The story of a lost soul looking for redemption isn’t a new one in the world of independent filmmaking, but in the new drama “Redemption Road,” director Mario Van Peebles brings this clichd story to life with a varied cast of characters, vibrant cinematography and a blues soundtrack.
Charlie Poe, who grew up in the Tampa area, served as executive producer for the film, which stars his childhood friend Morgan Simpson and Oscar-nominated actor Michael Clarke Duncan. Poe said the project was one he has long been invested in and that he worked hard to see it come to fruition.
“It was a script that I really liked that Morgan gave me,” he said. “Morgan, at first, insisted that we wait to get a bigger name attached to the film, so we decided to shelve it until we started talking one day, and I said, ‘You know what, why don’t we just make this already?'”
Michael Clarke Duncan, who is perhaps best known as John Coffey in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile,” said he was also initially interested in the film because of Morgan’s script, as well as the director attached.
“What really attracted me to the project was Mario Van Peebles, for one,” he said. “But the other was that the script was just fantastic.”
Poe raised the money for the film, overseeing the most important aspects of the project financially. After funding was in place, Poe said he became increasingly more excited as they started finding the cast for the film, especially since this was Morgan’s first time in a lead.
“I really wanted him to play the lead because I knew this was his baby, and that he could do it,” he said. “Then we got Michael Clarke Duncan, and then Mario got on board after he read the script and loved it.”
Poe said hiring Peebles, an actor and director of critically acclaimed films such as “Baadasssss!,” is what moved the project forward as Peebles’ vision matched his own.
“He really had the vision that Morgan and I had, which had a story of forgiveness and redemption set within the context of the blues,” he said. “And while the script changed a bit, the vision stayed the same and I was happy with how it turned out.”
Duncan also said Peebles’ inclusion was reassuring, especially since he was initially apprehensive about working with Morgan in his first lead role.
“Morgan was really nervous about it, and when he came over to my house before production with Mario, we all just sat down and sort of talked about it for a while,” he said. “I had my doubts at first, but they vanished as soon as I saw the way (he) looked when he walked on the set.”
Poe said he shared some of Duncan’s fears, but took a few notes from the film’s lessons when approaching the matter of Morgan’s first lead performance.
“A lot of what the movie is about is trusting, and I trusted that this is what needed to be done, and that he could do it,” he said. “But I was definitely well aware that if he didn’t succeed, it would screw the whole film.”
Poe said Morgan had embodied the character of a down-on-his-luck blues player in both his performance and physical nature, growing out a beard and looking remarkably dissimilar from his normal clean-shaven, white-collar appearance.
“It was definitely odd – I had not envisioned him that way – but Mario came in and said, ‘We need to make him this traditional sort of blues guy,’ so they gave him this ‘Tom Waits’ sort of look,” he said. “I’ve known him almost my whole life, and he pretty much always had the same look, but the physical transformation added to him being able to get into that character.”
While filming for “Redemption Road” took place primarily in Nashville, Poe likes to envision a future where he makes a film in his hometown.
“One of our goals is definitely to shoot a film in Tampa,” he said. “I mean, I work with Morgan and one of our other producers Jeff Balis, who are both from here, and we all want to do films right here in Tampa. So if we could make it work, it’s something we plan on doing.”
Duncan, who has a new series on Fox called “The Finder” debuting in January 2012, said he is looking to continue his acting career and even commented on the status of his return in the long-awaited “Sin City” sequel that director Robert Rodriguez promises will shoot this year.
“I keep hearing things, but until somebody actually says, ‘We want you to reprise the role of Manute,’ that’s what I am waiting on,” he said. “Next to Mario, Robert Rodriguez is the easiest and most creative director I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He would normally just stroll around the set between takes playing his guitar.”
“Redemption Road” opens Friday in select theaters, including in Tampa.