Most future filmmakers don’t start out as International Business majors, but that’s exactly what happened to producer/screenwriter/actor Robinson Vil. Vil, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti at 16, thought that his fluency in Creole, French, and English was an indicator that international business was the way to go. Not exactly enthralled by business school curriculum, Vil found it hard to concentrate, and wondered if this was the appropriate path for his future. After taking a semester off to do some soul searching, Vil took an acting class offered by renowned acting coaches Bob Harter and Della Cole of YourAct. The acting bug, it turns out was ravenous and bit him so zealously, that there was no turning back at Georgia State University—where he had been enrolled. So much for a business degree.
Acting led to directing, and the love of directing, led to full immersion in the filmmaking business. For most talents who have worked with Vil, he is seen as the consummate professional. Says actor Miko De Foor, who initially met Vil a decade ago at an actor, and who has starred in Dark Secrets, one of his short films: “I think he goes over scenes in his sleep the night before we shoot.” There is no indecisiveness on the set when Vil is around. De Foor adds: “He knows what he wants, but is also open to suggestions and allows the actor to have some insight as well. That’s not always an attribute of other directors.”
Ask around and it’s pretty much a chorus. Art director Sherie Hodge whose company Folium worked with Vil on the set of his film Life.Less has a lot to say about the director’s work ethic. Vil she says, “is a focused Director with a passion for translating compelling storylines into memorable works art. I see him as an incredible writer who is comfortable with peeling back the layers of social issues and display them through his vivid films. The stories are hard and real.”
After helming several features and shorts intended for the mainstream audience, mainly the aforementioned Life.less and Dark Secrets (and two others in development Friends and Associates, Vibrations), the filmmaker has seen it necessary to turn his attention to Haiti with the project Rasin Mwen [My Roots], a self-written drama that he hopes will take Haitian cinema to the upper echelons of international filmmaking.
Herein follows a conversation with the filmmaker.
Q & A
In the early 1990s, you moved from Haiti to Atlanta. Was it pretty much a culture shock for you?
Yes, it was almost surreal. From boarding the airplane for the very first time out of Haiti. I felt like I was being transported to another universe where the unknown and the opportunities lie and await. My mother provided a very good life for me in Haiti and I wasn’t suffering or anything like that. I was grateful that I was in a place where I can really be anything that I want to be, pursue whatever dream I have and make it a reality.
Did your parents threaten to stomp you/send you back to Haiti when you told them you had changed direction?
My parents were a bit disappointed that I decided to pursue acting instead of finishing school—college—and get a desk job. But, their support never wavered, they knew that I was a disciplined and passionate person and that they could always trust my decisions.
Besides the YourAct training, have you gotten any training in filmmaking, screenwriting or in cinematography?
YourACT was really the place that got me so interested in the industry, they were the first people I studied with and I will forever be thankful to Bob and Della for their teachings and support throughout the years. I never attended any school for filmmaking, etc. I bought many filmmaking books. I read each one of them cover to cover. I worked a regular job for years, saved up and shot many short films to practice what I’ve read in the books. It worked!
Your film company is called Villain Pictures—Villain as in a take on your last name Vil. A Villain Picture is usually an intense drama. Is that a direction you plan on taking for every one of your films?
I’ve been known to be more on the dramatic side of the fence when it comes to my films. But as a film producer and director, one must be versatile; I can direct any genre. I feel like I am now at a point in my career that I feel fully capable, comfortable and experienced to deliver on any project.
Let’s talk about your film Life.less for a bit. You wrote, produced and directed it. How did you come up with the idea for it?
This film was a struggle to produce due to its subject matter—child molestation and child prostitution. Finding the budget and funding proved to be another ordeal in itself. But, my persistence, patience and determination paid off in the end. Life.less was developed into a full-length feature film in 2009 from a successful short film entitled Riff that I wrote back in 2007. Life.less meant—means—a lot to me, because it is based on true events. As I was writing the script and interviewing people, I learned that some of my closest and dearest friends have been victims of such an atrocity. I felt really amped up and even more determined after learning this; I was not going to stop until I made the film.
When you are so deeply involved with a project: you write the screenplay, and you end up directing it. Is that exhausting?
It is indeed very exhausting, but very rewarding and extremely gratifying at the same time, plus I’ve been doing this for a long time now. In this business it’s very hard to trust that people will do the things needed in a timely manner to get your film to production when you’re not paying or paying very little. Therefore, I have to wear the many different hats, because I know I will not sell myself short on any of my projects.
Did you find yourself happy with the results?
Always! I would never shoot a film that I didn’t like or believe in. I’m always happy with the results, because people—the audience—always respond very well and favorably to my stories, my films.
Dark Secrets—one of your first projects— received a lot of acclaim and was screened at many film festivals, in addition to being nominated for a prize.
Dark Secrets is one of my favorite films that I’ve written, produced and directed. It was shot back in 2004. Again, this was a film based on true events and my two leading actors—Miko Defoor and Nico Ward—were able to deliver superb performances. That project was special to me, because it involved protecting women from selfish men. I have a beautiful, strong and supportive mother, a younger sister, three nieces and many godchildren that are females. So, I was telling the story for them. Dark Secrets is now being developed into a full-length feature as well, to be produced in [the next two years].
Do you think casting is an important aspect of a film?
Casting is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking. The actors have to sell the story; they are instrumental in the success of your film. If your actors can’t fully commit in their given circumstances—the script—and allow themselves to be vulnerable with their characters and live in every moment or simply can’t take directions? You’re screwed. Nobody is going to believe anything that comes out of their mouths, the emotions won’t be there.
You have an upcoming project called Rasin Mwen. It’s being touted as your best project up to date. And that’s while it’s still in development.
I love Haiti! I love its resilience and the fact that despite all that has happened, she’s still standing strong and has so much to offer if you look in the right places. I want to bring a new style of filmmaking to the country. Haitian cinema has suffered for way too long. There are many other countries like Haiti that have delivered successful films that have screened at prestigious festivals such as: Cannes, Sundance, Toronto International Film festival, etc. My objective with Rasin Mwen is to reach such a level. Make the world pay attention to our films and start a new trend of filmmaking that other Haitian filmmakers can follow. Rasin Mwen is a great fiction that is filled with actions, dramas, sex appeal and everything else in between. Just when you think you know what’s going on in the film, you realize how wrong you are. It will be a thrill!
You left Haiti when you were 16, so when it came time to do this movie Rasin Mwen, how did you connect with people down there to actually make this project?
That’s the thing… Even though, I haven’t been there in over 20 years—the instance I touched down in Haiti, it all came flooding back to me. It’s like I never left—that’s part of the reason behind the title Rasin Mwen. Your roots are your roots; they are embedded in you and you are tied up to them forever.
After doing so many films intended for an American audience, what finally made you turn your attention to Haiti?
My plan was always to shoot a film or two or three in Haiti at some point in my career. I’ve turned my attention to Haiti now, because I feel like Haitian cinema is in dire need of a facelift. It’s about time to start putting out serious films that are designed not only to entertain, but at the same address serious and detrimental issues with great production values. Haiti now has the attention of the world. This is the time to show them a different kind of talents in front and behind the camera.
And how would you personally describe Rasin Mwen, outside what is seen in the behind the scenes video?
Rasin Mwen is a story about families and their bonds. It’s a film designed to test the boundaries between what we see as wrong and right. Does the end really justifies the means? Morally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes. Question is, to what extent?
Actors Iron E. Singleton and Jarvis Shaffer in a scene from Vil’s film , produced in 2006.
Are you convinced that film is the best medium to get messages through to people?
Yes, absolutely! Films provide entertainment; a basic need for all humans. Entertainment can meet the need for escapism, levity, knowledge and even fear, among other things. Well-written, well-acted, well-produced, well-directed films have a way of transporting an audience to places that they never thought existed. That’s why I do what I do; it is a privilege to make-believe through words and motion pictures.
Were you influenced by the likes of Spike Lee?
I was influenced by Spike Lee to a certain extent, as he has broken a lot of barriers early on with his filmmaking. But, I am a big fan of Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, Lee Daniels and Tony Scott. My aim is to one day deliver quality projects like theirs. With the right budget, I’m certain that I can put out projects like them.
Once you’ve wrapped up Rasin Mwen, what are your plans for it?
Make sure the film looks and sounds great! Make sure that every Haitian gets a chance to see it. Get it into as many festivals as possible. Get it picked up and distributed to the whole wide world.
Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious