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of politicians who dismiss cases like Genesis to do absolutely nothing against the gun epidemic. And I wanted to do that not by trying to prove them how wrong they are but by simply letting them see and decide by themselves whether our society and our justice system have the tools to prevent other bright girls like Genesis from dying. In Paterson, Nazerah, another teen, was killed by a stray bullet 3 months after Genesis.

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