Crossing Cultural Divides To Connect with a Drug Kingpin

“My friend, I would like to ask you to take the honor of directing Team New York.”

A thrill still spreads through my chest every time I remember those words that Patrick, the Founder of Muse Storytelling, wrote to me sometime in late October 2017. I was going to direct an episode of an original web series that spoke to the very core of my humanity and creative spirit - The Remarkable Ones!

But with those words also came an immense challenge. As the director, it would be my job to lead a team of international filmmakers, and also to lead the interview with our character. 

TODAY'S STORY IS WRITTEN BY Tushar Joneja, DIRECTOR FOR TEAM New York, ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE connecting with their remarkable character to pull off THEIR INTERVIEW.

Our team had accepted the challenge of finding a remarkable character in a city that none of us had been to: New York City. We had found someone who was so amazing that I was nervous to talk to him! His name was Coss Marte, an ex-drug kingpin on a mission to give hope to ex-convicts through the one thing besides hustling drugs that he knew best - fitness. 

As the director, it would be my responsibility to connect with Coss and create a safe place for him to be comfortable enough to open up during his interview. A key part of the Muse process that we had all been learning was the importance of creating a good experience for our characters. Interviews were to feel more like a conversation and less like a Q and A. We never use terms like “rolling” or “action.” The less the character is aware of the camera and lights, the better!

But how was I supposed to have a normal conversation with a former drug lord of Dominican descent? I'm from India, what common ground could we possibly have?

My mind was racing wondering if it was even possible to cross the cultural and experiential divide that existed between us.

 Team New York in our tiny hotel room. 

Team New York in our tiny hotel room. 

When we finally all landed in New York, we knew we had arrived with a mountain of challenges to face. First, as we dropped off our bags, we found the uncomfortable reality that New York hotel rooms can often be indistinguishable from pigeonholes. This wouldn’t have been an issue except that this tiny, stuffy hotel room was going to be our interview location, hardly a place that promoted comfort and relaxation. My job to help Coss feel relaxed in the interview became that much harder!

Next, we met up with Coss to get to know him in person. It didn't take long to realize that while he was nice, he was also extremely guarded and very, very busy. We had flown thousands of miles to tell Coss’ story but were finding it clear that he didn’t have time for us. 

I was getting more and more nervous about this interview. We headed back to the hotel to face the lovely challenge of turning a tiny, old hotel room into an interview location.

In the next few hours, my teammates ran around the hallways, rooms, and lobby of the hotel generously borrowing plants and props to make the room feel homier. By the time we were done, all beds were stacked against a wall, mattresses were in the shower and our sound recordist had to sit on the toilet seat to record the interview.

With everything set up, it was time for Coss to arrive for the interview, the moment of reckoning was upon me.

 Checking our interview set up before Coss arrived. 

Checking our interview set up before Coss arrived. 

Coss entered the hotel, and I led him up to our room trying to keep a natural conversation going. I was scrambling for topics to talk about, trying to keep his attention on me. He started talking about how this hotel was the seediest establishment in the neighborhood back in the day. He laughed as I joked that it was a fitting place then to interview a former drug kingpin. OK, this was getting better. 

We walked down the tiny dim lit hallways to the interview room. I felt more relaxed around him each second, so I decided to open up a bit. I started recounting to him a time in my life when I faced a question of my own mortality, much in the way that he himself had faced in an earlier time in his life. That did it. He was intrigued in my story. We could relate through this similar conflict in both of our lives. 

He barely noticed as I motioned him to his seat in the tiny room that was packed with lights, power cables, and microphones. I took my place opposite him, inches away from the tripod, camera, and lens stretching just over my shoulder. As planned, my Director of Photography leaned in and gently squeezed my shoulder to let me know that he was recording. Coss was none the wiser; our conversation gilded effortlessly from my story into his.

Over the course of the hour-long interview, the space between Coss and me faded away as we dove deeper into his story. He shared about going to prison, about wanting to be an example for his son, and his desire to help others who have gone through similar situations as him. It felt much more like an intimate conversation with a friend than an interview. I knew he felt the same way, when, somewhere along the way, I saw a small teardrop appear in the ex-drug kingpin’s eye.

When the interview finally wrapped, the whole team was invigorated! The energy pulsed throughout the room as everyone hugged each other and Coss.

By the time we were getting ready to film the next scene, Coss was asking us how he could move his schedule around to make the most of our time in NYC to film his story.

The rest of our shoot flew by as we filmed Coss in the “crack den” we created in the hotel basement and he took us to his new gym to film him coaching a workout.

On our last day, Coss, the most inspiring star of the New York fitness world who has been filmed on multiple occasions, told us that we were different from all the previous film crews he had encountered. He could tell by how we cared about him and his experience, in how we created our locations from scratch, and cleaned up before leaving that we were the real deal.

He could tell by how we cared about him and his experience, in how we created our locations from scratch and cleaned up before leaving that we were the real deal.

 

 

 

 

 

It was through being forced into an uncomfortable situation as director and interviewer that I realized the importance of opening up and sharing parts of my own story to create a safe space for the character to share. Being authentic myself opened the door to a deeper conversation and a better connection and friendship with Coss, which ultimately opened up the doors to film the rest of our story!

 

Tushar Joneja, Director of Team New York

 

WATCH TEAM nEW YORK'S FILM IN SEASON 2 OF THE REMARKABLE ONES! 

 

IF YOU ENJOYED OUR FILM, PLEASE HELP US MAKE THE MOST IMPACT POSSIBLE AND SHARE IT WITH SOMEBODY YOU KNOW WHO WOULD BE MOVED BY THE STORY. 

You can share it on Facebook Here. 

 

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION:

Coss Marte made $2 million per year dealing drugs – until he lost it all.

Busted by the DEA & sentenced to 7 years in prison, Coss decided to make some pretty radical changes. This is the story of how he transformed, and how he uses his experience to create opportunity for others like him.

Produced by a global team of filmmakers as part of Muse Film School  for the original web-series The Remarkable Ones (theremarkableones.org).

 

OFFICIAL CREDITS:  

A FILM BY MUSE STORYTELLING AND COSS MARTE

DIRECTOR TUSHAR JONEJA

PRODUCER SHERRONDA JOHNSON

CO-PRODUCED BY MADELINE SAPORITO

ASSOCIATE PRODUCER ALAN SARKISSIAN

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY STEVE SEPULVEDA

AUDIO NOLAN BICKNELL

EDITOR NOLAN BICKNELL

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER JAMES COOPER

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER PATRICK MOREAU

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER KATHRYN GIROUX