On his way to becoming one of the hottest young filmmakers in America, Rhyan LaMarr has proven just about every self-motivational cliché in the book.
He was raised by divorced parents who struggled in two separate households, went to a high school where almost nobody looked like him, buried more friends then he cares to count, and lived in a U-Haul on the streets outside L.A. before scoring his first movie deal.
The man knows how to keep the faith, believe in himself, and never lose sight of where he came from. Now, he seems to say that we can all just get along.
Canal Street, his next film, crosses economic, racial, religious and social boundaries to get at the broken heart of modern America. It was shot on-location throughout Chicago last spring and is scheduled to premiere this year.
“The story is about the transition from one area to another,” says LaMarr. “A father gets a life-changing promotion and moves with his son from the south side of Chicago to Winnetka after their respective wife and mother passes away.”
At the heart of the conflict is Kholi Styles, a young black man from the south side of Chicago who gets tangled up in a fatal coincidence on the suburban North Shore. The ensuing investigation provokes fear, resentment, and prejudice on a scale that compares to Native Son.
Along the way, Kholi’s struggle becomes that of a modern day Bigger Thomas.
LaMarr wrote the script with Adam Key (Batman Begins, NCIS-LA) and Jon Knitter (Restored Me).
He also sits as the Lead Producer and Director and got a mind-bogglingly talented cast and crew to get it done.
Bryshere Gray, known to millions as Empire’s Hakeem Lyon, plays Kholi Styles. Veteran actor Mykelti Williamson, who gained fame as the beloved character Bubba in Forest Gump and Gabriel in Fences, plays Jackie Styles. Mekhi Phifer, recognized for roles in Alligient, Roots, 8 Mile, Insurgent and Divergent, is Prosecutor A.J. Canton. Jamie Hector — also known as Marlow Stanfield on The Wire, Detective Jerry Edgar on Bosch, and Devon Finch in Queen of The South — is Pastor Sam Billings. And that’s just a few.
LaMarr’s producing partner Christopher Jennings’ experience includes tv shows like Project Runway, MTV’s The Challenge, and the movie Terrordactyl. He has also been a personal friend of LaMarr’s since high school.
LaMarr describes Kholi, the hero of Canal Street, as “a fish out of water” and the son of “a very up-and-coming powerful attorney.” He is intimately familiar with the scenario.
A stranger in the suburbs
Throughout the mid-90s, LaMarr literally lived on both sides of the tracks. He split his time with childhood friends and family near his father’s home on the rougher sides of Chicago (particularly the Southside and Rogers Park area), but attended high school in suburban Park Ridge, where his mother lived.
“My dad could see that there were not good influences a mile away,” LaMarr remembers.
His father, who grew up in the Jonny Shield projects of East St. Louis, knew how to sense trouble. He also earned a college scholarship and followed it up with multiple Masters degrees, so he knew the path of righteousness as well.
When his son began to frequent certain areas that reminded him of East St. Louis, he stuck to his vow to raise his kids in a safe environment and steered Rhyan away from the city.
In high school, LaMarr “wasn’t really a good student.” He played sports until a hip flexor injury forced him to the sidelines during junior year. That’s when he took the advice of a counselor, checked out a few broadcasting classes, and met a teacher who would change everything.
“Mr. Wunderlich saved my life, ” he says. “He’s like the Richard Dreyfuss character in Mr. Holland’s Opus, a teacher who had all these goals for later but ended up putting all his dreams into his students. I fell in love with video and film second semester.”
Over the next two decades, that love helped him reach a place where he could hire a cast that most directors only dream about. “If you have a great script, a good plan, a good crew, the know-how to pull it off from A-to-Z and the ability to articulate a vision to cast and crew,” he says, “you can get the top tier, if they are available.”
But it wasn’t always this way.
LaMarr launched his career with a bang, landing a gig as a production assistant on Bernie Mac’s Mr. 3000 while attending Columbia College in the early 2000s. He continued on The Bernie Mac Show and enjoyed a couple of fruitful years in the business. Then everything changed.
He and Jon Knitter (who eventually would co-write Canal Street with LaMarr) were suddenly evicted from their apartment. It was the first day of production on a film project that they had developed.
For the next month, Rhyan and Jon worked on set by day and lived in a Van Nuys motel at night, eating canned food from the dollar store, cooking hot dogs in the bathroom sink, and hiding three cats from the motel staff.
When money got tight, they pawned their most valuable possessions and moved into a rented U-Haul for over a year. Cats included.
When their project was completed, it seemed like Rhyan LaMarr’s film career might be finished as well. Explaining that “pride would not let me come home,” he did what he had to do.
“I hustled,” he explains. “Obamacare came with a cell phone. I had a barber who agreed to give me free haircuts because he believed in me.” It’s the little things that go a long way when you’ve hit beyond rock bottom.”
He got a job as a brand ambassador and promoted goods and services at professional sporting events across the country while he focused on getting his life back together. A few years later, after hearing from a friend who “didn’t realize he was calling (LaMarr),” he found a way back in. But it was a risk.
“There’s this thing called microwave filmmaking where they make a movie, throw an awesome cover on it just so they can sell it,” he explains. “It’s not even filmmaking.”
They did 80 pages of the script in a single day, stopping only long enough to replace the main character’s bible, a fairly important prop that someone had forgotten to bring. Luckily, LaMarr had his with him.
The experience was a pivotal moment in his career.
“That motivated me to do things the right way,” he remembers. “I was headed back to the U-Haul. I jotted down actors for an idea for a movie. How much it would cost, etc.”
It was August. In October, a friend told him, “I might know somebody who’s thinking of investing in a movie.” Two months after that, on New Year’s Eve in an Orange County restaurant called Polly’s Pies, he inked the contract for Restored Me.
Restored Me is the story of an ex-con who joins a crew at a movie theater, finds God, and then discovers that the place may not be what it seems. LaMarr enlisted the social theatrical crowdfunding company, Gathr, to generate a virtual fan base and screened the film in over 100 churches to nurture grassroots support.
It eventually lit up more than 300 theaters across America.
The experience gave him the confidence to begin pitching Canal Street, a film that he and Jon had been hand-crafting since 2007. They brought their longtime friend and collaborator Adam G. Key onboard to help write a new draft.
After eleven years of tweaks, it finally got the green light, and LaMarr came home.
“I’m so glad to be back in Chicago,” he says. “When I left in 2005, there was, no industry. I had to move to LA. Now, I’m going to be a spokesperson for people to come back.”
LaMarr mentions Harold Ramis, who “was always talking about this dream he had of bringing work back to Chicago,” among those who inspired his return journey. “God bless him,” he says. “It happened. ”
Although the city provides a setting for the racial tension in Canal Street, LaMarr presents it with more nuance and compassion than most audiences are used to seeing.
“The media has portrayed Chicago as this horrible place, and it’s really not,” he says. He specifically mentions a “segregation within the races” that appears in the film.
“It’s not just black and white and cops and all that stuff,” he continues. “We’re talking about something completely different. I can get on the red line at 95th and go to Evanston and see all different types of people, not just color, but students, lawyers, doctors and street pharmacists.”
As Kholi becomes more hopeless and desperate, everyone else becomes more frightened and paranoid. In that context, Canal Street transcends local stereotypes and amplifies a national context.
“This is one of the most divided times we’ve ever had in America,” says LaMarr. “I don’t care what side you were on, when you were watching the presidential race, it was surreal. It completely divided the nation.”
But somewhere down the line, as the film suggests, we might all just get along.
LaMarr and cast will present a portion of the film in a “Talk 4 Reel” event at LA’s Pan African Film + Arts Festival Feb. 16, 7-8:30 p.m. For more info, click here.