Curtis Elliott didn’t set out to make a movie for the fame, the money, or even for the art. He wasn’t a filmmaker at all, having never shot anything other than the typical birthday party and backyard bar-b-que. He was driven to make a very particular film for a very specific reason: “I made Hairkutt simply because I wanted to save lives.” It was a noble idea, one born of love for a close friend who was a heroin addict, as well as love for his own son and a desire to emphasize to his child the dangers of drug use. The idea turned into a very risky endeavor, not only for Elliott, but for everyone involved in making the film.
While a teenager in decaying, inner-city St. Louis MO, Elliott watched the drug culture quickly engulf the community. He reflects, “My whole neighborhood got addicted to heroin. The crack epidemic was in full swing and my friends got into it, they were kids as young as 13, and they had it going on, a non stop crack spot behind my friend’s house.”
Elliott managed to sidestep the drug use epidemic, but not without his own brushes with the law. He served in the US Army, completed his college education, and began raising a son. The neighborhood environment was a difficult one in which to teach a child that drugs destroy lives. “How could I convince my own son to say no to this drug when so many people around him were using it? I saw the look of disbelief in my child’s eyes every time I gave him the sermon about making the right decisions.”
Elliott’s son knew the subject of the film, Bryant “HairKutt” Johnson very well, as the addicted barber made his way up and down the neighborhood streets each day, cutting hair to get money for his daily fix. “I wanted my son to understand there was another side to Bryant than the smiling man who cut his hair, a man who would call me in the morning, in tears, needing twenty dollars to get his fix.”
Elliott and Johnson had been friends for a long time, and it pained him to watch Johnson, in the grips of his addiction, spiral downward over the years. Desperate and determined to help his friend, and hopefully others, Elliott made a bold decision to intervene: “Watching Bryant and others like him suffer this slow death was my call to action.”
Elliott and two other men, all good friends to each other and Johnson, but none of whom had any medical training, implored Johnson to let them help him quit heroin cold turkey. Their plan sounded risky, even dangerous, but they were committed to the idea that if Johnson could get clean with the help of friends who cared about him, he would be able to turn his life around. Filming the detoxification process would also hopefully serve the larger community, by providing a “scared straight” message to youth at risk for drug use. Desperate for help, with no other resources available other than the love of his friends, Johnson agreed.
No one involved could predict how this experiment would end. Would Johnson find the strength to kick his habit with his friends’ help? Would the situation become lifethreatening? Would trying to film very personal, potentially dangerous moments, with no experience, no crew, and three consumer-grade video cameras prove disastrous?
It was a risk the four friends decided to
take. Despite the potential for tragedy, the
possibility that Johnson could kick his habit
was well worth taking the chance.
In 2002, they traveled to a rented cabin in a remote area of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. The group included Elliott, Johnson and two other friends, “Reese” and “Lark”
Maurice “Reese” Bradley is Elliott’s neighbor and friend. They had also done time together years ago in the Brownsville County, TX jail. “I needed him as an enforcer just in case something went terribly wrong. Reese is a father, like me. He has sons and knows the consequences of the streets and the need to bring some knowledge to the next generation to stop this madness”, says Elliott.
Anthony “Lark” Dorsey is like a cousin to Elliott. The two have been friends since grammar school. While a teenager, Dorsey sold and used drugs. After his release from jail in 1991, Elliott started working with Dorsey to help him stay clean and redirect his life. “I learned a lot from Lark, he had a good relationship with Bryant, and since Lark works as a roofer, and it was the middle of winter, I knew he could take the time to make the trip.”
The group returned from the cabin to St. Louis with more than 200 hours of raw footage. “I started the task of cutting and editing, which turned out to be a bigger job than filming,” says Elliott. “I realized I needed help and that is when I found Ben.”
Ben Scholle, who codirected and produced the film, admits initial skepticism when Elliott approached him. “Since I teach at the university, I often get calls from people hoping I can connect them with students for free video help. But I finally agreed to meet Elliott.” Scholle also admits being initially turned off by some of the footage, but eventually “I began to imagine interviews cut in with the grizzly detox footage, and the more I heard, the more compelling the story sounded,” he says. “I had just seen Capturing the Friedmans and assembling a powerful film out of found footage and a story of a character in crisis seemed very possible.”
There were a lot of interesting challenges in finishing the documentary, according to Scholle. “It’s hard enough to get an audience to sit through 90 minutes of beautiful cinematography; 90 minutes of poorlylit vomiting is asking a lot of a viewer. Still, people are also morbidly drawn to human suffering. The challenge was to use enough of the detox footage to have an impact, but not so much that it seems exploitative or turns off the viewer.”
The rough videography enhances the film’s verisimilitude and shows desperate moments in stark relief. Scholle understood, however, that it needed balance. “On one hand, audiences tend to associate video that’s rough around the edges with gritty realism. On the other hand, if it’s too gritty, it’s unwatchable.” He combined the rough footage with additional footage of higher production value. “All new footage was shot in 16:9 aspect ratio. When I letterboxed the cabin footage for the new aspect ratio, that allowed me to sometimes crop unused space from the frame.” He did intentionally leave in some rough camera movements to show the viewer that it’s definitely amateur footage. “Sometimes if you have marginal footage, the worse thing you can do is try to dress it up and pass it off as professional,” he says.
When asked if he would have preferred to be on the trip to the cabin to shoot the film the right way, Scholle resolutely answers “Absolutely not. The video they took exudes that inexperienced-but-sincere feeling. Besides, everyone there was open and honest for the camera because they were comfortable with each other. My being there with a big camera would have ruined that.”
Elliott reminisces about the experience and finishing the film: “I’m still amazed by the scenes of Bryant writhing in agony on that bed. I have a lot of empathy for him and for his condition. I’ve had many opportunities to just walk away from this project. Some people around me have been unsupportive. But this adversity only strengthens my resolve. Every time the film is screened, young people come up to me and say after seeing it, they’ll never use the drug.” Ultimately, making a film that people understand, and may help to save their lives, also changed Elliot’s life forever.
Another message the film brings, although perhaps unintentional on the part of those who made it, is a statement of courage, hope and love among friends. Four brave young men from the inner-city, with no filmmaking experience, no professional medical experience, and nothing to gain, save a man’s life, a son’s future, and the possibility of a brighter tomorrow.