COLUMN – Mastermind of The Joneses
Rommel -- with a deep passion for film-making
Name: Rommel Hall
Education: Queen’s College;
Barbados Community College;
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill.
Qualifications: Associate degree in accounting and information technology;
Bachelor of Science (Hons) in computer science.
Occupation: educator and film-maker.
Rommel, would you introduce yourself?
My name is Rommel Hall, and I am a 35-year-old teacher and film-maker. I am the first of three children and I have been happily married to Keren Hall for the last ten years. I am a Christian and my mandate is to produce films, which are both clean and entertaining.
What are you passionate about?
I am very passionate about the arts, especially theatre and film.
When did your love for drama and the performing arts start?
It started back when I was at Queen’s College. A teacher there named Dr Marcia Burrowes was in charge of the drama group and she put on some intriguing plays over the years, which really got me interested in writing plays that were as comedic and impactful.
When I was at UWI, I was in the Universities And Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), and I was encouraged by Keren (who was my girlfriend at the time) to join a ministry in UCCF, and, quite honestly, the drama group is the only one which piqued my interest. After I joined in late 2000, over time, due to various reasons, all of the members left; so I became the leader of the drama group by virtue of being the only person who remained.
So I went on a mission to rebuild the group and I got some of my friends to join in order to be a part of our first production Stop . . . Think . . . Choose . . . in September, 2011. At the time I didn’t even know how to write a script.
I wrote four short stories; then I had to go to UWI’s library and research how to put them in script format. Because of our lack of actors/actresses, many of us had to play multiple roles in the production (I myself included), but it came off and was a rousing success.
We went on to produce several other critically acclaimed full-length productions and skits that won awards, and we became known for our comedic pieces.
Jesus Army was a well known group at UWI that went on to create a name for itself locally. What was your involvement?
Jesus Army came about after the members of UCCF Drama (as we were eventually known) graduated from the university and wanted to continue what was started. I decided to create an independent group, which then became a business (Jesus Army Productions) and I served as the managing director.
We continued for just over six years; but as life happened and people’s priorities shifted (marriage, children, jobs, further studying) it was difficult to keep it running. Some of the people from Jesus Army Productions still work with me in the film productions I currently do.
The name Jesus Army Productions came from the name of the first award-winning skit UCCF Drama had done for the National Independence Festival Of Creative Arts (NIFCA) in 2002 which was entitled Jesus Army.
Jesus Army’s full-length plays were highly spoken of and very well received. Have you ever thought of producing them again?
I often think about it, but right now it would be very difficult. With stage, you have to be perfect and “in the zone”, and it takes up more time because you have to be physically there in order to perform. With film you just need one good performance; and once it is recorded, it can be played over and over again and your presence is not required.
Trapped In An Elevator was one of your first films; and was very well received. Tell us about the transition from the stage to the camera.
We did a play called Bad Friday about a natural disaster, which was predicted to happen on Good Friday and in between the acts were short films, which tied the whole production together. The production of these shorts is what really ignited my love for film. So in 2008 I thought it would be fitting if Jesus Army Productions produced some short film versions of our more popular skits and Trapped In An Elevator was one of them.
Trapped In An Elevator was a parody of sorts of R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet, which was really popular at the time. Originally it was a theatrical piece, which I wrote in 2007, which won a Silver Award at NIFCA that year. The film adaptation of Trapped In An Elevator also went on to win a Silver Award at NIFCA in 2008.
Additionally, the Trapped In An Elevator film was screened at the Trinidad And Tobago Film Festival and Caribbean Tales in Toronto. It was also screened at several film events in New York.
Tell us about Hall-E-Woods Productions and what influenced you to start it, and the story behind the name.
I knew that I had a lot to learn about film-making before I jumped in, and I wanted to make the progression from producing commercials to producing shorts, to TV series, to movies. But breaking into the commercial advertising field was quite difficult. I had got many leads but none of them materialized into anything.
I had already done shorts with Jesus Army Productions; so I just decided to forget about commercials and do a TV series. The name is a play on my last name. I am a fan of puns and humour that make people think –– like those found in shows such as Frasier and The Office.
Many may not know that you are the brainchild of Keeping Up With The Joneses. From a short film to a television series with three seasons is an enormous jump. Share with us the story of it all.
I am a fan of The Office, and I wanted to create a show around the same format. Again, I didn’t know about producing a TV series; so I did some research. I met up with Shane Holford (who was the camera man that filmed Jesus Army’s short films) on the set of another show and discussed the concept of the TV series with him. Shane eventually became my business partner in film.
We put the cast and crew together, and filmed the first episode, for which we shopped around for sponsors here and abroad. After no one was willing to sponsor the show, we went back to the cast and crew and explained that we had no funding to continue the series, and the only way it could be done was if we did it “for free”. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was on board, and we filmed seven of the 13 episodes, which comprised Season 1.
Upon broadcast, the first two episodes had mixed reviews; but it was only after Episode 3, which presented friction between the in-laws of the families, that the show was on the lips of many Barbadians.
When we did the Systems Survey in 2011 it showed that we had more viewers than Days Of Our Lives, making us the No. 1 show in Barbados. It was interesting seeing how the public embraced the show. The actors and actresses have many stories of being stopped and asked for autographs.
When we did our school tour, the children would scream when the actors turned up. We were actually mobbed at one secondary school by the students. It was quite the experience!
As a former teacher in the secondary school system, I can testify that Keeping Up With The Joneses was a weekly discussion amongst schoolchildren.
How does it make you feel that so many children watched your TV series?
It feels good to know that something I had a hand in creating captured the hearts of Barbadians. My passion really is to produce entertainment, which the entire family can watch, with some exceptions when having to deal with topics such as date rape and drugs. We have had so many comments where people said that Keeping Up With The Joneses is the first time their entire family sat at watched TV together.
Why a Keeping Up With The Joneses movie and not a Season 3?
We did not get the adequate funding to do Season 3; so I decided to do a movie. The funding promised by the Government didn’t come through, but we pressed forward anyway. The movie continued the storyline of the show.
Because of an impasse we had with the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), we were going to make Season 3 a web series; but we were able to negotiate a broadcasting agreement; so we merged the episodes together to create the Keeping Up With The Joneses Spectacular: a 90-minute special which was broadcast in 2014.
We then recorded a second Spectacular, and were in pre-production for a Christmas episode; but we halted production because of another impasse we had with CBC. So, the second Spectacular and 2014 Christmas episodes were never broadcast.
If you had to be a super hero, which one would you be and why?
Batman. He didn’t have to rely on superpowers. His power was in his quick wit and being street-smart.
Share with us your favourite movie, TV series and sitcom, actor and producer.
Favourite movie: The Lion King.
Favourite TV series: (drama) Prison Break; (sitcom) Seinfeld.
Favourite Actor: Will Smith.
I don’t really have a favourite producer, but I really appreciate the work of Guy Ritchie.
Keeping Up With The Joneses, the sitcom, has reached viewers in other parts of the world. How did this come about and what have the reviews been like?
Ron Belgrave of Sankofa Televisual was here in Barbados on vacation and he caught an episode of Keeping Up With The Joneses. He subsequently contacted us, and the rest is history. He was able to get us on The Africa Channel and eventually other community-based channels.
It was significant because it was the first Barbadian series to be broadcast in Britain and the first Caribbean series in nearly two decades to be broadcast in Britain. The show was so popular on The Africa Channel that it was moved to prime time right behind the show Desmond’s. The series was also broadcast in the Middle East and Asia.
Keeping Up With The Joneses, The Movie, premiered in Britain. What was the experience like, and how was the cast and the movie received?
It was mind-blowing. We had a sell-out crowd at the Stratford Picturehouse, and it was the first time a Barbadian film was shown at a British Film Institute cinema. It was like a Hollywood experience with the cameras and the lights. Subsequently as the actors moved around London, they were stopped by people who were fans of the show and asked for autographs and “selfies”.
Producing a TV series with three seasons and a full movie must have been very expensive. How were you able to do it and were they any disappointments along the way that you wouldn’t mind sharing?
We were able to pull it off because of people’s willingness to volunteer for the project. Eventually, we had some sponsors come on board to facilitate production; but one of the most disheartening things for me is how difficult it was or is to get our content aired on our only local television station.
Another disappointment was corporate Barbados’ unwillingness to monetarily support the show even after three plus years of success. Film-makers in Barbados do so much with so little resources. Imagine how much further we can go with a little financial backing!
Your new series is Abiola and the reviews I have read online are excellent; I am also enjoying it. Share with us the idea behind Abiola.
We did an audition for the Keeping Up With The Joneses Spectacular (which is still to be aired), and we were casting for a 13-to-15-year-old girl. A large number of actresses came out to audition for the part and they were all really good. It was heartbreaking for me to pick only one of them.
Keren encouraged me to create a show, which would utilize their talents; so I put pen to paper. We decided to make it a Web series, because, quite honestly, I grew tired of dealing with CBC and the subsequent fight whch I had to go through in order to get content aired.
So Shane and I decided to try a different method of distribution which was via the Internet. Also, since this show was targeted at teens, and we know that statistically they spend over two collective hours a day on their electronic devices, we felt that a show, which they could watch on their devices (like those on Netflix and Hulu) would go over well.
You participated in the Caribbean Tales Worldwide Distribution Marketing Development Programme held in Toronto, Canada. How has this experience helped in your career development as a writer, producer and entrepreneur?
That was quite the experience. Actually many of us who first met in Toronto still keep in touch via Facebook. I really learned parts of the ins and outs of film-making there, and since it went on during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I was able to attend some of the TIFF events; and that is what really ignited my passion to be a full-time film-maker.
What is Barbados lacking that would help develop those like yourself who want to pursue a career in the film industry?
In order for the film industry to really push forward here, we need a Government willing to start putting together the framework for the industry. This by no means can be done overnight. It would take many years of sustained effort; but it can be done. Next, we need a private sector that is willing to take a chance on a bunch of creative people who want to ensure our stories reach the world and let people know who we are.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years I hope to be producing at least one multimillion-dollar movie a year, as well as a TV series, while being a teacher of film at a tertiary institution.
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