Like many people her age, Tzaria Hodges has dreams of making it big in show business. But unlike most of her fellow teens, she also has a more pragmatic dream: finding a place to live.
Her Hollywood aspirations seem to be coming true first.
The 19-year-old is part of a project in which homeless young adults are making a movie.
“This is our chance to tell our story about what we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “It will make people understand us better.”
The movie is the brainchild of Richard Reeder, a filmmaker and founder of Minneapolis-based Lockhaven Communications. He paired disadvantaged teens from six Twin Cities homeless shelters with a crew of experienced filmmakers. He hopes the process will shed light on the challenges faced by the homeless and give the struggling young people a foot in the door.
“I didn’t want to make the movie — I wanted the youths to make the movie,” Reeder said. “This isn’t our movie, it’s their movie.”
He’s been working on it for 18 months, with the first year spent raising funds. The project kicked off with a series of workshops in which the fledgling filmmakers were briefed on everything from outlining a plot to setting up a dolly shot.
With three professional screenwriters serving as mentors, the teens wrote the script in the spring. Filming was done in June, with post-production — editing and a score, which Hodges hopes to help write — targeted for completion by the fall.
“We started with 17 youths, and now we’re down to 12,” Reeder said as he sat outside a St. Paul house where filming was taking place last month. “We had been warned that would happen, that some of the kids would have to drop out because they would move or face a crisis.”
But the 12 who are still with the project remain enthusiastically committed, said Joy Dolo, a member of the project’s leadership team and a St. Paul actor whose credits include Park Square Theatre, Frank Theatre and the Fringe Festival.
“This is an opportunity for them to get someone to listen to them,” she said. “They’re very passionate about it.”
The 16-minute film is being made with a cast made up entirely of professional actors and directed by Wendy Knox, artistic director of Frank Theatre. Some of the young adults who worked on the script were on the set observing — although they weren’t content to just watch.
“They’re giving me notes” on how the characters should be played, Knox said. “And I think that’s great. I value them and their opinions.”
Dolo also liked seeing them speak up. “It’s a good thing that they’re fighting for their characters,” she said. “They know what those characters sound like.”
One of the writers was Timothy Brook, 18, who has become fascinated by the process.
“I’ll ask, ‘Why did you light it that way?’ or ‘Why did you shoot it like that?’ and they’ll stop and explain it to me,” he said.
Interacting with the young adults “is the most valuable part of the experience,” said director of photography Greg Winter, whose credits include “Detective Fiction” and who helped lead the workshops. “Right from the outset, they were really attentive, really interested in film and learning the things they need to know. Film is their language.”
Titled “A Common Manor,” the film takes place in a group home where eight young adults live. They’re notified by the city that the home doesn’t meet code for that many residents. They have 30 days to arrange for the necessary remodeling, which could cost as much as $30,000, or four of them will have to move out.
To add to their stress, the woman who owns the home and serves as the group’s house mother has a heart attack and is hospitalized.
“The residents have to figure out how to work together on their own,” Dolo said. “They have to learn how to get along with each other.”
Getting along in stressful situations is a daily challenge that the homeless kids face, said Leona Hawkins, 20, who lives in a group home with 19 residents.
“No one has their own space,” she said. “And everybody’s got some drama going on, so you’d better figure out how to make it work.”
The movie’s title has a double meaning, Brook said. It refers to a home shared by multiple people, but it also implies “a manner of dealing with people and the need to find something in common” in order to succeed.
The film is budgeted at $143,600, said Reeder, who is hoping to make the project an annual event. It’s something that has been on his mind since he made a documentary on the White Earth Reservation 10 years ago.
“As we were finishing the editing on that, one of the kids [who had been filmed] killed himself, and that stayed with me a long time,” he said. “That got me thinking about giving back, and I especially started thinking about young people who don’t have the opportunities that other ones do.”
In the trenches
The kids involved in the project were recruited from the homeless agencies Full Cycle, YouthLink, Avenues, Kulture Klub Collaborative, Safety Zone and Ain Dah Yung. The volunteers were warned that the project would be long on work and short on glamour.
“Everybody wants to be the star of the show,” Dolo said. “But we want them to know what goes on behind the scenes. There’s a lot of work going on.”
“I knew that it was going to be hard work,” said Hawkins, who was helping with set decoration. “But I also knew that if I was taught, I could do it.”
There likely will be a screening of the completed film at the Riverview Theater in September or October, Reeder said.
“We’re going to show it to the world,” Hodges announced proudly. The plan is to have the teens who worked on the movie talk about their experiences.
What happens to them afterward is up to them, but working on the movie has given many of them a boost of confidence. Hodges, for instance, has gotten her high school diploma — “I really hated the idea of going back to school, but now I’m glad I did,” she said. Hodges has lined up a job in a day-care center that will lead to her ultimate goal: saving enough money to rent an apartment.
Knox, who has done other projects with disadvantaged youths, isn’t surprised by their renewed spirit.
“I’ve seen how arts can empower kids,” she said. “You never know how something like this can turn lives around.”