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Neither of them made it to the Million Man March, Hill Harper and Isaiah Washington admit. But both young actors are very happy that they were on board for director Spike Lee’s simulation, Get on the Bus.
Harper and Washington were committed to be on sets far from Washington last October when the Mall filled with black men. “I had to choose between the Million Man March and working with Ruby Dee,” says Washington. “When I have the opportunity to work with greats like that, ain’t no way I’m not going to take that opportunity.”
The same apparently goes for working with Lee, for whom Washington had already toiled in Crooklyn and Girl 6. Both he and Harper, who’s been seen on Married With Children and NYPD Blue, clearly revere the director. At the Park Hyatt Hotel for a publicity tour last week, the two actors are unqualified in their praise of Lee, who managed to make Busin 16mm and on the flyfor a mere $2.4 million.
An account of a Million Man March-bound bus trip from L.A. to D.C., the film achieves a rare balance between style and subject. As Harper notes, “Fifteen black men paid for the film, and there are 15 black men on the bus.” Included are a Muslim, a former gangbanger, a cop, a father and son, an actor, a film student, and a gay ex-Marine. (The latter two roles are played, respectively, by Harper and Washington.) “The only thing you didn’t have on the bus was a freakin’ astronaut,” laughs Washington.
Since Reggie Rock Bythewood’s script is a theatrical sort of ensemble piece, it would seem to have warranted a significant amount of rehearsal. “By Hollywood terms, yeah, we did. By theater terms, no, we didn’t,” says Harper. “We rehearsed for a week, long rehearsal days, and pretty complete rehearsal days. But Spike is very intelligent, and he hires people who do their homework. Everybody came to the table with a great deal of preparation.
“Actually, if you want to talk in terms of percentages of shooting time,” he adds, “we rehearsed a great deal. But we shot it very quickly. We shot the film in three weeks. Spike could have used that whole first week as a shooting week, and not had any rehearsal. Which a lot of directors would do.”
As the bus hurtled east, of course, the actors deepened their experience of their characters. That’s made particularly clear in the case of Harper’s Xavier, the film student whose video footage of his fellow riders is intercut with Lee’s own film. “All those are real shots,” explains the actor. “It wasn’t the [director of photography] holding the camera to shoot the video. It was me, Xavier Moore, shooting, on the bus, as the bus was moving, shooting for real. I did all the lighting. I got the camera book, studied how to work this camcorder to the best of my abilities, to the best of this film student’s abilities, and did the work.”
The other performers didn’t have such a hook, notes Washington, but “any actor of any kind of merit will add something to the page.” Still, he says, Bythewood’s script “was pretty great long before we brought our little lowly selves to it. All we had to do was try to find those moments where we could really bring forth the characterization.”
The process was “organic,” he adds. “With guidelines, but organic.”
“In most films, you get to go home as soon as your scene is done,” notes Harper. “So you’re not on the set. For us, everybody had to be there everyday, on the bus, the whole time. Which adds to this whole sense of claustrophobia, being confined with these brothers on this bus. You could not be speaking for two days, because you’re just not written into these scenes. But what would your character be doing, riding on the bus? You have to really explore. Would you be listening to music, would you be reading, what book would you be reading? And Spike really asked you to explore these things.”
The principal obstacle, Washington says, was the schedule. “We were all up against time. It actually made us all live the trip in reality. Because it was shot in sequence. We started from L.A., literally, to Memphis, and then going to D.C. And that’s what it was, for real. That whole process literally made all of the characters go through it for real.”
“I know I look like shit,” he laughs, “in that last take. Because there was very little makeup. Everybody had these bags under their eyes. We all looked like we had literally been through something. I thought it was great, as an audience member. You can feel it. That’s why, for a minute, it makes you think you’re looking at a documentary.”
Unlike most films that depict motion, Bus didn’t use special-effects backdrops to create the sensation of travel. “It was like Spike just said the heck with it, put some film in the camera, whatever you got, shoot it,” says Washington. “If these damn lights can stay focused and not falling off this damn bus that they rigged upwe had a hell of a time with the lighting situation on that bus. The guys from Speed rigged it well, but we had so many elements against us just to get one shot.”
“The bus was always moving,” Harper adds. “You had to deal with that. We had sound problems, we had wind problems. But that just means,” he raises his voice, “you just had to talk a little louder!”
“There were no retakes,” interjects Washington.
When the shooting was finished, Harper admits, “I had no idea what it would look like. I just knew how it felt doing it. It felt right. It felt great. It was a very symbiotic thing. There were problems. There were people that at times you wanted to strangle. And I’m sure some people wanted to strangle me. But it was an artistic endeavor about something that had some meaning. So whether it turned out right or whatever, you still felt victorious in a way.”
The final scene at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington remembers, “was this mix of gratification, melancholy, triumph, exhaustion. I know I went through an incredible amount of emotions. I didn’t know whether to jump for joy or cry. It was such an incredible journey in real life.”
“Would I do it again?” he asks himself. “I don’t know. Same crew? It’s kind of like going into battle with someone. I wouldn’t do it again with a different set of people. But I would do it with these guys.”