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At the Blackfilm.com-sponsored D.C. screening of Lockdown last Friday night, the Lincoln Theatre audience was packed with the Web site’s devotees and friends of director John Luessenhop—a native Washingtonian and Georgetown University Law Center alum, who gave up a successful career as a lawyer to make movies.

As attendees sipped Martell cognac, rifled through goody bags, and settled into comfortable seats, preparing to view the latest pick from Blackfilm.com’s Midnight Screening Series, they were hit with an unsettling disclaimer.

“Although this is a film that I am extremely proud of, it is not for the faint of heart,” said Luessenhop in a written statement read by Blackfilm.com’s Shelby Jones. Before the house lights went down, Jones reiterated the warning: “Remember—this is a film about prison life.”

Lockdown is indeed a rough film, the story of three friends who are wrongfully imprisoned and survive life behind bars with varying success. The Palm Pictures/No Limit Films movie documents the realities of prison life with details that can be shocking

and uncomfortable—largely because the film was shot in an actual prison, something Luessenhop, 43, insisted on. “I was going to shoot the film in a real prison, or else I wasn’t going to make it,” says the director of his first full-length feature film. Prison sets, he says, “look so fake.”

Luessenhop is no stranger to prison shoots. In addition to directing the short feature Tick Tick Tick and co-directing the HBO special Don’t Look Back, he has worked on 25 episodes of America’s Most Wanted. For Lockdown, Luessenhop wanted to convey a sense of desperation that can’t be created on a soundstage.

The 34-day shoot took place in the summer of 1999 at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, site of one of the worst prison revolts in American history. The portion of the prison where Lockdown was shot closed in 1998, but Luessenhop says that reminders of the 1981 uprising remain: “We could still see [marks] in the cement where someone was beheaded during the riots—it’s spooky. Leaving the jail was a great relief for everyone.”

One cast member, however, took the surroundings too seriously. “One guy got into a fight on the set and he starts running—wearing his ‘prison greens,’” says Luessenhop. “He decides to climb over the fence [into a working section of the prison] and was arrested. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to escape into a prison, but doing anything on prison property is a big offense.”

Prison break-ins aside, Luessenhop says that he built strong relationships with his cast and is still friends with many of its members. Master P, who executive-produced the picture, is part of the ensemble, as is fellow hiphopper Sticky Fingaz, formerly of Onyx. Luessenhop says that for the most part, he enjoyed the mix of rappers and actors who worked on the film.

“Everybody’s different,” he says. “For instance, Master P can come with the whole entourage and all of the fanfare—that can make it distracting. Sticky is a very hard worker—it depends on the person. You can have problems with actors who have nothing to do with the music industry. I enjoyed the diversity.”

Lockdown, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 and closed the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 2001, will soon be put into worldwide distribution; while it travels the globe, its director will move on to lighter fare. His next two features will be a movie for Warner Bros. called Heart and Soul, which he calls “Pretty Woman meets Save the Last Dance,” and the Screen Gems/ Columbia TriStar action film Bone Deep.

Luessenhop is admittedly looking forward to a break from the morose. “That’s not the only type of film that I can do,” he says. “I can be different.” —Sarah Godfrey